Friday, November 19, 2010

Vayishlah 5771 - Judaism 2.0

My daughter Hannah loves to read books. Of course, she’s three and cannot actually read by herself, but she loves having books read to her, and will sit by herself for long stretches with a book in her lap, thumbing through the pages as though she were actually reading.

Within perhaps two years, God willing, she will learn to read. And then she will have no more need for books.

We are in the midst of what can only be described as a paradigm shift; we are being molded by technology more so than ever before, and this is taking place quite rapidly. The question that I would like to put before you today is this: What will we be able to hold onto in the future that will maintain our roots as the People of the Book? What will continue our distinctiveness as a literate tradition?

I would like to paraphrase for you the opening passage of today’s parashah, based on the way I think it might be retold today, if it were taking place in 2010:

Vayishlah Yaaqov - Jacob sent a text message to his brother Esau on his Blackberry. He said, “sending gifts. what do u think?” He hit the “send” key.

A text message came back to him. “am coming 2 meet u with 400 men.”

Jacob was so upset that he nearly dropped his phone. But then, realizing that without it he was helpless, he gathered his senses and googled how to escape from your angry murderous brother and 400 soldiers.” Wikipedia’s entry on biblical military tactics suggested that he split up into two groups, so that at least half of his family and cattle would get away. Then he searched for an appropriate prayer, and found something on

May it be Your will, God of our Fathers and our Mothers, God of Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, and Isaac, God of me and my wives Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, that we all make it through this without ...

Then his phone rang, he answered it, and promptly forgot the whole thing.

* * *

Here are a few pieces of information that I need to share with you:

1. I was speaking to a handful of 7th graders at the Youth House a couple of weeks ago, and asked about their favorite books. One of them replied to me, “Who reads books any more?”

2. In other news, a shocked and disappointed mother told me last week that her sixth grader cannot spell the word “soup” (or even come close).

3. Also last week, another mother told me that her daughter does, in fact, still have textbooks, even though all of her course materials are online. Lugging all of them home in a big bag, her 5th grader told her that the heavy books are only for when the power is out.

4. I teach many classes in and around this building to young people. One of the biggest challenges that I face when I am teaching tefillah, Jewish prayer, is simply getting children to open the siddur (prayerbook) and try to follow along with me.

Ladies and gentlemen, the era of print is over. We are in a transitional time, the cusp of a new world, a world in which our relationship to the word is entirely different. Not that this brave, new world does not read, merely that all of the reading that we will do in the near future will be on LCD screens. It is already largely that way for those under the age of 18.

Is this, as every Jewish newspaper editor in history has asked over and over, good for the Jews? We in the Jewish world risk being stuck behind, forever clinging to our beloved print with all the affection and foolhardiness that we demonstrate for our prized material possessions. I love my books; in every Bar/Bat Mitzvah workshop that I teach, I present a historical overview of the Jewish bookshelf, complete with bound examples of the wealth of Jewish literary tradition. I pass around the room volumes of the Mishnah, Talmud, Miqra-ot Gedolot (Torah with standard rabbinic commentaries), Maimonides, the Shulhan Arukh (the standard 16th-century codification of Jewish law), and so forth, relics of centuries of Jewish printing and millennia of commentary.

Our tradition of stories and ideas is print-based, and prior to that, it was manuscript-based. Starting with the Torah. To this day, we make our sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) the way that our pre-print ancestors did, writing them by hand with all-natural materials.

Muslims call us ‘ahl al-kittab, the People of the Book, a phrase coined by Mohammed in the Qur’an, and we have proudly adopted this moniker, in Hebrew Am Ha-Sefer. What will we be when books are no more?

What can we hold onto?
What will root us in our history?
What can ensure that our story is not lost in the digital sea, archived like so many old email messages by a world that has moved to the eternal present of the question “What are you doing right now?”

I attended a lecture this week by Dr. Ken Stein, professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern History and Israeli Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. He is presenting a three-lecture seminar for rabbis entitled “Wrestling with Israel,” in which we are learning strategies to respond to the nascent movement to delegitimize the Jewish state. I am going to generalize his strategy beyond this issue in particular.

In the course of his talk, Dr. Stein pointed to a couple of important trends:

1. Students arriving at university today have trouble grasping the big picture of history. They can find very detailed, very deep information using all of the electronic tools available to them. But they have difficulty synthesizing larger stories.

2. History today is taught in terms of narratives. When I was in high school in the 1980s, for the first time American history was being taught as a general story with several sub-stories - the story of women in America, or African Americans. Or Jews. This narrative principle has overtaken, in some ways, the overarching picture. And it is this narrative method that has enabled the adversaries of Israel to fashion multiple narratives. And they are, of course, contradictory.

3. The major difficulty with the competing narrative problem is that most of us are not equipped with the ability to apply the relevant source material against the non-academic, ahistorical spin that the deniers of Israel use to ply their trade.

We have in fact aided and abetted this by maintaining the canard that the establishment of the State of Israel was a direct consequence of the Holocaust. The wheels of Zionism were set in motion far before 1945. It is short-term thinking such as this that has enabled some academics to claim, as one did recently in an Intro to Government and International Studies course at University of South Carolina, that it is the United States’ support for Israel that caused the terrorist attack on 9/11.

4. We have failed to find the right way to teach our story adequately, regarding Israel or anything else. And we cannot rely on our nifty gadgets to do so by themselves.

Dr. Stein charged us with finding a new way.

As he was speaking about Israel in particular, I found myself reflecting upon my own journey through Judaism, my own learning process, and my attempts to share what I have learned with others, and it occurred to me that the new informational paradigm requires finding a new way to connect Torah to tefillin to peoplehood.

Or, put another way, Jewish learning to Jewish practice to the overarching Jewish story. To understand the details of Jewish life within the big picture.

Ladies and gentlemen, if we want Israel to exist in the future, if we want Judaism to exist in the future (and particularly our non-coercive, decisively modern and yet historically-based brand of Conservative / Masorti Judaism), we must make sure that our narrative is first learned and understood by all of us, and that we make sure that the rest of the world hears it as well.

I think that the greatest gift that Temple Israel, or for that matter all of North American Jewry could give to the future would be a multi-million dollar project. Let’s call it the Jewish Story Project. This money could be invested in developing a new technology that would capture the attention of all young Jews, through their mobile devices, laptops, iPads, whatever, and teach them the fundamentals not just of the story of the modern Jewish political expression called Zionism, but also the stories of the Torah and Talmud. I think we need to be thinking BIG. We need to think on the top shelf, and not just in terms of what is “good enough.” It has to have all the appeal of Facebook or Twitter or Angry Birds (which I have never played), and all the depth and clarity of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.

We have to co-opt the information revolution before it turns around and bites us back. We have to fight back: pixel for pixel, byte for byte. We need to make Judaism a part of that eternal present, to rephrase the question for our people from “Is it good for the Jews?” to “What are you doing Jewishly right now?”

And while there are many Jewish electronic resources available for our consumption (the Torah, the Talmud, commentaries, halakha, philosophy, etc.), nobody can yet lay claim to revolutionizing the relating of the Jewish story through electronic means. And that is precisely what we need: a Jewish digital revolution.

We need to migrate to Judaism 2.0. At stake is nothing less than our future as the People of the Book.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Although I wrote this to deliver at Temple Israel on November 20, 2010, I contracted a stomach flu the night before and therefore was not able to do so.)

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