Can Judaism Survive the Internet? Neil Rubin Saturday, May 16, 2009
In but a few weeks we will again gather to recall the seminal event in Jewish history, and I would argue all of history – z’man matan toratenu, the giving of our Torah with its Jewishly particular and humanly universal values. As we prepare for Shavuot, let us suspend reality for a moment and imagine what might have been had the Internet tools of Facebook or Twitter been available to the Children of Israel during their 40-year desert sojourn.
For the uninitiated, Facebook is the revolutionary, free personal home page that enables you to post whatever you want, but only to the people whom you allow into your circle of "friends." (Personally, I have 315 friends; even though I don’t even know who they all are.)
Twitter, easily accessible via cellphones, limits one’s messages to 140 letters or numbers, enabling you to send quick notes about what you’re doing or to refer people to websites. Both certainly fluctuate quickly between being intimate and inane.
Let us leave aside for now why this is such a big deal to general society. Let us, instead focus in on what it means to the Jewish people.
Back to our story of these tools during our people’s time in the wildnerness. A message from Moshe Rabbenu’s Facebook page.
On the top, under "What’s on your mind?" Moshe writes, "I’m half-way up the mountain to see HaShem. Incredible view. Can even see Giza’s pyramids. Hope to be home for Ma’ariv tomorrow."
Aharon the Kohen Gadol posts a response: "Have fun. All’s under control. BTW (By the way), where did you hide Mom’s gold jewelry?"
Moshe answers: "It’s in the lambskin sacks. Why?"
Aharon: "Let’s talk when you get back. You’ll see me."
Meanwhile, Caleb starts a new thread. "Moshe, enjoy. Off for a hike with Joshua Ben-Nun and a few others. See you tomorrow. Don’t forget about Miriam’s Dance at the Sea party. Can I borrow your purple Hittite shirt?"
And so it goes.
This, of course, is absurd and I don’t mean to trivialize our people’s greatest of figures. But in 5769 we do live in an absurd world. Last week alone we learned that someone named Madonna is eager to spend another Rosh Hashanah in Israel. Meanwhile, gefilte fish – a poor people’s food in Europe as it crushes together the three cheapest fish -- is now an evocative delicacy.
Absurd indeed. So it’s appropriate that this talk is tentatively called "Can Judaism survive the Internet?" because the Internet is as absurd in some regards as it is unavoidable when dealing with – ANYTHING -- today.
Actually, our talk should be called "What do we do about the fact that the Internet is changing everything? What we learn, how we communicate, and how we share. Can we master it before it masters us? Can we use its reality to our advantage?"
After all, think of how the Internet already molds our lives in its brief time with us. These days a synagogue MUST have a website. You simply CANNOT conduct business without e-mail. We go on-line to RSVP to b’nai mitzvah parties. We buy Chanukah gifts. We ask rabbis we don’t even know questions. Thanks to the Internet, I often know more about Israeli political news than do friends living there. Each year, I gain a new charoset recipe from the ‘Net. And I do things such as research this D’var Torah thanks to its sources.
Amazingly, now we can plug into all of this with little electronic devices that fit in our pockets. What does it mean to a community built on a face-to-face gathering of 10 people to even count as a community before God? What does it mean to a culture that revolves around synagogue, which in Hebrew is Beit Knesset, or a house of gathering? And finally, what does the intense individualization and uber-democratization this all leads to mean to a communal structure built on a foundation of authoritative leadership?
The short answer: "A whole lot." In fact, modern life moves so rapidly today that easily within five years these questions will be irrelevant. By then, the answers will be quite clear, in some regards painfully so.
To understand that, let us briefly recall the only sweeping parallel challenge in history – the rise of what became known as the Enlightenment, Haskalah in Hebrew or the aufklarang in its original German.
Back in the early 1800s, every single Jewish school of thought made a mistake when confronting the opening of society to secular learning and opportunity. Those who rushed after such chances often threw out their obligation to Jewish learning and life. Those who sought to keep secular knowledge from traditional Jewish communities were rewarded with the abandonment of tradition by some of our best thinkers. Also, they rejected the incredible integrative models presented by no less than the Rambam/ Maimonides himself – history’s most profound and influential Jewish thinker.
So today, we should embrace technological advances as furthering our opportunities to fulfill God’s word. After all, the Internet is but a tool. We are its masters, just as we are commanded to master God’s world for the betterment of humanity. Yes, there are potential dangers. But we, the Jewish people, cannot ignore modernity’s challenges. In fact, the only way we have survived our long journey through history is by taking such challenges and integrating them into our framework.
While this is patently honest to some of us, I can attest that the Jewish community has far from truly thought out how to further its mission via the new technologies available to us.
Let us look at a few of our new challenges and opportunities.
This week I struggled with anti-Semitism and technology. I learned that there was a move afoot to have Facebook take down pages set up by Holocaust deniers, including ones called "Holocaust is a Holohoax" and "Holocaust: A Series of Lies." As attorney Brian Cuban pointed out to the Cable Network News, "There is no First Amendment right to free speech in the private realm." Because of that, he said, this is not a freedom-of-speech issue. Rather, Facebook can set the standard to which it wants to adhere.
That’s true. But it’s also dangerous. That is because it would drive the deniers to find yet more ways to spread their drivel. Rather, these sites must be infiltrated from within.
One cannot hide from the technology revolution and the new challenges it will continually create. Rather, incorporating strategies on confronting such issues must now be part of the work of Jewish agencies.
It’s a complicated issue, and I know many will disagree with me. It is likely the journalist in me, which at times is admittedly too distanced from the raw emotions of Jewish sensitivities. But I say we cannot be afraid, we cannot force society to hide its ugliness. We must expose it and fight it. Do we want a community that strives to censor remarkably disgusting opinion, or one that fights it with its eternal and positive ideas?
Shabbat: One pristine message to me is that Shabbat is even more enjoyable thanks to the Internet. In that regard, it truly is a blessing from God. One of the most refreshing points of my week comes on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning when I check out the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and then CNN. For the first time in a week, I’m not jaded. It’s all new because I haven’t heard anything for 25 or so hours. I have instead spent time with family and friends, worshipping, interacting, gloriously unplugged in.
Shabbat forces me to take a break, to reflect, or simply to rest my brain so that I can nurture my soul. That was always the case, but now I need it more than ever. So if you’re used to listening to the news on Shabbat, try not doing so and see what it’s like.
Think of portable Jewish learning. In ancient days, say back in 1993, we could judge a family’s commitment to Jewish scholarliness by how many Jewish books were in the home. Today, there are homes with fewer books of any type than ever. But check out the DVD’s, CD-Roms and "favorite places" on computers.
Today there are websites with the entire text of the Torah and Talmud for free. I love them. I am in awe that all of that is accessed in a thing called the cellphone, which bring me the entire sacred text of millennia of Jewish life and learning – just as I can get a weather report, learn about traffic patterns and read a movie review.
Do not look at this as a trivialization of our sacred literature, by having it mix with traife. Rather, look at it as sanctifying everything else – bringing Jewish learning to our fingertips wherever we are. It is, of course, up to us to tap into this tremendous potential.
So if you do not do so, start now. Make sure that you have book marked a few good Jewish Internet sites and put them on your digest of regular venues to visit. Don’t forget to make one of them a certain Jewish newspaper at jewishtimes.com, which on-line only offers you Jewish crossword puzzles, 12 blogs, Jewish history photos and much, much more! Did I mention the free movie tickets?
The Internet? Pheh! A sacred people survives anything. In truth, the Internet is nothing more than a tool. But this one is different because it is not applied to a particular purpose. It literally has endless permutations of use and paths down which it can take a person.
So it is our job to present a road map through it. We need to continually expose our community with where to go on the Internet, and to provide those venues as well. Talks need to refer to websites for more. Kids need to be given appropriate websites to access. We need to get more people to learn to use the Internet as a tool for Jewish learning.
Chevrei, my friends, Moshe Rabbenu obviously did not post on Facebook and Twitter. We have no choice. We are again in a moment of great transition, of sweeping generational change. The school children of today look at the inability of some of us to understand the Internet much in the same way that my children look at me when I tell them how I remember this great game in the 1970s called Pong, in which you taped a plastic sheet to the TV screen to get started, or how I felt when I first discovered my dad’s one-sided records.
What we do have – what we’ve always had thanks to Moshe – is a remarkably unique, glorious, life changing and continually challenging concept of Jewish living.
Acharon, acharon haviv – saving the best for last. We note that in this week’s parshah in Behar, after dealing with jubilee years for land and crops, houses, interest on loans, and slaves, our last paragraph suddenly switches to a warning against idol worship (avodah zarah). A strange, abrupt shift.
Yet we are commanded in VaYikra 26:1: "You shall not make idols for yourselves or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place stone figures in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God. You shall keep My Shabboses and guard my sanctuary. I am the Lord.
In very modern parlance, this ancient prohibition against idol worship is another reminder that everything around us can be both used for sacred work, or abused for profane tasks.
But remember. The Internet is a product of the creativity in which we have been endowed by the Creator. It can be used to further explore more than God’s word. It can be used to gather our people to create community and pursue the deeds those words command.