Friday, January 28, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Mishpatim 5771-Getting Past the Apologetics

“Now the Presence of the L"rd appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain..."

Twenty-five years ago today the shuttle Challenger became a consuming fire. It's seven crew members went inside the cloud and ascended-never to return.

Ronald McNair was one of the seven who lost their lives that day. Ronald wasn't the first African-American astronaut to go into space-that was Guion Bluford in 1983-but he was the second, in 1984. Ronald was a physicist with expertise in lasers. He'd come a long way from his childhood in South Carolina when he was consumed in that fire on January 28, 1986.

On NPR this morning there was a  StoryCorps excerpt in which Ronald's older brother Carl told a powerful story about Ronald's visit to a library where he wanted to check out some books on science and was told by the librarian that "this library is not for coloreds." Ronald stood his ground. The police and his mother were called. At the suggestion of one of the officers, the librarian reluctantly allowed Ronald to check out the books, whereupon his mother reminded him to say "thank you," which he did.

This story was racing around in my head as I was reading and study parashat Mishpatim this morning. It's powerful reminder that America's legacy of African-American slavery and discrimination cannot be ignored. This parasha contains a number of laws pertaining to slaves. When people remark about how troubling it is that the Torah seems to endorse slavery, we are reminded by scholars and experts that the Torah seems to have great concern for the fair treatment of slaves. Still, they were slaves. How could we, the people freed from slavery in Egypt, ourselves be slaveholders? "That's just the way the world was back in those days." Slavery back then was really more a form of indentured slavery, a way for people to repay debts through physical service.

It appears (at least according to the rabbinic interpretation) that slaves who were foreigners were treated somewhat differently than slaves who were Israelites-as Israelites could never be considered to be the property of another Israelite. As Israelites, they were part of the covenant, and the rules of the Sabbatical year and Jubilee always applied as well.

In the Etz Chayim commentary, Sarna explains that it is significant that this list of laws starts with laws regarding slavery, and is a reflection of he desire of the newly liberated Israelites to see that slaves are fairly treated. Why would it not be the desire of the newly liberated Israelites to see slavery abolished, to make it a prohibited practice for them? Future generations certainly relied on the Torah's failure to abolish slavery to bolster their own support for the abhorrent institution. In the U.S. there were Jews on both sides of that argument.

Thus I am left with the unfortunate belief that what we have here is a whitewash. That the Torah insists on displaying a certain sensitivity to slaves is all well and good, but that's not enough for me now, and I don't think it should have been enough back then. Maybe it's time for us to stop rushing to the defense of the Torah, but to let everyone see and react to her, warts and all. That there are pieces of text in the Torah for which we continue to create apologetics tells me that there are pieces of text in the Torah with which we remain profoundly uncomfortable, but with which we still refuse to deal with head on.

So I'll say it - for it's failure to abolish human slavery, the Torah is wrong. It matters not whence the source of Torah - human or Divine (or Divinely inspired or anything in between.) That the Torah is wrong here (in my opinion) does not give me license to reject the whole of Torah, but it does give me license to also call into questions other troubling pieces of text. Slavery is not the only thing we still whitewash in the Torah. There's the lex talionis, the "eye for an eye" concept. We're told it is metaphorical. Can we really be certain of that? Why not state plainly in the Torah that redress and remedies for wrong acts should be in direct and fair proportion to the act and its wrongness?

That the Torah is replete with so many problematic things troubles me. That the Torah is replete with so many wise and fair things pleases me. How do I reconcile these two viewpoints? I don't. I am slowly reaching a new understanding of Torah, different from that which I have ever held before. Like humans, the Torah has a yetzer tov and a yetzer hara. While the Torah strongly urges humans to hone their yetzer tov in the hopes that it might dominate the yezter hara, it does not provide clear and concise instructions on how to do so. It certainly offers lots of hints and advice. Yet, because the Torah itself is subject to these same conflicting tendencies, it is of necessity inconsistent.

This understanding, for me, excludes the possibility of any form of strict adherence to the Torah (or any of the rabbinic interpretations-for they, too are subject to the conflict between good and evil inclinations.) For me, I feel it gives me to the freedom to be inconsistent in my practice, observance, belief, and actions. It does not give me the freedom to simply ignore Torah and tradition. If anything, its contrarian nature is what gives me impetus to remain continually engaged with Torah and tradition.

Torah teases me (and us) when it says, much later, the oft quoted "lo bashamyim hi" - that the Torah is not in heaven, it is not too baffling for us, that it is in our minds and hearts. Consider that this could be a deliberately misleading premise. Sort of puts a whole new perspective on things, doesn;t it. This could be the Torah's yetzer hara coming through, challenging us with what it knows to be an impossible task.

This is a whole new level of approaching life for me. I don't need to know the meaning of life. I don't need to know all the answers to all the questions. I don't need to fully comprehend Torah, and I do not need to reconcile all the conflicting things in Torah. I need merely remain engaged. I can accept the things I understand, question the things I do not understand, and explore those things I have not yet encountered.

Sending humans into space may or may not be the best way to advance our knowledge of the universe. As strong an advocate as I am of space exploration, I, too, have begun to question the need to risk human lives in this endeavor. We have the technology to do much of that exploring without the physical presence of humans. There will certainly be situations in which there is no substitute for an actual human explorer on site, just as there will be places when human to human contact is preferable to our newly emerging world of virtual and electronic connecting. Yet there is room for both, and we should spend a lot of time thinking about when and where virtual reality and physical reality are appropriate and necessary. (How much of the desire for actual human presence in space is driven by yezter hara and how much by yezter tov? It's an interesting question. Our tradition certainly teaches us that we need both inclinations.

Twenty-five years ago today 7 human beings gave their lives in a noble cause. To help insure their sacrifice was not in vain, I continue to dedicate myself to searching, seeking, inquiring, exploring. Reaching any sort of endpoint or goal in that searching  seems so much less important now. Second star to the right and straight on 'til morning...

Shabbat Shalom

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, January 21, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat - 5771 – Redux (Beshalakh) 5762 Manna Mania

Preparing for my first Family Shabbat Service at The SAJ in my temporary role as fill-in music specialist, so I offer this favorite musing - and one I ought to reread and heed myself! – Adrian

NOTE: This redux musing is actually for the previous parasha, Beshalakh.

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Beshalakh 5762

Manna Mania

Why is it so many of us feel we've no time to observe Shabbat? Are our lives so full and busy that we have not a moment to stop, rest and thank G"d for all of life's gifts? What are we not getting in our lives that would make it possible for us to observe Shabbat as it was intended- as a day of rest from labors?

We are no different than those who came before us. The doubters always existed. Though Moshe made is quite clear to the people that they should gather a double portion of manna on the 6th day, and not go out to gather manna on the 7th, still the Torah tells us that some did go out to gather manna on the 7th day - and  found none. So why are we all scrambling to find more manna on Shabbat?

I submit to each of us that, when we go out looking for our manna, our sustenance, on the 7th day, that we too will find none. Our pursuit of work, shopping, and other activities on Shabbat - will that truly bring us the sustenance we need?

"But if I don't work on Saturday, I don't earn enough money!"

Is money the all the sustenance we need?

"But I have to shop on Saturday. I'm so busy the rest of the week, and my family would go hungry and without clothes if I didn't shop on Saturday."

Are clothes and food all the sustenance we need?

We're all missing something here. If, as Jews, we have faith in G”d, no matter our understanding of G”d, then we must believe that G”d still provides that double portion of manna so that on Shabbat we don't have to go out and gather it. Somewhere in our day to day activities, our daily existence, we're getting that double portion-and we just don't know it.

Our bodies need more than physical nourishment. As we are taught : "In eyn kemach, eyn Torah; im eyn Torah eyn kemach." Without sustenance, there is no Torah; without Torah, there is no sustenance. We are not just automatons, robots, zombies, Stepford wives, that go about simply fulfilling our assigned duties, seeking only to complete our tasks and move on to the next one. We are not content with the simple satisfaction of pure labor and nothing else. Not just our bodies need nourishing, but our minds, and our souls. Work can, and does in some situations, provide some mental and spiritual nourishment. But it is probably a diet not rich in all the
required nutrients for proper care and feeding of the mind and the soul. We have to stop once in a while, and take into our bodies, minds and souls the nourishment that can only come from Torah, from G"d. This is why G"d gave us Shabbat. My favorite holiday-the one that comes once a week.

They're out there somewhere-those double portions of manna-of sustenance, that G"d has provided for us in order that we can observe a day of rest, of spiritual nourishment, of Shabbat. (Of course, one can easily question whether the selection of sunset Friday to sunset Saturday as that day of rest is arbitrary, and that one might choose another day. That's a discussion for another time.)

I don't know how these double portions might appear. In my own life, I might identify the double portion as my good fortune to be working in a Jewish setting, empowering me to celebrate Shabbat as it was intended. Yet, sadly, even I often ignore the gift, and go out seeking more manna on Shabbat. (So, here's a question of the week for me-is leading a Tot Shabbat service on Saturday work?)

Our lives are so busy, so harried, so hurried. Yet, both because of this and in spite of this, surely our lives are filled with more than enough manna than we need to sustain us. So why do we keep looking for manna on Shabbat? We are all well satiated with the physical sustenance we gather daily in our lives-is it not enough to carry us through one day of rest? And we greedily gather up our manna-far more than we need. We need to find a way to repeat
the miracle of Shemot 16:17-18 - "The people of Israel did thus - they
gathered, (some) much  and (some) little. And when they measured it by the omer, the gatherers of much had no extra, the gatherers of little had no lack; each what they could eat they gathered." Can we each say the same is true for us now?

My challenge to each of us this week is to look for those double portions in our lives that just might enable us to observe Shabbat as G"d has commanded (or asked, if you prefer) us to do.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2002, 2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, January 14, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Beshalakh 5771 - Praying That Moshe Was Wrong

Well, here it is, Shabbat Shirah again. As a musician, I should be overjoyed. Sadly, like so many others, the recent passing of Debbie Friedman (z”l) has dampened my enthusiasm. Of course the fitting thing to do in Debbie’s honor is to push forward through the sorrow.  I know that hundreds of my colleagues are doing so this Shabbat.  As I wrote a few years back in my musing for Beshalakh 5767, March On, I know that I should hearken to my own words and heed the text of Judges  5:21:

"Tidrekhi nafshi oz" March on, my soul, with courage!

I find it’s not so easy.

Many others have written, most eloquently, about Debbie, her legacy, and our obligation to carry it forward.  As much as I like to put in my own oar, this is one time when I am going to let others do most of the speaking. I commend to you their tributes, memories, histories, sharings, teachings, observations, and more.

On to what captured my attention this week, re-reading this parasha. It’s at the very end. It is the commandment to remember Amalek but utterly blot out his name under Heaven. It is also the foreboding reminder:

Milkhama L’Ad”nai Ba-Amalek midor dor – The L”rd will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages (JPS)

I have written about this before, most recently in my musing for Beshalakh 5765, G”d’s War.  Then, I spoke of our need to be G”d’s partner in this unceasing war against evil. Now, just a few years down the road, I find myself a weary soldier in that endless battle. “March on, my soul, with courage”  wears thin after a while. The platitudes no longer work. Thinks like “always darkest before the down” just don’t cut it. I don’t want to be in a continual war with evil. How do we reach the next level? Can we reach the next level, or are we doomed, as Torah says, to be eternally at war with Amalek?

Rather than be fatalistic about it, I have decided to be deterministic.  No, I will not accept this hinting in the Torah at what the Xtians have turned into “original sin.”  We have the power and ability to overcome the defects in our own natures. And, at least for me, we do not need the intermediary of an itinerant carpenter cum divine incarnation to make that happen. That, at least for me, is any easy out.

No, the next level is not eternal peace, at least not for me. That level, if it is even achievable, is far off. For me, the next level is a simple adjustment in the balance, so that, on the whole, the balance of good to evil keeps shifting in favor of good. This is what I wish to pursue-fewer and less frequent encounters with Amalek. I have to believe this is possible.

I want to be G”d’s partner not in an eternal war with Amalek, but in an ever diminishing conflict with the forces of senseless evil. If G”d is asking me to be an eternal partner in an eternal war, then it may be an offer I can’t accept wholeheartedly.

Aha. There’s a loophole. G”d does not say the G”d with be at war eternally with Amalek. G”d only gives us the impossible task of remembering always to blot out Amalek. It is Moshe who says this will be an eternal war between G”d and Amalek.

My prayer this Shabbat, strange as it sounds, is for Moshe to have been wrong when he said  that.

Before I close, I do want to offer some thoughts related to Debbie’s passing. We read, early on in our parasha that the bones of Yosef  were brought out of Egypt, in order to fulfill the promise made. There are two points related to this I want to mention. The first is to remind us all, as Jeff Klepper did so eloquently in this article, that :

In later years she observed that many of the great old songs were falling into disuse. One of the reasons we started Hava Nashira (a song-leader training institute at the Olin Sang Ruby Institute Camp in Wisconsin) in 1992 was to revive as much of the classic Jewish folk repertoire as we could. As far as she was concerned the newer songs, no matter who wrote them, could never match the golden oldies—folk and pop songs of every imaginable style—that she would sing late into the night at retreats and conferences wherever she went.

I have been privileged to sing those classics late into the night with Debbie. Debbie wanted us to be sure that we carried the bones of  the classic Jewish folk repertoire with us, and not forget them. We should honor her legacy by continuing to do so. Secondly, we should carry Debbie’s music with us, and not forget them. Her music, and the revolution it inspired must not be consigned to the jukebox of history. In our zealousness to carry out this second task, we should not neglect the first. Preserving Debbie’s desire to preserve the legacy of songs that came before her is part and parcel of preserving her legacy.

Uri, uri, dab’ri shir!

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy)
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Technorati tags: ,

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Remembering Debbie Friedman (z”l)


You may find this a funny way to remember and pay tribute to Debbie Friedman (z”l.) That’s just the point. This picture is, for me, a reminder of one of the funniest interactions that Debbie and I ever had. If you were at Hava Nashira or CAJE in 2004, you might remember it as well. In times of great sadness, reliving a funny memory may be just the thing that’s needed. I’ll miss you, Debbie-as will thousands of others whose lives you have touched.

Her voice may now be silent, but her voice will never be silenced, as long as we share her songs and her teachings. May her memory be for a blessing.

Adrian (aka MigdalorGuy aka Yoeitzdrian)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Bo 57771 – Keretz MiTzafon-Again! (not the same as 5769)


This week I am going to stray quite far from the text, and use it only as a jumping off point for something I really want to talk about. There may be many who don’t like what I have to say, but that's part of being, on.

The textual hook I am using appears in the Haftarah for Bo, from Jeremiah .

Verse 46:20 part B reads:

Keretz MiTzafon ba va - A gadfly from the north is coming, coming!
That gadfly for today will be me. I guess Massachusetts is relatively north (though I'm not as north as when I lived in North Dakota!) And I'm from NYC, which is, technically, mid-Atlantic, but still sort of "north." Being a gadfly is also nothing new for me. Those of you who know me or have been readers of my writings for any length of time know that I am prone to be a gadfly.  I even put this qualifying header on my blogs:
I'm a gadfly. Sometimes, in these postings, I posit outrageous things, or make controversial statements. I do this for the sake of sparking debate and discussion. Unlike many blogs, you can't assume that everything I post here is my own deeply held belief or position. I accept the risk that goes with being a gadfly. I ask you, dear reader, to focus on the message, and not the messenger.

As I suspect most of my readers know by now, a beloved pillar of contemporary Jewish music, Debbie Friedman, is ill and hospitalized.  I first saw the news come across Twitter. My first impulse was to share that news by re-tweeting, which I did. I now regret having done that, and having participated in what became a frenzy of sharing information that I believe does not show full respect for matters of privacy. Within a relatively short time framework, there was conflicting information appearing in tweets about Debbie's condition.  Queries to people yielded all kinds of responses about sources, though most everyone claimed reliable sources. I have no reason to doubt this.

I was at first confused (though not surprised) by the conflicting information, considering that some of it came from sources I do consider reliable and close to the situation. Then I became agitated. I wasn't sure of the cause-perhaps it was due to the lack of certainty.

Then the light dawned. I wasn't bothered by the conflicting information, the speculation, etc. It is certainly possible to have such conflicting information coming from reliable sources. I was bothered by the amount and nature of private information that was being shared. Debbie has been responsible for a number of "light dawning" moments in my own life, and this was yet another one - however indirectly.

I don't claim any special relationship with Debbie, or to be part of some inner circle. I don't know her any better than most of the tens of thousands of people she has touched. She has that effect on people-the ability to make each and every individual she touches to feel like they are special and have a unique relationship with her. It is her gift. I am grateful for the times in my life when I have been able, in person, to learn from her, perform with her, share with her. I am equally grateful for those times when she has impacted me in absentia, through her music, her teachings, etc. She has had a profound effect on my life and I care deeply about her. The same is true for many others.

So it is understandable, in the post-CNN and now Twitter age, that thousands of people share the concern, and want to know as much as they can about Debbie's condition. Thus I understand what motivates people to want to share these details when they know them or learn of them. It is, in most cases, a pure motivation (there are exceptions, I am afraid, by people who, desperately needing affirmation, need to assert being part of some "inner circle" that is more privy than others to the information. I am sure this is a very small minority, and, quite frankly, I can empathize with them, because I, too have found myself in that position at times in my own life. Not something of which I am proud.

More to the point, it's not about the accuracy or validity of the information. That simply isn't relevant to my point. This is the light dawning moment. What's bothering me is how much information is out there. Yes, Debbie is a celebrity loved by many. Yet isn't it enough to let people know she is ill and to pray for her? Do we really need to know the cause, the details, the treatments? Must we play helicopter following OJ on the freeway? Must we perpetuate the culture on Twitter and Facebook that has seen more than it's share of erroneous reports of people's demises, divorces, etc. ? Don't get me wrong-I love Twitter and Facebook and think they are part of a trend in technology that gives me hope-as more and more people seek a "social" component in where their lives intersect with technology. (Read my blog post "The Social Net Works" to hear more about my feelings on this: ) As with any technology, there are potential downsides. Just because all the information is available and we can share it easily doesn't mean that the information should be shared!

I certainly can't claim to know Debbie better than others, but I can say that, in my limited experiences with her, she has always appeared to prefer to keep matters of her health somewhat private. Yes, I have seen her open up to groups of people to some extent about matters relating to her health, but I don't see that as an invitation to make her health condition an open book. Now, it may very well be that members of her family have been willing to share some of this private information, or have at least acquiesced to others doing so, knowing how beloved she is to many. I don't know. Nothing would please me more than to have Debbie recover fully and chastise me, saying she didn't mind all this information being shared. (To be frank, I'm not sure that would change my mind about the level of information that was shared.) As I've stated and will continue to state, I have no special insight into this. It's my opinion, and and a wise friend once told me, opinions are neither right nor wrong, they're just opinions. And my opinion is that there's no need to share more than "so and so is ill, and in the hospital, and needs our prayers." (Sure, if someone needed an organ, or blood donated, etc. share that - I think think asking in as many places as possible for those would be appropriate.)

Just because the information is available, does that mean it needs to be shared? Is it not enough to ask people to pray for her refuah shleima (in whatever sense of the concept is best for her) without having to share details of the illness, the treatments, etc.

Of course, just by writing this gadfly-ish musing, I open myself up to questions of my assuming what may matter to Debbie or her family. To that I plead guilty. I've no special insight into that.  However, my main thrust here is to ask that all the persistent speculation stop, that the sharing of un-needed private information cease, so we can focus on the most important task at hand - to pray for Debbie. So, even if the information is being shared, my question to all of us is, "do we need to be sharing all of this information?"

I've already started to repeat my basic premise, so maybe it's time to bring this to a close. Let's all pray for a refuah shleima for Debbie Friedman. Lets sing her songs at services, at home, and wherever we can. Let us share our love for her in every way we can. That has the power perhaps to bring healing. I'm not sure knowing details of condition, treatment, prognosis, etc. really contribute to that. Would we pray more or less depending on those details? (Sure, there is probably some intrinsic hierarchy from the viewpoint of some people. We would not, for example, say a birkat hagomeil for having gotten through something that did not appear to be serious-though serious can still be a relative concept. But this is not about praying for ourselves. This is about praying for others. How could we decide what set of conditions warranted more fervent prayer than others? Someone needs our prayers, it is a mitzvah for us to offer them. I don’t need to know any more than that someone needs my prayers.)

Debbie needs our prayers.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

UPDATE: Please note that my concern and discomfort is with what has taken place in public forums like Twitter, Facebook, and, to some extent, mass broadcast emails. Private emails, texts, calls, direct messages, et al between people is between those parties, and what people may choose to share privately with others in their circles is of their concern-though I would still encourage respect for privacy and confidentiality as appropriate.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Social Net Works

Crossposted from my Tech in Jewish Ed Blog, Yoeitzdrian

The media have given a lot of attention to this past week’s (Dec. 29) report from Hitwise that social network Facebook has surpassed Google as the most visited website (in the U.S.) There are many levels of spin and criticism being built around Hitwises’ measuring yardsticks, which don’t really create a totally fair comparison.  Questioning of Hitwises’ apparent bias favoring Facebook was questioned as early as this blog posting from last March. However, let’s put all that aside.

Even if Hitwises’ pronouncements are a bit premature, or utilize considerable spin, or are even biased for some reason, in Facebook’s favor, there is clearly a trend. Facebook is becoming a rather dominant force on the internet. It may never challenge Google’s full breadth of internet presence, nevertheless it is likely to remain an important and influential piece of contemporary society.

Though many will probably view this through dark lenses as a portent and proof of  society’s inevitable fall into the abyss of becoming like the Matrix, or Tron, and others of the that genre, I see this through rose-colored glasses (which, I’ll admit, has its drawbacks as well.) For many years I have been a strong proponent of technology and the internet. I have been an early adopter, and consider myself a digital naturalized citizen, not a mere digital immigrant. In all this time, though I have my own worries and concerns about “big brother” and the many dangers inherent in the technology, I have believed with all my heart that the aether (and by extension, the internet) carries on it more than mere bits and bytes. Well-done radio dramas made people laugh, cry, be scared, etc. Modern TV and cinema depend upon the ability of the audience to indentify with the characters. A well-crafted e-mail can convey very subtle levels of emotion and understanding-especially if there is already a shared language of this between the correspondents.

While most people I know have viewed the internet, and things like e-mail as impersonal and anti-social, I have never truly believed that electronic communication (and therefore electronic socialization) are inherently so. Yes, as a long time user of email, I’ve been caught many times in the trap of electronic communication’s general lack of body language and other subtle clues that help us understand one another. I have to say, though, that this has definitely been occurring with less and less frequency as the years pass. Chalk some of that up to my own self-awareness, but also credit the slow evolution of how we communicate electronically that is enabling us to find other ways to include the pieces of unspoken subtext, body language, etc. Digital natives seem to have far less trouble making the subtext obvious, and while it may take some effort and learning, digital immigrants can do it too. I know that with people I correspond with on a regular basis electronically-even ones I have never met in person-there is a shared understanding that allows us to have subtext and more in our messages back and forth.

I still believe that electronic socialization can never fully replace in-person socialization and communication. There will always be a need for people to socialize and communicate. (I’m aware that I may eventually have to eat my own words, because there are pundits and futurists who do posit that technologies may advance to the point that “telepresence” may prove just as efficacious as in-person, and become an accepted norm. I sort of hope this doesn’t happen. I’m not keen on something like the “orgasmatron” from Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” although even in that case, there was in-person participation-so perhaps that’s not a great example. In any case, I hope that humans will always have a desire to do things together-in person, and in real-time. I’m not ready to go fully virtual, although future generations may be.)

Cautions aside, I see the prominence and success of Facebook as support for my understanding of how technology is changing the definition of “social.” I think the fact that more people seem to be seeking “the social network” now rather than searching or data mining suggests that the technology is not a roadblock or an impediment to human relations, and, in point of fact, may be enhancing it. If the worst-case scenarios were coming true, then people would be turning more and more to solitary rather than communal and social activities on the internet.  Multi-player games are rapidly overtaking single-player games. SecondLife has demonstrated that entire communities can exist virtually, along with their own social dynamics, commerce, etc.

Facebook (and other services like Linked-In, Twitter, etc.) have made me a better person.  Reconnecting with people I haven’t connected with in ages in refreshing and enlightening. (It also allows me to relieve a certain amount of guilt at not being as good a correspondent as I could have been.) I have discovered all sorts of interesting things about people from other times and places in my life, as well as many interesting things about the people in my life, personal and professional, currently. Maybe some of it is just the joy of nostalgia, and some of it the pure joy of vicarious living, or innocuous voyeurism. At the same time, it exposes me to new things, new ideas. It can serve as a reinforcement for my worldview, or a challenge to it-even from those I believed shared my worldview completely. So, at least for me, it’s not just pabulum.

It is possible to get too wrapped up in Facebook, too involved in the minutiae and quotidian things of the lives of others. Each user of Facebook needs to seek and find their own balance, their own equilibrium. There’s no single hard and fast formula for how much is enough and how much is too much. In this way, Facebook is modeling good education for the 21st century, in which the learner gets to set a lot of the agenda. Yes, Facebook has its flaws, and one has to spend a lot of time to really learn how to tweak things. (And Facebook’s constant changing of the rules and interface doesn’t help in that regard. Somehow, though, we all seem to manage to adapt in time.) Also, to some degree, we can potentially be the slaves to the technology of Facebook rather than the master of the tool that is Facebook. That is a danger inherent in all technology. Remember “R.U.R” and similar cautionary tales. I struggle each and every day with finding software and technology that gives me as much control as possible, so that I am not adapting my work methodologies to the technology, rather the technology is working for me as a tool to enhance my abilities. If there is one thing that we are all having to learn to give up in this new age, it is the simple dependence on technology as underlying magic. We can longer be a world in which we don’t understand any more than that flipping the light switch turns the light on. We must be a world in which RTFM (read the effing manual) becomes an archaic term because we all recognize the value of doing so.

Yes, Microsoft, Apple, and others have sought for the longest time to do just the opposite-create operating systems that enable us to simply be end-users with little understanding of the underlying technology. Sometimes they’ve gone too far, preventing users from doing any serious tweaking. Yet, all along, MS, Apple, and others have, for the most part, created operating system interfaces that make it easy for end-users, yet still allow power users to open the hood and fiddle around.  It’s still not their strong suit, which is why, for example, Vladimir Putin has ordered the Russian government to shift completely to open-source operating systems and software (think Linux) over the next few years. Let’s hope we never get to the point where the user is totally locked out from the underlying code and technology.

I’m lucky. Having been in on the personal computing revolution from the very beginning, I’ve never been afraid to look under the hood and make adjustments. I won’t pretend to any deep understanding of how the operating systems and microprocessors work, but I do know enough to twiddle and tweak, and I think that all of us need this level of skill. It’s something I think our schools should be teaching our students-not to just be end-users, but masters of the technologies. Fortunately, many students I know are unafraid to dig into the technologies they use. However, not every student has an equal opportunity to gain that knowledge, at least, not yet.

Digital natives have certainly mastered some skills that give them power over the technologies. While it’s a somewhat trite example, just watch any teen texting. Watch the ease with which they snap a photo on their phone and instantly share it, post it, blog it, etc. Watch how creating a Powerpoint for school is second nature. Notice how many teens know and use standard keyboard shortcuts on popular programs that most digital immigrants never quite get-figuring that the switch to a Graphic User Interface (GUI) sort of requires them to use the mouse instead of their fingers. Watch a teen deftly set their Facebook security settings.

Facebook is being used somewhat different by older adults, younger adults, and teens. The common thread between them is that the use is, primarily, social in nature-it’s just that they have different needs for and ideas of what socialization is. And that’s the point. The technology is being used for a purpose that fulfills personal and social needs. That need is universal and strong, and Facebook’s rapid growth simply reinforces the point.

So the success and popularity of Facebook serves to restore and maintain my faith in humankind in the face of rapidly advancing technologies. The desire for connection to others remains strong, strong even, it seems, than the thirst for knowledge and information. (Just to be the gadfly, there may be a down side to that as well.  We already have a woefully under-educated, or rather not-well-informed society, and if we do not take advantage of the gift of the information age-even with its inherent dangers of unfiltered information-we risk own very existence. If we wind up frittering most of our time away on Facebook, and less on Google and Wikipedia and all that, we will pay the price in the end, and it won’t be a pretty one. Facebook could just become one permanently addicting “orb,” another “Sleeper” reference. We’ll spend all our time obliviously socializing while the universe goes on wreaking havoc all around us.

However, one of the strengths of Facebook is its interconnectedness. Through its ability to allow people to connect and log-in to other sites and services, and its ability to allow those services (like Twitter, YouTube, etc.) to share information through people’s Facebook accounts, the service has a good start at overcoming my previously-stated concern about it stealing our time and attention away from all the rest of the things in life.

Who knows but in a a decade (or even less) Facebook may become a thing of the past. It may be replaced or supplanted by something better (or possibly surreptitious.) However, the internet and social media are not going away.  I hope and pray that Facebook’s continuing success and growth portend a good future for us, as our society adapts to new paradigms, new concepts of being social, while never losing the desire to be the social animals we are.

I’ve already spoken about one way in which I think education fits into this picture-the need to teach students to be masters of and not slaves to the technology. Jewish education also needs to reinforce this. There are other roles Jewish education can and should play in this evolution and revolution. It can and should serve a cautionary  role, but that should not be its exclusive and sole role. As socialization changes, Judaism must adapt to those changes, or be left behind. Jewish education can be at the forefront of enabling Judaism to adapt to the changes in socialization and society. It’s way past time to start examining how we can do that.

Your thoughts?

Adrian A. Durlester (aka Yoeitzdrian, aka Migdalor Guy)