Friday, December 25, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Vayekhi 5776 - Beyond the Threshold

Wow. A lot can happen in just over a decade. In preparing to write my weekly musing, I usually re-read the others I have written over the years. Sometimes I decide to re-use them – sometimes with additional insights, and sometimes just as they were written originally. I have to confess that one motivation for reviewing my previous musings is a self-check. Sometimes, an insight comes to me and it seems new and fresh. I, frankly, need to double-check that I hadn’t previously had the same notion and already written about it! Yes, you’d think I’d remember all my own work, but, honestly, after 19 years of doing this, it all kind of blends together, and I often find myself at a loss to remember what idea I have explored, what insights I have shared. Also, what insights upon which I have failed to follow up.

On this particular parasha, I’ve written 8 non-repeated musings, and five more originals that have in later years been revised, updated, and thus re-used. (That’s 18, if you’re counting, making this the 19th.)  Reaching the end of a book of the Torah is an important point. It is a threshold. Some 11 years ago I made a connection between that threshold and the burgeoning online revolution. In re-reading it, I was amazed and amused at how dated it sounded, and how that was new and different then has already become old. To add to the amusement, I see that in my writing I referred to words I had written years before, when the online world was, at least in Jewish circles, in its infancy.

I was online in the early 80s, before the internet even existed. Even in those early days of dial-up access to BBs (online bulletin boards,) and primitive information services like GEnie, CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL there was a Jewish presence on the web, and I was part of it. In 1993 I was using NCSA Mosaic (which later became Netscape Navigator, which was a precursor to today’s Firefox.) Microsoft outstretched its mighty arm and lo and behold Internet Explorer pretty made Netscape Navigator an also ran and niche product.  When the Reform movement began exploring an online presence on the web for itself and congregations, I participated in a  group working to make that happen. I started posting my random musings online. Here I am 19 years later still doing it.

The musing I wrote in 2004 was written as an attempt to aide those who were still struggling with the whole digital and online revolution, to give them hope that, despite their fears, and the fears of others that this would only lead to making things worse for Judaism, that we can and should co-opt it to serve Judaism, rather than to have it dominate us. I still believe that. More of that after you’ve read what I had to say 11 years ago.

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Vayechi 5764


It is said that the final words of parashat Vayechi and sefer Bereshit (the book of Genesis), "B'Mitzrayim" ("in Egypt") [Gen. 50:26] remind us that a new chapter in the story of the people of Israel is about to begin. It tells us that we are on the threshold of a whole new adventure.

We have all stood on many thresholds. They are at once exciting and terrifying. We often spend a lot of time stuck in the threshold as the excitement and fear struggle. Yet we must move forward and cross the threshold. Sometimes, our decisions to do so come from a head-driven fortitude, the outcome of logical thought-processes, of self debate, of weighing the pros and cons.

And sometimes our decisions to proceed past a threshold come from the heart.
Not so long ago, we all stood on a threshold--that of a new electronic information age. Some of us have crossed the threshold and moved on. Others are still lingering in the doorway. Some are boldly but with some temerity checking the waters. Others remain locked in self-dialogue, incessantly weighing pros and cons.

I recall an online discussions amongst a group who were, for the most part, at the vanguard of bringing their congregations into the age of online presence, i.e., web sites. There was much sturm und drang about what to do, how to do, whether it should be done. People had (and still have) fears over issues of safety and security, privacy, and more.

It seems that most congregations today have taken the leap and gotten past their fears--although one sees a great variety among congregations as to what information they put on the web. Sadly, I think that what drove most congregations through the threshold was economics. They simply couldn't afford to not have a presence, especially if they wanted their membership numbers to remain steady or increase. So some congregations "bit the bullet" and plunged ahead. But most often their decisions were made with their heads. And it shows. G”d forgive me that bit of open criticism, for even I am guilty of that for which I am now criticizing others. I want to make a point, so I taking this liberty.
Some years ago, when congregations really were just reaching the threshold on web presence, I responded to a message posted on a webmasters e-mail discussion list. In this message, the poster was asking;

"I'm looking for a bigger picture. What can a Net presence do for a congregation, uniquely? What functions should it perform? I am currently prototyping a web site which I will soon present to a committee for discussion and revision. I am also studying the issue academically."

At the time, I considered making a lengthy, academic response to this query. I caught myself before I traveled down that all too familiar road and reminded myself that, like our ancestors at the end of sefer Bereshit, were standing at a threshold of a whole new adventure. Jacob did reveal for his sons a few details about what may come to be, but G”d did not permit Jacob to reveal the whole truth of what was to be. G”d may know what the future of Judaism and the World Wide Web may be. We can only make educated guesses. And I think sometimes G”d likes to twist reality to remind us that we can make all the educated guesses we want and still be dead wrong.

When we are at the start of a new adventure, there isn't all that much that our heads can tell us about what is ahead. So we must look to our hearts. I wrote, in part, these words in response:
"Just as we should with our synagogues themselves, we should be managing our web sites as much with our hearts as with our heads."
"We...argue in our Board Meetings about mundane and trivial things, and create business-like web sites just as we too often treat our congregations as a business. Let's give our brains a rest and put our hearts to work.
"So, let's try these reasons for having a web page: a. Use the web as an extension of Torah and our Judaism to teach, enlighten and inform, and strengthen Judaism. b. Allow people to be taught, enlightened, informed, and strengthened. Isn't that enough?"
It was a noble thought at the time, though perhaps a bit Pollyanna-esque, as I can often be. Reality sets in. Web sites are not only communication tools, but recruiting tools. We can't ignore reality, nor should we disregard wise counsel. So we must learn to use both our hearts and our heads. So doing, I suspect we will have greater success in the long run.
Those many years ago (well, actually, in was 1996) I also added these words:
"There are those who fear that we will become slaves to our computers. We will become keyboard potatoes. Maybe that will happen."
I'll interject here that some studies are showing that this is already beginning to happen. Yet, I also posited these thoughts:
"Maybe [this is all] a preamble to a new redemption, as we are led from the days of slavery to our computers into a new promised land - when we and our creations work hand in hand with the one who created us. The next choice you run up against-try deciding with both your head and your heart."
I commend to yet that thought. The web and computers are becoming may indeed have already become, commonplace and everyday. And some of us are in danger of becoming, if we are not already, slaves to the technology. (All those jokes about men and the TV remote may soon yield to jokes about all of us with our wireless keyboards, our PDAs, our X-Boxes, our Instant Messaging.) We may do well to heed the lessons we learn from Torah, both in sefer Bereshit, and those we are about to learn anew in the remaining four books -- so that we will be ready and empowered to find our way to freedom from the slavery of technology, yet also find a way to integrate technology into our covenant in meaningful ways.

Ironic, isn't it, that I disseminate these very words through the power of this technology? So maybe we are already developing the skills necessary to co-opt it for G”d's purposes rather than our own. Ken y'hi ratzon. Ken y'hi ratzoneinu.
OK, back to 2015. Yes, some of those naysayers and doom predictors and purveyors of cautionary tales were right. Some of us have become slaves to our devices (I suspect more to smartphones these days than desktop computers.) Some of us have become keyboard potatoes. The internet is replete will so many information sources that winnowing the wheat from the chaff is a monumental task. Many aggregators have arisen to help us manage all the information, but even the aggregators aren’t always without bias.
Judaism has a role to play in all of this, if it wants to do so. Some, I believe mistakenly, believe that it is all about religion’s obligation to be counter-cultural. That we must stand against technology’s rapid advancement and our increasing dependence upon us. They play upon ancient cultural taboos, myths, and archetypes seeking to make us fearful. The truth of the matter is, the way the internet works, the more good people who use it, the harder it is for the plutocrats and oligarchs, and those intent on evil, to suborn it for their own nefarious purposes.

One (admittedly fringe) haredi rabbi just decreed that anyone with a smartphone cannot be counted in a minyan!  Thousands have gathered in stadiums to hear rabbis deliver anti--technology and anti-internet diatribes.While most of this plays out in the more frum world, don’t be fooled into thinking that there aren’t those in the liberal Jewish world with a similar agenda.

Technology is no panacea. Due caution needs to be observed. Technology must be our tool, not our enslaver. However, it is not our enemy. The solution is not about being counter-cultural – it’s about being co-optive. It’s about turning the technology to serve our needs, not drive them. Be careful – for often the same folks who are leading the charge against technology are the same ones leading the charge against science. Religion and science are not enemies. Religion can be informed by science, and science can be informed by ethics, and yes, even by religion. In the end, if technology really is the devil – well, better the devil you know…

Some taunt Shabbat, for example, as a time to escape from technology. That may very well be the solution for some. It is not, however,t he solution for all. I’ve written before about why I don’t participate in the National Shabbat of Unplugging because sometimes, and for some people, the technology can be the tool that most enables them to experience their Shabbat in a way that is different from the rest of their week.

We’ve crossed the threshold. Going back is no longer and alternative. This djinn won’t go back into the bottle. So it’s up to us to help control and influence is development.  We do that as its partner, not its opponent.

The future of Judaism lies in finding ways to have technology serve it, to enable it to be better, to be a light to the nations.

Khazak, khazak, v’nitkhazeik.

Shabbat Shalom,
©2105 by Adrian A. Durlester
(Portions © 2004)-

Other Musings on this parasha:
Vayekhi 5775 - Which Last Words?
Vay'khi 5774 - The Puppet's Unritten Lament
Vayekhi 5773 - The Wrong Good (Redux and Updated 5762)
Vayekhi 5772 - A Different HaMalakh HaGoel
Vayekhi 5771-Trading Places (Redux & Updated from 5759)
Vayekhi 5770 - Musing Block?
Vayekhi 5769 - Enough With the Hereditary Payback Already!
Vayekhi 5767-HaMalakh HaGoel
Vayechi 5766-Thresholds (Redux 5764 with Reflections
Vayechi 5761/5-Unethical Wills
Vayechi 5764-Thresholds
Vayechi 5763 - I Got it Good and That Ain't Bad (Redux 5760)
Vayechi 5759-Trading Places
Vayechi 5762-The Wrong Good

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