Judaism in a Digital Age, a new book by Danny Schiff, is to me a delightful push in a necessary direction not only for non-Orthodox Jews but for all of us. Please consider it mandatory reading in the school of Jewish life. I put this forth as a two-part discussion after reading the book.
With due humility, and with relatively little pertinent education behind what I say, I agree with the author that our rabbis might not be actively leading us in the appropriate way to tackle the near future, but they haven’t been wrong or negligent, nor is their extinction imminent; they have just been a bit stodgy. (The author, whom I hold in high esteem, will please correct me if I am misinterpreting.) What the book says more clearly than anything is that stodgy just no longer works.
The author at one point compares the non-Orthodox movements and their leaders to Kodak – a company which by the way is still in business (perhaps the author was thinking of Polaroid, which also is not out of business) – becoming extinct by selling something no longer needed. If we are thinking of companies, I put forth Singer, which may have had to add electricity to its sewing machines 100 years ago, and has otherwise kept up with consumer demands for zigzag and whatnot, but which mostly makes the same machine it has always made. They still serve us well, even though many experts agree that their very best machine was made in 1947.
No, the leaders should take this book as some sound guidance as to where we are and where we are going. They should be using it as a tool to think ahead and think fast. And they should be in the short term leading one another and encouraging us to do the same.
I see much of what the author is saying as pushing for positive action rather than heel dragging. We are grounded in the past, and must decide whether to continue what we are doing, and how. Here is an example of what I am deriving.
As the COVID pandemic made the world even smaller, both separating us each and uniting us all, non-Orthodox Jews found a way to continue religious services. The Conservative rabbis made an emergency exception and allowed a minyan to be counted by faces on a screen rather than faces in a room. (I will save for another day the discussion as to whether a blind person should have to have a screen and camera to show up and be counted, which may be what some would consider the exception that proves something.)
The purpose of that emergency decision was that services could continue to happen even when folks were medically not permitted to come together in the same room.
The broader results of that decision remain numerous. Those who are home-bound were suddenly able to participate. With continuing remote services, those who are traveling can join their own shul’s services. Congregants have visited other congregations’ services to see what they offer. Rabbis have been fairly well forced to live with the new connectivity, rather than taking it back (though they sometimes cause hurt feelings when they let folks on Zoom know that they no longer count toward the minyan they want to join). The synagogue thus has started offering itself outward to congregants rather than solely asking the congregants to appear in the room come heck or high water.
Can electronic siddurim on Shabbat be so far behind? And, as the author might ask, should they be?
Are we at the kind of crossroads that the time of the destruction of the Temple engendered? Or are we at the sort of turnstile that created the modern movements? Do we need a major overhaul right now? Or should we institute many more small changes at a quicker and quicker pace? What indeed is the purpose of being a Jew, and what is the ever-changing meaning of our survival?
Years ago, with no backup data, I was thinking it might be good for all congregations in a community to join together, collect joint dues, and distribute the dues as needed for mutual maintenance, allowing all community members to participate in all regular services offered, encouraging collaboration and inter-connectivity. Now I am thinking that this is possible on a much broader scale – globally, even. (More about this in Part 2, to come.)
The author also points out, in chapter 3, that we Jews were taught to keep all of our knowledge and its sources to ourselves. I don’t remember hearing that lesson; I remember being told we were to be a light unto the nations. I am rather glad that I remember only the importance of sharing our knowledge. I don’t think we should be keeping the knowledge or us to ourselves at all. What good is that? Where is it written, and why? And what does that say to others?
I find the scholars who namby-pambily say that we merely should be examples of good behavior, separate from others, and simultaneously be compliant with the letter of the Law (as interpreted, which is a conflict in itself) – no matter how others are perceiving us – to be misguiding. Appearance is everything! Perception is important! Communication is communication! And besides, those scholars are leaving out many commandments to the contrary. If we are asked not only to be a light, but to be responsible for the earth and all that is in it, then we had better be recruiting some help.
I am tempted to say that accomplishing things such as dusting for crumbs with feathers and changing over to the other two sets of dishes really is not following any letter of anything in the Law, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time, too. They may be sweet customs, with purposes, but they are also huge extrapolations. While the world is burning, we are changing dishes.
As the author notes, technology advances rapidly. While new gadgets permit more, which the author focuses on in chapters 4 and 5, they also allow us to know more, to see more clearly into the future and act to direct it. We should be now at the point of connecting all the dots we can see through our technology.
Our late friend Joe Charny wrote a definitive paper on Systems Theory. Indeed, everything is part of a system. Therefore, there will always be more and smaller dots to connect, even as our perception of the connections changes.
The author seems to foresee an endpoint, a time when maybe we will never die or when we will have created some other such troubling conditions. But I think nature or Divine Plan may tend to regulate that.
One never knows when a new Killer Fungus will be the next great leveler.
(Further pontification in Part 2, coming soon.)