Kol Hashofar and My E Mail

Kol hashofar and my email  

     Our smartphone,  e-mails and texting  provide us with a very new, very hi-tech  mass communication.   In contrast, the kol (voice) of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom  Kippur  shofar provides us with a very very old, low tech  medium of  mass  communication.  Attentively listening to the shofar can not only send us an important spiritual message, but also give us understandings concerning both the many virtues and ‘vices’ of our internet communication media.

     In this blog I would like to concentrate on one particular set of vices and virtues:   how the medium media, shofar, or e-mail affect  the nature of  our inter personal communication.

     The kol/voice of the shofar sounds a sharp, focused, piercing message. Each Jew will hear a distinct and different message according to his/her belief systems; an orthodox Jew will hear a metaphysical, spiritual message; a liberal Jew will hear a more humanistic, spiritual message. The message will be both intellectual and emotional. The message will be both verbal and non verbal. The focus and clarity of the shofar’s multi dimensional message can be compared to the expressive facial communication of an acutely happy or sad child which is directed at caring parents.  Fathers and mothers will clearly understand the multi natured meaning of the child’s few simple words and non-verbal expressions and appropriately respond.  Both parent and child, shofar and listener, are part of a clearly defined communication system which possess a focused clarity of roles that allow participants to creatively and personally respond with a sense of purpose and responsibility . Interpersonal communication in a system with a clarity of shared purpose and roles allows each participant to understand messages that are too overwhelming  to be fully articulated in words.  Rav Soloveitchik expressed this idea when he related the following story:  When finishing fourteen hours of Yom Kippur praying he felt that he had succeeded in  expressing only a small part of what he wanted and needed to tell G-d.  The call of the shofar , at the end of Neila service, then came to  express, non-verbally, all that  remained  to be said. 

     In contrast, our e mail, texting, twitter, chats, face book communication, puts us out to a stormy sea, whose home harbor and port of destination are uncertain. My brother –in- law, a top administrator, begins his ‘day off’ Friday morning with 250 email entries to answer. The cell phone of any very socially involved, creative person rings 20 hours a day, literally bombarding its owner with seemingly limitless, social stimuli and requests. The golem has risen on its on-line, on call creator. It becomes almost impossible to prioritize and take control over this onslaught in a purposeful, creative manner. And this lack of control makes it difficult for us to respond to these relentless demands with full responsibility. The internet’s virtue of a wide range diversified, frequent social contacts is counter balanced by the often shallowness of the interaction.  Lacking responsible focus and control, it very easily ‘slip slides away’ into a lack of existential honesty.  Lacking responsible control makes it difficult to conduct deeply meaningful, truthful social relationships over the internet.

     The virtues and vices of email, texting, twitter, face book interaction is best illustrated by the problematic of internet halachic counseling, and asking Yom Kuppur forgiveness over the internet. Internet halachic counseling has the virtue of easy accessibility, the ability of the responder to help many individuals in a short period of time, and an anonymity that allows raising intimate topics in a less threatening manner. But internet halachic counseling lacks existential honesty and truth, and is a very shallow, superficial form of religious counseling and education.  Halachic counseling that does not take into account the full psycho-social situation of the addressee has a real risk of being misleading, and not fulfilling the halacha’s purpose of uniting G-d’s truth with the multi dimensional reality of our existential situation. True religious counseling and education means that the child/student internalizes into his soul the virtues of his parent’s/teachers role model soul. This cannot be done over the internet, but only by live interpersonal bonding between parent and child, between teacher and student.

    In this vein, the rabbis of the liberal orthodox Beit Hillel decided that the  mitzvah/halachic obligation to ask forgiveness  and reconciliation from the person that we have hurt, cannot be done over the internet facebook . It must be preferably done in an interpersonal meeting, or at least in a serious telephone conversation (including skype).  Only when the communications actively involve the heart, mind, and soul, and are both verbal and non-verbal, can there exist the degree of interpersonal directness, honesty, and ‘taking control’ responsibility that the halachically prescribed reconciliation requires.

     The kol (voice) of the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur shofar, when attentively listened to, in a role delineated communication system, can powerfully convey through an old low tech medium the demand for focused, honest, responsible interpersonal communication between man and man, and between man and G-d. Internet mass communication has many virtues, and provides many invaluable services, but the voice of the shofar reminds us of its limitations in existential, interpersonal communication.    

About the Author
Chaim Charles Cohen was born in the USA in 1947 into a liberal, middle class secular family. He attended Cornell University in political science, studied three years to become a Reform pulpit rabbi, then gradually became Orthodox, made aliya with his family in 1978, practiced social worker, and settled in Psagot in 1982.