One would hardly think that there is any conceptual connection between Lag B’Omer and Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse. But there is – and it strikes at the very heart of what we define as “true Judaism.”
The underlying question is to what extent does Judaism stand for a relationship between God and the believer as completely “virtual”? And if there is some “physical” component in such a relationship, what is acceptable physically and are there any limits?
What is meant by “virtual”? Having no physical mass, but rather something (“thing” is actually the wrong word, but English doesn’t have any good replacement; “not-thing” would be better) that is amorphous, invisible, and/or incorporeal. It does not necessarily mean “non-existent.” For instance, light surely exists despite having no mass, and being amorphous in that it can be both a (weightless) particle and a wave!
In the Bible, God (Jehovah) makes it clear that He is virtual. When Moses asks to see Him, God replies that no human can do so – at best Moses will be shown God’s “back.” This is close to Plato’s shadow-in-the-cave as a reflection – and only a poor reflection – of the Ideal. (The Bible preceded Plato by many centuries.) In their sojourn through the desert, the Israelites get to see a “cloud” accompanying them: a mere “refraction” of God’s presence.
However, this concept was too difficult for the recently freed slaves to comprehend. The very material Golden Calf ensued at precisely the same place and time that God was telling Moses to forget ever truly seeing (understanding?) the Almighty. This confluence of events sums up in a nutshell the ongoing tension in Judaism between God as virtual vs. physical. The result of the Golden Calf was God’s understanding that at that point the Children of Israel still needed some physical manifestation of the godly, if not of God. Thus, the Mishkan (Sanctuary) was immediately built – and centuries later the Temple took its place.
However, this was merely a physical medium to communicate with God, not any representation of God Himself. That was fortunate, because when the Second Temple was destroyed the Rabbis could easily continue this theological approach by segueing into unmediated prayer (and learning) as the way to express one’s Judaism.
Ironically, once again at close to the same historical time (2nd century CE), an individual rabbi – Shimon Bar-Yochai – became a central figure in Judaism (a founder of the Kabbalah). This is germane to the discussion here, because upon his death he was remade into an intermediary with God, as Jews in ever growing numbers began to visit his grave. He was never considered “God,” of course, but his grave site became a major “shrine” that enabled Jews to feel some physical connection with the Almighty, if only one step removed.
The problem with this is that such “shrinery” was explicitly shown to be “unJewish” at the very end of the Torah. Moses’ burial place was kept a secret by God (to this very day), precisely to avoid the “over-materialization” of Judaism by rendering physical humans as ancillaries of God. Jewish monotheism was not merely the belief in One (and only one) God, but no less in God’s lack of material substance. Indeed, to ensure this, even His greatest prophet was made to disappear post-mortem in order to reinforce the point: Judaism is a virtual religion and any physical expression within its ritual is there only as a “shadow” representation of Godliness and not to be taken as the “real thing.”
This is where Lag B’Omer and the hundreds of thousands of Jews who visit Mt. Meron every year have gone astray. Of course, this is not the only time that such cemetery “shrinery” is practiced: visiting the graves of Jewish saints has become almost de rigueur among certain segments of the Jewish People (and as we know, not just them).
This does not render them “bad Jews” – just mistaken. One can even be more understanding than that: perhaps many (most?) human beings still need to latch onto some physical manifestation of God because a completely virtual experience is simply not “human” enough?
Which brings us to Mark Zuckerberg and his proposed Metaverse. Here too we find a secular “god” trying to turn human life into something mainly (completely?) virtual. In his vision, we will play, shop, learn, travel, imbibe culture, and even have sex in a world devoid of physicality. Will it come to pass? I very much doubt it, given the failed trajectory of Jewish virtuality. Human beings are physical animals with real, corporeal needs – and thus not only want, but very much need, to spend a good part of their life in the “real” physical world.
If the Almighty failed in completely virtualizing the religion He founded, there is little chance that a lesser god like Zuckerberg will succeed in the same quest. For most of us, we can truly “thank God” for that.