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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Zuckerberg’s ‘Metaverse’? Judaism Was There First

We tend to think of “virtuality” as some newfangled phenomenon spawned by contemporary technology. Nothing could be further from the truth. Virtuality has been part of human existence from the start, growing with intensity over the millennia. And to a large extent, Judaism has been in the forefront of that expansion.

First, what exactly is “virtuality”? It consists of one or the other of two elements: 1- something that is close to, somewhat similar to, or not at all like an original, real thing – in short, representing reality in an incomplete way; 2- something that has no mass or material nature (note how our language has trouble with this: some”thing” that is not material!).

There are many examples of both kinds. A painting or photograph is a two-dimensional representation of reality – lacking a third dimension; a dollar bill is a worthless piece of paper by itself, but representing something of value (cyber-currencies take this to an even higher level of virtuality); a fantasy novel with dragons obviously describes something virtual; physicists are desperately trying to find 96% of the universe’s mass that is “hiding” somewhere – not to mention that several are seriously raising the possibility that there are many more “universes” beyond ours (the “multiverse”); you live in a “nation,” but you know very few people within – indeed, with how many have you ever come into any contact? As an important scholar noted, nations are mostly “imagined communities” (I call that: “image-in-nation”). And the list goes on. (My just published book – Virtuality and Humanity – offers numerous other examples and types of virtuality; some sections can be read for free at: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc)

Where does Judaism fit into all this? First, with monotheism and the Second Commandment. For thousands of years, people worshipped gods (in the plural) – and did so through physical idols. In one sense, this too was virtual as their statues were not very realistic, even if they had been representing something real (e.g., a fertile woman). Yet, these god/idols were mainly “real” in their physical incarnation. Judaism turned that around – first by reducing God to One; second and especially, by completely “virtualizing” the Almighty with no image at all, as the Jews were/are forbidden to make any concrete image of God. Indeed, Jehovah told Moses that he could not even be described: “I am what I am,” or “I will be what I will be”! The Jewish God is totally virtual to humans: invisible and unknowable.

Yet, for a thousand years the Jews practiced some vestiges of ancient worship e.g., animal sacrifice. This was a very palpable ritual. However, when the Second Temple was destroyed, that too disappeared, to be replaced by verbal prayer. Of course, this did not completely expunge the physical – Jews still put on tefillin, wore a tallit, etc., but the core of worshipping God had become largely virtual in nature: talking to a Being that one could not see. (Actually, Jewish prayer sans sacrifice started well before the Second Temple’s destruction, so that Christian worship followed, and did not precede, Jewish worship.)

At approximately the same time as Jewish worship developed and finalized its prayer service, the Jews started to develop another huge step towards the virtual life: learning. Yes, philosophers and natural scientists had appeared in Hellenic Greece (and to a lesser extent in early Mesopotamia), but those constituted a narrow elite. Post-Temple Judaism, on the other hand, obligated all Jewish families to teach their children the Torah, and many were involved in further commentaries and discussions regarding what that meant. As we know, Talmudic debates were highly argumentative, intellectual, and many times quite abstract – even if the ultimate purpose was to understand how to live in the concrete, real world.

Such a learning culture deepened among the Jewish People over the ensuing centuries, with many Jews involved in what came to be called (much later in Yiddish) “luftgescheft” – “air business”: education, philosophy, literature etc. This laid the foundation for what was to come later in modern, post-Emancipation Europe: a veritable explosion of Jewish activity in all sorts of “virtualizing” spheres – from math, physics, and other theoretical sciences (Einstein was but the tip of a huge iceberg) to arts and literature (e.g., Hollywood was basically founded by Jewish refugees). Jews have garnered approximately 20% of all Nobel Prizes (not counting “Peace”), when their world population has been a trifling .025% (a quarter percent!).

One can state with a high degree of certainty that such a “virtualized” approach to cognition has become an integral and profoundly deep part of Jewish culture – whether the Jew is religious or not. Thus, it is no surprise to find the contemporary high-tech world of virtuality to be full of Jewish pioneers: Zuckerberg (Facebook), Bezos (Amazon), Page and Brin (Google), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Jan Koum (WhatsApp) – the list goes on.

Given this long-term history, it is even less surprising that Israel has become a world class high-tech center (through “virtual” inventing and programming, not “reality based” manufacturing), pulling its weight far beyond any other country relative to its population. Indeed, astoundingly Israel has the third most companies listed on the NASDAQ (America’s high-tech stock market), after the United States and China. No wonder that Israel’s current Prime Minister is a former high-tech entrepreneur!

Facebook’s “Metaverse,” then, might herald the next stage in humanity’s virtual journey. Especially from a Jewish standpoint, however, it will merely be some new wine in very old bottles.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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