Thursday, October 1, 2009

21st Century Jews

Pay attention, this may be the only time you hear me make a sports reference in a sermon:

A few years ago, someone from the congregation I was working with approached me just after Rosh Hashanah. “Rabbi,” he said, “I know next week is Kol Nidrei, but that night the Steelers are playing. The Steelers are my second religion. I’ve got to watch that game on TV.” I said “that’s what VCRs are for.” “Oh!” he said, looking surprised, “you mean I can tape Kol Nidrei?”

How many of you are on Facebook? Look around at the people in this room with our hands up. For the few of you who have not yet connected to the phenomenon created by Mark Zuckerberg, allow me to offer a brief explanation. Facebook is a social netweorking website. "Users can add friends and send them messages, and update their personal profiles to notify friends about themselves. Additionally, users can join networks organized by city, workplace, school, and region." This definition is according to Wikipedia, an online collaborative encyclopedia, where users can edit the encyclopedia’s entries, which were until very recently immediately posted to the site, and later submitted for review. Now a panel reviews all submissions before they go live.

But there are other wikis, which allow users to collaborate immediately about documents or other projects….

Wait. Am I going too fast here?

Does anyone know what this is?

This is the Gutenberg Printing Press. Built in the 15th century, it revolutionized reading, making it possible for the average person to afford books. In 1455, the Gutenberg Bible was first printed and has remained number 1 on best-seller lists ever since. Before the printing press, only the wealthy were literate. Writing implements and parchment were expensive, and most literature was transcribed by professionals who had to be paid. Plus it took time to read, and time was also a luxury of the rich.

Today we live in a literate society, thanks in part to Gutenberg and his Printing Press. Of course if you don’t want to lug around books, you can use one of these:

The Amazon Kindle is a book-reading tool that allows users to read from a “paper quality” screen held easily in one hand. The first version of the Kindle came out in November, 2007, and was sold out in five and a half hours. The latest version, the Kindle DX, which you see here, is the size and weight of an average magazine, holds approximately 3500 non-illustrated books, and has a battery life of two weeks. The price tag hasn’t yet made it accessible to everyone, but to everyone who missed my birthday a week ago, if you each kick in a dollar….

I have one more bit of technology to show you. Does anybody know what this is?
This is called a node, or a touch graph. It is a graphic display of about half of my Facebook friends, grouped according to network. I’m the larger red circle in the middle. Some of you might be in the red group, which represents my Miami connections. Perhaps the best thing about Facebook is demonstrated by the node. What keeps me intrigued about nodes is the knowledge that every one of these dots on my node has a node of their own. If you were to pick any random dot on this Touch Graph, you would see a similar graph with that person in the center, connecting me and everyone on my node to them indirectly. The combinations are infinite to connect any two people on Facebook. There are hardly six degrees anymore.
Facebook has revolutionized networking, allowing people to connect with others to help them find a job in this difficult economy. Employers are now checking Facebook pages of applicants before offering them a job. It has become the final stage of the interview process—what is your social networking image?

Admittedly, I am a bit of a technophile. I was among a small group of rabbinical students with palm pilots plugged in to collapsible keyboards in rabbinical school. I rarely used a pen and paper. I was among the first to get a laser keyboard that projected onto my desk and sensed where my fingers were—when it worked I could type by tapping my desk. I use Facebook daily, I use a Zune at the gym, I text with an average rate of 1400 outgoing and incoming each month. At a meeting about technology for about 50 Miami Jewish professionals, I was the only one in the room with a blog. This sermon was intentionally edited and discussed using as much technology as possible with the help of Rabbi Bradley Levenberg from Temple Sinai in Atlanta. We used a wiki, Twitter, Facebook, email, and cell phones both for talking and for texting.

Temple Sinai is integrating technology into our practice regularly. We use a program called Hineynu to help us know who in our congregation is celebrating a simcha or suffering a loss. Temple Sinai has a Facebook Group, as does the Jacobson Sinai Academy and the Sinai Parents’ Association. We have a beautiful new web site that Debbie Blooomfield and Cantor Kruk spent most of the summer putting together. On the web site a JSA parent can find the Digital Backpack, David Prashker’s answer to the problem of too much paper being sent home. Our newest toy is an internet camera which we have used for three webinars so far. Our Log-in Lunch and Learns for the High Holy Days have been well attended on line, and we are very excited to offer more interactive learning opportunities. New innovations in technology allow us to do amazing things. We hope to keep taking advantage of all of them.

There are also some drawbacks to overuse of technology. Seven years ago my father (z”l) and I were driving Natalie’s and my things from storage in Cincinnati to our new apartment in New York. He spent most of the time on his cell phone, and I spent most of the time with my headphones on. Neither of us did it to avoid the other. We enjoyed each other’s company and had a great time chatting at restaurants and in our hotel room during the day-and-a-half journey. It just happened because we wanted to plug in. We were close enough to touch, and yet with our devices we put bubbles around ourselves and hardly spoke a word to each other in the car.

We see this kind of thing all the time. Kids in restaurants texting or playing hand-held video games. Parents at the dinner table answering the cell phone instead of talking to the people in front of them. Drivers. Oh, Miami drivers. The average speed while talking on the cell phone with a hands-free device is 10 mph slower than while not using the phone at all.
In the 21st Century we have a great task ahead of us. It is our responsibility to make technology accessible to as many people as possible, and at the same time to stay plugged in to each other and not just to our machines. We need to revel in physical contact as much as we enjoy wi-fi connections.

Natalie and I recently had the “good touch/bad touch” conversation with our five-year-old Gabriel. Gabriel loves to pick apart details of any instructions we give him, so he kept asking which kind of touch certain activities were from non-strangers. “Hitting?” “Bad touch.” “Hugging?” “Good touch.” “Kissing?” “Good touch if both people want to kiss.” “Tickling?” “Usually good touch.” “Spanking?” “Bad.” “Potching?” “Good.” After exhausting his list, he came to a conclusion. “Daddy,” he said, “there are lots more kinds of good touch.”

I hope he’s right. Touching is generally a very, very good thing. We know that newborns need to be held. Holding hands with a new romantic interest can be electric, and holding hands with our spouse can be comforting. We hug and kiss people we haven’t seen in a while, and some of us hug and kiss every time we see certain people.

In the 1986 remake of The Fly, Jeff Goldblum’s character is trying to make a teleportation machine, but whenever he sends an animal through it ends up destroyed on the other side. Geena Davis’ character helps him make his transporter work when describing how it makes grandma’s crazy to pinch babies’ cheeks. He can only send a live creature through his teleporter after he teaches his computer to love flesh, to go crazy over it like a grandmother over a baby’s cheeks.

Technology can keep us simultaneously connected with hundreds of “friends” on Facebook. I can send an e-card to my sister on her birthday. This sermon will be posted on my blog.

We cannot use technology to hug our friends. I won’t be able to see the look of surprise on my sister’s face when I actually remember her birthday. And while we appreciate emails and calls after a loss, nothing compares to the warmth of an embrace and the comfort of the loving presence of family and friends.

There are very few of us who would deny that in person is better than on line for certain connections. Taping Kol Nidre just doesn’t cut it. And isn’t it better to go to the stadium than to watch the game on TV?
So what does Judaism say about Modern Technology? It is pretty hard to find a Biblical story about the internet or a Pesikta from the Talmud about web-based technologies. But we can glean the Biblical lesson about modern technology by reading about the technological achievements of Genesis. First, The Tower of Babel.

[The people of earth] said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard." -- Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. -- And they said, "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world." Adonai came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and Adonai said, "If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another's speech." Thus Adonai scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there Adonai confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there Adonai scattered them over the face of the whole earth (Genesis 11:3-9).
The inhabitants of the ancient world did not have electronics. Their technological advances were the bricks and mortar they used to build a tower. The Torah would not mention the architectural style—using bricks burned hard—if it was not significant. We can learn from this that they were utilizing the very best of their engineering abilities. The tower of Babel was the most technologically advanced design of the day.

The people declare they want to build the Tower of Babel to make a name for themselves, and to not be scattered all over the world. They want to make themselves great. God comes down, sees what they are doing, and punishes them with the very thing they were trying to avoid in the first place. God knows that if they are only concerned with themselves, they will suffer for their egotism. Perhaps if they were building a tower to be able to visualize the grand scheme of world issues, we would all still be speaking Hebrew today. When technology is used only to better ourselves, we lose sight of the world at large.

The other side of Biblical technology comes a few chapters earlier, from the story of Noah. God gives Noah instructions about how to build a contraption that will, in essence, save the world:

Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark in its side; make it with bottom, second, and third decks (Genesis 6:14-16).
While the reenactment of this story from the movie Evan Allmighty makes this technique look ancient, in Biblical times this was top-notch shipbuilding. Again the important distinction is not only that Noah was able to build an ark that could hold all of the world’s animals. Noah’s purpose was not self-serving. He was acting at God’s command to save the world. Noah’s technology provided protection from the destruction of the world.

So it is not technology that causes problems. It is how we use it that matters.

Sometimes we can become too focused on the technology itself and not enough on what it can do to help others. We can connect with people across the globe for free. We can donate money to Israel with a click of our mouse. We can express our solidarity by joining the fast for Darfur. We can learn from incredible resources and inspirational leaders.
Just as the High Holy Days is our time to reconnect with ourselves, we need to find that balance between connecting on line and connecting face to face. May our connections this year bring us great fulfillment and joy. May we find our hearts more linked than our modems, and our ability to reach out enhanced.

Shanah Tovah

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