Friday, September 21, 2012

Technology and God: iPray, iConnect

When I was growing up, the neighborhood kids would watch this man walk up and down our street.  He would pace back and forth and around the cul-de-sac, yelling at someone for whatever the problem was that week.  If we were outside we would stop what we were doing to watch.  Subtly at first, until we learned that he was completely oblivious to our presence.  Pacing and screaming, gesturing and swearing.  I learned a lot of wonderful phrases from him that I would never dream of sharing with you.  At least not from the bimah.  Some of the things he would scream would make us laugh with glee at his creative usage of profanity.  We wondered out loud what was wrong with him.  Was he mentally ill?  Was he dangerous?  Was he planning on hurting the person he was yelling at?

30 years ago anyone walking around like that was instantly assumed to be crazy.  Only someone mentally deranged would have walked around talking out loud to himself.  Today, when we see someone behaving like that, we assume he’s on Bluetooth.

We’ve come a long way.

It amazes me how advanced we have become.  Bluetooth technology allows us to talk to whoever we want with our hands free to focus on whatever we are doing to ignore them.  Our cell phones have become little computers, allowing us to send emails, find a restaurant nearby, catch up on the big game or our favorite TV shows, and play Words With Friends.  A phone without texting is a dinosaur, and almost everyone texts regularly with their friends and family.  In the movies.  Oh, and they also make phone calls.  Did everyone remember to turn their cell phone off?  If you leave it on during services, God will make someone call you at an inopportune moment.


Wow, I couldn’t have planned that any better.


OK, let’s hit the silent button, please.  If you touch one of the buttons on the side your phone will stop doing that.


All right, this isn’t funny anymore.  Will everyone please check to see if…….uh, oh.  I think it’s mine.


Oh, this is embarrassing.  Hold on just a moment.





Really…This is God?

Prove it….

You saw that?!?  I’m glad you’re not on speaker.

Yes, sorry, I’ll listen.

 But how do I talk about You when we all think of something different when we think of You?

 Oh, uh, ok…I’ll try.

 Um, I love you too.

 If only it was that easy. 

 During my second year of rabbinical school, we took a course called “Practical Rabbinics.”  It was supposed to be all about the things we need to know on the job.  On one of the first class days, we were asked, “What should be the requirements for acceptance to rabbinical school?”  I listened to my classmates list attributes such as a sense of justice, teaching experience, positive outlook, academics, philosophy, and more.  I sat stunned, because I saw a gaping hole in the suggestions of my classmates.  I raised my hand and offered, “Belief in God.”  A couple of my classmates shot me inquisitive glances.  I thought it was obvious, but apparently I was wrong.

Once the chalk board was filled with suggestions, we voted on the top five requirements.  The professor pointed at each one and we raised our hands if we wanted that requirement to be counted.  When he came to “Belief in God,” I shot my hand in the air like Hermione Granger.  I was so proud of my suggestion and feeling sure I was owed congratulations for my keen observation of what had been missing from our admissions process.  The teacher tallied all the votes and wrote the number next to “Belief in God.”  One.  I was the only one in my class of 25 future rabbis to think Belief in God should be a requirement for rabbinical school.

Perhaps my classmates did not want to make God a requirement because of an overexposure to Political Correctness.  They didn’t want to make belief a requirement because we cannot define belief.  Or perhaps they didn’t want to offend any proclaimed agnostics or atheists who might want to apply to rabbinical school in the future.  Maybe they just didn’t want to feel like they were shoving God down anyone’s throat.  Whatever their reasons, I then and now respectfully disagree.

We need God in our lives, in our homes, in our religious experiences.  We don’t need God in our public schools or political campaigns, but that’s another sermon for another time.  As a Jewish people, we have long been connected with the One we call Adonai, Elohim, Tzur, Eyhey-Asher-Ehyeh, Hashem, Shaddai, Makom, and Avinu Malkeinu.  As we can understand from the variety of names for God, there are as many and more ways to view God.  Our understanding of God is limited only to our imagination and how we interpret our own experiences.

In Dr. Harvey Karp’s book for parents, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, he explains that children go through millions of years of evolution in the first few years of their lives.   They start out as the creatures who have just crawled from the water onto dry land.  They eventually learn to crawl like four-legged animals, and then they walk like bipeds.  They communicate with grunts, screams, and motions, and they become very possessive of their space and things.  Then they learn to work as a community and begin to ask for what they need and bargain for what they want.  He parallels each stage of development in a child to a stage in development of ancient society.

A parallel case could be made for the development of Jewish theology.  Each of us goes through phases of belief as we struggle through the development of our own view of God.  Millions of years of evolution in the theological life of every human being.  As we go through the stages of belief, some of us get to a point and never advance from there.  Happy with where we have found our definition of God, we never move along the evolutionary road.  That’s fine, as long as we respect each other’s path.

The first stage is the Biblical God.  This is the God that we believe in as children.  Anthropomorphized, masculine, and acting in the world: giving tablets on mountains and making calls on cell phones.  When someone declares to me that they do not believe in God, I often ask the question, “Describe the God you do not believe in.”  This is that God.

The Biblical God is covenantal.  God gives us rules—commandments.  If we obey them we are guaranteed personal, familial, and national success.  If we do not, we are contractually obligated to accept God’s punishments.  God of the Bible is simultaneously a parent, teacher, ruler, lover, commander, shepherd, comfort, judge, and more.  This is the God that people struggle with most, because there are so many contradictions in the Biblical God.  Mostly because the Bible is written in so many voices.  Once we realize that this God is a metaphor, we can start to develop our own concept of God, and our evolution can begin.


The rabbis of the Talmud build off of the biblical God.  They no longer worshiped a God that physically reacted to their prayers in this world.  Instead they had a personal God that has messengers who act in dreams and imagery.  God still had a hand and a voice, still shows justice and mercy, and still loves us and is loved in return.  The trials of the Jewish community are seen as divine retribution for sins of the past, and the job of humanity is to please God by acting out Mitzvot, commandments, and bringing about the Messianic Age.  The concept of a Messiah is a Talmudic construct, allowing for the notion that there will be a return to a saved Jerusalem in the next world.

The philosophical age of Philo and Aristotle bring us to the teenage years of dealing with God.  The conversation about God becomes more about what God isn’t.  God has no hand or face.  God’s existence can be systematically proven but not described.  Maimonides, the 12th century rabbi and philosopher, taught that once we apply language to God, we are limiting God, because language is limiting. 

As theology developed the God of Jewish Mysticism came to be.  Rabbi Isaac Luria, born in 16th Century Jerusalem, and his students of Tzfat envisioned God as emanations of energy.  To the Mystics, if someone could connect with a part of that energy, they would understand that God permeates everything.  For just a moment they might be able to sense the godliness that is within them and emanates outward to every living thing.  Then, like a drop of water in the ocean, they lose complete sense of self and feel as if they are part of the whole.  This version of our developmental theology makes us feel like we can do anything because we know we are a part of the Divine.

Martin Buber finds God in relationship, in what he refers to as the Eternal Thou.  As he writes, “The relation with man is the real simile of the relation with God; in it true address receives true response.”  It is in connection with others that we find God.

Mordechai Kaplan came up with the concept of Naturalism.  He believed that whatever human beings did that benefitted the world for other people, that was God. 

The 20th and 21st Centuries brings us all kinds of different theologies, such as feminist theology, polydoxy, humanism, ethical monotheism, and more.  As we develop our own personal theologies, we emulate the Cave-Toddlers of Harvey Karp’s world.  We go through thousands of years of theological evolution in one lifetime.  Some of us go one or two stages and stop there.  Others go exploring through all kinds of different versions of connecting with God, and never stop.  Judaism teaches us that that’s ok.

We are supposed to struggle with our theology.  That’s a good thing to do.  In fact, the name for our people, Yisrael, means “God-strugglers.”  We have come a long way in many areas of advancement, yet continue to struggle with God.

Of course, God might be able to call us on our cell phones, but these probably aren’t the right tools to use to connect.  They are amazing devices.  Miraculous, even.  But they don’t bring us closer to God.  It is possible that they bring us farther away.

Rabbi Yehiel Mikhael of Zlotchov taught that people have a tendency to imagine themselves as measured by their things.  They attach themselves to earthly things and leave their Creator in pursuit of more.  Then they believe they exist and they become great and important in their own eyes.  But what happens when they are gone?  Their days pass like a shadow and their things remain behind.  But the Eternal One is with us all forever.  Therefore, we should instead cleave to God and direct our thoughts to God.

A wonderful idea, if it were possible.  Life happens, reality sets in and we have to deal with phone calls and texts and emails and instant messages.  In order to really make connections, though, we have to decide not if we will use technology to connect, but when.

A friend of mine recently told me that one of her pet peeves is when women use their cell phones in the bathroom.  She finds herself in an odd position because a) she is left out of what is often a very vibrant conversation, and b) she wonders if she is being rude when she flushes.  We are often so involved in the world within our technology that we forget to pay attention to the world around us.  We cleave to our things instead of what is out there.

A regular notion in the Bible is that of yisa et eynayim, lifting the eyes.  Abraham lifted his eyes twice yesterday when we read the story of the Akeidah.  He lifted his eyes and saw the mountain where God sent him.  He lifted his eyes and saw the ram caught in the thicket.  Lifting his eyes facilitated his ability to offer a sacrifice to God, as well as not offering up his only son.

When characters lift their eyes, they are taking notice of the world around them, more specifically they notice a sign from God.  Joshua lifts his eyes and sees an angel prepared to fight with the Israelites before they march on Jericho.  The prophet Zechariah lifts his eyes before each of his prophecies.  Even the wicked prophet Balaam lifts his eyes just before his curse against the Israelites turns into a blessing.  “Lifting the eyes” is more than just looking.  Anyone can look.  Lifting the eyes means they really see.

As a parent I often remind my children to look me in the eyes when we talk.  It is considered good form to look someone in the eyes when shaking hands.  It has been said that the eyes are the window to the soul.  If we do not lift our eyes, we cannot make the real connections that caring people make when they engage with one another.  If we do not lift our eyes, we cannot connect with the Divine.

All this technology is great.  I love my computers, my iPad, my iPhone.  I write my sermons on them.  I post on Facebook.  I play Words With Friends.  I blog my sermons and Elul thoughts.  As a youth worker I could not connect with the children I work with without it.  At the same time, nothing drives me crazy quite like my teens with their technology.  They text in class, they text while they talk to someone else.  They text during services, in movies, while they drive, watch TV, eat, and probably even while they sleep!  To rephrase a commercial from the 80’s: “they learned it by watching us.”

When we look down at our screens we often feel like we are connecting with the world.  We can send messages and pictures to friends all over the world.  We can hold on line learning sessions and conference for work or for fun.  We keep track of congregants who need pastoral care using an on line web service.  There are congregations that live-stream their weekly Shabbat as well as their High Holy Day services.  As a tool there is no parallel to the power of our handheld devices.  But that’s just it.  It’s a tool.  Like Rabbi Litwak said yesterday, relying on these devices diminishes the I within us, as their very names suggest.

When using a tool you have to use the right tool for the job.  We wouldn’t change a tire with a screwdriver, so we don’t make real connections with our devices.  Real connections can only be made when we lift our eyes.  No matter where we are in our theological evolution, we cannot evolve through our devices.  We can only do that by connecting with God and with our community.  With the people sitting around you right now.

There is really only one way to truly connect.

[turn off the iPad]


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