Robert J. Saferstein
Today, as our reliance on technological innovation continues to grow, certain questions arise: What are the consequences of engaging with the world in seclusion and through virtual means? How do changes in the ways in which we communicate affect our right to information and our right to privacy? Should expiration dates exist for online content, or are we to be forever shackled to our pasts? To what extent should one volunteer information in an increasingly open source environment? Does content now matter more than context?
An innate tension between technology and religion has always existed. While some viewed technologically-driven innovation as a violation of the Almighty, others saw our ability to improve the world, through technology, as a natural extension of divine will. Not only was the invention of Guttenberg’s printing press in 1440 an easier way to print and publish books, but it was also a way to spread the word of God. Surely, there is no better example of this in the Jewish world than the ways Chabad harnesses technology and the Internet to educate and share the word of HaShem.
As the technologies of an increasingly modern world became more commonplace, the organizational structures of Jewish communal and religious life began to shift. Arguably, the three most important inventions that impacted Jewish communal life were the telephone, the automobile, and the airplane. Suddenly, it was possible to live where one wanted, communicate with other Jews all over the world, and fly to Israel with relative ease. Jews could finally have their kosher meat and eat it, too. When the Internet and social networking were introduced, this “global Jewish community” was fully realized.
With the integration of each new technological invention into modern life, discussions surrounding the halakhic nature of their usage started cropping up — a majority of which revolved around what is and is not permissible on Shabbat and Yom Tov. In response to suburbanization, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) issued a responsum, or teshuvah, in 1950 permitting the use of automobiles on Shabbat for the purpose of driving to synagogue. In response to the increasing use of sensors and human-triggered devices (e.g., lights in refrigerators, automatic doors, electronic hotel keys, etc.), the Zomet Institute was established to invent Shabbat- and Yom Tov-friendly technologies that are in accordance with the strictest views of Orthodoxy. And new technologies — for example, scanners that check for mistakes in Torah scrolls1 — are improving the way halakhic supervision is conducted. But do more precise techniques render everything before “less” kosher? (The general consensus is no, and there is no need to utilize these technologies until such practices become commonplace.2)
In the 1990s, the popularization of video and audio conferencing by the masses forced rabbis to confront the question of virtual minyanim. Finally, in 2001, Rabbi Avram Reisner and the CJLS addressed this issue in a teshuvah entitled, “Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet.” Reisner’s main argument in favor of virtual minyanim was the notion that a person has fulfilled the mitzvah simply by hearing the shofar or the Megillah in passing.3 His main argument against virtual minyanim was that “The ten [members of the minyan] must be in one place and the leader with them.”4 In requiring the quorum, rabbis clearly wanted to ensure that the community would come together instead of fulfilling one’s obligations in isolation. In the end, Reisner concluded, “One location remains the rule for constituting a minyan. Once a minyan is in existence, however, even one who is not in the minyan, but simply overhears, may respond and fulfill obligations thereby.”5 In 2008, using the teshuvah’s ruling, Winnipeg’s Shaarey Zedek Synagogue became the first synagogue to allow users to access a live audio broadcast of its services (set up to record before Shabbat).
However, the teshuvah on virtual minyanim is far from complete and raises many more questions than it answers. In a society that now predicates its existence on a virtual hyper-reality, does online communication destroy a sense of community, or does it help create it? As the prospect of a global wireless network increasingly becomes a reality, can the entire world be considered “one place,” enclosed in some form of virtual eruv? Is the relationship between an individual and his/her video-image representation merely that of an icon and index to its object,6 or is it possible for the video-image representation to be counted as a member of a minyan? If so, can the individual and his/her avatar be counted as two separate entities existing in two distinct minyanim?
The sheer breadth of information now available to us means that thousands of Jewish texts and arguments are no longer reserved for the exclusive study of members of select yeshivot. But does that democratization of knowledge reduce the authority of the learned rabbis? What does it mean to learn with the context of study being online rather than in a beit midrash? Can we have content without context?
In a 2010 New York Times article, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” Jeffrey Rosen discusses the misuse of content and “how best to live our lives in a world where the Internet records everything and forgets nothing — where every online photo, status update, Twitter post, and blog entry by and about us can be stored forever.”7 From a Jewish perspective, this raises the question of forgiveness and self-growth. According to Judaism, forgiveness is possible if one seeks it. Yet, in today’s world filled with digital reminders of past transgressions and lapses in judgment, can one ever really “move on?” Perhaps, society should place limitations on how long information can be stored online. And also, perhaps, we should use a little more discretion about what we volunteer online — otherwise are we not partially complicit if such information is decontextualized and used against us?
With the evolution of new technologies, these sorts of questions will continue to expand in complexity. Over the course of this year, Sh’ma will examine these issues; we invite you to join the conversation on our new blog at shma.com.
1 Manfred Gerstenfeld and Avraham Wyler, “Technology and Jewish Life,” Jewish Political Studies Review, 18:1-2 (Spring 2006), www.jcpa.org/art/jep-gerstenfeld-wylie-s06.htm.
3 Mishnah Rosh Hashanah and Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim, 589.9.
4 Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim, 55.
5 Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, “Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet,” (New York: March 13, 2001).
6 As related to the Icon, Index, Symbol and photographic representation described by semiologist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914).
7 Jeffrey Rosen, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” The New York Times, July 21, 2010.email print