Reproducing Jewish Experiences in the Digital Age
Can religious forums on the internet -- be they sermons, photographs of Israel, or religious learnings -- substitute for real life experiences and engagements?
My first exposures to youth group and camp Shabbatot were mind-opening, unforgettable, and impossible to replicate. The crowd energy of after-dinner singing sessions can be stronger than crowd energies at any sports arena. Memories of the perfect hike in the Golan are only complete with the sensory experience of Turkish coffee served by Israelis mid-hike. It's like the joke that is awkward when you try to repeat it; you just had to be there the first time.
Traditional Judaism requires a minyan, a quorum, of ten men to engage in certain religious practices. For those who find hiking with a few friends way more enjoyable than going solo on a treadmill, the implications of the requirement of a minyan could become confused in the age of digitization. If a live-stream video has ten "viewers", will that, at some point, in some sects of Judaism, "count" as a minyan? Will a recording of a hiking trail replace the experience of nature? The requirement is technically met, but the energy of community cannot be felt through a screen. The recording of the trail may be beautiful, but without the scrape on your leg from stepping on the wrong rock, it's just not the same. Just as movies and television have not completely replaced live theater, art and travel, the internet should not and cannot replace "live" Judaism.
An integral part of the learning process in Judaism comes from our Talmudic sages, who sat at yeshivot (houses of study) and argued back and forth all day. They argued with each other: about what had been written in the past by their predecessors, and in anticipation of what was to be written by those who would follow, always as a group, in the future. In the interdenominational Jewish cooperative at Columbia, the Bayit, where I lived during college, house members had a discussion about which single issue could unite all sects of Jews. Even the issue of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, failed to produce an agreement. Who should be helped? What should we do to help them? Different people had different ideas.
There will never be a time when we will all agree on everything. Some of us will want to walk to synagogue on Shabbat, some will want to go to the beach instead. Some of us will eat hot dairy at non-kosher restaurants, some of us will refuse. Of course it is possible, and even important, to form similar forums on the internet. But it is also important to remember not to let these forums replace real-life discussions entirely. At the Bayit, we were able to debate, learn, and enjoy meals daily with Jews from all across the religious spectrum, without the internet.
Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael, my home for the past five months, allows Jews from 26 countries to learn Hebrew and work together. Lively and emotional discussions ensue, complete with overtones that just cannot be replicated by virtual emoticons and exclamation points. Gaining an understanding of Israel's politically charged water problems, for instance, is easy to do from internet research, but can really be grasped and seen through a visit to the Golan, as we did as group while living on the kibbutz.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, audio and video recordings came into existence, creating great cultural impact, including eventually the telephone, altering channels of communication forever. One fascinating development was the advent of phonograph parties, at which people would amuse themselves for hours with devices that would allow them to record their own voices for the first time. This wasn't a telephone; this was the first "tape" recorder, thus beginning the cultural obsession with preservation, leading me to ask if the internet is the modern day phonograph party.
Recordings then and now act as stand-ins for personal interactions. It is a fantastic forum and tool for the assembling of groups of thinkers, and learning a little about a lot of things. However, we must not forget that physical manifestations of people, their thoughts, and their unique energy may take us further than recordings. The danger of Judaism in a technological era may be politeness. Message boards are too clean to be yeshivot or kibbutzim, while at the same time offering anonymity that can detract from the depth of a conversation.
Our best ideas and most meaningful moments cannot be developed by sitting alone in our homes in front of a computer. It is while interacting in person with nature and with others that our minds become most engaged.
Carly Siegel graduated from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in May 2009 with two BA's in Anthropology and Bible studies. She made aliyah in July of 2009 and currently lives and loves life in Tel Aviv.