‘Judaism in a Digital Age’: A response
Rabbi Schiff concedes that if there is a new model for how to be Jewish, we have not yet found it.
We, the Jews, are excellent at history. Regarding the future, not so much.
On Shabbat we remember Creation. On Purim we remember how Esther saved the Jews of Persia. On Pesach we remember how we came from slavery to freedom. And so on.
But where in Jewish life do we remember the future? The most enduring symbol of the Jewish future is above the ark — the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, which symbolizes the continuity of our connection with God and Torah from way back to Exodus. It is tamid – always burning, always reminding us of our past and the eternity of the future before us, always serving as a beacon to call us back to our tradition.
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We frequently invoke yetzi-at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, in our liturgy. We do so because it serves as a template for our future redemption, the redemption of Olam HaBa, the World to Come. But admittedly, the Olam HaBa model is somewhat inchoate, and frankly, we are in disagreement as to what the real goal in Jewish life is. There are some who understand our performance of mitzvot on this Earth to bring the Mashiach, the anointed, supposed descendant of King David, and lead us to Olam HaBa. There are others who see our mitzvot as serving their purpose in the here and now; that is, we fulfill them because it is the right thing to do in the moment, and their reward is intrinsic.
But in general, except for Mashiach-based ideology, which is somewhat murky and controversial, we do not speak too much about the future. Judaism is fundamentally focused on the present.
Which is why Rabbi Danny Schiff’s new book, “Judaism in a Digital Age,” is so striking. Well-researched and thoughtfully presented, the book addresses not only the future from a Jewish perspective (and in particular, the future of the non-Orthodox movements), but also the future of all humanity.
The view is pretty bleak.
Rabbi Schiff opens with a biting critique of the Conservative and Reform movements, explaining in excruciating detail why movements which emerged “when horses were the dominant means of transportation” are no longer relevant and are destined for continued decline as they confront the “hyper-emancipated” world of the digital age.
He moves on to take a snapshot of society today, saying “modernity” ended in 1990 with the widespread availability of the internet, and explaining all of the ways that access to information through digital means has changed how we live and think and socialize. He shares the thinking of notable futurist authors, including the very real threat to society posed by artificial intelligence, and the promise of immortality based on so-called “transhumanist” ideas about the blending of technology and the human body, which may ultimately serve to destroy any traditional concept of corporeal human life.
Here and there he asks the hard questions about Judaism’s confrontation with post-modernity. What value will there be to having rabbis and teachers when all information is available without intermediaries? How can halakhic principles regarding privacy or leshon hara remain in play when all of the details of every person’s life are available through a search engine? How can we confront the challenges posed by rising rates of isolation and economic inequality, the availability of pornography or the endless amplification of self-importance, which social media platforms encourage?
Whatever happens in the future, we will certainly (a) fail to consider adequately the full consequences of new technologies, and (b) manage to eke out a new way of living despite dramatically changed circumstances.
Our response, according to Rabbi Schiff, must be to accept that the world has changed, and respond within the new paradigm: “Viewed from a Jewish perspective, the digital age is no longer about adapting Jews and Judaism to a slowly opening world
of belonging and enlightenment; it is about asking how human beings should optimally function within the cacophonous tumult of an accelerating epoch of hyper-emancipation, hyper-connectivity, and hyper-individualism.”
Despite Rabbi Schiff’s protestations to the contrary, the Conservative and Reform movements still have quite a bit of influence in the Jewish world, and are particularly well-positioned to engage with the Jewish future, perhaps in ways that traditional forms of Orthodoxy cannot.
Rabbi Schiff concedes that if there is a new model for how to be Jewish, we have not yet found it. So meanwhile, while we are waiting for that new paradigm to emerge, non-Orthodox communities will continue to do our traditional-yet-contemporary thing. We will continue to pray together, to learn together and to offer imaginative new programming.
Jews have lived through many centuries of change, of social upheaval, of wars and genocides and life-changing innovations. We have made the transition from hand-copied documents to printed books to instantly-searchable gemara on smartphones. And yet, here we are, still reading Torah from a scroll produced essentially the same way for thousands of years, still basking in the glow of a Ner Tamid.
We have navigated a changing world, and we will continue to do so. We will determine whether halakhah permits us to eat cultured meat that was never actually attached to any animal. We will find a way to grapple with the potential immortality awaiting us in the near future (as Rabbi Schiff points out, our sources do speak about immortality). We will manage to make minyanim a few times a day, even when our physical presence and our consciousness are not in the same place. We will ask the hard questions and answer them within the Jewish system, just as Jews have always done.
Rabbi Schiff lands in a somewhat reassuring place. Regarding the AI-infused future, he says, “No matter how animated, intelligent, responsive, or reliable our AI creations might become, AI will never attain the combination of qualities that will merit the status of being ‘created in the image’ [of God].”
We can do this. We in the Conservative movement are especially well-placed to do this. We have been addressing cultural, societal and technological change for more than 150 years, and we will help make this transition to whatever awaits us. I’m counting on that Ner Tamid to continue shining, to continue reminding us of the turbulence of our past, the constancy of our present and the brightness of our future.
In the Talmud (BT Avodah Zarah 2a), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “All the good deeds Israel does in this world will bear
testimony in Olam HaBa.” Perhaps Olam HaBa will not look quite like what R. Yehoshua ben Levi envisioned 18 centuries ago. But whatever form it takes, Jews will be there, still meditating over our words “yomam valaila,” day and night, and looking to the Ner Tamid as a reminder of past and future. PJC
Rabbi Seth Adelson is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom. A version of this piece was delivered as a Shabbat sermon at Beth Shalom and appears on Rabbi Adelson’s blog, themodernrabbi.com.