In October 2014, Sinai and Synapses partnered with ELI Talks to present three dynamic talks about Judaism and science. ELI Talks are 12 minute presentations covering innovative ideas and inspiring concepts exploring Jewish engagement, literacy and identity. They are meant to inspire Jewish people to become active participants of Jewish life and community – they are the starting point for new dialogue and exploration within the Jewish community. The innovative ideas presented in the talks provide food for thought, sparking follow up discussions and activities that encourage investment in Jewish life.
We will be publicizing these three talks over the next few weeks, and this first presentation by Rabbi Michael Mellen is entitled “Uncovering the Torah of Technology.” It is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our Fall 2014 series, “Are We Using Technology, or is Technology Using Us?“View Transcript
I love fire. I’ve always loved fire.
I love its light, I love its heat.
I love that, whether it’s in my stove or whether it’s over a bonfire, that I can cook.
I love sitting around a bonfire, looking at a candle and getting lost in the flames, even as everybody around me might be singing or the storytelling is going on, at the bonfire. Losing myself in those flames and just letting the evening pour over me. Making space in that moment for something stronger, for something that feels a little bit deeper. Just letting it roll.
I find fire is one of those things in my world, in my life, where technology – and I’ll say more about that in a moment – and spirituality meet. So often, people think about technology as our latest gadget. The computer that you just left behind. Your phone that you’re using for all kinds of different things these days, or that computer chip that goes in the toy that my six year old has that flips over and over and over and over and over again.
But that’s not all it is. The context for technology is much broader and extends over a much greater period of time. W. Brian Arthur understands that anything that’s technology needs to be built on stuff that already exists. So as you can imagine, I go right back to fire. Fire exists. And the lighting, the cooking, the warmth of controlled fire, the clearing of fields, the combustion engine, planes.
Those are all technologies that are built off of fire, and it doesn’t stop there. A hammer is technology. I also think about the washing machine. Yeah, I know. But I do think about it, because the washing machine was a transformative technology. It changed the lives of people, because it allowed people to go from spending all kinds of time washing their clothes to being able to put it in the washing machine and leave. It freed people to explore their lives, to explore their spirituality, to explore who they were, in a fundamentally different way, in particular, for women, than ever before.
Elevators, which allowed us to build buildings reaching up toward the skies, changing the urban landscape, changing architecture and the way that we understand beauty in the world, or the television that gave us a whole new platform for expressing ourselves, for creation in the world, and then of course the ability to share that, to communicate across the world – all technologies.
I want to say something also about spirituality, and how I understand that, this evening. It’s that pursuit, or that striving, for connection, for something greater than ourselves. In Judaism, clearly, that has something to do with striving to connect more deeply with God. But for some of us, it’s about striving to connect with the essence of the world, the flow of the universe, or to figure out how we can be more whole ourselves, so that we can serve the world and make it a better, stronger place.
And I’m struck, as I said, by those places where those two things, spirituality and technology, come together. There are any number of people who have been trying to figure out “what’s the meaning behind technology” for years. I mentioned to you Brian Arthur, Kevin Kelly, many more in the contemporary world, but certainly Maimonides was one also, who understood that the natural sciences, even the Earth, could be seen as Torah, as giving us a deeper understanding of how our spiritual lives can be full.
And I’ve been playing with this. And I want to look at three different areas. First I want to take a look at our everyday lives. Second, I want to take a look at the ways in which the world on high is reflected in our world today. And third, the ways in which technology allows us to be full, complete human beings who are expressing ourselves to our fullest.
So let’s talk the everyday. Proverbs 3:6 says something along the lines of “in all ways we should serve God.” One of the interpretations of that is that literally, in every way, during our day, we should be serving God. You see this across all kinds of traditions, the idea that when you’re sweeping, when you’re folding laundry, when you’re doing the dishes, when you’re meditating – or when you’re sitting at your computer – you should be serving and aware of God.
Jaron Lanier, one of the early pioneers in virtual reality, was speaking at a recent South by Southwest conference, and he actually asked everybody in his session to not use technology for the moment. Stop the blogging, stop the texting, and so on. There was some grumbling, but people went along with it for the most part. And afterward – and I’m paraphrasing – he explains that the reason he did that is that he understands that when you stop to think about what’s being said, you put yourself in it. And that how we live. That’s how we become real in the world, is when we’re in it. If we don’t do that, all we are is reflecting something. And where are you in that?
And I’m not saying, and I even don’t think he’s saying, that when you see that unbelievable sunset across the Hudson River, that you shouldn’t take that picture with your phone and post it. Or when you have that moment with a friend who is so dear to you, that you’ve seen for the first time in a year, that you shouldn’t snap a picture of the two of you and share it online.
Rather, it’s that we need to bring ourselves to those moments. We need to take that moment to think, and to process, and then post, and then share. I’m also not convinced that Jaron Lanier has it quite right with reflecting. Robert Foldham talks about a professor who carried a mirror around in his pockets all the time. And in our world, Torah is the light. But for him, he understood the sun or just us in the world coming into contact with all kinds of different light. And he described the way that the sun would shine down on the earth, such a strong light, but there were still spaces that didn’t get sun, that were dark. And he understood our responsibility was to be mirrors, sometimes to reflect the light that was shining on us into those dark places.
Third, I want to take a moment and look at how technology is there for us to become our whole selves. Kevin Kelly understands that technology has a responsibility in our world to create opportunities for us, and for future generations, to have that opportunity to become all we can be. And in doing so, to create more opportunities, and more opportunities, for future generations.
He thinks about Mozart without a piano. That Mozart, without that piece of technology, could have never become who he became. I think about these girls, and I imagine Jaron Lanier who I mentioned just a moment ago, thinking about them stretching and thinking and figuring out how they can be whole. I also think about the ways in which John Coltrane might have been without his sax, or Annie Leibovitz without her camera. Sandy Koufax without his baseball. Or Steven Spielberg, without the opportunities to engage in movies.
They still would have been brilliant and creative. But those technologies helped them be even more than that, in their world, and in their lives.
I think that Judaism understands it similarly. Judaism gets it – it’s the idea that we’re all made, we’re all stamped by God from the same die. But still, we each come out unique. A number of people have taught about this, but I actually learned this idea from Shai Held – that the uniqueness isn’t so that we can turn to somebody next to us and say “I’m so great, I’m the best.” Or turn to the person on the other side and say “I’m better than you.” Rather, it’s that we have a particular responsibility in our lives to serve that uniqueness, to fulfill who we’re supposed to be in the world, to make the world whole and complete as well.
Last, I want to take a look at the way the world above is reflected in the world that we live in. I’m so struck by this idea that the world above is reflected here. And one of those places is in the ways that we’re all interconnected. And technology allows that to happen more and more and more, whether it’s a car that allows us to drive, or a plane that allows us to fly, or the phone, or the computer, or e-mail, or on and on and on and on, I’m struck by the vision of those lights – that electronic world stretching all over our universe. And the way that that is so reflective of this vision, in Jewish mysticism, of being interconnected. Not that it’s one and the same, but I believe that it suggests we just are interconnected. It’s just who we are, it’s just how we work.
So when we see it happening in our world, we need to care for it and approach it in a different, thoughtful way. So whether it’s in your everyday, whether it’s in those moments of looking for ways that technology can help make you whole, or whether it’s caring for those ways that our world is reflective of the world above, we need to bring ourselves with us into those moments with technology. We need to care for our spirit. We need to remember, however you understand the Divine, that these are opportunities to care for and connect with Divinity, with our soul and with our spirit. I imagine powerfully, in those moments, where spirituality and technology connect, that it’s not a dimming, but rather it’s a meeting, where the two flames come together ever brighter.
And here is a behind-the-scenes “director’s commentary” from Rabbi Mellen himself:
I am fascinated by the intersection of technology and spirituality and, at the same time, feel as though I am in my infancy exploring the space that these ideas occupy. I’m struck by the ways in which so many people work to articulate an intersection of or co-existence of technology and spirituality, and that conversation is what swept me up for my ELI Talk.
For instance, I love the story Martin Buber shares in which “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?” It’s a well known and, some would say, a well worn vignette. Nevertheless, it has implications for our relationship with technology.
Kevin Kelly, author of the book What Technology Wants, explains that technology has a responsibility to increase the opportunity for individuals to live a life in which each person is fully herself. As I ask in the talk, what would Annie Leibovitz be without her camera or John Coltrane without his saxophone? When we best interact with technology, technology supports each of us in living our potential. Like Zusya, we will each face the similar question and will each need to answer. Technology provides ever more ways in which we can come closer to answering, “I lived truly as myself.”
I also struggle to make sense of the places where I see spirituality and technology so clearly connected. In the talk, I note patterns of connectedness of both our electronic world and the Jewish mystical map of interconnectedness. Still, it doesn’t stop there. As many of you know, light is understood as both particle and wave. Strangely though, when light is measured as a wave, it behaves like a wave, but when measured as a particle it behaves differently – it behaves as a particle. Our serving as witness to light changes the behavior of the physical world.
Jewish mystical tradition also understands that like when measuring light, when we bear witness, we impact the outcome of life and living. Witnesses change the destiny of relationships when they affix names to a ketubah and impact divinity when bearing witness during Shema. When we serve as witness, we move from passive observer, simply reciting the words or watching a wedding, to active witness, changing the way the universe operates.
Our service as witness in the world asks us to hold both wave and particle or technology and spirituality when we observe. For there are items in our world that are both spiritual and technological at the same time, just waiting for us to discover both — waiting for us to identify the technological or spiritual or, for the matter, the relational or political. The art of Van Gogh or the prose of Maya Angelou call us to see the artist’s craft and the magic of the art. A sailboat on a gently windswept lake or a child’s reflection in the myriad windows of a beautifully designed building ask us to see the majesty of the boat or building and of the beauty of creation in the same moment.
And perhaps this is where I am now –looking for ways into the conversation that are inherently one, yet can be seen differently depending on what I’m looking at. I hope that in the looking I am asked to step out of my head and into my heart at least some of the time.
I don’t aim to be Polyanna and while, in my ELI Talk I name three potentially positive ways to seek connection between technology and spirituality, I don’t believe technology is all cake and roses for spirituality. I absolutely and strongly advocate that we need to make sure we are present in our intersection with technology and that technology used well can allow each of us to fulfill our spiritual potential in our lives. Now, I’m also struck by those moments in which wonder and mystery and pausing to witness allow us to experience the wholeness of the world and step back with a different understanding of technology and spirituality.
(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our Fall 2014 series, “Are We Using Technology, or is Technology Using Us?“)