Uncovering the Torah of Technology – An ELI Talk by Rabbi Michael Mellen

Uncovering the Torah of Technology – An ELI Talk by Rabbi Michael Mellen

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?

Read Transcript

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 series, “Are We Using Technology, or is Technology Using Us?“)


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