Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Guest Post: Judaism and the Virtual World

Hello blog readers! I am super, incredibly happy to introduce to you all a new feature of guest posts from my very dear friend Elisha. I met Elisha when I was in Connecticut, and I stayed by their family for so very many Shabbatot and chagim during my time there. They comforted and guided me through the Orthodox conversion process, and I count the Rosensweig family as among my most respected and cherished friends -- ever! So I hope you read his posts and enjoy them. He always provided insight into things that I thought I understood or things that I didn't have a clue about. He is uniquely special in this way. 

I also have to say this is a great response to a recent d'rash I heard at shul last week. Some will definitely appreciate this! Enjoy and comment abundantly!

First of all, I’d like to thank Chaviva for allowing me to use this stage to share with you all my thoughts. Since this is my first blog post here, let me begin with a short and very limited bio: Elisha Rosensweig, born and bred in Israel, living with my wife and three (naturally – perfect) kids. I’m at the very end of a PhD in Computer Science, and I’m an alumni of Yeshiva Har Etzion (a.k.a. “the Gush”). Oh, and about that – I’m Modern Orthodox, and this is important because you might find me relating to “Judaism” in this and future guest posts, and although I will try to state this explicitly, I’m always referring to Orthodox Judaism. No disrespect intended to all you readers out there who do not agree with Orthodoxy – this is a habit I have from growing up in Israel, and anyway, I think that most of what I’ll be sharing with you, although inspired by Modern Orthodoxy, indeed is applicable to Judaism in general.

But enough about me. Today, I would like us to consider together the interaction of modern technology with Judaism. Now, just to be clear, you’re not about to hear about a new “App” that makes your Jewish life all the more [fill in the blank] or a website that takes care of all your [more blank fillings here]. Rather, I want to talk about how Judaism, at its very core, supplies us with a sort of immune system that resists some of the effects technology increasingly has on the general public.

The most classic example that people give for this is, of course, Shabbat/Shabbos/Sabbath. Many have already remarked that the strict restrictions on usage of computers and smartphones on Shabbat force those who observe the day to disconnect from their electronic devices once a week and reconnect with their family and friends. This has inspired a well-named “disconnect to reconnect” movement, which promotes the “Sabbath Manifesto” – a Shabbat-inspired pledge to make room for our family in this technology-ridden world. However, what people seem to miss is that this is not just a coincidence, a result of an ancient religion clashing with modernity, but actually just one expression of something deeply ingrained in Judaism. Let’s go deeper then, shall we?

A year or two ago I went to the movies to watch “Surrogates," a film with Bruce Willis about a futuristic world in which each person can connect to a device in his/her own home, which allows them to control a robot version of themselves (called a “surrogate”) and go out into the world. In such a manner, people can leave their homes in this robot body that will always be physically fit, look as handsome or beautiful as they wish while never outwardly aging, and car accidents and plane crashes are only an inconvenience, forcing a person to go to the robot repair shop or give them an excuse to upgrade to the latest surrogate model in the market. The movie plot revolves around a murder mystery, but at a deeper level it early on evolves into a critique of this imaginary world, and of how relationships, interactions, and the very human perception of the world are affected by placing this medium – the surrogate – in between us and the world that surrounds us. (In case you didn’t realize it yet – I liked the movie. Make sure to watch it!)

The movie is obviously science fiction, and as a Computer Science person I can tell you that the technology we have today cannot yet reach the level of sophistication presented in the movie. However, this film did reflect a growing trend of detachment from reality in certain circles, as well as the idealization of such detachment. Examples abound, so I’ll just mention one that stands out for me – Japanese weddings between humans and their favorite online virtual avatars. The willingness of people to ignore their physical limitations and find “love” within the boundless virtual realm of the Internet is both astounding and, to me at least, very disturbing.

Sitting there in the movie theater, watching “Surrogates” with some friends, one thought kept on coming back to me: an observant Jew could never reach this extreme. Your surrogate could never go to minyan for you, could never put on tefilin for you, could never hear shofar or megila in your stead, eat matzah (or, better yet, maror…) – the list goes on and on. What we are seeing here is that Judaism demands from a person to be directly involved in the mitzvos he or she performs, in the most basic physical sense. In other words, it demands of you to be grounded in the physical world.

And the physical world does not stop only at having your body involved. Jewish law also ties us in to the fourth dimension of our existence – time – very strongly. Consider those people who have played World of Warcraft for days on end without taking almost any breaks, causing them at times to actually die. Judaism would not allow you to get sucked into a virtual world for too long before it demanded that you give not only your time but your attention to something important in the real world. Praying three times a day forces you to be aware of the daily cycle of the sun, Shabbat sets a weekly cycle, and so on and so forth. Being grounded in this manner can feel limiting at times for those of us who are deeply involved in all things Internet-ish, and who like to redesign their Second Life avatar every other Tuesday. But interrupting this sinking into a virtual existence is a very important feature of Judaism that promotes a healthy life in the real world.

What I find to be fascinating about this fact – that Judaism contains the tools to limit our detachment from the reality that surrounds us – is how this feature of Judaism only became evident and meaningful over the past decade or two. More than a hundred years ago, detachment from reality was not even an option for anyone on the planet, and nobody thought in the terms used above. Thus we can see how G-d, through the Torah, is able to address new challenges that arise without changing a single letter of the books he gave us thousands of years ago. Even if you are not Orthodox, you gotta admit – it’s cool, right?