Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mistress of the Tribe

"As the book goes so goes the Jewish People" references our rich past and possibly illuminates what the future holds in store for us. For Judaism the term "People of the Book" (Am HaSefer) was used to refer to our commitment to the Biblical text and the wider canon of written Jewish law (including the Mishnah and the Talmud). For more than a millennium formal, higher education by host countries in Europe was closed off to us; the only available education was the study of Jewish (sacred) texts, primarily those books in the cannon but more specifically the Talmud and its commentaries. In later generations the term People of the Book stuck because of the unique bond between higher education and us. Even when prevented from matriculating into European universities (prior to the enlightenment in Western Europe and later in Eastern Europe) our tenacity for studying text went beyond the classic format of regurgitation. Innovative as we were we sought new methods in approaching Talmudic text ranging from the 14th century Pilpulistic style to the Brisker method of analyzing text, defining and redefining concepts. These razor sharp methodologies which formed the intellectual matrix for thousands of yeshiva students in Eastern Europe prepared us for the Enlightenment and the next stage, academia; the study of mathematics, sciences and the humanities. The descriptive clause, People of the Book had not only a literal ring but also revealed a startling truth: the Book, along the continuum of history became the mistress of the tribe. Ultimately, God who introduced us to the book and helped cultivate our appreciation for it was cuckolded.

Initially study of text was designed by our wise and judicious sages to serve as a substitute to the Temple cult and animal sacrifice that was no longer. Its intent was to help supplement our transition from a temple-centered nation to a book centered people. As a book centered nation the text offered us more than just the knowledge contained in its volumes. It carved out for us a sense of commonality, community, and purpose. A means by which to center our activities, build community, synagogue life and all the support systems necessary to enhance our lives. Ultimately, however, God was cuckolded because He gave us the greatest gift that man has ever had - not the Book as much as our appreciation for knowledge and the curiosity by which to pursue that gift. Even though most Jews are no longer religious they have inherited the lust for knowledge.

For 21st century members of the tribe the pristine concept of People of the Book is quickly becoming a misnomer. The book rapidly being replaced by cutting edge technology creating the Kindle, iPads and the Tablet are the new books, replacing the old mistress. True, they represent books to be read, but they also represent a sea change, a slow moving but gargantuan tsunami from the printed word to electronic micro technology and Internet usage. Up until the past decade or so the book was the means whereby classical knowledge was transmitted. This is no longer the case. Books are published digitally and read as eBooks, whether they are novels, textbooks, sacred texts or technical manuals. Books are becoming “virtual,” as one page after the other disappears into cyberspace once read. This lack of physicality is beginning to duplicate itself in community building around virtual synagogues too. This dfference is significant: it’s like making the distinction between surgery performed traditionally by a surgeon or by a robot. The surgery is being done, but the technology has created an important contrast. Do you want human hands performing the procedure or the robot directed by the physician? Some prefer the surgeon, others the robot because they assume there is less chance for human error. Some like touching the pages of the book or newspaper they ware reading. Others, especially those born after 1990 prefer eBooks.

Group or private study hitherto inaccessible to a segment of the Jewish community isolated from Jewish centers of learning are now a click away and no longer dependent on the limitations set by the local market place. One no longer has to have a "belly full of shas" and wait till the age of 40 to study Kabbalah: it can be accessed over the computer in any language one is comfortable in at any age. Today through the internet classes can be attended on line from virtual yeshivot and other master Torah teachers. But where is all of this taking us?

Over the next couple of decades virtual Judaism will become more the norm than the exception. It already is taking root in a whole host of ways. Currently there are study programs on line where one can pick and choose teachers rather than be hostage to the supply and demand of their community. Imagine someone living in Peoria with hardly another like-minded Jew to study with. Until a decade ago he would have been at a loss. For the less traditional communities there is a virtual synagogue by which one can attend services in the comfort of their home. This has limitations for the orthodox community but ultimately will force them to define the issue and revisit old ones:
What constitutes electricity? What constitutes a minyan? Can a quorum be virtual? Can a minyan be considered valid for purposes of Torah reading or saying kaddish if they are in attendance via computer hook--up. There is already anecdotal evidence pointing to the need to resolve these issues: many young Jewish people born to orthodox parents after 1990 and who define themselves as orthodox use the cell phones on Shabbat, redefining what they consider halachically permissible.

The need to solve this and other problems for the vanguard orthodox will become pressing as the generation of the 1990’s take over leadership of the Jewish community in the years ahead. Institutes recognizing these challenges in Israel are already providing alternative solutions for the IDF and more will proliferate as we progress. But the orthodox are a small percentage of the Jewish community. What about non-orthodox but seriously committed Jews who are marginally members of synagogues or live in areas where there are no synagogues and driving is impractical. They too will benefit through virtual synagogue affiliation. Synagogue rabbis and cantors will become less necessary as more people affiliate through virtual communities. Like those who prefer the hand of the surgeon there will always be those who want to feel the pew and experience the contact with the rabbi. It is a win-win situation and unlike other illicit relationships this redesigned, redefined tribal mistress will captivate the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.