Inspired by my teacher, Rabbi Irwin Kula, who has been thinking a great deal in recent years about disruptive innovations and how they might be reshaping Jewish experience in North America and beyond. I'd like to riff off of Phyllis' theme of day 2, 'Act' by introducing the notion that Mitzvot can be thought of as a kind of technology. It was Clay Shirky who, in talking about disruptive innovations, asked us to consider of whatever is the focus of our attention the question, 'what job does it do?' In one easy to grasp example that he offers, he considers the ways in which new technologies have changed the way that we consume music. From the gramophone which brought the sounds of live performances into the homes of listeners, to the rise of the cassette tape and the introduction of the portable cassette player and then the 'walkman', enabling us to carry our own music with us into the street and other spaces; from the CD player to the iPod, exponentially increasing how much music we could transport with us and how little space in our homes we would need to store it, to today's online streaming music services. As consumers, we have responded to each new technology that made listening to music, finding new music, and sharing music a little bit easier. In the process, companies that made old hardware had to either recreate themselves to offer the newer technology, or would find themselves out of business. When something came along that did the essential job better, cheaper, in a way that was more portable, offered more choice, etc. it became the next thing.
We can take Shirky's question, 'what job does it do?' And ask it of all kinds of things that we use or choose to do. If we accept his basic assumption, if it has a purpose, we will continue to use it or do the activity in question. Religion clearly does an important job for many people. For sure, we live at a time when more people than in the past are questioning that assumption, but the fact that so many of us are engaged in religious life, communities of faith, and ritual practices, suggest that these continue to do a job for us, as individuals and as a community. Exactly what that job is is a little more complex to define than the role of something that delivers music, and the answer may not be the same for everyone. Yet, as the societies and cultures that we live in continues to evolve and change, being able to look at our traditions through this lens can help us stay true to the essence of what Judaism is helping us do even if some of the outer forms (style of a service, choice of music, where rituals take place, the role of online communities, etc.) are changing.
In traditional verbiage, a mitzvah is a commandment. To young children, we sometimes say it is a good deed. But that doesn't really capture the full essence of mitzvah. Some of the acts that are commanded as Mitzvot are ethical in nature, but some don't come with an explanation in Torah or in rabbinical texts. What would it look like to take a list of Mitzvot and ask the question from a modern perspective, 'what job does it do?'. Rabbi Kula is thinking about a project that does exactly this. If we can demonstrate how a mitzvah deepens our awareness of the world, strengthens our relationships with others, enables us to have an experience that we might label holy or spiritual, provides a mechanism for taking care of the vulnerable and needy, brings mindful awareness to our engaging in ordinary, everyday things, and so on... We can begin to reframe the deep, deep value of some of the Mitzvot of our tradition. Mitzvah as a technology that we can use.... What mitzvah comes to mind that really speaks to you and helps to shape your sense of self, or sense of holy, or sense of obligation to another?