Monday, September 5, 2016

#BlogElul 2: Act - Thinking about Mitzvot as a kind of technology

Every year, my colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, offers bloggers a shared list of themes that, if followed, allow for some neat collections of thought pieces or images (the #ElulGram) to be found throughout the web on the same theme on the same day. While I seldom keep up with a daily post during this month, I'll be following the general flow of the themes above, and thank Phyllis for the connections that she helps us all make in the blogosphere. On Facebook or Twitter, just search for #BlogElul to see what others are writing.

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?

Sunday, September 4, 2016

#BlogElul 1 5776: Who am I? What do I aspire to be?

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Who am I?

One of the most essential and yet perhaps most difficult of questions to answer. I can tell you where I was born. I can tell you about my family. I can tell you what I do for a living. I can tell you about some of my favorite and least favorite activities. Perhaps I can go a little deeper and tell you about some of the characteristics that are most present in me, and others that are not so present. I can tell you what I most like about myself and what most disappoints me about myself.

How much of the above gets to the essence of who I am?  How much is superficial and descriptive? Is it even possible to respond to the question of 'Who are you?' in words, or is the best answer, perhaps, the way that we conduct ourselves and the things that we do with the length of our days?

As we begin the hebrew month of Elul, which announces that we are approaching another Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, this is the time that our traditions encourage us to reflect on these core questions of essence. Who am I? Who do I aspire to be? This year, those of us in the USA are also asking that question communally in a more intense and reflective way. Once every four years, as we decide who will represent us in the highest office in the land, we look at the character of our leaders and the way that they describe the landscape in which they hope to govern and make progress. We have to ask ourselves, who do we aspire to be? What values will shape our sense of self as a nation?

As in previous years, I will be using my blog to offer brief reflections several times a week during Elul, that provide some food for thought as we grapple with these core questions. This year, I'm going to be using the lens of technology and technological innovation to inspire a different way of trying to get at the essence of what it means to be human. This is inspired by the topic that our congregation has taken on for the coming 1.5 years, supported by a grant from 'Scientists in Synagogues' provided by Sinai and Synapses. Here is an excerpt from a book that has been inspiring a lot of my thinking as I prepare sermons for the High Holy Days this year on this topic:

Kevin Kelly, author of ‘The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape our Future” presents the following insights:

… we’ve been redefining what it means to be human. Over the past 60 years, as mechanical processes have replicated behaviors and talents that we thought were unique to humans, we’ve had to change our minds about what sets us apart. As we invent more species of AI [artifical intelligence], we will be forced to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about humans… We’ll spend the next three decades – indeed, perhaps the next century – in a permanent identity crisis, continually asking ourselves what humans are good for. If we aren’t unique toolmakers, or artists, or moral ethicists, then what, if anything, makes us special?(p. 48-9)

Today, many of the debates about the impact of technological innovation on our sense of self and our communities gets simplified into the binaries of 'good' or 'bad' impacts. But we are, and have always been, creatures who use technological innovation to enable us to do more and be more. From the most basic of tools that enabled us to mold, shape, and change things in our natural environment, to the technologies that enabled us to write - first on clay plastered on rocks, then on papyrus or parchment, and later in books, with printing presses enabling an enormous leap forward in the democratization of knowledge, literacy, and language - we are not and could not be who we are today, either individually or communally, without the integral role that technologies have played in enabling us to become more.

I hope you will join me in this exploration of ideas as we look at the question of 'who am I?' through a different lens, as we begin this month to recenter ourselves and find our way back to more deeply understanding 'who do I aspire to be?'