Will We Automate Religion in 2016?

  

Marjorie PrimeI just saw the play Marjorie Prime written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Kimberly Senior at Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, IL. The premise of the play is that it’s the age of artificial intelligence, but 86-year-old Marjorie is worried that her memory may be fading. That is until the appearance of Walter, a mysterious and charming young visitor programmed to help Marjorie uncover the intricacies of her own past. As Walter’s true nature is revealed, new levels of complexity emerge, leading to profound questions about the limits of technology and whether memory might be a purely human invention. Walter is a Prime—a robot of sorts who can act like Siri times a million. He is sort of like a person and the lines between robot and human are blurred.

Certainly writers and thinkers from Kurt Vonnegut to present day Martine Rothblatt have been wondering about these same questions. I recently heard a report on NPR which details how cars are going to become “smarter and smarter.” In the years to come, our refrigerators will be able to sense when we need milk and that will alert the grocery delivery service to bring it over. The lines between thinking and computing will be hazy. Much of our lives will be able to be automated. Ordering food, house cleaning and driving cars could all be automatic. They will not involve us having to think, plan work or do.

So, where does this leave religion? Being a rabbi is one job that I don’t think can be automated. When I sit with a couple to talk about their families, how they were raised and what’s important to them, we need to see each other and sense each other. Emails, Facetime and following each other on Facebook definitely fills in gaps and builds rapport quicker than before these technologies were used. It helps me get to know couples and get a sense for their vibe and their style, but nothing replaces one-on-one time together.

Marking lifecycle moments from the promises and hopes two committed adults share in front of their family and friends to the arrival of a baby, to honoring someone’s life at the time of their death, or studying with someone and helping them to ritually announce that they want to identify and live as a Jew: These are times that we need to be in person. With that said, there have been dozens of times during these events when someone has set up an iPad with Skype so that an elderly grandparent or a friend far away can “be” there with us.

There is a power in gatherings. Joining your voice with others, knowing that those standing with you share something important is the precious part of community. Judaism is about the senses: it’s about holding, seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling and tasting. You can get an app for sounding the shofar or lighting a virtual menorah but there is nothing like seeing the flickering flame in a window with the dark night behind it. There is no other noise like the alarm of the ram’s horn during the long blast marking the end of an epic day of prayer.

So, while I cannot wait to see what phones, cars and refrigerators will be like in the next five or so years, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replace the moments of humanity when we need one another to be close. I don’t think a Prime or any version of Siri will replace humans coming together to try to organize, mark, find meaning in and celebrate life…do you?

Jews Help Community

  

Mitchell Shames, chairman of the Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote a terrific piece in eJewishPhilanthropy today about the perhaps unintended consequences that occur when Jewish communal organizations take a xenophobic approach to fundraising or community building. Attending a fundraiser of a local Jewish social agency, he had this experience:

In one form or another, the overwhelming message of the evening was [that] “Jews help Jews.” While the Jewish community has experienced unprecedented affluence there remain significant pockets of poverty and families in crisis all within the Jewish community. Therefore, “Jews must help Jews”.

My heart swelled with pride, but my brain cringed at the language. “Jews help Jews”. In 2014, this feels uncomfortable.

I wondered; “how many non-Jewish spouses are sitting in the audience?” “What do they hear when words such as these are spoken?” “How do they feel when they hear this message?”

As Shames says, we’ve got to broaden our beliefs and expand beyond our traditional, insular language to include Jews helping all community, repairing the world. Check out the rest of his article here.

How will You Celebrate Simchat Torah?

  

The following is a guest blog post by Dina Mann, National Marketing and Outreach Coordinator for Reboot, an organization that engages and inspires young, Jewishly-unconnected cultural creatives, innovators and thought-leaders who, through their candid and introspective conversations and creativity, generate projects that impact both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

UnscrolledTraditionally, this is a day of celebration. Dancing, music and even some drinking is quite common. The question is: What’s everyone so happy about? Or a better question: How can we bring the spirit of creativity, excitement and joy from Simchat Torah and spread it throughout the year?

Enter Unscrolled. It’s a reinterpretation, a reimagining, a creative celebration: 54 leading Jewish writers, artists, photographers and screenwriters, plus actors, an architect, a musician and others grapple with the Torah, giving new meaning to the 54 Torah portions.

What is Unscrolled? First and foremost, it is a book that sums up the weekly Torah portion and then goes even further by creating interpretations that no medieval rabbi would think possible. More than a book, Unscrolled is a project that seeks to create a conversation around the Torah. With Unscrolled, we hope to give people who have never read the Torah, people who read the Hebrew Torah portions every week and people who think it’s a whole lot of brisket an opportunity to engage with the text in a fun, entertaining and offbeat way.

 

Want to get in on the action?

  • Visit Unscrolled.org to see sample pages, sign up for emails with parasha prompts and upcoming Unscrolled events.
  • Follow UNSCROLLED on Facebook and Twitter. Join the conversation and share your interpretations.
  • Keep it Simple. Sum up the weekly Torah portion in 140 character or less. Share on Twitter with #Torahin140
  • Go Deep. Respond to weekly prompts that will have you bringing the Torah into the 21st century.
  • Create an event for your community and sign up to receive a DIY kit.
  • Get tickets for launch events in San Francisco (Oct 2) and Los Angeles (Oct 28).
  • Order UNSCROLLED and start looking at the Bible a little differently.

 

B’reishit (“In the beginning…”) is the first portion. Take some time to:

  • Keep it Simple. Sum up the portion in 140 characters or less.
  • Go Deep. Write about a time you went somewhere that was off limits.

 

Bring your diverse voice to the conversation and get Unscrolled.

Understanding Our Commandments

  

We are half-way through one of our online classes, Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family. One of the sessions is about the concept of “mitzvah,” the word in the name of this life cycle event, “bar mitzvah” or “bat mitzvah.”

Mitzvah is a Hebrew word that means commandment. The word mitzvah is in many Jewish blessings. The Friday night candle lighting blessing says, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who make us holy through commanding us to light the Sabbath lights.”

Because of the commanded language, some rabbis hesitate to permit those who aren’t Jewish, who have not formally through conversion taken on the commandments, to say the blessing and do the ritual. Thus, a mom who is not Jewish, who has raised Jewish children, may not be able to light the candles at the Friday night service before her child’s bat or bar mitzvah in some synagogues.

In the session on mitzvot (plural of mitzvah meaning commandments), we asked our class how the parents understood the concept of being commanded. Two interesting comments came up:

“I want to lead a spiritual and ethical life, and in that way there is a sense of commandment, but if someone were to ask me if I’m commanded by God to be ethical and spiritual, I don’t feel particularly comfortable thinking of it in these terms….”

“When I hear/read “commanded by God” what I feel is “connected to God.” Being mindful of performing mitzvot not only makes the world better (animals are being taken care of, kindness is extended and experienced) but also helps to keep me grounded. It’s easy to get caught up in my life, my own needs, wants, etc. I like the way the concept of connectedness helps me to remember others and my place in the world — as a contributor and vessel for good things beyond me.”

It seems that those connected to liberal Jewish families understand “mitzvah” in much broader terms than adhering to the actual ritual or ethical commandments of the Torah, as elucidated by the rabbis in the first centuries of the common era. This should be no surprise as Reform Judaism, in particular, can be fully expressed when lived within the spirit more than the letter of the law.

I would think that liberal rabbis would also understand “b’mitzvotav vitzivnu” — “with God’s commandments, God has commanded us” in a broader sense. There are moms and dads connected to Jewish families who understand the concept of “commanded” as guiding their lives in profound ways. To keep someone from saying blessings with commanded language because they are not technically commanded seems misguided in some circumstances, as the comments above beautifully prove.

Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was a German rabbi, teacher and writer who led the push for Progressive Judaism (which today encompasses Reform Judaism). He taught that God’s commandments can be understood by the individual as boiling down to the ultimate statement of “Thou shalt.” It is up to each of us to fill in that blank, “Thou shalt _______.” It’s clear that the parents in this class are harkening a call for ethical and moral living by filling in the commandments in a broad sense — and this is powerful.

If you are in Chicagoland and would like to take one of our on-line classes (with opportunities for in-person sessions), please register at www.interfaithfamily.com/Chicago. The next round starts in February.