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I 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?
On February 17, after enjoying having my three kids off for four days for President’s Weekend, I was ready for them to return to school, and for me to get a lot of work done. But by 5:45 am I learned that their schools were cancelled because of snow. By 11:30 am, as I was trying to respond to work emails, my daughter Tali was complaining that she was bored and wanted to me to play Rummikub with her. My two sons each had friends over, and all of the boys were playing on various electronic devices.
I wrote down what went through my head for the next ten minutes. Here it is:
Really? A snow day after they’ve been off school for the last four days. Why not just a two hour delay? The streets don’t look so bad. How am I supposed to get my work done today? I have 22 emails to respond to already. How on earth could I play Rummikub with Tali now? I feel guilty that I don’t have time to play with her (and it would be fun)…did I really just tell her to go watch TV?
Ugh! Now the phone’s ringing. Who is it? Oh, it’s my friend. I’m not picking up. Should I text her that I’ll call her later? Now I just lost my train of thought. What was I thinking about?
Seriously…there are four boys sitting in the family room all on different electronic devices. My oldest son Benji is watching a movie on his laptop while his friend is playing a game on his phone. My middle son Noah is texting his friends as part of a “group chat” (boy do I hate the “ping” sound that goes off every time he receives a text…didn’t I ask him to disable that sound a hundred times yesterday?) while his friend is texting from his phone. Why do they even bother to have friends over if they’re not going to interact with each other? Should I make them go sledding outside?
No! They’re old enough to figure out what to do themselves. And I need to get back to work. Now I have 26 emails in my inbox. Sometimes I feel like my life is just one long to-do list. I feel like that woman in the commercial from when I was a kid who said: “Calgon, take me away!” She had lots of chaos at home, and she probably didn’t even have a job. I want to relax in a quiet bath like she did in the commercial…or at least not have to answer 26 emails…and not feel guilty that I’m not interacting with my daughter and instead sent her to watch TV.
I wish I could just shut down my computer right now…and my phone…and turn off the TV…and go take the various devices out of all of the boys’ hands….and we could all just hang out and play Rummikub.
OK, I can’t realistically do it right now. But I CAN unplug—and I can encourage my whole family to unplug—as part of the National Day of Unplugging on March 6-7. We already do things differently on Shabbat than we do the other days of the week. I love it that as a family we always say the blessings and have Shabbat dinner on Friday night (no phones at the table—that’s one thing I insist on every night!), even if I do have to rush off at 7 pm to get to services at my synagogue. And though it’s not always easy being a family in which both parents are rabbis, I do especially enjoy those Saturdays when my kids and I go to my husband’s synagogue for services and we’re all together. Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t use my phone or computer at all on those days? Could I really do that? Not check my email, voice messages or texts, before leaving for services on Saturday morning? And not check them when I get home?
I could just put my phone in a drawer Friday before sundown and not take it out until Saturday after sundown. I remember when I went away on a Jewish meditation retreat last year and I had to put my phone away from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. It felt weird…even scary. And refreshing. And nice. It was humbling to realize that everyone I know (in that case even my husband and three kids, because they were home without me) would be just fine without me. And they were. And I had two days to just BE…to appreciate life…and creation. It was hard…really hard…not getting that dopamine rush I get when I get a text or email for two days straight…not having anything to distract me…but it was also wonderful…really wonderful.
I could recreate that wonderful feeling on the National Day of Unplugging. That feeling of being more fully present in the moment. Rather than emailing, calling or texting people and making plans for when Shabbat is over, I could be more truly in the moment of Shabbat. Rather than playing my favorite game on my phone as a way of relaxing after services, I could finally play that game of Rummikub with Tali. And the boys would probably play too. We always have a lot of fun when we all play games together. And we really don’t do it enough.
But for now, back to work….there it goes again, the annoying “ping” letting us all know that Noah’s getting a text. And now I have 35 emails in my inbox. How many more days until March 6th? I don’t need Calgon. For me, it can be “National Day of Unplugging…Shabbat…take me away!” And by “take me away” what I really mean is: “Take me away from technology…and let me be present right where I am.”
Do you plan to unplug on March 6-7? What will you do with your tech-free time?
I’ve been reading a lot these days about “the Millennials,” the oft-described scary generation who came of age as the millennium marker came and went. I was surprised to find out in my reading that I am in fact considered to be a part of this generation, albeit one of the founding members having been born in the early ‘80s. So I find myself in a tenuous balance between the desire to defend my own Millennial nature and that of my peers; and trying to figure out the age-old question of what does this new generation want and need?
It is a difficult task, to pin point the soul of a generation. The advertising agencies of the world seem to be doing a better job at it than anyone else, but that’s nothing new. There are studies both within and especially outside of the Jewish world aimed at understanding what makes us different from previous generations, what makes us tick, how do we spend our money, what are our goals, etc.
The Millenial conversation seems to center around integration of technology, somewhat questionable values and very high expectations concerning money, both wanting to make a lot and adversely, not wanting to pay a lot. This seems like a fantastic generation with which to identify!
I must confess, sometimes I find myself acting like a millennial; I text…a lot, I rely heavily on the Internet and am somewhat of a savant at locating anything on the great Google. I watch TV shows on my computer and I don’t have a landline. I am more inclined to attend an event if it’s free and I love having lots of choices for everything I could possibly want. I have big goals for myself professionally and I expect and demand that my gender, sexuality, politics or ideology will help not hurt me as I go through life.
On the other hand, I have the heart of an historian. I have been accused many a time of knowing more than anyone else my age does about a variety of topics from pop culture of an age long gone to lyrics of obscure songs recorded decades before my birth. I have a reverence for the past as it informs the future that many think is missing from my generation. I even took a How Millennial Are You quiz (online, of course) and as I suspected, scored 50 percent: six of one, half dozen of the other.
But that’s just who I am. Like a good millennial, I straddle a variety of identities and I am comfortable in them all. But statistics and studies cannot tell my story completely.
The first time I confronted statistics was not as a member of a generation but rather as the child of interfaith parents. Statistically, as the child of a Catholic mother and Jewish father, there was little chance that I would end up identifying as Jewish. I love this statistic, this tiny percentage, because I was always so proud that despite the odds stacked against me, not only do I identify as Jewish but I became a rabbi: I center my life around Judaism. While I fully understand the importance of these studies and these numbers, I know first hand that they never tell everyone’s story. My story will be different from yours even if we share a percentage.
The great cycle of generations always seems to contain a smattering of confusion and frustration coupled with a yearning for youth and the promise it brings. The Millenials are certainly not the first nor will be the last to feel the pressure from previous generations to conform just a little bit more. But rather than bemoan how left behind we all inevitably feel as a new generation takes its place, let’s keep listening to peoples’ stories and keep telling our own.
While each of us are irrevocably tied to the time and space in which we were born and raised, it is how we live our lives and the choices that we make that define us far beyond statistics. There are always those who define the trend as well as those who buck it and it will continue to be far more important to me to ask why and listen to the answers rather than assume that I already know because I read a study or an article in The New York Times.
No matter your generational identity, I think we all want the same things at the end of the day: some happiness, love and community, and to leave the world better than we found it, despite how differently we may express it or how differently that might look.
Hopefully, with a bit of luck, we will all figure out the wants and needs of this Millenial generation just in time for the next generation to confound us once again.
Shabbat was created to give us one day of rest each week. Traditional Jews follow a very strict guide about what activities they avoid for 26 hours, beginning at sundown on Friday and ending after sunset on Saturday. They don’t work, clean, shop, spend money, watch movies, listen to music, write, draw, drive, cook with heat, turn on or off anything that is electrical, battery, or gas powered, or carry things outside the home. One of the widely promoted benefits of disconnecting from electronic devices is to reconnect with family, friends, and analog activities. It can be a special time to spend doing things that we have a hard time getting to.
For less traditional Jews, keeping Shabbat can take many forms. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.” In the global scheme of the modern world, separating time from space seems like an impossible dream.
Technology is part of my identity. I am rarely without my smart phone, one of those people who checks email and social media first thing in the morning and after lights out at night. Giving it up for 26 hours is a frightening prospect. I have tried many times and failed miserably. Cooking, I can do without, lights and heat can be easily set to operate by timers, shopping can wait, and all other “don’ts” can be accomplished with my smart phone. That’s the thing, the smart phone is operation central of my life. How could I possibly live without it?
Reboot, “a non-profit group designed to ‘reboot’ the cultures, traditions and rituals of Jewish life” has created an event to help us see Shabbat in a whole new way. It is called the National Day of Unplugging and with this blog, I am publicly committing to unplug on Shabbat, March 7-8. (IFF President Jodi Bromberg made the pledge too–read why here.) Is it possible for me to succeed? My idea is to separate the space into manageable sections. The first section will be enjoyed at Unplug SF, a celebration of Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging from 7:00pm to 12:30am. Catching up on sleep will cover the hours well past dawn, so that leaves about 11 hours to fill until Havdalah at 6:49pm.
For liberal Jews living in the modern world, what is OK and what isn’t OK on Shabbat? Each individual must decide what a spiritually meaningful Jewish practice looks like. These are not always easy decisions. The world does not stop just because it is Shabbat for a small minority of people. My family and friends might not understand my lack of response to their calls, emails, and text messages. Maybe it is just hard to change old habits and try something new. I cannot know what it feels like to unplug unless I try it. There is a cool page of real people’s reasons for unplugging on the National Day of Unplugging website. A couple of my favorites are “play with my puppy,” “spend quiet time with my loved ones” and “get outside.”
The unplug pledge is really just one day out of my entire life. My dog needs a hike, my family needs my attention, I need some exercise and there is beautiful world waiting to be discovered. I unplug to stroll the happy trails on Montara Mountain!
“It is not good for man to be alone…” (Genesis 1:18).
The glass on my old iPhone was quite smashed up, or should I say it had cracked up. One drop too many after its two-year obligation was fulfilled, my smartphone soon became victim of a childlike fascination in how busted up it could become (it still works by the way). A few more (albeit unintentional) drops without a case, and it looked like the terminator was at the end of its days, still generating light and information through its busted exterior despite all the odds that it really should have died by now.
But this blog post is not about the terminator or hardware and it’s not meant to be a commercial for Apple either. It’s about software. Well sort of. It’s about the family unit in the hands of marketing geniuses that send people into increasing isolation for commercial gains. If you can liken your physical body to hardware, than it’s an easy leap to compare software to the soul. Here is what happened.
I bought a new iPhone (now I didn’t say that I was immune to marketing efforts for cool gadgets) and soon downloaded the new operating software that Apple recommend for their phones: ios7, which is designed (among several other “convenient” features) to wirelessly synch all of your devices with the iCloud. I updated the iPad that my family uses around the house with the new software as well. The next night, on the way out for an event, a text that was meant for me came to the family iPad. For all of this hype about “the Cloud,” and its promise of sharing devices, one would think that the message would also be on my phone. But somehow it (the message) chose one device as its communications destiny.
But this blog isn’t about texting either. It’s about sharing. My wife was puzzled why the message came to the iPad she often uses. Then it occurred to me that the technology that we are increasingly relying on every day wants everyone to have his or her own phones and pads and devices tailored for its owner, or should I say user. Apple wants me to have my own iTunes account with my own password for everything. What happened to the “family computer” that we share? Sharing is not encouraged and “the Cloud” is something that I really have a hard time trusting with music and photographs. Can I really delete the photos that I love of my family and friends? Will it be there later when I finally get around to printing something from our 30,000 digital photos? Of course all of that is “fleeting” as Ecclesiastes would say anyway.
But if you can center yourself enough to not be worried about the future and not in regret for something in your past, perhaps you would have the increasingly rare opportunity to be present and in the moment. You would just be with your family and friends. Can you even turn off your device? If so, how long would you last without checking your messages? How many computers and devices do we need to buy until we realize that we are under a spell of being technology junkies?
So is this the new world we have created? All silos doing our own thing with our own messages, gazing down, glum and hunched over with the physiology of a depressed person? Is there any wonder that antidepressants have increased 400 percent in the last two decades? It is a depressing tale that we are weaving no doubt. So put away your devices, turn them off for a little while. Go spend time with your partner and family and friends. You will find the real world easily if you just listen to your spiritual software: Your soul. No GPS even necessary. Our master story, The Torah, teaches that God looks at Adam alone in his Garden of Eden and says quite succinctly, “It is not good for man to be alone…” (Genesis 1:18).
Most American Jews step foot into a synagogue at some point in their lives. Are they passing through inside their silos or are they building community? It is not the place so much that is important as the people that are passing you by if you don’t take a moment to look up from your device and take part to something much bigger than your self. We can share so much together in endless ways, but in the end, it will not be from the spell of shared devices in a solo, it will be a concert in the key of community. And the song is love when your family is right there with you linked up in a community that grows together.