Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously observed: “Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”
The recent accelerated digital turn that we have all been a part of — coronavirus being the midwife that delivered the last of us into the digital world — invites us to apply McLuhan’s words to our current situation. How are we, in both a societal and personal sense, being shaped by this digital turn? We can also ask, as the Kabbalists would, what “hidden sparks” lay concealed within this turn of history that are waiting for us to uplift them? What effect does this have on questions of Jewish education, identity, and community?
This mass conversion to digital has inaugurated a new era replete with previously unimaginable forms of life and ways of conceiving the world. We have more autonomy in how we choose to receive information (even passively, with the help of ever-so-vigilant algorithms), in how we structure our lives, in what we buy, in how we experience music (we don’t need an orchestra to listen to a symphony, and we don’t even need an instrument to play music), and so forth. We see how interconnected everything is, even in a literal sense, as so much of our lives is mediated through a single computer or smartphone. The easy access to deep and unregulated information is training a whole new generation of people in being comfortable with unmediated complexity and multiplicity.
What are the “Jewish” consequences of this development?
Like the shared economy and user-generated content that dominates social media and other platforms, we can learn to trust the intelligence and capabilities of our audience. We can fully reject watered-down Judaism. Instead of seeking low (and receiving low), we ought to seek high and receive high.
This attitude is most evident in this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah — the “Life of Sarah.” Sarah and Avraham were not born into their lofty status as matriarch and patriarch of the Jewish people; rather, they were born to idol worshippers as Sarai and Avram. Still, we celebrate Sarah’s life as the “life of Sarah” — not “the life of Sarai.”
The fourth-century Babylonian scholar R. Samuel bar Isaac relates a legend, that when Avram and his wife Sarai could not have a child, Avram complained to G-d that he consulted his astrological sign and it said to him, “Avram, you will not conceive.” G-d replies, “Indeed, it shall be as your words, Avram will not give birth, but Avraham will.” R. Solomon Ibn Aderet, the medieval scholar from Barcelona, explains this to mean that so long as Avram was Avram, and Sarai was Sarai, they were subject to the fate of astrology. Once they changed their names to Avraham and Sarah (by adding the divine letter heh to their names), they were free from its influence.
Can we relate this to our current situation? So long as we treat audiences as incapable of contending with the rich content of Jewish tradition, indeed, they will be incapable — as limited as Avram and Sarai — but if we see that spark of the heh within them, they will be like Avraham and Sarah.
When I first pitched SHIUR — what is now a Berlin-based international project that offers text-based discourse and immersive experiences — I was met with resistance from educators and programmers who feared that audiences weren’t ready to engage in unmediated original sources. They could not resist the urge to dilute Judaism to win over the unaffiliated. They seemed to feel that the Jewish practice of substantive textual engagement was the monopoly of the academics, clergy, or ultra-Orthodox.
We must have faith in human potential and not strip Jewish content of the very substance that has ensured its continuity .
I argued back that people fly across the world for Vipassana meditation retreats that require a spiritual and physical vigor that should seem impossible in the age of TikTok. Why should Judaism demand any less? We must have faith in human potential and not strip Jewish content of the very substance that has ensured its continuity — the texts themselves.
Moreover, after the Holocaust and the Soviet era, the focus of Jewish education has understandably been oriented toward rebuilding identity and community. Yet Jewish thought and practice have always been able to justify themselves simply because of their intrinsic value and content. Just as, according to the tradition, Avraham and Sarah shared their vision and the world was captivated by the strength of their teaching and not because there existed some codified “Jewish people” to join, we ought to similarly center Jewish thought, ritual, and tradition.
I am grateful to Junction — the pan-European partnership between JDC, the Schusterman Family Foundation, and Yesod — for supporting me in my vision and helping SHIUR develop into the successful project it has become. Jews and non-Jews alike meet in real life and virtually to critically explore texts, ideas, and rituals that offer new ways of conceiving the world and self. We offer no dogmas, we resist pressures to “dumb things down,” and we reject the essentialism that dominates much of today’s discourse.
We’ve had events at universities, embassies, art spaces, and many other locations and have partnered with a wide variety of organizations and collaborators. By universalizing the Jewish tradition of immersive text study, we can find our place in this ever-changing era and become the latest iteration of Avraham and Sarah’s struggle against alienation and estrangement.
Micki Weinberg is a filmmaker and writer based in Berlin. Born in Los Angeles, he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 2004. He left the States for graduate studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he focused on intertextuality in ancient Jewish literature. He also studied Talmud at the Mir Yeshiva. Weinberg worked at Goldman Sachs from 2007-2010 in London and Switzerland.
Since 2010, Weinberg has dedicated himself to “making amends for his soul selling time in the banking world” through his work in art film, theater, and critical essay writing. Micki has been leading text-based study groups in Berlin and other cities since 2011 and founded SHIUR in 2018. Follow SHIUR on Facebook and Instagram.