Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Electronic Limbs

Tuesday June 5, 2013

Electronic Limbs

For better or worse, almost all of us have grown electronic limbs. I am referring, of course, to smartphones that give us access to not only the “ancient” phone technology, but also to SMS, Twitter, Facebook and email.

But I have harnessed this limb, and I keep referring to it as a limb, because it is mostly grafted on to our bodies. Some of us sleep with it. Most eat with it. Many cannot bear to be parted from it. And for good reason. It is an extension of our bodies and minds. It gives us access to all four corners of the world, to almost infinite reservoirs of wisdom, information and entertainment. It is no wonder it is the fastest growing addiction in the world. Some people can no longer function without it. It is as if they’ve gone blind, losing one of their most essential senses. Observant Jews are perhaps fortunate in the enforced weekly disconnection from this vital organ. We recall how early humans lived. We give existence back to our other senses. We release our mind from the constant bombardment of electrons, from the ever present access to the entire world. But that is not what I want to talk about.

Months ago, (seems like years) when I was a private citizen in Israel, my wife and I went to a percussion performance in Yaffo. As a warm-up act, one of the players solicited text messages from the audience that were immediately posted on a Facebook page that was projected onto an enormous screen. The effect was immediate and powerful. (Female) members of the audience shrieked with glee. They loved seeing the text they had typed on the big screen for all to see. I have adapted a simplified version of this trick in three lectures in the past week.

The first was to a group of what were presented as 20 quiet, uninterested and almost indifferent Jewish college students. I asked them to text me their names and what they were studying. They all perked up and responded, starting off a more lively engagement.

The second was to a group of 38 twelve year old girls preparing for their big Bat Mitzvah event. I asked them to text me what blessings they would like to receive for this event. They texted back at the speed of thought. A torrent of requests filled my phone.

Tonight I had the opportunity to give a lecture to their parents on the Jewish view of blessings. I asked them too to submit what blessings they would wish to convey to their children. It was interesting to note the parents were much slower typers than their daughters.

However, in all cases, it seemed to create a more powerful, concrete “connection” than simply stating what you would otherwise say to a person across the room. Now they all have my number, and I have theirs (though in most cases I don’t have their names nor know who they are). One person already corresponded with me about my thoughts on moving to Israel. For a growing number of people, it is more comfortable to communicate via this specialized electronic limb.

I have one hundred new friends on Facebook. People inquire and follow updates on lectures I’m giving. Dozens of members of the community have been in contact with me exclusively via email. I receive text messages throughout the day. The phone, it turns out, is probably my least used medium.

So here is to our electronic limbs. May we use them well. May we use them wisely. May they ever be at our service and not the other way around.

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