Online Whether I Like it or Not

By Rev. Rabbi Elisabeth Stern 

Today -- just today -- I received, among the multitude of emails pertaining to my personal/professional life, the following: 

  • the results of a national study on Jewish Spirituality.
  • a link to a ‘zany Passover film'.
  • a plea for donations from Birthright Israel, AJWS, and Brit Zedek.
  • information on ‘Passover recipes, Passover seders, everything Passover' from an Interfaith Network.
  • Tom Lehrer's Passover Seder song (forwarded to me three separate times).
  • four divrei Torah, sent out by various institutions.
  • and this just in:  The Facebook Haggaddah! [attached below]

And that's just today.   

I am not complaining.  Although at times the sheer number of these Jewmails can be overwhelming, I appreciate the access to information.  With relatively little effort, I am able prepare for classes and sermons, utilizing various texts without ever opening a book.  I am able to sign petitions, stay updated on political developments, and track the cultural goings-on of the contemporary Jewish world.

Here's the rub: Not only do I have easy access to all things Jewish, so do my congregants.  Whether it's locating a Jewish summer camp, or converting prospective bar mitzvah dates into their Hebrew equivalents, or -- get this! -- preparing for that bar mitzvah with text chanted through their speakers, the computer, and not the rabbi, is the go-to resource.  As a board member of mine quipped recently, "the answer is just a search away."

I am all for self sufficiency. I am concerned, however, that such easy access to information distorts the nature of the learning experience. The visceral, contextual learning that comes from searching for a particular volume and then for a page in that volume, or from struggling with a dictionary for a Hebrew word and encountering its usages and cognates, or from simply entering the stream of the history of Jewish study... all of these sensory experiences that link us to the generations of learners who preceded us, they're all gone.   

We need the links.  We need the powerful comfort that comes from experiencing oneself to be a part of a chain. To illustrate by obvious example: it almost goes without saying that chanting from a Torah text on one's laptop screen is not the same thing as chanting from the Torah which has been taken from the ark and lovingly, carefully unwrapped and rolled to its proper place before one can begin.  It does not matter how closely the computer text approximates the written Torah.  When one places the yad (pointer)on a word, the countless generations of those who once read that passage are there, too.  As is the sofer (scribe), whose script is as unique as his fingerprint.   

That sense of connection, of continuity, of history and tradition which is awakened whenever one opens a text or joins around a table in hevrusa (study group) is as basic to Jewish study as the Hebrew language itself; and the Internet, for all of its wondrous access to all things Jewish, endangers this very sense of connection precisely because it makes  the access so easy and instantaneous, disconnected from context or community.   

I am, I admit, noga-at ba'davar (involved with the subject).  What if my congregants no longer need to consult with me about how to kasher (ritually clean) the kitchen for Pesach (Passover)? After all, the answer is just a search away! What if they no longer feel compelled to gather for our weekly Torah study, since divrei Torah (sermonic interpretations of the Torah portion), far more brilliant than anything I can offer, are readily available online?  At what point am I rendered irrelevant? 

I keep this fear to myself; I recognize that my ambivalence about the Internet is ego-driven as well as philosophic.  I encourage my congregants to check for dates, to sign on to various Jewish list-serves and websites.  I want to encourage their sense of competency and self-sufficiency with their own tradition.  I recognize, as well, that the elephants are stampeding in this internet direction and that there is nothing to be gained by pointing any other way. 

And that is why you will find me, a self-confessed technological Luddite, teaching an online course to Rabbis.  And that is why you will find me sending out email teachings every day of the month of Elul, accompanied by the computerized sound of the shofar blast.  And, indeed, that is why you find me posting on this website.


Rabbi Elisabeth Stern was ordained as a Reform rabbi.  She is the rabbi of Congregation Eitz Chayim in Cambridge, MA.  In addition to her pulpit work, Rabbi Stern teaches in the PEER program for STAR (Synagogues: Transformation, And Renewal).  She has been an associate faculty member of the Hornstein Program of Jewish Communal Service at Brandeis University.  Rabbi Stern is a mentor for Rabbinic students as well as recently ordained rabbis through the auspices of the mentorship programs established by Hebrew Union College. In her spare time she plays ice hockey.

8/17/2009 4:00:00 AM
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