“Renew the old and sanctify the new.” – Rav Abraham Isaac Kook
The thoughtful use of technology can enhance Jewish spiritual practice and engagement. This summer, I was privileged to witness and facilitate a few exceptional examples of this while serving as faculty at the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy. At this overnight summer camp, currently celebrating its 4th year, campers and staff utilize science and technology as tools to strengthen Jewish identities, develop Jewish community, and enrich Jewish practice.
One Shabbat afternoon during an all-camp picnic, electrified chatter began to spread through the community. Campers and staff excitedly pointed to the sky. I ran out from under one of the large oak trees shading the main lawn to witness a sun halo, or circular rainbow surrounding the sun. Many exclaimed they had never seen such a marvel, let alone known that something like this was possible. After capturing a quick photo (which will be published in PopSci), I ran over to the mic.
Fortunately, I have the CCAR Daily Blessings app on my phone, which contains, among others, the blessing recited upon seeing a rainbow. After giving a short explanation of the importance of rainbows in Jewish tradition, I was able to lead everyone in the blessing. This unexpected experience was enhanced and transformed into a Jewish teachable moment by technology, which allows us to access innumerable resources at a moment’s notice.
Even the more traditionally routine moments of Jewish practice at camp are enhanced by the spiritual use of technology. Each Friday night, we pray together using a Visual T’filah that contains videos of campers sharing their thoughts on the week’s scientifically-focused Jewish value. (This week was kesher, connection.) Campers who might otherwise be too shy or nervous to get up on stage are able to share their thoughts, and to marvel at their larger-than-life participation in Shabbat services. Because the camp utilizes a Visual T’filah Template, the director of Jewish life (a self-declared novice at PowerPoint) is able to easily refresh and expand the Visual T’filah each Shabbat, even when I’m not there. Visual T’filah, like the other spiritual technologies I help develop at the CCAR, offers new opportunities for engagement and meaning in Jewish practice.
Perhaps my most impactful contribution to camp this summer, however, was the short teaching I gave during Boker Big Bang (the morning ceremony during which a blessing from Nissim b’chol yom is studied, and, using chemistry, something is blown up). Our blessing for the day was “she-asahni b’tzelem Elohim,” who has made me in the image of God. I explained to the campers that I especially enjoy using scientific metaphors to help myself and others understand God. This is, in part, because when I was their age, as a scientifically-minded youth, I had trouble believing in a god for which there was no tangible proof. It was my awareness that someday I might believe in God that kept me involved in Jewish life long enough to recognize that even the early rabbis needed metaphors to try to understand God. God as a king or ruler, one of our most popular metaphors, may have worked for them back then, but did little to aid my understanding of God in modern times.
One of my favorite metaphors for God imagines God as wifi. It surrounds us and with the right tools we can connect to it, each other, and the rest of the world. Another metaphor I love is God as computer programmer. In the same way that computer code can be used to create entire universes through 1s and 0s, I imagine God creating the world with 1s, 0s, and -1s (i.e. protons, neutrons, and electrons). Finding a scientific metaphor to understand the notion of b’tzelem Elohim (humans being created in the image of God), however, was always out of reach. Last year, a rabbinic colleague, who is also my wife, gave me the metaphor for which I had been searching. After waiting more than half the year, I was finally able to share this metaphor with the campers at the URJ 6 Points Sci-tech summer camp.
The metaphor, which perfectly expresses how we were made in the image of God, how we are a part of God but separate, and how we are all connected to each other through God, is: Fractals! In these complex images, elements are repeated on such a scale, that zooming in reveals that each smaller section looks equivalent to its larger counterpart, and each part is unique but still connected to and a part of the whole. This metaphor clearly had an impact because later that day, a camper in a coding workshop decided to write his own program that would draw a fractal. Another camper expressed that during my talk she felt as though I was speaking directly to her.
While these campers and counselors might be more naturally drawn to scientific metaphors and technological tools, they represent an important path of the future of the Jewish people and the trajectory of contemporary society. And while some of us may find technological tools only applicable in work settings, or to be a distraction from certain aspects of life, intentionally integrating these tools into our spiritual practice can breathe new life into Judaism and usher in a new age where religion and technology are not seen as at odds with one another but, rather, as mutually beneficial.
Rabbi Dan Medwin is the creator of Visual T’filah and the Daily Blessing app as the Manager of Digital Media for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He also serves as a founding member of the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy Camp Council.