Categories
spirituality Technology

Klei Kodesh: New and Old Tools to Create Holiness

The extraordinary disruption and stress of facing the coronavirus has impacted my rabbinate in ways unlike almost anything I have experienced in over twenty years in the pulpit.  

However, in a sense, the work and the primary goal is still the same: to create meaningful and sacred moments for the members of my congregation and for the broader community.  

I have found myself reflecting on the tools I am using over the last several weeks. Each day, I learn more and refine my skills. Each day, I encounter both satisfaction and frustration in these efforts. 

I have been using computers ever since my ordination in 1999, however the depth and breadth of that activity has grown exponentially over the years.  It has become routine, for example, to communicate with people through email, and to post information on our temple website.  

In these last weeks, email has become even more critical, with the absence of in-person activities. I find myself asking a question, though, each time I start to write an email: Does this need to be a phone call or video chat?  Whereas before emails were a valuable tool that gave me flexibility and efficiency, I find that now there is a hunger to connect in the most direct way possible. I am making many more phone calls than I have in a number of years.  

Part of my Shabbat practice for many years has been setting aside my cell phone and computer. This wasn’t so much about my understanding of the halachah of using electricity as it was about my need to create a certain restful and inward focused space on Shabbat. Simply put, I needed to unplug.

Now, my cell phone has become a critical part of offering robust and meaningful Shabbat study and worship. My colleagues and I are leading from three different locations. On Pesach morning, we offered a service jointly with our sister congregation, and we led from six different locations!  

My cell is now a tool that helps me create holiness. When we text one another, it is a powerful way of coordinating and ensuring that the prayer experience happens the way we want.  

I never thought of tech support as a sacred task, but when I use my cell to text with a congregant to help them log on to a service or study session, it is a powerful tool in the sacred work of engagement. 

Using Zoom and other platforms for meetings, worship, and pastoral counseling is a new and challenging activity. Here too, rather than set aside technology, it enables me to forge connections that are so critically important right now. The computer becomes a tool that can alleviate the isolation felt by everyone, especially those who are living alone.  

But, of course, what happens when the internet connection fails in the middle of a service? Or when screen sharing doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to?  

In the thousands of services I’ve led, I’ve never had an experience with a conventional service where my fellow service leader disappeared right in the middle of the service! Or where all of a sudden the prayerbooks vanished from everyone’s hands at once!

When these things happen, I try and remind myself that these are just unique parts of using these tools to create holy experiences. The holy experience comes when we open ourselves up to those who are in need, when we extend ourselves to those who are facing challenging circumstances. Each time we use these tools, we get better and better, and things run much more according to plan.

It is a reminder to me that “smooth” is not the ultimate goal. In a conventional setting, we may finish the service or class and be pleased that everything went smoothly. We started on time, hit all our cues, and everything unfolded the way we hoped.  

Now, in this new reality, I try and focus on something bigger. There may be pauses or glitches or even the need to change something on the fly. But, the bottom line is that these new technologies, these new klei Kodesh, enable us to honor Shabbat, to retain Torah study as a nourishing part of the community, and to bring people together, even when we are physically apart.

For most of my rabbinate, I have done the Torah reading by taking the scroll from the ark with the traditional ritual, opening to the weekly portion, and reading and translating the prescribed chapter. I have done so out of my fervent belief that my role was to transmit the Torah in a meaningful and engaging way. While musical and comfortable with the cantillation, I rarely chose to chant through the portion.

With the shift to Zoom services, I quickly realized that one of the elements of the service that would be hardest to replicate would be the Torah reading ritual. With everyone in their own homes, we didn’t have an ark or a scroll.  There would be no hakafah and no hagbahah.  

I wanted to provide a sense of continuity and connection to tradition. And so, what I’ve done each week is put up on the screen a picture of the inside of the scroll for everyone to see, and I’ve chanted the portion for the congregation for everyone to hear.  

I believe this enables everyone to receive the Torah in a meaningful and engaging way. While they can’t touch and kiss the scroll, every single person is able to see the sacred calligraphy of the Torah. Even while sitting in their homes, we are all able to hear the powerful sound of the Torah, just as it has been heard for so many years.  

So, even in this brand-new world, and with the use of all these technologies, I am finding anchors in the continuing ancient traditions. The blend of old and new is what has always sustained us and is still the case now.  

Many years ago, when I was living in Jerusalem, I was attending Friday night services at a synagogue that was just in the process of building their building. One week, right in the middle of our singing and praying, the electricity went out. We found ourselves sitting in the dark!  

After a momentary pause, we simply continued singing and praying and honoring Shabbat, relishing the tangible sense of connection. We didn’t need anything other than our voices…and one another. It was a transcendent and sacred experience I will always remember.  

We have many tools at our disposal. I celebrate that we are using our phones and computers and so much more to sustain and even deepen our communities during this most challenging time. Let us continue to have the flexibility and openness to learn how to use all of the tools that we can.  

When we see these technologies as tools that help us create sacred experiences and sustain holy connections, we strengthen our communities.  If this moment is indeed part of the beginning of the next era in how the Jewish community functions, we can be part of a bright future. We have all that we need to come through this time stronger and closer than ever before: we are in this together.


Rabbi Stein is the senior rabbi of Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, New York and an adjunct faculty member at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He is the outgoing Dues Chair for the CCAR and the Vice Chair of the CCAR Convention Committee.

Categories
Technology

Circular Rainbows, Fractals, and Spiritual Technology

“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.