I remember a friend proudly showing off her father’s Apple II computer when I was in grade school. We were warned not to touch it. In high school, we were required to take a computer class which taught us BASIC code. I think I learned how to program the computer to make a dot matrix smiley face. The whole time I sat at the computer I was afraid I would break it. I was a nervous wreck and did not enjoy the class while some of my classmates thought it was the coolest thing ever.
I got my very own personal computer, a Mac, when I started college. Again, I was scared of it. I was sure that I would lose all of my work at the touch of a wrong button. My boyfriend made fun of me and secretly programmed my computer to make all sorts of silly and confusing sounds when I typed. Every time I hit the period key the computer made a sound like something was crashing to the floor. Oy!
So it comes as some surprise to me that now I love new technology and gadgets. I want the latest smart phone and ipad. I thrill to check out the newest social media sites. I love being able to navigate a strange city with my GPS. Doing research for a possible kitchen renovation I came across the website www.houzz.com. I was entranced by picture after picture of new kitchens. I created my own personal page where I could save my favorite pictures and ideas. And I read a blog post which described how through the use of Bluetooth technology, we can now use our smart phones and ipads to control every device in our houses. Need to change the channel? Who needs a remote any more, use your iphone. Wondering if you left the coffeemaker on this morning? Look it up on your phone, and remotely turn it off. Want to turn on a light before you get home? Just program it from your phone. The world of the Jetsons cartoon is now a reality. (Minus the flying cars..but they are probably going to be here soon.)
As a Rabbi Without Borders, I have to wonder if there are any borders to our use of technology. When carrying around a phone becomes too burdensome, and we can put all of the information we need in a chip in our bodies, would that be OK? Why use a phone, when I can touch the palm of my hand to program something? Some deaf people use cochlear implants. They are already “chiped.” Many amputees use bionic limbs that move in incredible ways. These sound like great innovations now, but is there a point at which there is too much technology? At what point do we cease to be human and become robots, or cyborgs? What happens when the computers we make become smarter than us? What will the value of human life be then?
These questions are no longer science fiction. They are real, and for me deeply theological. I am someone who has been swept along on the tide of new technologies. Will I keep going with the tide or climb out of the water?
Already there are times I get out of the water. Each Shabbat I try to unplug. “Try” being the operative word. Each year it gets harder and harder. I still keep a firm line that I do not check or respond to emails on Shabbat. I don’t get on Facebook or Twitter. But what about using my kindle or ipad to read? Sitting down with a good book is one of my favorite activities and a great way to spend a summer afternoon on Saturday. I am now reading most things on my ipad. At first I would not do this on Shabbat. Now I do. But my finger itches to click on the Facebook app. I see I have 10 notifications…..for now I don’t click. I have a need to make Shabbat a different day, and getting out of the flow of information is one way that I do this.
I really wonder how God wants us to use these technologies. Does God really care if I read Facebook updates on Shabbat? No, I can’t say that God does. But not reading them helps me to keep a quieter mind and feel more connect to the holy on that day. Does God want us to develop in to cyborgs? I really do not know.
Jewish tradition generally welcomes medical innovations. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides was both a rabbi and a doctor. Israel leads the world in fertility treatments and other cutting edge medical science. Everyone wants a Jewish doctor right? But is there a line we should not cross? IVF was scary to many people when it was first introduced and now it seems normal. We can keep people alive on machines for years on end. But should we? Rabbis and Jewish scholars can argue both sides of this question using traditional Jewish sources. There is no one right answer.
With each year and with each new technological innovation it becomes easier and easier to cross lines we never imagined crossing in the past. Who knows what the future really holds for us? Bionic limbs, eyes, chips to store our memories in? Medical innovations and new technologies go hand in hand.
For now I am happily swimming with the current. But I like my Shabbat rest stops. And I wonder if and when it will make sense to get out of the current. Are there borders here? Without posing the questions, we cannot get to the answers.
This past Sunday, I had the honor of officiating at a beautiful wedding. Rachel and Nathan met last year here in Austin, and very quickly knew that they wanted to spend their lives together. Rather than traveling back to New Jersey to get married, they held their wedding here, in their new hometown. They were thrilled to welcome their family and friends to Austin, introducing them to the vibrant Jewish community, the live music scene, and the fabulous energy that makes this city the largest destination point for young folks between the ages of 22 and 35.
Days before the wedding, Rachel’s beloved grandfather became sick and was not able to travel to Austin. This was heartbreaking for Rachel – she couldn’t imagine not having her grandfather there on her wedding day. Although there was no feasible way to delay the wedding or move it to New Jersey, the family did have a plan to bring Rachel’s grandfather as close to the chuppah as possible. A videographer created a live stream of the ceremony so Rachel’s grandfather could watch and listen from the comfort of his bed, and following yichud, the couple was able to speak with their grandfather on an iPad.
The dancing began with an enthusiastic horah. Multiple circles of joyful guests held hands, moving around the dance floor with great excitement. Rachel and Nathan’s friends and family had learned about the tradition of preparing schtick for the bride and groom – a custom that emphasizes the importance of bringing laughter to the newlyweds on their wedding day. Young and old alike performed silly dances and songs, generating both surprise and delight.
As the music subsided and guests found their way to their seats, the iPad was brought to the front of the dance floor, the microphone was held up to the screen, and Rachel’s grandfather began to speak. He may have been giving a toast from his home in New Jersey, but the love that he felt for Rachel and Nathan and his immense gratitude for being included in their wedding festivities was palpable right here in Austin. He was then able to join together with the rest of the grandparents as they raised their voices to say HaMotzi — the blessing over the bread that officially begins the meal. Our hearts were opened a little wider in that moment.
I’m by no means a “techie,” which may be all the more reason why I was so moved by how this technological innovation enhanced our spiritual celebration. As a community builder, I truly believe in the power of being present. And, in this case, under these circumstances, Rachel’s grandfather was present. He was right there with us in Austin, TX.
As I walked to my car on Sunday evening, I said to my husband, “I think it’s time to get an iPad.”