Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Last week, my phone wouldn’t charge. Since it was still under warranty, I got a loaner phone while it was shipped to Texas to get fixed, and since everything was in the cloud — my contacts, my apps, my calendar — I barely even noticed.
I was immediately reminded of a blogpost from a year ago by Tom Goodwin: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”
We are now in time when “owning” something is often more of a drawback than a benefit. I used to buy DVDs and Blu-Rays — now I just pay a monthly fee to stream whatever I want to watch. I used to buy CDs — now I just download the tracks I want. I’ve even changed health insurance four times in four years, with minimal changes to access to my doctors.
So how is this going to impact Jewish life? The most obvious is that people are going to be less and less willing to spend a huge amount of money to be members of synagogues. And this has certainly led to a great lament about the future of Jewish life.
But what we forget is that people will pay for something they find valuable. I didn’t stop watching movies or listening to music or going to the doctor — I simply changed how I accessed them. Technology didn’t change my wants or needs; it just shifted how I used them.
Similarly, technology is not going to stop people’s need for community or meaning. What will change is how people find them and how we navigate the relationship between our essential humanity and our ever-changing technology.
The other day, Thomas Friedman wrote a piece in the New York Times entitled “From Hands to Heads to Hearts.” In it, he reminds us that changes in technology makes it that much more important that we bring our whole selves into our endeavors. He quotes author Dov Seidman, who argues that
…our highest self-conception needs to be redefined from ‘I think, therefore I am’ to ‘I care, therefore I am; I hope, therefore I am; I imagine, therefore I am. I am ethical, therefore I am. I have a purpose, therefore I am. I pause and reflect, therefore I am.’
This is where Judaism and Jewish life can add value to our lives. Caring, hoping, imagining, pausing, and most of all, acting ethically and seeking purpose — these are things that will always be important in our lives. And these are things only real human connection can offer.
As technology constantly improves, we are likely to be “owning” fewer and fewer things. But we will always have a need to connect, to learn, and to grow. Yes, technology disrupts, but our core human needs will always stay the same. We may no longer “own” our phones, or our movies or our health insurance, but we will own the relationships and values we hold most dear.