A Talk on Religion, God, and the Internet

Posted on Nov 10, 2014

Delivered by Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen
National Library of Israel Conference, Jerusalem
October 20, 2014

As I sat in shul during the Yamim Nora’im a few weeks ago, I wondered—with this talk in mind—how I should feel about being inscribed and sealed for life in an eBook. “Remember us for life, Sovereign who delights in life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, God of life.”

On the one hand, it seemed I should cheer at the prospect of being written into cyberspace. If God can move beyond the use of ink that fades, paper that crumbles, binding that frays—the instruments on which my prayed-for future has depended until now—this could be a decidedly positive development for my personal future. The “e” in eBook might in that case signify eternal rather than evanescent or ephemeral; the loss of physical bookbinding might accord nicely with my fervent desire for a life not bound by space and time, the enemies of immortality. We are reminded by the Unetanah Tokef prayer that each of us is “a broken shard, withering grass, a passing shadow, a fleeting breeze,” but “You, the Sovereign living God, ein kitzva li’she’notekha, there is no limit to Your years.” A digital book of life might provide the most godlike promise imaginable.

On the other hand, there has been great comfort for me and countless other Jews in imagining ourselves as words on a page, inscribed in a big printed or handwritten volume, like the words on the page I was reading in shul in an attractive and substantial mahzor with a brownish gold cover that I was holding in my hand. I want to be held in God’s hand, I reflected, as Moses was held by God in the cleft of the rock, rather than glanced at on a phosphorescent screen. I want to be “remembered with compassion for life with the rest of God’s creatures,” as the liturgy puts it—a possibility that does not seem to be enhanced by God’s yizkor bucher coming off the shelves in their billions, to be replaced one by one in an ongoing program of divine digitization. And besides: the premodern ink and paper have held up well over many centuries, while the current generation of digitized files, I am told by the JTS librarian, “should last for 50 years or more.” Not a very long time in the divine scheme of things.

Let me suggest that the conceit of book versus e-Book, and the larger matter of pre-Internet processing and communication of knowledge versus the new reality of a truly World Wide Web provides useful entrée to some of the most difficult issues vexing Jewish religious thought in our generation. I shall allow myself to speculate rather freely and, given time constraints, to speak in conceptual shorthand.

Let me confess first that I do not subscribe to the notion that modernity, let alone postmodernity, has changed everything where religious belief and practice are concerned. I reject the popular dichotomy of a “sea of faith . . . at the full” that surrounded earth’s shore until the late 18th century and then gave way to a “darkling plain . . . Where ignorant armies clash by night.” Our ignorance is vast, especially where God is concerned, and the clashing of religious and other armies seems to get more destructive by the week; but neither is entirely new, of course. Nor are the dilemmas occasioned by the Internet. Rather, just as the Holocaust did not pose doubts or challenges to faith unknown to the Bible and the Rabbis, so much as render those questions unavoidable for two generations of Jews, so too the Internet, the eclipse of the printed book, is not so much pointing a new theological direction or damning existing claims as eliciting concerns and raising possibilities that will likely take on new urgency in coming decades.

That said, we do well to consider the ways in which modernity and postmodernity havemade a difference to religious thought, the better to speculate about what might be in store for us theologically from the web. Let’s start with the stipulation that Max Weber got it right when he talked about the “disenchantment of the world” in at least this sense: mention God as a causal factor of scientific explanation in a scholarly paper and you will not get tenure at any university I know of, including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and your paper will not get published in the leading scientific journals. Mention God as a causal factor of historical explanation and the result will be the same. The set of challenges that we might call “Enlightenment” are exacerbated—at least outside Israel, and outside the Haredi world—by the set of factors we might in shorthand call “Emancipation”: loss of integral communities—the fact that Jews do not come home every night to totally Jewish neighborhoods where God’s name is written on every gate and every doorpost, and individuals therefore lack insulation from the prevailing cultural winds.

Human beings like us who spend significant time each day online cannot but feel the strain placed upon any one set of assumptions and commitments, whatever it is. The job market is global, and so is the thought-and-values market. It is more difficult for “The People of the Book” to sustain the belief that it is in any meaningful sense “The Chosen People”—or is “the” anything—because an unlimited diversity of claims is literally in our face every time we look at a screen on a laptop or smartphone.

My generation of students and practitioners of religion was shaped by sociologist Peter Berger’s notions of “the heretical imperative” to choose among competing alternatives for commitment and of “plausibility structures” needed to make some choices seem preferable, compelling, or even taken for granted. In America, we Jews have with some success poured millions into building plausibility structures over recent decades: summer camps, day schools, synagogues, JCCs, youth movements, Hillel foundations and Jewish Studies programs on campus, gap-year programs in Israel, and Birthright trips to Israel. The Internet makes this job at once more difficult and more necessary by challenging the ability of any cause to stand out, let alone monopolize consciousness. This is in part a very good thing for minority causes such as Judaism, for it challenges modern absolutes such as science or Immanuel Kant before whom Judaism has had to plead its case in modern minds. That effort had shaped influential 20th-century theologians, Jewish and Christian, who wrote out of and for communities of faith that struggled to be both a part of and apart from the larger society: Tillich and Nieburh among American Protestants; Soloveitchik, Borowitz, and Heschel among American Jews. I bear those thinkers an enormous debt of gratitude. Their defenses of faith in the face of science and philosophy have been crucial to my own.

I believe that there is far more Jewish thought being written today than in the midcentury heyday of theology in America. It is produced by far more individuals than previously, though they possess far less fame and influence than before and their work has virtually no systematic character. There are many reasons for that shift. One is that, having given away rational space to the disenchanters, a lot of Jewish belief and practice has sought refuge where Weber said it would: in the emotional sphere, “in pianissimo.” Another is the focus on social ethics or pastoral care, neither of which requires theological underpinnings. Fragments of theology well suit our porous communities. Meaning and community are the orders of the day. Experience trumps belief. One day in class I asked JTS rabbinical students whether they are bothered by the challenges that science poses to their faith, as I am, and they said no. Theirs is a theology of halakhah and Aggadah, of meaningful observances and multiple narratives, of local community and the embrace of diversity inside and beyond Judaism. It is a theology tailor-made for the kaleidoscope of seemingly infinite inputs to consciousness that characterizes the Internet era—and, arguably, it is more representative of Jewish tradition over the centuries than any kind of belief system.

We do not know yet how the shaping of our consciousness by pervasive (and often dissonant) music and of fleeting images on a screen, as opposed to words that sit still on a page, let alone a page that one holds sitting still in one place and takes in at a relatively slow pace, will alter religious belief and practice—but it seems certain that impact will be great. Nor do we know how the incredible democratization of access to knowledge and experience will affect religious belief and practice, but here too the impact will likely be great and is indeed already palpable. Texts once restricted to scholars are available to everyone. JTS put the Prato Haggadah up on its website before Pesah a couple years ago and got tens of thousands of hits. Hypertext is a wonderful gift to Talmud study. Bible scholars click once or twice to do the concordance work over which I labored for many hours in the Judaica Reading Room of this library. One can attend services virtually, learn Torah trope online, gain immediate exposure to every Jewish option that exists or ever did exist, and—according to some authorities—even help to make a minyan from halfway around the globe.

And yet, of course, there is the other side, the leveling downwards of postmodernity, the struggle for bandwidth, the further decline of face-to-face community, which has been a prerequisite of every faith we know of until now. We rejoice in the universality of Wikipedia today, the fact that it is subject to constant correction and available to everyone, but part of me misses the Britannica on the shelf in my local public library, with its claim to be correct and all-inclusive. A lot of good things happened during those childhood visits to the library. Now, of course, the knowledge comes to us and we can have no illusions of its permanence. Truth is written with a small rather than a capital T. We cannot think for even a minute that we hold it in our hands, like a book. Thanks to the Internet, if the truth is actually out there somewhere to be found, it is hiding in plain sight: a new sort of esoteric concealment, in Moshe Halbertal’s terms, because everything is now exoteric—easily, seductively, commercially, and inescapably available, to everyone, all the time.

Let me conclude with a final thought, put schematically and over-simplistically but perhaps true nonetheless: If the premodern challenge was “Why be Jewish rather than Christian or Muslim?”; and the modern challenge was “Why be a Jewish rather than a putatively universal, ‘modern,’ American, or ‘human’ self?”; the postmodern challenge is: “Why be, how can one be, a self at all, rather than a protean being who ‘feasts at many tables’ and consists of many selves?” We are told by some philosophers and social psychologists that the notion of a fixed and unitary self is an illusion, and it does seem that the flood of information coming our way from all corners of the earth precludes the possibility of integral cultural or religious consciousness. This is a major problem for ethics and for relationships as well as for religion. All borders to society and the self seem permeable, unless we shore them up and raise them high. (Anti-Semitism may or may not assist the project of maintaining Jewish identity in the open societies of the West, but that is a possibility that I am not eager to test.)

If I am right, the greater challenge posed to faith in these early days of the Internet is not to God’s existence but to our own; not to the Author and Writer (whether of manuscript or printed volume or e-Book) in whose hands our lives are held but to the solitary human creatures who long to be a word in that book, or a letter, or even a diacritical mark. I reflected, during the High Holiday service, that while we may not merit inscription in God’s book, we do get to read, over and over again, the Book in which God’s name appears over and over again. This will have to suffice.


I learned the other day from JTS’s librarian that sales of e-Books have lagged this year, while the number of hardbacks sold has remained strong—a parable, perhaps, for the future of faith in our putatively secular society.