A Response to “Harnessing Technology”

Rabbi Jeffrey Schein responds to the ideas raised in “Harnessing Technology.”

The essay “Harnessing Technology,” by Rabbis Nathan Kamesar and Deborah Waxman, offers an invaluable analysis of the benefits and challenges of technology, as well as an evolving map of both traditional and reconstructed Jewish values that we can utilize to evaluate our own digital lives. As someone at work on a volume for Hamilton Press titled Text Me: Ancient Judaism Meets Contemporary Technology, I am greatly indebted to them for the balance, clarity and vision of their work. In fact, I would like to build on their efforts in several ways.

Does Technology Change Us?

First, I want to query the choice of the phrase, “Harnessing Technology.” I understand that the topic and its title emerged out of interviews with members of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and then from a survey of all RRA members. Nevertheless, I believe that it subtly biases the investigation.  Ralph Waldo Emerson is famous for saying, “Things are in the saddle and ride humankind.” A primary focus of our discussions should also be that we are the ones being changed by technology—that technology is harnessing us, so to speak.

At the biennial conference of the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture—held in Boulder, Colo., from Aug. 8-11—the theologian Jeffrey Mahan of the Iliff School of Theology suggested that our relationship with digital technology can be illuminated by the work of Marshall McLuhan. In light of McLuhan’s work in The Medium Is the Massage, Mahan suggests that we consider the relationship between human and our tools is one of “soft determinism.”

This form of soft determinism challenges the assumption that our agency in relationship to technology is unlimited. McLuhan suggested that the very notion of agency is shaped by our technology. The title of his most seminal volume is not The Medium Is the Message, but the Medium Is the Massage.

McLuhan saw the emerging global village as linked to the ways different media shape our body and senses. For example, radio privileges the ear and the auditory system; television, the totality of our senses.

Mahan illustrates McLuhan by observing that the slow-moving national “past” time of baseball has been surpassed by football as the national sport because, like the media cultures in which we live, there are many simultaneous happenings to chart in a football game. McLuhan’s insights suggest to me a soft form of technological determinism that is linked to the explosion of research in neuroscience and the notion of neuroplasticity. I want to remain open to understanding technology not as message and technique, but as a total sensory massage of who we are. For the scholars at the conference in Boulder, “technology is more than just a single tool for an individual and is instead examined as a network of relationships that respond to local environmental changes.” This “localness” and “locale” allow religious educators to root their technological efforts in the local/specific soil of their religious traditions.

Applying Values to Communal Transformation

Synagogues and Jewish communities need to move with kavvanah, great intentionality, into the depths of the digital age. Such movement requires a sharp sense of what it means in general for organizations to evolve and change planfully. There is no shortage of good volumes by scholars like David Teutsch, Haim Herring, Ron Wolfson and Isa Aron documenting what it means for a synagogue to be embracing change in a deep way. Yet there is little that focuses specifically on technology. More often, we read lamentations by those who plan the Jewish future about why we aren’t more and better engaged with technology.

Rabbis Nathan Kamesar and Deborah Waxman provide a fine list of Jewish values that ought to guide our exploration of technology.

  • Ki gerim hayitem (remember that you were strangers) and how this teaches us the importance of empathy
  • Kol yoshvei tevel arevim zeh bazeh/Our deep interconnectedness
  • Ahavah rabbah/There exists an expansive universal love we can draw upon
  • Shabbat/shvitah
  • Panim el panim/Buber’s principles of genuine dialogue
  • Leshem shamayim/Importance that arguments must be for the sake of Heaven
  • Kavod/Ethical privacy practices
  • Tzedek tzedek tirdof and tikkun olam/Pursuit of justice
  • Im shamoa tishama/Sacred listening
  • Sicha brit/Covenantal conversation
  • Tzelem Elohim/We are each created in the Divine image
  • The importance of kedushah/Holiness
  • Tokhehah/Sacred rebuke

For each of these values, a small working group or a larger synagogue task force might explore the positive embodiments of these values and their absence in our own experiences and through guided explorations of digital resources. The same group might choose one of these values each year and deepen its own study of the value and its contemporary status in our digital lives. Such action research would also lead to a set of initiatives that a congregation might take to integrate more fully the positive sides of technology in relationship to the value.  

An Exercise Exploring Our Preconceptions About Technology

Our relationship to digital life is embedded in a lattice of larger assumptions about human beings, and their relationship to tools and technology. Even as we place the world in our hands with our smartphones, there is a world within us that interprets what such a powerful tool means to us. We need to flesh out these assumptions.

To sensitize ourselves to the multiplicity of our views about technology from a Jewish perspective, I provide below three short statements related to the Jewish Sabbath. These will help us utilize the worldviews of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan and Joseph Soloveitchik to deepen our exploration of how technology plays a role in shaping our existential selves.  

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual labor and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world; on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.

Mordecai M. Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion

In pursuit of other aims we frequently become so absorbed in the means as to lose sight of the goal. … Here the Sabbath comes to our aid.

An artist cannot be continually wielding his brush. He must stop at times in his painting to freshen his vision of the object the meaning of which he wishes to express on his canvas.

Living is also an art. We dare not become absorbed in its technical processes and lose our consciousness of its general plan. … The Sabbath represents those moments when we pause in our brushwork to renew our vision of the object. Having done so we take ourselves to our painting with clarified vision and renewed energy.

Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith

Adam I

… [D]ignity was equated by the Psalmist with man’s capability of dominating his environment and exercising control over it. Man acquires dignity through glory, through his majestic posture vis-à-vis his environment.

[This] dignity cannot be realized as long as he has not gained mastery over his environment. [It is through rational, logical, and mathematical operations that this mastery begins to unfold.] Man of old who could not fight disease and succumbed in multitudes to yellow fever or any other plague with degrading helplessness could not lay claim to dignity. Only the man who builds hospitals discovers therapeutic techniques, and saves lives is blessed with dignity. To conquer space, he boards a plane at the New York airport at midnight and takes several hours later a leisurely walk along the streets of London. … Man of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who needed several days to travel from Boston to New York was less dignified than a man whose mastery has made it possible for him to act in accordance with his responsibility. .. the Biblical promise of being creatures b’tzelem elohim, made in the image of God.

Adam II

He looks for the image of God not in the mathematical formula or the natural relational law but in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the stillness of a starlit evening. In a word, Adam the second explores not the scientific abstract universe but the irresistibly fascinating qualitative world where he establishes an intimate relation with God.   

Here are some questions we might ask of these portraits as we move beyond the details to the relationship to technology posited by the selection[fn]A more complete explication of how to dig deeper into these three passages and flesh out the grounding assumptions is available through the author, and will soon be part of the website related to the Text Me: Ancient Jewish Wisdom Meets Contemporary Technology project.[/fn] :

1. Which of the three has the most positive appreciation of the role technology plays in our lives?

2. Conversely, which has the most negative view?

3. How would each have us evaluate the impact of technology on our lives?  

4. What phrases or sentences within the quote would you give the greatest emphasis? Want to know more about? Challenge?

Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

Stakeholders in any community need to respect each other’s ideas and values. In the digital landscape, there are many different forms of competing stakeholders and winners and losers, including those with access to new digital tools and those without access.   

From the standpoint of Jewish continuity, no tensions are more worthy of creative resolution than those pertaining to digital natives and digital immigrants. Here, Marc Prensky, who initially coined the notion of a digital divide, offers the following insights.

Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet.

So what does that make of the rest us? Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be digital immigrants in comparison.

The importance of the distinction is this: As digital immigrants learn—like all immigrants, some better than others—to adapt to their environment, they always retain to some degree their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past. The “digital immigrant accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming the program itself will guide us. Today’s older folk were “socialized” differently from their children, and we are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists, tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.

There are hundreds of examples of the digital immigrant accent. They include printing out your email (or having your secretary print it out for you—an even “thicker” accent), needing to print out a document written on the computer in order to edit it (rather than just editing on the screen) and bringing people physically into your office to see an interesting website rather than just sending them the URL. I’m sure you can think of one or two examples of you own without much effort. My own favorite example is the “Did you get my email?” phone call. Those of us who are digital immigrants can, and should, laugh at ourselves and our accent.  

Humorous anecdotes aside, I have often seen digital immigrants near tears when they have a chance to express their feelings about being left in the technological backwash. Serious generational tensions exist across the divide.

From a Jewish/religious perspective, my concern is that in an era that hungers for stronger connection between the generations, creatively addressing this issue can lead to strategies of rich potential. I work with several synagogues on a program I call the “wisdom-skills” exchange—a way of fostering deeper connection between generations. In this program, “digital immigrants” (sometimes but not always parents) are invited to meet with “digital natives” (teens) and engage in a significant cultural exchange. The natives come to the meeting with a full supply of apps and technology tips that will help their senior immigrants creatively enhance their ability to utilize technology. In exchange, the natives are asked to chronicle stories from the immigrants about ethical and cultural challenges they have faced over the course of a lifetime and the wisdom they have developed.

IT People with Hokhmah (Wisdom)

I am involved with Twin Cities Jewfolk, the area’s only independent Jewish online media hub, a dynamic and growing initiative that seeks to reach millennial and Gen Z populations. Quite sensibly, they have tried to position themselves within the digital generation gap by utilizing a grant to offer free advice to congregations about properly utilizing social-media platforms.

This is clearly praiseworthy. This service to the largely “immigrant” leadership population of synagogues would likely be prohibitively expensive if an outside consulting firm were hired. Such external outsourcing would also risk the likelihood that media experts would not be familiar with the Jewish world.

As a result, in addition to a more conventional IT person, synagogues have access to a social-media consultant. What is missing from the bank of human-professional resources? I would suggest it is a “HIT,” a hokhmah information-technology person. In my vision, this person would recommend a list of the best Jewish living and learning website links, updated annually and distributed to members, with an offer of coaching meetings for interested families in the community. The focus of such meetings would be exploring how to access these resources and more.   

The role of this HIT person could be multi-faceted. She might also partner with a psychologist to facilitate support groups that read Adam Alter’s Irresistible, a volume focusing on the epidemic of smartphone usage and other digital addictions. Finally, this human-resource gem might also consult with the building committee to make sure that the plans for a new synagogue building include both digital wonderlands for fully engaging users, as well as rooms and gardens that are, by community design and sanction, totally unplugged.

The possibilities are ever-emerging!


Jeffrey Schein is a longtime Jewish educator. He became a Reconstructionist rabbi in 1977, and in 1980, earned his doctorate in education from Temple University. For 25 years, he guided Jewish educators through the master’s degree program in Jewish education at Siegal College in Cleveland. He currently works as the senior education consultant for the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood and also directs the Text Me: Ancient Jewish Wisdom Meets Contemporary Technology project. He teaches eighth grade at the Heilicher Day School in Minneapolis

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