An Open Letter to Paul Miller of TheVerge.com “‘Unplugged Internet” Series

Internet Asifah

Photo Credit: vosizneias.com

This essay was written in response to “I’m still here: back online after a year without the internet” by Paul Miller on TheVerge.com.

By Yonatan Gordon

For those who are not yet regulars to CommunityofReaders.org, we’ve been speaking about the print vs. digital debate in the book publishing world. We explained that while print books appear like “chunks” of a few hundred pages of content, the digital world is relatively a vast ocean. If only the reader could learn to swim through the currents appropriately, then they would be able to come out with some great treasures.

But in order to collect anything out of this water world, takes the ability to differentiate. As long as its all content, then it remains all out of grasp. The challenge is to reach a state where “print is not dead,” and borders have their place, even amidst the sea of information.

The thought then to unplug the internet for a year, seems most related to those book readers who prefers print books over Ebooks. Indeed, Miller mentions reading many physical books during his year-long hiatus. While Ebooks are fully wired to the circuitry of the times, perhaps the greatest activity one can do after unplugging from the Internet, is to read a good print book.

The real issue at play is how to approach escapism constructively. How to turn off the Internet, without also turning off the whir and hum of the world as well.

As Miller writes regarding the Internet Asifah (gathering) held last May:

“A couple weeks later, I found myself among 60,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, pouring into New York’s Citi Field to learn from the world’s most respected rabbis about the dangers of the internet. Naturally. Outside the stadium, I was spotted by a man brandishing one of my own articles about leaving the internet. He was ecstatic to meet me. I had chosen to avoid the internet for many of the same reasons his religion expressed caution about the modern world.

“It’s reprogramming our relationships, our emotions, and our sensitivity,” said one of the rabbis at the rally.

My new friend outside the stadium encouraged me to make the most of my year, to “stop and smell the flowers.”

The Sea of Talmud

In the 2001 book “The Talmud and the Internet” by Jonathan Rosen, the author brings a quote from the Ethics of the Fathers (5:21) to describe a point of similarity between the Talmud and the Internet: “Ben Bag Bag would say: Delve and delve into it, for all is in it; see with it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing better.”

Before we begin explaining this quote, let’s first mention two important dates related to our discussion; one civil and one from the Jewish calendar.

I don’t know if Miller mentioned this explicitly, but the start and end of his year long hiatus on April 30th, is also the date that is widely celebrated as the Internet’s birthday. This was the day that on April 30th, 1993, at the encouragement of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, CERN officially declared the World Wide Web ownerless and free to the public. In commemoration of this year being the twentieth anniversary, CERN re-created this very first website for all to see and learn from.

The second date is the Hebrew date this article is being written on. Tonight is the 26th of Iyar, or the 41st day of the Counting of the Omer. We explained last year, that this day could be called “Jewish Communication Day,” because according to Kabbalah, it is an auspicious day to both connect with, and properly communicate, ourselves to the world.

At that time, we chose the Facebook IPO (which occurred on this same Hebrew date last year), as our topic for an article about Jewish Communication Day 2012 / 5772. As we now know, that event became the most talked about social media story of the year.

For this article then, we wanted to choose a topic that would provide us with some lasting, take home messages for the coming year. If last year was about announcing ourselves to the world, this year then is about juggling paradoxes; to experience the Internet without a computer, or read an Ebook by reading a print book.

A Matter of Perspective

Before we go back to Ben Bag Bag, let’s first bring another episode from Miller’s encounters over the past year. This quote was attributed to net theorist Nathan Jurgenson,

“He pointed out that there’s a lot of “reality” in the virtual, and a lot of “virtual” in our reality. When we use a phone or a computer we’re still flesh-and-blood humans, occupying time and space. When we’re frolicking through a field somewhere, our gadgets stowed far away, the internet still impacts our thinking: “Will I tweet about this when I get back?””

What then is the intention behind Ben Bag Bag’s statement to “delve and delve” into the Torah, and for that matter, the Internet Asifah that seemed to eschew the Internet? First and foremost, it is that the Torah should be seen as something complete unto itself.

The truth is, the Oral Torah was initially not allowed to be formally written down. It was only because of years of persecution and exile, that Rabbi Judah the Prince, made the decision to begin codifying oral law into the Mishneh (which later became further expanded in the Talmud). The justification for this shift from “virtual” to “written” was in order that the laws not be forgotten or accidentally changed. That being said, even though the Talmud was written down, since it is still called the “Oral Torah,” it can still be considered “virtual” or “social,” relative to the “written” Five Books of Moses.

The Torah Scroll, handwritten by a scribe on parchment, is not something that can be digitized. To be sure, according to Jewish law, it is forbidden to read an Ebook on the Sabbath. So for the Jewish people, this distinction between print and digital is a permanent one.

Complete Connectivity

Given the above, we can now begin presenting our take on the Internet Asifah. Instead of isolationism, according to Kabbalah and Chassidut, the underlying motivation is one of connectivity. Ultimately, say the rabbis, nothing can be as complete or connected as the Torah. This is the lesson of Ben Bag Bag, translated to our present day. This is what Sir Tim Berners-Lee would call the “universal access to information” that inspired the Internet twenty years ago. But while Lee’s motivation was noble, the search for complete and universal access to information began many centuries before. Let’s first explain what it means to swim through the sea of the Torah.

Judaism doesn’t relate to the Torah as a collection of ideas that can be accepted in part. The entire Torah―all the letters of the Torah scroll and all the 613 mitzvot together―constitutes a consummate whole. The foundation of Judaism then is total acceptance of Heaven’s yoke, and all the mitzvot of the Torah as a whole. The Giving of the Torah would not have been viable without the consummate wholeness of six-hundred-thousand Jewish souls (corresponding to the six-hundred-thousand letters of the Torah; each individual Jew with his own letter in the Torah), who stood at the foot of the mountain “as one man with one heart.”

True, sometimes for various reasons we are unable to observe the entire Torah; we cannot always reach out to every Jew. But we must realize that in essence, the Torah is complete

Talmudic Relativity

Till this day, people say that Einstein’s Relativity is a “Jewish science” (see: Einstein’s Jewish Science by Steven Gimbel). It seems then appropriate to bring it here to explain Jurgenson’s statement above. While an average person leaving the Internet may seem more disconnected, the Talmudist doesn’t have this same concern. Even without the Internet, there are many active Torah study halls where students can meet up, and learn together for hours on end. For the Talmudist, this is reality, and the Internet is indeed seen as something relatively “virtual.”

Although there are many good Torah websites, the main consideration behind the Asifah was to keep the Torah whole and complete. As stated above, all 613 mitzvot together comprise the consummate whole. While the Internet’s drive for universal information is praiseworthy, like anything in technology, it comes with its virtues and vices. Since the Torah is the most “real thing” for a Jew, the first consideration is to keep it complete.

The completeness of the Torah clearly corresponds to the prohibition against idolatry: the Ten Commandments begin with the commandment, “I am Havayah, your God… You shall have no other gods besides Me”; the entire Torah and all the mitzvot are the finer details of this general rule, as the commentaries write that all 248 positive commandments are included in the phrase, “I am Havayah, your God,” and all 365 prohibitive commandments are included in the commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” Thus, if someone is being coerced to commit an act that can be interpreted to be idolatrous, he should sacrifice his life, because this is not merely one detail of the Torah, but the entire Torah.

Reading in Order to Write

If the completeness of the Torah is paramount for an observant Jew, then the question can be asked, what justification is there to surf the tumultuous seas of the Internet?

The Chassidic approach in recent years, from the days of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kazen and onward, was to view the Internet as an opportunity. To the extent that the Internet can be used to spread the light of Torah, then it is praiseworthy to do so. Otherwise, it is indeed better to unplug and devote one’s spare time to learning the Talmud and other Torah works. This relates to Jurgenson’s “Will I tweet about this when I get back?” statement. Aside from perhaps the workplace, the main justification for surfing the Internet then seems to be in order to spread the light of Torah.

For instance, this article wouldn’t have been written if not for reading Miller’s essay on TheVerge.com. But our intention for reading that site was primarily to find a topic for Jewish Communication Day. For us, that is what was real, while the metaphors from the world of technology to us are something virtual and fleeting. While the technology stories change in rapid succession, what remains steadfast and eternal is the truth of the Torah.

While the Five Books of Moses can never be digitized, it should also never be viewed as something limited. The main reason to unplug from the Internet, is to plug into the completeness of the written Torah. But for those vested in spreading the light of Torah, it is also praiseworthy to put the plug back in, in order to connect with those that do not yet find their homes in the Talmudic study halls.

This then is the debate. For those who hold the completeness of the Torah primary, the Internet rightly appears as a very great threat. But while Chassidic tradition also views the completeness of the Torah as primary, this awareness also comes with a sensitivity toward fostering completeness among the Jewish people.

Even if it means following the latest technology news, as long as the results are beneficial, it’s all well worth the effort.

With the help of material from RabbiGinsburgh.com.

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