Any keyboard player of a certain age –and I risk dating myself here– will agree that the advent of commercial music synthesizers introduced revolutionary changes in the music scene. While for older or less adventurous musicians they mostly meant a tool for cheap emulation of acoustic instruments (why hire a string orchestra if you can use one of these new synth patches?), for artists who were ready to think outside the box the invention offered a dramatically enlarged sound palette. It just doesn’t make sense to poorly imitate violins when we can create amazing sounds that never existed before. Changing parameters is quite ineffective without a change of mindset.
New technology applied to Jewish institutions goes much farther than approaching email as a cheaper form of mass-mailing. Too many people still look at computers as sophisticated typewriters of sorts that will save us a fortune in printing and edition. Although there is a real danger of implementing new technology for the sake of itself, as an end and not as a means, most Jewish groups are rather conservative when investing in technology. Timidly, some denominations and groups are approaching the Internet with a more open mind and consider new possibilities such as podcasting their Shabbat service, using social networks to announce their programs, uploading their benei mitzvah materials online, etc. (I will not extend this post by enumerating potential uses of the internet, their virtues and flaws, but I suggest you to check this interesting article from the Reform movement). These are all good steps, although sometimes I wonder if we are not keeping the old same idea and just switching physical supports, like when we substituted the haftarot recorded on tape for those shiny CD’s. Yes, now the audio files can be downloaded straight to the kid’s Ipod, but isn’t the idea the same?
Of course, as the article says, the application of technology is not exempted of dangers. We risk having a virtual community of people connected online, but not in touch with each other in the “real” world. The availability of information may lead some to think that teachers, rabbis, and cantors are no longer needed, since after all the answers are online. We’ll have to believe that ultimately Judaism will find ways to use new inventions like we did in the past. The Talmud, as R. Dan Moskovitz says, was probably the first blog ever. This compendium of vivid discussions is based on a central mishnah to which a number of rabbis through the generations added their commentaries, rebated each other and a few times even reached to conclusions! From our modern perspective, the results may look somehow chaotic but they help us understand the richness of our diversity of opinions. When extending the metaphor to Web 2.0 and Judaism, we see many parallels. The problem –if there’s such a thing– is that today everybody can chime in, both rabbis and amkha, while in the Talmud only an elite was involved in the discussion.
New technology is not inherently good or bad; it just changes the rules of the game and, if we are lucky and clever planners, may become the motor for a giant evolutionary leap. The invention of the printing press allowed an unprecedented diffusion of Jewish knowledge and a standardization of key textual sources. What made the Shulhan Arukh the preferred halakhic code for generations was the virtue of being written at the beginning of the printing revolution. It enjoyed momentum over the older Arba Turim, for instance, thus becoming the reference code. Our current configuration of the Talmud –Mishnah and Gemara in the center, surrounded by Tosafot, Rashi, etc.–, was an innovation we owe to the early printers. And yet, the same miracle technology favored the expansion of Sabbateanism through Europe and that almost destroyed Judaism.
One of the virtues of web 2.0 is what Emily Grotta calls democratization of Jewish life, although I am not so sure new technology introduces a real democratization but rather an equalization of voices. People and opinions who were in the fringes now can reach big audiences. I think this is ultimately good and is helping create grassroots movements that are making a difference. Just a small example: when in the early nineties the first group for LGBTQ Catalan Jews was created, its founders had to invest many hours, phone calls and snail mail. After a year of hard work, when the group was about to host the European convention for Queer Jewish organizations for the first time in the country, joined pressures of the mainstream Jewish community managed to stop the event dead. The local group disappeared after a couple of years. By contrast, nowadays the new local Jewish LGBTQ group is alive and well. It started as a grassroots movement on Facebook, out of the reach of political games, interdenominational, and virtually unstoppable.
In any case, the democratization brought by Web 2.0 is not always so welcome and often has unpredictable consequences. It is a know fact that big pharmaceutical companies are eliminating their social networking groups. They simply are not willing to implement the feedback they receive about their products. Some Jewish institutions may just not really want feedback from our constituents. In another very interesting article Charles Lechner refers his conversation with certain Jewish federation who solicited his advise on online development. His answer was clear: you’ll have to think different, to evolve from the top-down agenda to a listening agenda, to give voice to people other than the big donors. Their answer: this is just not going to happen. The key is fear of democratizing the communication power, fear that information is going to spill out of control. What happens when you don’t listen? That all those marginalized voices stop sending their donations and even using your services. Sometimes –Lechner explains– the interest of the donors can clash with that of the regular patrons, like in the case of New Voices, a magazine targeting Jewish students. After listening to its readers, the magazine opened its pages to voices that were very critical with Israel. The donors, however, were not pleased and pulled their money out.
Jewish institutions are often controlled exclusively by big donors. As I wrote in several occasions, it is not clear what will synagogues and Jewish organizations look like in the future, but something tells me they will have to introduce many changes to survive. Take a look at the average age of these organizations boards. It is no secret that younger boards would probably be more open to technology changes, or to any kind of changes for that matter. And yet, an obsolete Jewish organization will probably not revive just because of a great Internet campaign. We have to face the future with realism, evaluating the actual needs of people and not expecting them to finance programs based on the needs other people had in the past.