Monday, November 8, 1999 (Jewish Week)

by Joshua Hammerman

It was late in the summer on 1995 when I first connected to the Web. I was playing around with this new supernatural toy from a company called "Gateway," when suddenly the pearly gates opened and I was in what they call a chat room. I looked up at the top of a pretty blank screen and saw that there were only two names there, and one of them was me. Well. not really me, but my screen name. Hamrab.

The other person was called Whalermouth. I tried to figure out what that meant, but then figured that if that other person was trying to do the same with my name he'd be having a hell of a time. It wasn't worth trying to shake the anonymity.

Then, my four year-old son Ethan noticed some words on the screen. "Hello, Hamrab, tell me if you are there."

My God, it talks! The computer was talking to me. Or really, some completely unknown yet distinct person, with the image of God, yet totally unseen and unheard, someone was reaching out to me as a human being in this most inhuman of environments. What was I to do?

I wasn't ready for this. Do I answer? Do I let on that I'm really there? Well, I typed in, "Hamrab says hello." Totally flustered, and not wanting to get involved with anyone who would call himself Whalermouth, I clicked my way out of the room and to a local weather report. It was an easy click, much easier than hanging up the phone on all those solicitors who call at dinner time. Too easy, in fact. Because the human factor had been so masked by words on a screen. I'm not even sure why I said hello in the first place.

The fact that my son was there is not in itself significant, except that, well, you see he had helped me to turn the thing on. You know someday, maybe when he's 16, he'll be able to hit a baseball further than his old man. And someday, like maybe when he's six, he'll be a few technological light years ahead of me. But that's OK, because I know that my parents, when they were my age, were just pleased as punch that they could get decent black and white reception of Milton Berle if the rabbit ears were turned in the right way. That was the extent their technological prowess, back in those good old days when gophers were pesky animals, the net was what you caught flies in on a hot summer day, and the web, well that was where Dad had to string up his son's baseball glove. Even Dad's glove had a web. Even granddad's.

God is all over the Internet, because of the net, because of the web. These are the metaphors for the Sacred that resonate in this age: the images of universal connection.

The Lord is my Web. The Lord connects me to anonymous Whalermouths, and to my sister 6,000 miles away. Cheap! And when I crash, the Lord's Net shall catch me, all the days of my life.

In the world of the Net everyone is equal, and everyone is heard. Everyone is connected by the humming fibers of phone lines and modems, and somewhere out there, our words land, we know not where. It's sort of like prayer.

And it doesn't have to be anonymous; in fact it can be incredibly intimate and informal, which is just how people want it. No one will correct your spelling on the Internet. It's assumed that the prose will be messy, as it is in normal conversation, and you can speak to people you love, people far away, for pennies. E-mail has become a prime form of communication between parents and children away at college. Aside from being far less expensive than the phone, it also eliminates completely that dreaded modern disease known as telephone tag. Instead of saying "call me," with e-mail you can send a message, know that sometime that day the other person will see it and respond, and if you happen to be on the computer at the same time, the reply can appear on your screen right before your eyes.

In some ways, and in spite of all the bad grammar going around, e-mail has restored some of the romance of the personal letter that was lost when the phone came onto the scene. As rushed as the e-mail process is, it is one step removed from the immediacy of a phone relationship, and sometimes that extra moment can be beneficial for a relationship, just enough time to collect thoughts and replace cliches with heartfelt responses.

There is much good about the new technologies. It can be a source of connection and comfort. There are even rabbinical kvetch lines. I can see it now: in the near future, more than a few Bar Mitzvah speeches will be ironed out by e-mail. And at our disposal will be a library of Jewish resources greater than the combined libraries of every rabbi of every previous generation since Moses. It is staggering.

But is God really there?

"Though I walk in a Valley Overshadowed by Death I will fear no evil for You are there"

God is found where there is death, where there is life, where there is flesh, where there is mass as well as energy. On the Web exists circuitry alone.

So let me give you the other side now. Martin Buber said that all real living is meeting. There has got to be something real when two human beings interact. And one must wonder, can blipping words on a screen serve that purpose? Does the internet, in the end, enhance life? And if so, why is the common complaint about people who spend their days in front of a screen that they should "get a life"? That is true, incidentally, for all modern technology. When virtual reality replaces absolute reality as the lens through which we view the world, it's like the couple who visits the Grand Canyon, and they look out and see it all, all the vast magnificence of rock and sun and wind. And one turns to the other and says, "Honey, this is incredible, it's just like a movie."

The technological explosion has left us all in the dust. Just as we began to get used to food processors, along came the microwave oven. And just as we began to allow our children to within thirty feet of the microwave, along came the VCR to torment us with that blinking digital clock screaming out our technical inadequacies. And just as we got used to that, and actually enjoyed knowing that we could tape our favorite shows when on vacation, along came cellular phones and fax machines, which basically told us that there would never be a real vacation again.

In Israel, where they have always been a little gadget crazy anyway, cellular phones are everywhere. And I mean everywhere. The ultimate occurred at a graveside funeral, when, just as they had finished shoveling the dirt, the phone began to ring, from down there. When the other world is calling, do you accept the charges? Well it turned out that the cellular phone belonged to one of the men who had been digging the grave; it fell out of his pocket. But what do you do when phones begin to ring from all sides during a funeral, or where our beepers often summon us to a higher calling? What do you do at the beach when all the laptops suddenly appear, and one is less at the beach than at the office. The tyranny of technology has not made life more convenient, it has made workaholism one of our greatest and most dangerous addictions. An October 1994 survey done for Hilton Hotels found that 19 percent of Americans call the office frequently during vacations, 13 percent take work along and 27 percent acknowledged being nervous that something would go wrong at work while they were away. I think many of us can relate to these statistics.

So technology, when embraced fully, can lure us from a life outside our work; but to live in God's image, one must, like God, take a rest from work once in a while.

But there is an even darker side to the matter of the Internet. And that is that we are losing the real as we embrace the virtual.

A book that has made its way around many intellectual circles of late is called "Bowling Alone." Its premise is that more people in America are bowling than ever before. And there are fewer bowling leagues in America than there have been in many decades. Too many of us are choosing to bowl alone, rather than to form the teams and leagues that used to weave a different kind of web in our society. The bowling leagues have given way to Internet chat rooms, as have many other social and fraternal organizations; we know how hard it is here to organize social events, to keep worthy organizations afloat. People would rather bowl alone.

The protagonist of the hit film, "The Net" was such a loner that no one at all on this earth could vouch for her or identify her when the net turned on her and denied her an identity. She literally needed to get a life. And the life you can get for yourself on line is not a real one. No, I really don't go around calling myself Hamrab. If you can't see the faces, if you can't smell, touch or hear, than the only thing left is the brain and that blip on the screen.

Yes, there are millions of volumes of sacred texts in the data bases of our computers, but is there a single musty page or cracked binding? Does anything last, or does it get downloaded and tossed away? Can God's name really justifiably be found on the computer screen, if it will inevitably be erased? There are still those of us who have certain reverence for the texture of a page, which we do not feel for the computer screen.

And a living religion needs that texture. David Gerlernter a Jewish Computer Science professor at Yale, makes this point in a recent article. For a Christian, walking into Chartres is a moving experience --- to inhabit that landscape and be moved by it is part of being a Christian. For a Jew, beat up old volumes of Talmud are our Chartres. It's more than the words.

Torah study is not as easy as flicking a mouse. It is difficult. It needs the immediacy of people talking together than you can't duplicate, even on a video conference call. It needs people, live and in person. We cannot lose the feel of a classroom. We cannot lose this central address, where the eternal light does not blink, we cannot lose our true community, not the ones we don't really know, but the ones who know us, with all our flaws and imperfections. We cannot lose the sound of people all around us at prayer or laughing and crying together, or even nodding off, we cannot lose all of this; we cannot lose our spiritual landscape, for then we do lose the image of God.

So can God be found on the Internet? Only if the Internet doesn't become God. For God can never be Virtual. God is as real as the lush meadows, the still waters, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death.


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