Friday, January 22, 1999

The Lord is My Web (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, January 22, 1999

The Internet has been getting lots of publicity lately. On-line shopping zoomed in popularity this past holiday season, a small indicator of the massive cultural shift that is occurring. While some studies show that spending excessive time in the virtual world can result in alienation from "real" relationships, no one seems to be listening. I for one have been too busy nurturing real relationships with my real congregants by way of an e-mail list that now tops 100 names, and I've been strengthening ties with real relatives living all over the world, including my sister and her family in Ma'aleh Adumim, Israel.

I've never been technology's biggest fan, but I say unabashedly that the Internet is a blessing. In fact, I can go beyond that. I believe that, from many perspectives, the Internet presents us with new and intriguing ways to seek God. I believe that cyberspace is sacred space.

This is not a claim I make lightly. I've spent the better part of the past year working on a book on this topic, to be entitled "" As my research has progressed, drawing me deeper and deeper into the subject, I've been amazed at the number of biblical, rabbinic and kabbalistic ideas about God that fit so neatly into a cyber-setting. One metaphor in particular deserves mention.

The prevailing image of this new on-line community we are creating, the web, is how I think we all are beginning to think of God. "The Lord is my web," might not sound right just quite yet, but this metaphor is beginning to feel right for so many of us. The ancient Jewish sages also understood the power of the web metaphor in grasping the interrelatedness of all creation.

The Babylonian Talmud is divided into 63 volumes, known as tractates, which were compiled and edited over the course of hundreds of years, until the collected work reached its final form around the year 500. In Hebrew the word for tractate is "Masechet." It so happens that the word also means "web." The labyrinth of collected academic discussions that make up Talmudic literature can best be described in that manner.

The Talmud gives us complex responses to what we might have thought were easy questions. Each Talmudic discussion brings us in to the inner world of its participants, often including rabbis of several different generations. Each argument is based on a logic process consistent with the thought processes and assumptions of that particular rabbi. Like a good novel, the Talmud weaves a web of seemingly disconnected information, and by the end, somehow the strands come together to form a cohesive and meaningful whole. This finished web leads us to the conclusion that life is infinitely complex, that certainty is elusive, and that the process of searching for answers is more significant than actually finding them.

The word masechet is also found in a rabbinic commentary to the Psalms, known as Midrash Tehillim, and this quote, coming from around the time of the Talmud, helps us to understand fully why that particular word was chosen to describe the interconnected and sacred nature of all areas of life: "We are the web," it states, "and You are the Weaver."

If we are to speak of the web as holy ground, we should emerge from each on-line encounter feeling profoundly connected. And our souls must be touched primarily without the benefit of our physically touching anything. How can that be done?

The great 19th century chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov wrote, "It is good to have a special room set aside for sacred study and prayer, secluded meditation and conversation with God."

Sit down in front of your computer late at night and see what is there. Reach out to connect -- and not necessarily with people. Simply connecting to the latest news, to stock results or late ball scores, is enough to evoke a feeling of "humble surrender" and awe. How lovely can this universe be, how orderly and sound, when, without waking a soul, I can order cut-rate plane tickets to Chicago? How close to the mountaintop can one ascend, when, with a few clicks, one can see the deep blue earth from the perspective of a roving satellite hundreds of miles up? How dusty must my weary pilgrim's feet get, when I can click my way to a live shot of Jerusalem's Western Wall in seconds, and fax my prayer to be placed within its ancient cracks?

Mircea Eliade, a modern master of the study of the sacred, writes of a sacred space as a place of breakthrough, a point of passage to another realm, an absolute reality. From where can we jump off into that higher world if not from a spring-board whose range appears so limitless? Who would have thought "The Road Less Traveled" could be so easily located on the Information Superhighway?

But that is exactly what has happened. There are times when being on-line helps me to feel completely centered, at peace and connected both to all that is Out There and deep within. That is what the early chasidim called hitbodedut, a state of self-seclusion, where one can have an unfettered conversation with God. Rabbi Nachman taught that we should seclude ourselves with God each day for at least an hour, "and speak with Him about everything that is going on in your life."

The act of introspective e-mailing/prayer, whether it takes the form of a correspondence with a loved one, a clergy, or a long letter to oneself, allows us to be alone/together with ourselves and God. I invite you to share with me your own perspectives on the subject of on-line spirituality by e-mailing me at I'll pour you a cup of java and we'll virtually, I mean really, connect.

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