Thursday, May 1, 2008

Masechet Cyperspace #4: Can We Erase God's Name on a Computer Screen?

On Wednesday, the New York Times ran an interesting article about a unique Holocaust Torah: From Auschwitz, a Torah as Strong as Its Spirit. This inspiring piece has generated concern among some Jews because if you look closely at the accompanying photo featuring columns of Torah text, God’s name appears. This means that the New York Times has at last attained the status that it has always sought: it is a now a sacred document! Since God’s name is there, that issue cannot be discarded routinely and should be buried.

This naturally brings us to the question of what to do when the ineffable name appears (in Hebrew) on a computer screen. Can it be erased?

To respond to that question, I direct you to this article by educator Joel Lurie Grishaver (once a scholar in residence here). He writes: God's name on a computer screen is not sacred; otherwise you would never be able to change the screen or turn it off if God's name came up. Several legal authorities have allowed the electronic destruction of a sacred name on our screens because they are no longer printed - they have been broken down to a series of dots, and dots can be erased.

Here’s an interesting paradox. Most authorities say that the image can be erased because it is “non durable” (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s words) – or, one can say, not “real.” Yet we also know that, like Las Vegas, things that happen on your computer STAY on your computer. Forensic experts can recover even e-mails that have long since been erased, and this is happening increasingly in legal cases. There is also the more spiritual notion that missives that we place on the Web, like prayers, are sent off into worlds unknown and heard Somewhere Else. Think of all the jokes or sappy stories that you receive as emails, only to be received again months or even years later. They return like Halley’s comet, again and again and again. The point is that when you write God’s name on your screen, it never really disappears. Like God Herself, it may not be visible after a while, but it is there. Somewhere.

So for two completely contradictory reasons, it is permissible to write the divine name on your computer screen, and then to delete it.

No comments: