Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No More "Three-Day" Jews

The Jewish Week: May 14, 2008

If there were a graveyard for the outmoded, it would be filled with typewriters, telephone dials, shortwave radios and three-day-a-year Jews. These items don’t exist any more, except in museums, attics and the nostalgic yearnings of those caught up in the imagery of yesteryear.

All are victims of the technological revolution. Typewriters have been replaced by the computer; dial phones with touch tones, shortwave with Web sites, and three-day Jews have been rendered obsolete by radically new modes of connection providing grass-roots Jewish empowerment 365 days a year.

A few weeks ago, a congregant came up to me and the conversation turned to one of those moral perplexities that seem to confound us with greater frequency these days. As we parted, he said,
“I guess the answer will never be fully understood, just like the red cow.”

“Right,” I said as I walked away, impressed that he knew all about that obscure law, categorized by commentators as one of those few mitzvot that defy human understanding. It’s complicated stuff, indicating a high level of curiosity and inquiry.

Now this particular congregant is hardly of the legendary three-day ilk. He attends services often, but his erudite allusion was typical of comments I’ve been getting lately, even from congregants whom I rarely see between High Holy Days.

I’ve always felt that this three-day thing was overrated. Even the most marginal Jew occasionally finds his way to a synagogue for bar mitzvahs, funerals, concerts or lectures. The “three-day” moniker was just another way to foster guilt and degradation, to reinforce the hierarchical nature of Jewish life and to highlight the alienation many feel from institutional Judaism. But it never had much to do with true levels of Jewish engagement.

Centuries ago, the Baal Shem Tov literally blew the whistle on such derogatory labels with his tale of the shepherd who came to services on Yom Kippur, and who, when moved to pray, pulled out his shepherd’s whistle and blew. The congregation was outraged, until the founder of modern Chasidism asserted that only the shrill blasts of this uninitiated stranger had enabled everyone’s prayers to pierce the gates of heaven.

The Dalai Lama hasn’t seen the inside of his holy place since 1959, yet no one calls him a three-day Tibetan. It’s time to stop bemoaning the drop in institutional affiliation and recognize that Jewish identification is now being fostered in ways that community leaders cannot possibly measure — much of it anonymously, online.

Now, everyone has complete access, in the office or at home, to a Jewish library larger than the cumulative libraries of every great rabbi for the past two millennia. The entire Talmud, the venerable Jewish Encyclopedia and reams of Torah commentary are just a click away.

It’s a new era. As we’ve seen this year in domestic and foreign politics, the operative direction for the flow of information is no longer top-down but rather bottom-up. The old hierarchies no longer hold the power they used to, from the Chinese government, which struggles to control grassroots protests against repressive policies, to the Catholic Church, which faces dissent from within.

Good thing we don’t have such hierarchies in Judaism.

And if we did, we won’t. Now every Jew is theoretically his or her own rabbi. The Torah, after all, calls us a “nation of priests.” But while we no longer need rabbis or synagogues to access Jewish information, it helps to have someone capable of interpreting it, who can help people choose from the dizzying array of options. Just as the WebMD generation still needs doctors, we still need trained rabbis — but the training needs to be more befitting a non hierarchical age of empowerment.

Behold, the birth of the Wiki Jew.

According to — what else? — Wikipedia, “A wiki is software that allows users to collaboratively create, edit, link, and organize the content of a website... Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites.”

Wikipedia has many flaws, but the enormity of the collaboration that creates it is awe-inspiring. The community that is constructing this vast compendium of accumulating knowledge s nothing less than the entire human race. Anyone can contribute to this trove of information — even those less than qualified. But in the end, the power of numbers enables Wikipedia, more often than not, to be self-correcting. One recent study pointed out that it rivals even the Encyclopedia Britannica (also now online) for accuracy.

For millennia, Jewish tradition has evolved in much the same collaborative, incremental manner, and now it is finding a home in the global cyber-yeshiva. While rabbis still play a major role, everyone is now welcome to join in this timeless conversation. As new halachic questions mount — on subjects ranging from intellectual property rights and workplace privacy to the forwarding of third-party e-mails, rabbis are weighing in online; but so is everyone else. On my own blog (, I’ve initiated “Masechet Cyberspace,” a “halachic wiki” of sorts, for the discussion of these issues. Fittingly, “Masechet” means both a Talmudic tractate and a web.

So the three-day Jew is no more. During the rest of the year, she may be tapping into the Jewish stream in a brand-new way: frequenting the enchanted Wiki-room.

1 comment:

Lisa Colton said...

Thanks for this posting. While I am a strong believer in the value of in-person meetings, also into the graveyard needs to go the expectation that the only, or the best way to engage in Jewish life is walking INTO the synagogue. However I do think we need to think about how a local, organized Jewish community can bridge the in person and online experiences, so the "three-day in the synagogue Jew" is not making Shabbas for herself online the other 362 days a year, and that her online experiences may in fact engage her MORE in her local community. I'm curious to her your thoughts, and any examples you're aware of... And look forward to seeing you at CAJE!

Lisa Colton, Darim Online