Sunday, July 4, 2021

From shepherd to weaver: seeking God in cyberspace (excerpts from “ God in Cyberspace”)


    No 19. October 2001. 
    � Joshua Hammerman 

    From shepherd to weaver:
    seeking God in cyberspace

    Joshua Hammerman 

    This essay is composed of extracts from Rabbi Joshua Hammerman's (2000), where he takes the reader on a virtual pilgrimage through cyberspace and presents a Jewish perspective on age-old questions of good and evil in a contemporary environment, as well as tackling rather newer questions such as the nature of the web we are weaving. The text has been edited for inclusion in Mots Pluriels. Full publication details of the book can be found at the end of this article. 

    Over the centuries, people of all faiths have employed countless metaphors to describe that which is both Ultimate and ultimately indescribable. The Hebrew Bible alone contains dozens of different images of God, envisioning the sacred as everything from a male warrior to a mother eagle. Each of these represents not only a view of divinity, but also a way of looking at the world - and ourselves. Those who composed the book of Exodus' triumphant Song of the Sea, who called God a "Man of War," had a worldview that was decidedly patriarchal, where an active God with human features could take sides in wars against lesser gods and humans. It was a world where justice prevailed. At the other extreme we have Job, to whom God was a voice out of the whirlwind, distant, terrifying and beyond understanding, reflecting the unjust world in which the righteous Job suffered so horribly. 

    As each generation has struggled to understand its place in the cosmos, it has fashioned a God to facilitate that process. Some might claim that this process makes a mockery of Western religions, which typically see the fashioning of divine images as idolatrous behavior. But the second commandment, the one that says "Make no other Gods before me," says nothing about making other metaphors.[1] Idolatry is when you point to a rock and say, "That's God." When you point to the Grand Canyon and say, "My God!" you are not saying that the canyon is God, but that the awesome spectacle of that huge carved-out rock is helping you to experienceGod. We experience God in many different ways, whenever we sense awe or profound gratitude, order, serenity or wonder. As new technologies take hold, these transcendent feelings are evoked in new ways and become more commonplace and accessible. It is no surprise that the popularity of books, music and films with spiritual themes has increased markedly in recent years. 

    While the latter part of the twentieth century had no monopoly on turbulence - and it is true that through all of history the only constant has been change - the pace of change has increased dramatically over the past three decades. At least it feels that way. Some could claim that the first part of this century was even more tumultuous, what with the inventions of the airplane, automobile and modern mass warfare. But that is of little solace to so many today who feel so lost and detached, reeling with displacement. 

    Perhaps this alienation stems from organized religion's inability to keep up. In the past, religion has been at the forefront either of opposing change (as with the condemnation of "rebels" like Galileo and Spinoza), or promoting it (as with the eventual embrace of great religious figures like Paul and Isaiah). But right now we hear few powerful voices of faith and very little direction from the pulpit. Our clergy seem bent on clinging to old metaphors that have no relevance to people whose worldview has been altered radically. Our churches and synagogues seem curiously out of touch with how most of us are feeling about religion, to the point where many people have become far more comfortable not using the term religion at all, replacing it with the more generic word "spirituality." Yet religion is not dead, just as God was not really dead in the 1960s, despite all claims to the contrary. What is dead is the prime metaphor of God that sustained Americans throughout the middle of the twentieth century. 

    What's dead is "the Shepherd." 

    I can recall the one time I tried to use a new translation of the twenty-third Psalm at a funeral. Immediately afterwards, I was verbally decapitated by an angry mourner for turning the "Valley of the Shadow of Death" into the "Valley of Deepest Darkness" and for changing that cup that "runneth over" into one that "overflows." But my greatest transgression was to tamper with the prime metaphor of that seminal psalm. "The Shepherd" provided the key image of God that sustained American Christians and Jews through the horrors of the Great Depression and cataclysmic wars. That tranquil image of calm certainty allowed people to submit, to accept a lot that might easily include premature loss and tragedy, to resist despair in stoic confidence that right would triumph and that their side wasright. The shepherd metaphor presented God as a loving (male) caretaker, not as intimate as a parent, nor as demanding as a teacher, king or judge. Americans were suffering, but the Shepherd was in complete control of our destinies and, most importantly, He was a God who took responsibility for us. Americans needed to believe that God had a stake in us. 

    So this was the one time that I changed "shepherd" to "companion," an alternative translation of the same Hebrew word. "The Lord is my Companion." Sounded good to me. 

    Big mistake. 

    That mourner, who not coincidentally came from that wartime generation, was looking for the soothing stroke of a shepherd's staff. The last thing he wanted at that moment was a "companion." 

    Since that day I've stayed with "shepherd" at funerals, but I've abandoned that metaphor in every other sense. For I have come to understand that precisely that which galvanized my parents' generation is now numbing my contemporaries and our children. The shepherd metaphor does not comfort me anymore, if it ever did. It has nothing to do with what provides me with the spiritual sustenance I need to make sense of my life. It simply doesn't resonate, for a number of reasons. 

    As a Jew, I cannot imagine myself in the role of sheep, especially when six million of my fellow Jews were led like sheep to the slaughter. Although many resisted and most were heroic even in passive resistance, the image of sheep-to-the-slaughter remains, nearly six decades later, the pervasive nightmare of the Jewish people. Sheep are passive, plump and witless sweaters-in-waiting. The idea of being a sheep sickens me. 

    As a human being, I can not trust a God who, on His shepherd's watch, would allow His sheep to die. The shepherd God might already have been on the critical list before World War II, with new technologies and urban sprawl already rendering this metaphor obsolete. But the Holocaust was the final blow. If the wolves eat the sheep, how can we not fire the shepherd? 

    As a pastor, I find the shepherd-flock image stifling to my ministry and to the congregation. New models of spiritual leadership placing the pastor in the role of a companion provide fertile ground for me. As a fellow seeker, I am able to lead by example, without prodding, with room for my own experimentation, with allowance for an occasional failure. I've found most pastors have great difficulty coming down from the pasture, but once they do the effect is liberating, for them and their former flock. 

    And finally, as a participant in the technological revolution currently changing the way we look at everything, I have found new metaphors that are much more appealing, new ways of organizing my universe that connect me to that which is Greater than myself. 

    So I've been searching for God online. 

    Incidentally, I also believe it's possible to find spirituality in my VCR instruction manual. And in my home videos, my cell phone, my beeper, my remote control, my cable box and television screen; in the Hubble telescope and the space shuttle, in my microwave oven and in a cloned sheep called Dolly. How I see God in these other technological phenomena is the subject for a broad-based book; yet in some sense, a deep search for God on the Internet, the subject of this study, is a microcosm of the larger issue. 

    [. . .] 

    For me, there is no other choice but to seek God through engagement in this world. I come from a tradition that refrains from asceticism. When the world seems to be going haywire, a Jew can't just run off and hide. Neither can we take technology and make it into yet another idol, as cult groups like Heaven's Gate have done. We are enjoined to grapple with the world and make it better, not to escape from it. Admittedly, there are some highly respected ascetic traditions, including some that have biblical roots, which do see great merit in solitude. But even the monastic life typically is not intended as an escape from material reality that surrounds it, but ultimately as a contributor to its salvation. 

    The death of the shepherd metaphor has brought with it the death of rugged individualism as the American ideal. For that shepherd was also, thinly disguised, the Marlboro man, the John Wayne general and the Humphrey Bogart cafe owner. The God of the past generation was a lonely sort, accepting His solitude because that's what true leadership was all about. During the Cold War, America had to stand tall in the saddle, rifle cocked, ready to ward off "evil" Indians and wolves. The God I sought and, to an extent found on the Web, is quite different, and so is the world that we live in. Today's God dances with wolves and prances with Pocahontas (at least with the Disney version). The age of individualism and Cold War wagon circling has given way to one of mystical outreach and interconnection. America's Declaration of Independence has been replaced, in a spiritual sense at least, with a more universal Declaration of Interdependence. 

    So now we escape the green pastures where our cup has run dry and venture boldly beyond the valley of the shadow of death, to explore the rocky terrain of our real and virtual universe, in search of the God we believe in. 

    [. . .] 

    The prevailing metaphor of this new cybervillage 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 quite right just yet, but it is beginning to feel right for so many of us. 

    A survey of the Hebrew Bible would not lead us to believe that "web" could possibly become a front-running candidate for divine imagery. In the Hebrew Bible, the term appears fewer than half a dozen times and typically has negative connotations. In the book of Job, one of Job's fairweather friends, Bildad, lectures Job in chapter 8, saying, "So are the paths of all who forget God . . . his hope shall be cut off, and his trust shall be a spider's web." In other words, either the trust will tear apart as easily as a web or it will become ensnarled and bogged down. Either way, not good. And the next verse implies that the houses of the wicked are themselves like webs. Isa. 59:5-6 compares the evil plans of those who seek to thwart the righteous to the webs that the spider spins to catch insects. Ps. 140 mentions the spider and snake as examples of poisonous creatures. 

    Later Jewish sources aren't much more sympathetic. One of the more famous teachings of the Talmudic sage Rav Assi (late third century), based on Isa. 59, is that the evil inclination, though initially as fragile as a spiderweb, eventually gains the firmness of a cart rope (tractate Sukkah 52a).[2] Rabbi Nahman ben Jacob, who lived at about the same time, was known for the misogynous saying, "When a woman is talking she is spinning (a web to capture her male)" (tractate Megilla 14b). In the New Testament, incidentally, the web doesn't appear at all, either as a concept or a metaphor. 

    From this angle, at the root of the web's image problem lies the age-old fear of spiders. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica,[3] the Land of Israel has hundreds of species of spiders and all have poisonous glands in their maxillaries. While the poison in most spiders is far too mild to affect humans, it doesn't exactly create an aura of endearment around a creature that is rather creepy to begin with. 

    But through history, the web has also taken on different meanings, less associated with its spidery source. Anthropologists now claim that human beings were food gatherers before we were hunters and that the first human tool was not an axe or spear, but a basket. Knotting, tying and weaving were revolutionary discoveries, steeped in mystery and magic. In some societies, binding hair or clothing gave one control over that person's soul. In the book of Judges, Samson dares Delilah to weave his hair into a web as a means of sapping his strength. In ancient Greek mythology, the Fates (called Moerae) were three goddesses who controlled human life. They included Clotho, who spun the web of life; Lachesis, who measured its length; and Atropos, who cut it. In modern literature, webs have come to be associated with intricate plot lines. Webs are also associated with tangled tales of deceit, as exemplified in Sir Walter Scott's famous ditty, 

      O, what a tangled web we weave, 
      When first we practise to deceive. 

    In the twentieth century, Picasso saw artistic inspiration in the web and Antoine de Saint-Exupery "a mesh into which relationships are tied." That is exactly what Tim Berners-Lee had in mind for the world's scientists when he created the term "World Wide Web" in 1989. He likely didn't consider this quote of Seattle, chief of the Dwarmish, Susquamish and allied Indian tribes, who wrote in an 1854 letter to President Franklin Pierce: 

      This we know: the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which united one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.[4]

    Chief Seattle's words have become gospel to environmentalists everywhere (I even saw them on the menu of the Rainforest Cafe), and the foundation of many earth-based theologies. The second Adam and Eve, the main characters of the second Creation account, would have had little trouble relating to Seattle's passion. Most recently, the popularity of this philosophy of interconnectedness has found expression in the Gaia theory of the earth as a living system and various other systems theories in biology and physics that have moved us from an essentially mechanistic worldview to one that is more holistic. Spiritual-scientific syntheses have cropped up, such as those of Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics, and most recently The Web of Life, in which he writes: 

      To regain our full humanity, we have to regain our connectedness with the entire web of life. This reconnecting, religio in Latin, is the very essence of the spiritual grounding of deep ecology.[5]

    A second look at the ancient Jewish sages reveals that they, too, understood the power of the web metaphor in grasping the interrelatedness of all creation. The Babylonian Talmud is divided into sixty-three 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. One does not pick up a tractate of Talmud to gain quick answers to complex questions - in fact, the opposite is true. 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. More often than not, the Talmud doesn't give us the answers. The vast majority of the discussions found in its tractates remain unresolved.[6]

    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 understand fully why that particular word was chosen to describe the interconnected and sacred nature of all areas of life; it also brings us to a most significant milepost on our journey: "We are the web," it states, "and You are the Weaver." 

    We have left the shepherd behind us, as you recall, somewhere out to pasture. Now we are introduced to God the weaver, a new and engaging metaphor that turns out to be almost as old as that shepherd one. "The Lord is our Weaver" is an astonishing image, but it gets us only halfway home. The other half will be to see God, as well as all reality, as existing within the web itself, and then transferring that notion to the Web - the Internet - itself. 

    The fact that the word masechet is derived from "web" does not point to a cultural phenomenon that is uniquely Jewish. There is almost certainly a connection between masechet and the Latin word textus, which comes from texere, meaning "to weave, to fabricate." All texts consist of woven strands of ideas coming together to form a whole. Fittingly, they are printed on material that is itself woven, or they appear on electronic screens that consist of interconnected lines or dots. 

    Look around in our society today and see the popularity of web-like images in our language, including tapestries, patchwork quilts, knots, mosaics, and labyrinths. When we see these metaphors in constant use, we must ask what the users are looking for. Most often the use of such imagery exposes a passion for interconnection and a desire for the security and order in a world that appears from close up to be such a mishmash. When former New York mayor David Dinkins called the city a "fabulous mosaic," he was looking at a city that, from close up, appeared to consist of segregated enclaves of various ethnic hues, but from a distance might be seen as an ensemble of complementary pieces. His assumption was that there was some manner of glue holding this mosaic all together. He might have considered himself that substance, though in Crown Heights the mosaic became unglued rather dramatically (just as it has more recently under Mayor Giuliani with the Diallo case and other accusations of police brutality). But on a different level, others might consider that glue to be God. A New York seemingly at peace with itself, with a lower crime rate and increased tourism, only enhances the power of the "fabulous mosaic" myth. 

    I remember as a teen holding an old LP of Carole King's Tapestry in my hand and how the record cover itself felt as if it were woven of wool or flax, and how good that felt to the touch. The songs only added to the sensation. For Jews, the act of holding the braided fringes of the prayer shawl (tallit) in our hands, as we are required to do for various prayers, but many do throughout the service, is a very comforting tactile experience. For me, it is the adult equivalent of holding my blankie, and indeed for many Jews, a lasting childhood memory is that of sitting in synagogue, fiddling with the fringes of a parent's tallit. Running between my fingers four sets of eight interwoven strings, knotted and wound together, I am asked by the tradition to be reminded of the cohesive nature of the divine commandments and of the unity of the Jewish people living in the "four corners" of the world. And doing this while other congregants are doing the same thing (men and women in my congregation) is an additional solidifying factor, along with the fact that the tallit's traditional blue thread reflects the underlying unity of heaven and earth. 

    No doubt about it: We crave webbing. One might call this the "Fruit of the Loom" generation. While our forbears craved independence above all, for us, our most heartfelt prayers are declarations of interdependence. That 1980s hit song "We Are the World" might have been unbelievably corny, but what other hymn could unite the diverse vocal talents of an entire generation? When I run the smooth tassels of my tallit through my fingers, at times I really do feel that "we are the world," that all reality is a neatly woven melange. 

    [. . .] 

    If we are to speak of the Web as holy ground, then the experience of going online has somehow got to be as comforting as running that tallit through my fingers. It has to be more soothing than a blankie, because we can't just come out of the encounter feeling safe and secure - we've got to feel profoundly connected. 


    [1] My teacher, Dr. Neil Gillman, has helped me to better understand the symbolic language we use when we speak of God. His book, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990) provides excellent background on this topic, particularly chapter 4. 

    [2] The Babylonian Talmud is divided into tractates as opposed to volumes and each page traditionally has two sides to it (a and b). 

    [3] Encyclopedia Judaica (16 vol.) New York: Macmillan, 1972. 

    [4] The chief's letter to President Franklin Pierce was published in Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle, 1990. But it might have been a forgery. For a fascinating history of Chief Seattle's speech, and speculation as to what he did and did not originally say, check out an article from the February 1996 issue of Wild West Magazine, which can be found at

    [5] Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1996). The quote is found on page 296 of the later paperback edition. 

    [6] For more discussion of the similarities between traditional Talmudic study and current online communication, see an article by Sarah Coleman in the 6 April, 2000, edition of Salon, entitled "Jews for Java." "In many ways," the author states, "the Talmud looks like a blueprint for Web design." She then adds, "On a typical Talmud page, these writings (Gemara) are placed in discrete blocks in a tree-ring formation around the Mishnah - with cross-references, links to other sections and arcane symbols and abbreviations. The effect is of a virtual discussion forum between rabbis from different centuries. 'It's actually the world's first hypertext,' says former Israeli Minister of Energy Yossi Vardi." 

    From the book, (c) 2000 by Joshua Hammerman. ISBN 1-55874-821-0. Reprinted by permission of Simcha Press/HCI. 3201 S.W. 15 Street. Deerfield Beach, FL 33442-8190. USA. Email: All rights reserved. 
    (Extracts are from Chapter 1: "The Death of 'the Shepherd'", pp.5-11; and from Chapter 11: "The Web and the Weaver", pp.85-91 & 93-94.)

    Joshua Hammerman is both a rabbi and journalist, and has been spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut, since 1992. In addition to writing a weekly column for the New York Jewish Week, he has had articles published in the New York Times MagazineNew York Daily NewsNewsdayAtlanta Journal-ConstitutionHartford CourantJerusalem Post and Moment Magazine. Further information about his book, along with biographical details and an interview, can be found at:

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