Wednesday, February 15, 2023

From Seeking God in Cyberspace By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman


From Seeking God in Cyberspace

By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Chapter Seven

God Lives in a Word

In light of the meteoric rise of Artificial Intelligence and ChatGPT into our consciousness, it is worthwhile to take a look back at when the Web was new and the experience of going online so revolutionary and connecting.  We've seen much more of the dark side in recent years, and my own views have shifted.  But my optimism, as expressed in this chapter from my book, published in 2000, is worth revisiting.  And to see my first email communication with the congregation is revelatory, considering where we have come.


Alone in front of a blipping screen, what matters most are the words.

            "In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God, all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him as life." John 1:1

            John's personification of the Word as partner in Creation has its roots in both Jewish and Greek thought.  Plato wrote of such a blueprint for the Creation process and the Jewish philosopher Philo refined it in the century before the birth of Christianity.  For Jews, the Torah is that blueprint, for Christians, the Word is Jesus himself.  If one takes Islam into account, it is clear that Western religious tradition is centered on the sanctity of the written word.  The Oxford Annotated Bible describes John's "Word" (logos in Greek) as "more than (God's) speech; it is God in action, creating, revealing, redeeming."  According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "God lives in a word."  But, he adds, "Words can only open the door, and we can only weep on the threshold of our incommunicable thirst after the incomprehensible."  Despite the growing focus on graphics, video and sound, the experience of God on-line begins with the Word, though it can't possible end there.

            We find God on the Internet through the redemptive power of the written word.

            On the Internet, God lives not exactly in the "written" word, because the words we see on the screen aren't really written.  Like God, they are real, but can't be touched; they stand clearly in front of us, yet are primarily a product of the imagination, as our eye fills in the spaces between the lines and creates the impression of permanence.

            It is against Jewish law to erase the name of God.  That is why the Hebrew name of God (the Tetragrammaton, as it is called, which consists of the letters yod-heh-vav-heh), is rarely spelled out in Jewish texts and most often seen in an abbreviated form.  Some even shorten the English appellation, using G-D rather than God.  Yet God's name is all over the Internet, in all forms.  Why?  Because as the name appears on the screen, it is not in fixed, permanent form.  It can be compared to writing one's name with one's finger on a frosty window. 

        A leading Orthodox rabbi recently ruled that the word  “God” may be erased from a computer screen or disk, because the pixels do not constitute real letters.  Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein published his ruling in an Israeli computer magazine aimed at Orthodox Jews, “Mahsheva Tova” “The letters on a computer screen are an assemblage of pixels, dots of light, what have you,'” the rabbi's assistant, Yossef Hayad explained to a reporter for the Associated Press. “Even when you save it to disk, it's not like you're throwing anything more than a sequence of ones and zeroes.   It's there, but it really isn't.”

            So the name of God isn't really being erased, because it never was really there in the first place.  Or was it?

            The words are virtual, just as the on-line relationships are virtual.  Just as our relationship with God appears virtual, cloaked in metaphor.  But it all feels so real -- because it is.

            Through the word, we have come to a new understanding of reality.  For the Internet is a medium of the word.  True, there are graphics too, and now increasing capacity to communicate via audio and video images.  But when the medium was created in the late '60s by two UCLA professors and introduced in 1969, its goal was to connect computers in their language so that academicians could communicate in ours -- and ours happens to be words.  The medium was intended originally as a depositary of massive amounts of recorded data.   When Tim Berners-Lee first proposed the World Wide Web near Geneva in 1989, his intent was to make scientific papers available on the Internet to other scientists.  Graphic images were then added to words, but in the beginning, it was all about words.  And that is still how we primarily know it.

            So now we live in a world where billions of invisible words are out there, massive virtual libraries, information on almost everything imaginable, real yet untouchable, at our fingertips, yet, without a computer impossible to fathom.  Try explaining the Internet to those who have never experienced it -- it's almost as impossible as explaining the Red Sea splitting to those who slept through it.

            Think of how e-mail has restored to us the power and romance of the written letter.  True, there is nothing that can replace the feel of that letter from a loved one in one's hand, the scent of the perfume, perhaps, and the anticipation of ripping the envelope and excitedly removing its contents.  I agree there is little romance in having a virtual voice exclaim, "You've got mail!"  Nonetheless, ask yourself how many perfumed letters you've written lately, and why most people have eschewed that time-tested -- and time consuming -- method.  In spite of its imperfections,  has enabled us to rediscover what we once knew but forgot long ago, that our words can heal.

            I knew that even before I began to fully implement the technology.  A rabbi friend had told me of how several concerned members of his congregation had e-mailed him to "talk" about the terrible abduction and murder of an Israeli soldier.  But they weren't really talking.  They were writing.  And e-mail, in spite of all the bad grammar and annoying abbreviations, is still one step removed from the immediacy of a telephone or in-person conversation.  Sometimes that extra moment can be enough to enable us to express ourselves as would a Cyrano de Bergerac.

            The power of words can best be perceived when each word is surrounded by space, and when they are accompanied by silence.  There is little silence when words are spoken; there is too much background noise, and too much pressure to volley a comment in return.  On the radio, "dead air," as it is called, is lethal for ratings.  On the telephone, it is lethal for conversation.  When one party allows the line to go silent, it can only be for one of two reasons, and neither one is good: 1) too shaken to respond or 2) not listening.  But with e-mail, we know that what we say here is heard there; and the response is typically a response of the whole person, not just the mouth.

            The intimacy of detachment lies behind the power of the Confessional Booth for Catholics.  One is able to strip off pretenses and bare the soul when there is direct contact filtered through a physical barrier allowing for anonymity and a modicum of distance, while also allowing for direct verbal communication and an instant response.  But even in that booth the fact that communication is vocal can impede the raw intimacy of the words.  Imagine such a situation where any self-consciousness about one's voice is also eliminated.  The computer could become the Confessional Booth of the 21st century.  In some ways, it has already become that for my congregants and myself. 

            Once I began to communicate with congregants by e-mail a few years ago, I knew right away that I was on to something very important for our relationship.  For years I had struggled with the question of how to reach out to hundreds of families to be an effective pastor for each of them.  The key was to establish a degree of trust and intimacy, but for the vast majority, those who weren't intimately involved in educational projects, leadership programs, meetings or services, that intimacy would have to wait for life-cycle events to come.  Typically, it is at the time of illness or death that a pastor and a family "bond." It's rather depressing to think that it will take over 600 deaths for me to get to know my entire congregation.  There had to be another way.  There was.       

            My first e-mail to the congregation list was sent out on November 25, 1996.  it might not have been the shot heard round the world, but it has an instant impact.  Here's a segment:

            Dear Congregants,

            You are part of history: the first e-mail transmission on our Beth El congregants list.  Right now the list is about 20 strong, consisting of  those of you who have given me your addresses or e-mailed me over the past few months.  The list will grow dramatically over the coming weeks as congregants hear about it in our mailings (and from you).  The advantages of a "congregants list" are obvious: instant communications, enabling us to let you know about funerals for instance, important meetings and programs, schedule changes and to otherwise answer questions of general interest.  In the not-too-distant future, I hope to be able to set up a "listserv" that will be more interactive to that you can talk to other congregants, but although this format is more one-sided (me talking to you), you are free to e-mail me with your feedback, which I can forward to others on the list.  Let me know if a matter you bring up is something you would want to share with other congregants.

                                                                                                Shalom from Cyberspace,

                                                                                                Rabbi Joshua Hammerman


            I created three congregational lists; one with basic news of meetings, deaths, births, etc., along with my assorted diatribes on subjects of common concern; a second focusing on Israel and current events, and a third with an emphasis on continuing education and textual study.  We started with twenty or so, and now, a couple of years later, we are pushing a hundred.  It helped to have made some crucial announcements on the list during times of great internal controversy.  Those who had been lagging suddenly subscribed to be in the know.  E-mail, in fact, has redefined who is in and who is out in my congregation.  Typically in religious institutions, the in-group, the ones who are really in the know, are the core, active members, who participate most in services and leadership activities and are most comfortable with the forms of worship.  Every congregation has its core and peripheral groups, although the consistencies of these groups are constantly shifting.  The greatest challenge for any pastor is to get the periphery to feel comfortable enough to come through that door.  The great success of the mega-churches is that they've been able to do that.

            With e-mail another gateway has been created.  Those people on the list, and those others who have access to our Web-site, are most definitely the congregants in-the-know now, whether or not they set foot in the building more than once or twice a year.  There must be something magical about the words that I send out over cyberspace; because unlike any of my newsletters sent out by snail mail, the cyber mail is actually read -- and faxed or forwarded to the darndest places.  Maybe it's because of that sanctuary effect described above, where the ritualistic tapping into one's cyber-world has become such a sacred activity, a moment of connection, for people, that the first thing they look for is e-mail from their rabbi.  Suffice to say that those who are not yet on-line, and that means primarily those of the older generation, are extremely upset about this.  Now some of them are in the out-group in two respects: uncomfortable with services and inaccessible by e-mail.  I may have to train them in Hebrew and Windows at the same time.

            When a hundred congregants, or about 60 college students on another list, read a letter sent by me by e-mail, although it was "mass produced," it has the impact of a personal note from their rabbi, far more intimate than any form of mass communication I know of, including the sermon.  Why?  Is it because of the sacred aura of connection conveyed by this medium?  Is it because many open their e-mail in the intimacy of their pajamas?  Or is it because with e-mail it is so easy to respond? 

            With e-mail, congregants discuss matters with me that simply don't come up even in the most private of telephone or office conversations.  They feel freer to offer constructive criticism, or other suggestions about the temple; they ask obscure and not-so-obscure questions of Jewish law, things (e.g. why do we wave our arms and cover our eyes when lighting Sabbath candles?) that they might not have been ashamed to ask to my face, but just never would have gotten around to asking.  But once they have an opened missive of mine on their screen, even on a subject unrelated to their question, all they have to do is click on "reply" and ask away.  I hear about their troubled marriages and frustrating children, and also all the proud parent-stuff.  I also hear from the children, of all ages, which is especially satisfying.

            For college students, e-mail from me is like a sweet reminder of home, especially when it comes during the crush of finals or the supreme anxiety of freshman orientation week.  I never miss a chance to wish them well at holiday time, which can be especially lonely for someone missing a family Seder for the first time or celebrating Thanksgiving overseas.  The ancient rabbis said that a simple visit to an ill person removes 1/60th of the sickness.  In that case, my e-mail to college students likely removes a similar amount of their homesickness, if not more.

            The effectiveness of e-mail in my ministry is admittedly anecdotal.  I can't claim that Americans as a whole have become more receptive to the Word of God as delivered from their clergy because of it.  I do know that hundreds of study groups have sprung up on-line, on Jewish texts alone.  I do know that millions have become exposed to sacred study who otherwise would never set foot in a house of worship.  Everything else is conjectural -- including this:


Engraved in Fire, the Letters Fly Free

            There is a direct experiential correlation between traditional notions of revelation and prophecy and the way cyber-communications are received.

            I'm not just speaking of 2 a.m. in a dark cubicle, but even at noon in the office.  There is something about the experience of receiving the Word via Internet connection that parallels how the Word was received by our ancestors, in a manner unlike any previously known methods of communication.  God talks to us better through this medium.


            1) The Word arrives from Another Place.  Martin Buber wrote, "The reality of the holy can only be grasped from the standpoint of mystery."  As much as the technology behind the Internet is relatively simple and can be explained, there is still the sense that this communication is being received from "beyond."

            2) The Word is immortal, indelible and comprehensible to all.  It can't be erased.  Sure, you can wipe my Internet missives off your screen, but they are still in my hard drive, and in someone else's, and somewhere still in yours.  Legend has it that when God inscribed the letters on the Ten Commandments, each letter was engraved in fire so that it went clear through the tablets, and miraculously could be equally intelligible to one reading on the other side.  There is an indelible nature to electronic writing.  Those computer-generated words are also engraved in fire (electricity) and yet take on a life of their own once released into the world.  They can be read in any font or format, and converted instantly to almost any language, miraculously reversing the curse of Babel with the click of a mouse. 

            The Talmud tells us of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon, who defied the Romans during the 2nd century by teaching Torah in public at a time when that act was forbidden by law.  He was arrested and his death was one of the most horrible imaginable. Wrapped in a Torah scroll, he was placed on a pyre of green brush; fire was set to it and wet wool was placed on his chest to prolong the agony for the greatest amount of time possible.  As he was dying, his disciples asked him what he saw, and he soothed them with these immortal words, repeated by Jews throughout the world each Yom Kippur: "I see the parchment burning, but the letters are soaring upward."

            With one click of the "send" button, our words take on a life beyond the brief life span of our own hardware -- either our body’s or our computer's.  Sanctified by the fire, burned indelibly into the electronic universe, the letters fly free.

            3) The Word is immaterial.  Unlike a piece of paper or parchment, these words cannot easily be held in one's hand.  They are dreamlike, hanging before one's eyes for an instant, quickly disappearing as we scroll down the page.  A good attorney would rest his case by saying:  "The evidence is immaterial, ladies and gentlemen of the jury.  If the evidence is not material, therefore it must be spiritual (If the words don't tear, they must be a prayer!)" 

            4) It hearkens us back to the primal mystical experiences of the Prophets.  Check out how various prophets received the Word in previous eras.  Look at Ezekiel, whom many believe to have been on hallucinogens when he had his fantastic vision involving high winds, flash fires and four winged apparitions.  In the midst of it all he describes wheels, weird gleaming wheels with eyes in them, and then he sees the likeness of the glory of God, blinding and colorful, which fills him with a Divine spirit.  After all this, at the end of that first chapter, he begins to receive the Word.

            Jewish sages have long referred to this first chapter of Ezekiel as "The Account of the Chariot," and generally encouraged followers not to try to dissect its frenzied imagery.  It was considered too dangerous, too raw and mystical, too far removed from human comprehension and too close to pure spiritual oxygen to come near.  Yet this chapter formed the foundation for virtually all of later Jewish mysticism.  And as we don our sunglasses and stare right into its inner core, we focus in on one word that stands out as the key to the entire strange passage: the Hebrew word hashmal.  It is found in verses 4 and 27 and nowhere else in the entire Bible. 

            Verse 4:  "I looked and beheld a storm-wind coming from the north, a huge cloud with flashing fire and radiance all around it, and at the fire's center something like Hashmal." 

            What is hashmal?  If we can answer that question, we can come very close to understanding this primal prophetic experience of the Godhead.  What is it that appears in the midst of a great fire that appears to be the source of that radiance?  The Christian Oxford Bible simply translates it as a "gleaming bronze."  A well-known Jewish version from the Reform movement translates it as "shining amber," adding in its commentary, "Popular belief ascribed mythical qualities to the resinous substance, for the fire it seemed to emit reminded the ancients of lightning."  The Greek Septuagint translates hashmal as "electron," and in modern Hebrew it means electricity.

            The Talmud discusses hashmal in one place only, in Tractate Hagigah, page 13a.  There, with clear trepidation, the ancient rabbis contemplate whether one may be allowed to discuss the ancient mystery of this word, or whether it is simply too dangerous.  They recount the tale of a child who had expounded on the mysteries of hashmal, only to have a fire come forth and consume him.  The sages consider banning the book of Ezekiel entirely but then think better of it.  Straining to define this highly charged term, Rabbi Judah responds, "Living creatures speaking fire. It is taught: [hashmal means], 'At times they are silent, at times they speak.' When the utterance goes forth from the mouth of the Holy One, they are silent (a play on the Hebrew word hash, for "silence"), and when the utterance goes not forth from the mouth of the Holy One, they speak (a play on the word malul, "speak")."

            Who are these "living creatures" that reside at the center of the fire, those shiny beings that produce the sparks, the circuitry that connects all to God?  Are they angels, are they humans...or are they computers?

            The actual etymology of hashmal is as mysterious as the vision it comes from, though it appears to come from the root hshl, which means "to shatter."  But it is oh-so-tempting for linguistic daredevils like me to look over hashmal's shoulders at a Hebrew root that is looks so much like it in ancient Hebrew script, hshv, "to think."  Since one could easily assume that Ezekiel's image of God included the notion of wisdom and insight, it is not unimaginable that the fire's source, the hashmal, would be thought itself.  In fact, in chapter 38:10, Ezekiel uses the term machashevet, meaning "thought."  The fact that it was part of his vocabulary there lends to the possibility that the author had it in mind when transcribing that unfathomable vision in chapter 1, when the word hashmal exploded in his head.  For it is almost axiomatic among sacred traditions that the spark at the center of the Divine creative fire, is wisdom.  "As fire consumes all things," we read in the ancient Hindu text Srimad Bhagavatam, "so does the fire of knowledge consume all evil and ignorance."  Or, closer to Ezekiel's milieu, in Proverbs: "The Lord by wisdom hath founded the earth; by understanding hath He established the heavens."

            Various forms of machashevet are found in Jeremiah and the Psalms (as in Psalm 92:6, "God's thoughts are very deep"), but that exact form is found only in Ezekiel.  And there is one other linguistic fact of note.  Mechashev and hashav are the modern Hebrew terms for computer.  The difference between either word and hashmal is well within the realm of potential scribal error.  It's a reach, but remember that the biblical text wasn't frozen in its current form until centuries after it was first written down, and that word, hashmal, appears nowhere else in the Bible.  Could it be that Ezekiel's fantastic vision, one that forms the basis for much of Western mysticism, shares a common etymological root with our own contemporary out-of-box experience?

            All of which proves nothing of what either Ezekiel or God intended when handing us the mystery of that vision.  But even without the wisdom connection, the hashmal-in-fire image tells us everything about the parallels between the ancient experience of  prophetic revelation and the modern experience of plugging in and downloading the Word. 

            How so?

            1) The prophet experiences holiness in the context of electrical illumination.

             We turn on our computers, patiently wait out the litany of beeps, grinds and buzzes of circuits in conversation with one another, then we crank up the modem to get on-line amidst an additional array of sounds and blinking lights. 

            2) Mystical insight is received without interruption, with silence, and then the response is made in silence.

            Most communication via computer does not allow us to interrupt an incoming message midstream.  It appears in its entirety before we can respond.  And, once the beeps die down, much like those angelic beings described in the Talmud, we read it in solitude and in silence. And then we respond without interruption from the Other side.

            3) Prophetic insight is cumulative.

            We receive an additional component of the Word with every download.  And the process of attaining the necessary information to formulate a credible message is often painfully slow. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "Prophetic inspiration may come as a flash, but it is a flash of perpetual light.  All inspirations of all Israel's prophets are installments of one revelation...A continuity, an all-embracing meaning, welds into a totality every insight the prophet receives." 

            Hashmal, that flash of electricity, provides the spark, but we must plod through every bit (and byte) of information we receive to remove from each the nuggets of sacred wisdom that bring us closer to enlightenment.  This is true of life in general, where it is possible to find God's presence in the tiniest bit of dust as well as the grandest spectacle of nature.  But on-line, where everything is clearly interconnected, the electricity of the Word shines through even more clearly, though it often takes time for the full picture to become clear.  Not only can I feel it in every e-mail exchange, I see it in my random web-surfing too -- even when I err, such as the time I inadvertently typed in (instead of my synagogue's and ended up at Bethel Church in Santa Clara California, staring a nice homey photo of pastor Kenneth Dobson and his wife, Kathy.  I decided to stay awhile, spent some time admiring Bethel's fabulous mission statement and potpourri of programs that was, pastorally speaking, to die for.  I gained much wisdom during that serendipitous encounter, as I do from almost every stop along each Web-surfing journey I take.  Pastor Dobson's shared wisdom has now become part of my unfolding revelation.

             Embedded within four letters of the Hebrew hashmal is the word shem, "Name," which is often used by Jews as pseudonym for God.  Hashmal is that center, the core source of electricity, contains God's name, opening windows for the light to shine in .  Our computers should all have a decal saying, "hashmal inside" -- except that the Hashmal is inside us as well. Without my trusty computer, there is very little in this world that could have linked me to Pastor Kenneth Dobson.  We may never speak or meet, on or off-line, but it no longer matters.   We have been linked together eternally in a single grinding, buzzing, beeping, byte-pouring flash; a flash of the revealed Word.  We are all linked by a spark of divinity that sets off a chain reaction of relationship, and that takes our mundane words and enables the letters to fly free.


No Degrees

            Our society is so hungry for linkage.  One indication of this is the "Six Degrees of Separation" concept, the idea that any two people in this world are linked through the people they know.  For years, people have been trying out the "Six Degrees" concept on celebrities, with actor Kevin Bacon a favorite example.  It is possible to link Bacon with anyone else in Hollywood by connecting him to a co-star in a film he was in, who is connected to another in another film, and so until the match is made with the intended linkee.  One on-line group has a database with 74,000 individuals linked to Kevin Bacon.

            There is now a Six Degrees Web-site (, which promises a networking bonanza for all who partake.  It promises contacts but when you read the fine print it sounds more like a chain letter (you contact all your friends and we'll help you tap into the "exponential power of their contacts.").  But the Six Degrees idea begs the point.  For now, there are no degrees of separation.  I can stumble across Kevin Bacon's Web sites (and there are dozens devoted to him), and find out all about him, and he can stumble across my synagogue's and read what I have to say.  Should he desire to, Kevin Bacon could perceive at least a glimmer of my wisdom's hashmal and pierce the depth of my soul.  And I could see Kevin's soul dancing in the blips and beeps of my computer screen too, and maybe form a study group with him and Kenneth Dobson.  And the more I find out about them, the more I'll realize that they are like me.  And the more I see that they are like me, the more I'll realize that they are an extension of me.   And the more I see that, the more I'll understand that all of us, those on-line and off, are extensions of God.

            The following poem by Sri Aurobindo predates the computer era by a generation.  His Web-site biography informs us that this Hindu spiritual master "left his body" in 1950. But his words, like Hananiah ben Teradyon's flaming letters, fly free, in the blazing universe that we all inhabit.


                                                            The One Self

                                    All are deceived, do what the One Power dictates,

                                       Yet each thinks his own will his nature moves;

                                    The hater knows not 'tis himself he hates,

                                       The lover knows not 'tis himself he loves.

                                    In all is one being many bodies bear;

                                       Here Krishna flutes upon the forest mood,

                                    Here Shiva sits ash-smeared, with matted hair.

                                       But Shiva and Krishna are the single God.

                                    In us too Krishna seeks for love and joy,

                                       In us too Shiva struggles with the world's grief.

                                    One Self in all of us endures annoy,

                                       Cries in his pain and asks his fate's relief.

                                    My rival's downfall is my own disgrace;

                                       I look on my enemy and see Krishna's face.

                                                                                    Sri Aurobindo, Collected Poems


            There are no degrees of separation.  Our souls, distinct and unique though they are, are all intertwined in a universal Web of Life, one that encompasses all the oceans and their waves, the cities and their patchwork neighborhoods, our parents and our children, and one that obliterates boundaries and dissolves masks.   It is a Web that promises freedom -- and delivers. 


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