We Must Be Bold: Jewish Learning and the Challenge of Social Media

Dan Mendelsohn Aviv

Many a Jewish educator has tsk-tsked this increasingly prevalent phenomenon, wondering how such a critical task could be achieved in a medium which is in equal parts ephemeral, optional and artificial. Though the criticisms of this new mode are valid, we cannot dwell on them. We must be bold and fearless in the Web 2.0 world especially because aspects of it are a little bit scary—especially for those of us who do not even know what a Web 2.0 is.

Even before Web 2.0, open, post-modern globalized societies challenged traditional notions of identity and community. And yet, in a sense, Jews have always been early-adopters of that development. Ever since Napoleon asked in 1806 if his Jewish subjects were Jewish-Frenchmen or French-Jews, many Jews have been energized by the high-voltage tension that crackled along that hyphen. Nevertheless, even with the passage of more than two centuries, many American Jews still struggle with that “old” post-Emancipation question, one that has been further compounded by the complexity and speed of globalization and the Internet.

Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen have written extensively about this dilemma, documenting the rise of what they call the “sovereign self,” a Jewish individual engaged in a radically personalized and idiosyncratically constructed Judaism. This sovereign self chooses its own level of engagement and defies any standards to measure it, as no Jew should be able to determine for others what a “good Jew” is. However, as they write elsewhere, these sovereign selves also voluntarily constitute a tribe, where its members are familiar with one another, feel responsible for one another, and possess a higher opinion of Jews and a lesser opinion of non-Jews. These two accounts of our Judaism of the moment, presented by the same duo of researchers, seem at best paradoxical, or, at worst irreconcilable. A tribe of radical individuals? Yet, with Web 2.0 applications, Jewish users have been able to meaningfully achieve just that.

Web 2.0 thrives on such paradoxes—or at least they seem like paradoxes to those of us who were born before 1980. For example, users of Facebook, Myspace, chat-rooms, text-messaging and Second Life sit alone in their own houses or apartments pecking away at their keyboards, yet they profess a sense of connectedness and, in some cases, see themselves as part of a transnational community. Friendship, by most conventional definitions, is regarded as a private, intimate matter, yet in Web 2.0, “friending” is a verb and very, very public. And yet, if we look at online friendships, we find that they are literally avatars of offline relationships. They may be weak, but, typically, the individuals who friend each other have a preexisting, common offline connection. Online profiles also offer another example of paradox. As the New Yorker cartoon famously proclaimed: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” And yet, research since that legendary cartoon came out, has found the opposite to be true. Everyone knows you are a dog because you, most likely, will represent yourself that way.

Jews have been Jewishly active online for almost as long as there has been an “online”. We blogged before blogs existed. Because of the sheer volume of Judaism-related postings in the USENET religion newsgroup, Jewish users pushed for, and subsequently gained permission to set up the first religion-specific newsgroup—net.religion.jewish—in February of 1984. Even 25 years ago, Jewish users were establishing and defining their own online identity as individuals who are part of a distinct community. Our students will invariably join this distinctly Jewish community, this protean tribe of ever-shifting, ever-changing individuals—if they have not already.

The animating force that drives Jewish-protean tribalism is a relentless grappling with Jewish tribal meta-issues. In other words, Jews love to navel-gaze and blog about their wonderfully interesting navels. In the process, they ask tough, occasionally irreverent questions about the nature of the Jewish tribe and their own place and participation in tribal affairs. The answers they generate are often unconventional and contentious—but equally illuminating. This form of engagement with Jewish tradition is not only valid but must be acknowledged as a valued expression of Jewish identity.

The questioners challenge, embrace and engage with what Michael Rosenak calls the language of Jewish tradition—its basic assumptions, problems, aspirations and understandings. These bloggers’ language, however, is spiked with Internet slang acronyms we may not easily comprehend. There are thousands of Jewish bloggers, over four thousand by my unofficial count. For every blogger, there are hundreds if not thousands of Jewish users who lurk and occasionally leave a comment. Though these bloggers are plentiful, loud, brash and funny, they blog out of a profound sense of commitment and engagement. This ever-evolving collective corpus engenders a new kind of Torah she-be’al peh. To mash up Hillel, all of it is commentary and we must go and learn it.

I repeat: As Jewish educators, we must act boldly in this realm, becoming charter members of this protean tribe. We must add our erudite, schooled and passionate voices to the important discussions that are going on across the Jewish blogosphere, whether it be about pluralism, points of Halakhah, Israel, gender equality or any other burning issue of the day. As such, we must add another mitzvat aseih to our list of commandments as Jewish educators: Thou shalt blog.

This call to blog profoundly challenges conventional understandings of what Jewish learning is and how it is supposed to unfold. We educators are used to being experienced, knowledgeable and proficient in the classroom dynamic. We school. We do not get schooled. We regard control of the lesson to be almost as important as the lesson itself. The institutions in which we teach regard control of their image and messaging to be almost as important as the learning they are supposed to encourage. However, the blogosphere is messy and beyond anyone’s control. It is often filled with anger and spite, and, as the internet provides an opportunity to speak with impunity, individuals often relapse into infantile invective. Just check any comment section or talkback and read for yourself.

Nevertheless, we must learn how to blog. We must commit to blogging regularly. We must make time to read other Jewish bloggers. We must leave comments and engage the comments left for us. We must grapple with our own ideas about Jewishness and Judaism through this medium, crafting our thoughts carefully and elegantly. We must also confront the ideas of others and hammer on them (as they hammer on ours) until what emerges can withstand the crucible of public scrutiny and critique. We must not censor or submit to be censored. Let all those who have something to say, come and speak.

Most importantly, we must do all this not as thinly veiled representatives of our particular institutions, for our savvy students will call us out and expose us as shills. We must blog as individual Jews, committed to the future of the Jewish people. What we say (and what will be said to us) about the Occupation, intermarriage, sexuality, our leaders, our institutions, our parents, our children, our Torah and our tradition might be painful to hear, but as Rav Joseph Soloveitchik said (and this should be the Jewish blogger’s creed if Jews ever agreed to accept a single creed):

I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God.

Can we dare to live by this creed? Can we afford not to try?

Dr. Dan Mendelsohn Aviv is the founding Director of the Centre for Jewish Living and Learning @ Temple Emanu-El in Toronto, Ontario, and an Adjunct Professor of Jewish Education at Gratz College. He can be reached at drdan@templeemanuel.ca.

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HaYidion iSchool Spring 2010
Spring 2010