Thursday, December 20, 2018

At Year's End

I’ll be away next week, so this will be my last letter of 2018 to all of you, my faithful readers for all these many years. (For the record, this is my 442nd letter since I began writing them in 2007.  So those of you who have been reading along for all these years probably know me better than I sometimes think I know myself.) As regular readers know, I often like to riff off of recently published essays elsewhere. And so, for this final letter of a soon-to-be-gone secular year, I’d like to respond to an essay that appeared in the Sunday Review section of last Sunday’s New York Times. The piece, written by a Laura Turner (whom the Times vaguely identifies solely as “a writer”), was basically written to set forth the triple thesis that, to quote the author, you can’t go to church on your phone, internet church is not real church, and you cannot be part of an actual community by putting yourself in the company solely of virtual people.
It’s not that hard to see how we’ve come to a point at which such an essay sounds like a measured, thoughtful response to a phenomenon of modern life and not like the premise of a wacky science fiction novel.

I myself am a good example. I hardly ever go to the post office, because I conduct more or less all my correspondence by email. I rarely go to the bank because I pay all my bills electronically and deposit any actual paper checks I receive through my phone. (I can, however, also remember when that last part really would have sounded like science fiction.) Even though there are any number of large department stores within a fifteen minute drive of my home, I buy most of what I purchase online. All of these would once have been opportunities for interaction with other human beings, with neighbors and strangers, with people I might over years have come to think of as friends…or at least as familiar faces. There was some degree of pleasure in those encounters, even in the fleeting ones, but each has now been replaced by a streamlined process that permits me to accomplish wholly on my own what would once have required at least some actual contact with other people. Efficiency is a good thing, obviously. But there is a point of diminishing returns as well: it’s a lonely world we’ve constructed for ourselves, this ultra-efficient digital age in which it feels necessary to justify taking the time to do even something as inconsequential as buying a pair of socks when you can accomplish the exact same thing—and probably for less money—without even standing up from your computer, let alone getting in your car and driving somewhere.
So Laura Turner’s essay is addressing what really is just the next step in an already ongoing progression of societal innovations that purport to improve life by making some specific task doable without lifting your hands from the keyboard: the invention of the virtual congregation able to provide the succor and support of affiliation without imposing the tedious necessity on the would-be congregant of actually leaving home and sallying forth into the world, much less having to encounter actual people on a spiritual journey that, at least in a certain rarified sense, must be taken alone anyway.

But there’s alone all by yourself and there’s alone in the company of likeminded others. And Jewish legal tradition—which certainly acknowledges the intensely personal nature of prayer—is also very clear about the importance of communal prayer being undertaken within the bosom of an actual community. Indeed, our traditional texts go so far as to discuss—and entirely seriously—if a minyan of ten can be duly constituted of nine people well inside a room and a tenth merely standing in the doorway, or of nine people in a room and a tenth standing outside the building but looking in through an open window. As usual in cases like this, the exceptions prove the rule: our classical texts permit the three needed to recite the formal introduction to the Grace after Meals merely to be within eyeshot of each other and specifically not to have to be in the same room, but that is because, in the end, there is not imagined to be any enhancement for the individual in the spiritual experience of being part of the requisite three (called a zimmun). And, indeed, when we move up from the basic introduction liturgy to the slightly expanded version solely recited in the presence of ten, however, then mere visual contact is specifically deemed not enough and the ten have actually to be in the same room, in the same space.
There is some rational wiggle-room provided in the sources. Once the quorum is achieved, then even individuals who may not be counted in the quorum because they are not physically present may be permitted to respond when the liturgy requires a response. (For a detailed exposition of the whole issue—and the full range of halakhic options and possibilities—written by my colleague and my friend of forty-plus years, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner of Baltimore, click here.) And there is a whole interesting Pesach-related dimension to the discussion because the Torah’s original framework for requiring that worship take place in a single “place” has to do, not with prayer at all it turns out, but with the ingestion of the paschal lamb on the eve of Passover.

That Pesach angle is more pertinent than it might at first seem in that the whole concept seems to be rooted in the interesting notion that, because the festival exists specifically to commemorate the Israelites’ passage from slavery to freedom, the formal ingestion of the paschal sacrifice can only take place in the context of community because true freedom can only be attained in the context of community, of people occupying the same space, breathing the same air, making room for each other in their personal ambits and responding not to each other’s voice or image but to each other’s actual presence. If a tree falls in a forest where there is no one to hear it crash to the earth, there is no real sound produced. Whether that’s really true, who knows? (My physics teacher in eleventh grade said it was and she seemed pretty sure she was right.) But what’s indubitably true is the corollary idea relating to community: if we grow freely to the fullest flower of our personhood without the presence of others to note our growth, to evaluate it, and to respond to it, there is no real growth at all…only the self-generated illusion of spiritual, emotional, or intellectual progress.
But that notion—that true personal freedom does not derive from the unfettered ability to act as one pleases but rather in the cohesive sense of belonging that comes from participation in the group, in a minyan, in a community of supportive friends, in society itself—that notion feels slightly out of step with our American ideal of the self-reliant individual who stands on his or her own two feet, who specifically does not need input from others to know where he or she stands, and whose rugged individualism is the human face of the Constitution’s ideal of the natural right of people to exist according to their own lights and without reference to the opinions or prejudices of others. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the greatest of all American essayists and nineteenth century thinkers, wrote about this stirringly and very convincingly in his essay, “Self-Reliance,” which I have read many, many times over the years. And so I, filled with the greatest respect for Emerson and his philosophy of life, could easily find myself on the horns of a serious dilemma, part of me standing with Emerson and seeing community as, at best, the platform upon which individuals stands as they grow towards freedom, and the other part of me understanding community not as the platform on which free individuals stand but as the context that grants them their freedom. But that dilemma does not really exist.

For millennia, the opposite of freedom was slavery. That was Emerson’s world, and his essay reflects that fact. (“Self-Reliance” was written in 1841.) But that was then and today the opposite of freedom for most moderns is loneliness, not chattel slavery. And that is why Laura Turner’s op-ed piece was entirely correct: because no one, not even the super-digitized hipster who wouldn’t dream of setting foot in a bank or a post office, becomes less lonely other than by being in the presence of other flesh-and-blood people. Looking at images on a screen cannot provide the succor of presence any more than looking at pictures of food can provide nourishment. And there is no greater barrier to spiritual progress than the sense of aloneness that leads to alienation from society, disaffection with one’s neighbors, and creeping estrangement from God. I think I know enough of Emerson to risk saying that I think he would agree wholeheartedly if he knew enough of our world to form an opinion.
As 2018 draws to a close, I think of the way my community comes together when someone suffers a loss and how remarkable the shiva experience is precisely because of the remarkable level of inner-communal support we are able to provide because so many are so eager to help. I think of my own brief hospitalization a few weeks ago and how many people—more than I could keep track of—texted me and left me emails and voice mails, each trying to provide from afar some of that sense of communal support that each understood to be requisite to the healing process. And I think of what it means to so many of us to be growing older in the context of a rich, caring community of friends ready to reach out and shore us up when we start to list to one side or the other, or when we suddenly feel ourselves to be on shaky ground, or when we momentarily lose our self-confidence and fall prey to the fears we mostly manage to keep at bay. It’s a blessing, being part of any community…but my special blessing is to be part of ours. The Marlboro man may exemplify the individualist who can ride off on his own into the next chapter of his life because he serves as his own universe of discourse, as his own arbiter of taste and style, as his own judge and his own jury. But for me, life is with people…and it is involvement with others that sets me free, that makes me free…and that enables me to live free in a world of people trying to go to church on their phones and uncertain why it never feels quite right.

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