God and the Digital Age

Text Me, and a Powerful Poem

Later this summer the volume Text Me: Ancient Jewish Wisdom Meets Contemporary Technology (Jewish Resources for Understanding, Embracing, and Challenging our Evolving Digital Identity) will be published by Hamilton Press.  I have shared with readers of the Kaplan Center website in an earlier column the ways in which the project seems to me to be quintessentially Kaplanian.  Creatively living in two civilizations demands an ongoing, mutually critical dialogue between our Jewish values and our everyday lives, which are increasingly digital lives.

Now I would like to offer a ta’am/taste of the volume in the form of a poem offered as commentary by Dr. Adina Newberg to a chapter on Jewish and human identity in the digital age. It is traditionally our privilege in the period between Pesach and Shavuot to explore Pirkei Avot, the section of the Mishna containing foundational sayings of our ancestors.   One of the most profound ideas that we find in Pirkei Avot is the assertion that God’s great gift to us is having not only made us in God’s image, but also having given us the awareness of being made in God’s image.  Presumably this self-awareness adds to our own agency in creating different understandings of what it means to be made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

So, unsurprisingly, the very concept of b’tzelem Elohim means different things to different Jewish thinkers.  For Maimonides it is clearly anchored in the intellect.  For Ramban it refers to our soul.  For Rabbi Meir Simcha Cohen of Dvinsk it is our free will.  For Martin Buber it is a process of self-actualization, perfecting the capacities within us in a divine way.  And for Mordecai Kaplan, in addition to the theological function of underscoring the dignity of each individual, the concept aligns with the phrase from the Aleynul’takein olam b’malchut Shadai —the Godly power we have been granted allows us to transform the world into a more Godly place.

In the digital age another unique twist is added.  The confluence of technology and b’tzelem Elohim comes forth in a challenging poem, titled “Installing You My Lord,” by Admiel Kosman, a poet, Talmudist, and professor of literature.  In the poem, the human communicates with the Divine one, but ironically the human is the one “installing” the Divine, like one installs a computer program.  Is the speaker creating the God he is talking to?  Have we come up with a unique new take on the High Holiday notion that we enthrone God?   Do we also create the God we enthrone?

Here is the first stanza of the poem:

Installing You my Lord, in the middle of the night.
Installing You and all Your programs. Up and down
the night goes, in my Windows, slows, installing You and
the kruvim, installing you and the srafim, installing all
the holy crew, until the morning

[© 2007, Admiel Kosman.  From: Alternative Prayerbook Publisher: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 2007.  Translation © 2011, Lisa Katz and Shlomit Naim-Naor.  From: Approaching You in English, Zephyr, Brookline, MA 2011.  Translator’s Note: One of a series of poems by Kosman in which he transliterates English into Hebrew letters. Kruvim = cherubim and srafim = seraphim.]

The poem fills me with curiosity and wonder.  We know God wanted our partnership, but did God give us even the power to reshape God’s identity?  Did God want to be created in this particular way?  Why is the evening the most interesting time for such human installation of the Divine?  Isn’t that the time when we were in repose from the day’s labors?  What are the digital equivalents of cherubim and seraphim who serve as “connectors” or hyperlinks between the Divine and human worlds?  And if God runs the program once installed, what happens to the role of the humans who installed God?

What questions does the poem raise for you, the reader?  We hope that many of your questions are explored in the new volume.  We will provide a link to that volume later in the summer.

Please feel free to contact Jeffrey Schein with questions or comments, at jeffrey@kaplancenter.org.