At the recent Covenant Foundation symposium in Chicago, educators from around North America gathered to discuss the topic, “Assessing Jewish Wisdom in the 21st Century.” The keynote address was delivered by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, from Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Southern California, who offered a new metaphor for Jewish identity today: The iPhone.
First, the good news. As we know from recent studies, young Jews tend to see the world globally, not locally. And an iPhone, which enables them to communicate effortlessly with others around the world, makes this connection both plain and urgent. Spiritually speaking, the iPhone appears to make our interconnectedness more obvious. Rabbi Feinstein summed up these possibilities with a lesson from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who “taught that it is possible for a person at one end of the world to have a problem, and not know that the person at the other end of the world has his solution.”
Then there’s the bad news. “My iPhone is not the same as your iPhone. No two iPhones are the same,” Rabbi Feinstein continued. For as soon as you get one, “you start adding apps, and everyone has a different set of apps.” The result is a doubling down on “the radical individualism of American culture,” and an increased sense of relating to the world as a consumer, where relationships can be created and broken at will.
This system might work great in the marketplace of technology. But in the synagogue, or any community of commitment, this approach is problematic. Rabbi Feinstein argued that people increasingly come to shul now “as a consumer, looking for a set of commodities,” from a nursery school to b’nai mitzvah lessons to a young couples group. “Synagogue and Jewish life and Shabbat become an app. Kashrut and Torah study and tzedakah become apps.”
So what is a Jewish leader or educator to do, when a new generation — of people and technology — powerfully disorients traditional notions of community and connection?
Back to Rabbi Nachman, and a story he told of a rabbi and a rooster. In Rabbi Feinstein’s version, a boy from a good Jewish family believed he was a rooster. He lived under the table; he clucked rather than talked; he ate whatever food fell on the floor. When the parents went to the rabbi for help, he told them a solution was at hand, but it was a radical one. Then they watched in amazement as the rabbi began to behave like a rooster too, gaining the boy’s trust and eventually drawing him to a middle ground: “We’ll walk like men, and dress like men, and eat like men, and talk like men, and no one but you and I will know that we are still roosters.”
How does this relate to apps and phones? Rabbi Feinstein suggests that one reading of the story, in the age of technological innovation, is that the boy’s roosterism represents the radical discontinuity of youth, while the parents’ cluelessness represents the inability to engage change. The rabbi is the hero because his actions teach that “change is fine, as long as it enters into conversation with the human condition. The dialogue between the boy and the rebbe is a dialogue between contemporaneity and ancient wisdom, and that is where Jewish wisdom speaks to the 21st century.” The alternative? “Insanity.”
Rabbi Feinstein offers one more interpretation of the story. He asks us to study not the education of the boy, but the biography of the rabbi, who himself was a rooster as a child. The rabbi’s genius is to let the child be who he is, while still offering a bridge to the world of adulthood. The implication is that great educators have the ability to make true connections between seemingly unbridgeable ideas or orientations, finding a common language and common future. In today’s world, Jewish educators (including parents) face radical new opportunities. But the core issues are the same: love, engagement, patience, vision.
In Nachman’s teaching story, the rooster behavior represents whatever is radically new. And the rabbi’s performance represents the power of an educator using the tools at hand to engage and teach.
The name “iPhone” alludes both to age of the Internet, and the individuality of contemporary technology. But to be an iJew today requires something more. It demands apps that help us see what it right in front of us, translating needs into actions and consumers back into people. We need a jewPhone, or better yet — with apologies to Martin Buber — a thouPhone. Otherwise we’re all just roosters.
Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francsico.