Sunday, August 21, 2011

Is Technology Killing Civility?

The answer to the question above is both yes and no. It really all depends on the way in which people use it. For example, texting during a meal or having a ringtone go off in the middle of a wedding ceremony can be quite disruptive and inconsiderate. People have always found ways to be annoying and/or uncivil. Advances in technology have just made it easier and more common to do so. It's unfortunate that some people think that talking or texting or Tweeting is more important than preserving another person's dignity. People forget that neither they nor their digital devices are the center of the universe.

This particular problem seems to be the product of a powerful combination: technology and human nature. A BlackBerry or iPad is not really the primary culprit. Technology by itself is amoral; it all depends on how and when we use it. Take any advancement or technological progress in human history. A pen and paper are not innately bad, unless they are used to write unfairly about others; a phone is not innately bad, unless it's used to speak lashon hara or interrupt a solemn service.

It's quite ironic how people originally thought that advances in technology would make our lives so much easier. In many ways it has, but in many ways it has not. On the one hand, the speed and amount of information we can absorb at any given time is the highest it has ever been. On the other hand, it was supposed to help people communicate with each other, but miscommunication seems to be more common than ever.

Technological advances to which we have become accustomed are all means to some end; they are not ends in and of themselves. For example, the Internet has the power to connect people to one another, but it can also have the opposite effect. It all depends on whether our online activities help or harm the lives and reputations of other people. We simply have to prioritize our values and focus on the goodness (or lack thereof) that results from our actions.

God created the world in such a way that whatever can be used for good can also be used for evil. Fire and water are great examples; they can either sustain or destroy life. Technology is no different. We just have to remember that it is simply a means - albeit a powerful one - and use it for good. As long as we keep this in mind, our computers and phones will not become false gods, and incivility while using technology will become less commonplace.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The "Altar" Ego

There is a famous Talmudic excerpt that powerfully illustrates the importance of God-based ethics. The Talmud (Yoma 9b) explains that the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), which we mourn on and around Tisha B'Av, occurred because of sinat chinam (for further analysis of this concept, click here). On the surface, this type of interpersonal hatred was the cause. However, other ideas mentioned on the very same page provide a clearer insight into the root of the problem.

Rabbi Yochanan states, "Better were the fingernails of earlier generations than the intestines of our own generation . . . the Beit Hamikdash was rebuilt for them, and it has not been rebuilt for us." The Vilna Gaon explains that the "fingernails" refer to the external sins of earlier generations, and the "intestines" refer to the internal sins of later generations (including our own). As bad as the sins of the earlier generations may have been, their wrongdoings were transparent and they still acknowledged God's providence. Therefore, when their outward behavior began to go awry, they knew that if they eliminated the specific sins, all would be rectified.

On the other hand, our sins are hidden (i.e. we put our egos first), so there is something deeper we need to correct. While we may express outward displays of holiness, there is still an inward denial of God's omnipotence. In other words, we can make it appear as though we are worshiping God, when in reality we are worshiping ourselves. For example, when we study Torah or pray in synagogue, are these simply acts of self-aggrandizement to show off our intellect and protect our image? Oftentimes, there is something missing for which even a Beit Hamikdash cannot help.

When the Talmud describes that Jews would be "eating and drinking together and piercing each other with swords," it means that although they had meals together, they hated each other in their hearts. As soon as they left a social function, they would speak ill of one another. It was this kind of mentality that led to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. All the sacrifices in the world do no good unless they are accompanied by a change of heart. Here is a small sampling of biblical passages, along with brief summaries, addressing this problem of the "altar" ego:

Amos 4:4 - God speaks sarcastically about bringing sacrifices, admonishing people who enjoy doing rituals for their own sake; He only cares for sacrifices if it helps change the person.

Hosea 6:6 - what matters most to God is ethical behavior, not sacrificial offerings.

Isaiah 1:11 - God poses a rhetorical question; He does not need our sacrifices, but rather wants justice and goodness based on faith in God.

Jeremiah 7:21-23 - to "listen to God's voice" means heeding the words of the prophets, who warn us not to rely exclusively on ritual activity to gain God's forgiveness; we will be forgiven only if we mend our ways and act decently.

Micah 6:6-8 - God's primary demands are not about fancy sacrifices, and it can all be summed up succinctly: do what's right, be kind and remain humble.

The rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash is indeed a worthy goal, but there's something that needs to be corrected first: our hearts. God desires an internal change of self even more than the external rituals of the Temple. This all ties in to the goal of Jewish unity. Forcing others to think a certain way, dress a certain way and observe Judaism a certain way is not real unity - it's our individual egos talking. Instead, each one of us should turn our own hearts toward God and strive for what He truly wants: less ego and more goodness. Then, Jewish unity will take care of itself, as it will be the natural result of heeding this divine call.