A Jewish Response to Techno-Idolatry

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

From Yom Kippur to Y2K:
A Jewish Response to Techno-Idolatry

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

I: Healing Nineveh

For a moment, imagine being Jonah.

But this time, the Voice seems much more ambiguous. Not what the original Jonah heard: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be destroyed."

Instead, the Voice calls out: "Beginning January 1, in some of your cities you may suffer major disruptions of your lives. No city will be utterly destroyed, and some will probably feel little damage. Which is which, I cannot say. Much will depend on whether you prepare. So I call on you to warn your fellow-citizens!"

If you are Jonah, what to do?

According to tradition, the original Jonah had several answers:

One: "Warn Nineveh? -- Who needs it! Don't we have enough Jewish tzuris of our own?"

Another: "There's always an escape clause. Even assuming You are right in the first place, You have such a leaning toward compassion that I'm sure nothing will happen. For this I should put my reputation on the line? If nothing happens, I will feel ashamed. Ridiculous."

And, bottom line: "I'd rather sleep. Or drown."

But as we know, Jonah finds there is no escape, not even in drowning. -- In Hebrew, "Nineveh" can be heard as "Nun-neveh," "Fish-place." When Jonah tries to run away from The Fish-place, he discovers he is doomed to the Fish-place anyway.

In other words, if you try to run away from Reality, it catches up with you -- only worse.

Jonah seems to have heard an unequivocal warning. (But as he expected, it turned out to be equivocal after all.) Now what if the issue that we face in our own lives is indeed equivocal?

Today, prophecies of trouble are circling the globe. But some of the prophecies say to expect massive trouble; others, just a glitch. Some of the claims come from Authorities, but the more Authoritative the speaker, the less clear is the prophecy.

In fact, the most Authoritative Voices say precisely that it's all unclear, and that in some ways that's the greatest danger -- because it's harder to prepare for a range of possible problems than for one clearly defined event. Most of the Authoritative Voices say that on the one hand it's not likely that the sky will fall -- a world-wide catastrophe -- and on the other hand, it is likely that some neighborhoods, cities, and regions will have important problems.

What is this global problem?


The glitch that began so small it seems laughable -- leaving two digits off the date to save a little computer space and money -- How could such a little thing make so much trouble?

Only an expert in gematria could pay so much attention to a number!

But when the President of the United States, in his State of the Union Address, a bipartisan pair of US Senators, and sober non-political bodies like Consumer Reports and the New York Times all warn there might be serious trouble, it makes sense for us to pay attention.

Even if we hear less sober voices -- including the wildest fantasies of apocalyptic Christians -- we should not shrug off the issue simply because some strange groups are focusing on it.

What is the evidence that there may be serious problems in some places?

* Senators Robert Bennett and Christopher Dodd, co-chairs of the Senate Committee on Y2K, transmitted their detailed committee report with a somber letter of warning, in March 1998. For the Committee report as a whole, see
* Consumer Reports Travel Letter (May 1999) warns that shipping and rail service as well as air traffic could be seriously affected. If so, these could then affect supplies of fuel, food, and medicine.
* Such countries as Pakistan, Indonesia, and Brazil, important sources crucial raw materials, medicines, etc., are known to be riddled with Y2K problems they cannot afford to fix.

* The New York Times, in a major report on the first business page on May 27, 1999, reports that most major companies have concluded they cannot really fix the problem by January 1, and are now working on fall-back and contingency plans. Many of those, especially by US companies operating in the Third World, involve the purchase or rental of back-up electric generators. But the head of the world's biggest generator-producing company reports they cannot produce enough generators by January 1 to meet the demand already on hand.

Y2K is not just other peoples' problem. Nineveh is not a foreign country. We have all been affected already, whether we knew it or not. For example: Governmental and business efforts to clean up the problem are estimated to cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

Remember what we learn from Yom Kippur. Imagine what a gentle Jonah might have been and done! God calls on Jonah to warn Nineveh of possible danger. By doing so, Jonah convinces its citizens to change their ways. Since they do, the danger is averted. Jonah is disappointed -- but of course the city's changing and then healing was what God intended all along.

Today, the only way to prevent Y2K from becoming a serious problem is to act in advance. In short, becoming Jonahs who are happy if Nineveh is healed.

Might we be embarrassed if the problem is brought under control and no major difficulty follows?

Not if we make clear at every step that in the Prophetic tradition we are not predicting "Shall!" -- that is, predicting doom. We are warning "If!" about a possible problem. "Choose!" says the Prophet, and then the people choose. The more we all listen and act upon the warnings, the fewer dangers that become reality.

Like insurance: There is a small danger that during the next year I will suffer a terrible auto accident and need massive medical help whose cost would leave me penniless. A small danger, but a real one. If I make no preparations at all, nothing bad might happen at all. Or -- the danger might become a disaster.

Do I stop driving? No. Do I buy insurance and drive with care? Yes.

Now broaden our horizon. Suppose the Weather Service tells us that on January 1, an enormous winter storm is going to sideswipe the East Coast. It may slam directly into New York City and cause huge problems, or it may spin over ocean and out to sea again with almost no effect.

Do we ignore the warning, or act on it?

If we act, do we prepare only to avert disaster, or take the steps that will help the City turn the event into a community-building adventure in neighborly cooperation?

God's solution: Send Jonah.

Remind people that there could be disastrous consequences of their life-choices, and by the very warning encourage them to do what will reduce the danger. And remind them if they behave like neighbors, that is exactly what may save them from disaster.

And that is what we need to be telling our congregants, our neighbors, our political and business leaders: Take some care now, to prevent disasters later. Become neighbors now, to heal your neighborhoods later.

The hard part is that with most insurance, we simply write the check. With Y2K, the insurance needs to be some action of our own. Much harder, because we need to wrench ourselves out of some of our routines to add a new routine. Like deciding to jog, to reduce the danger of a heart attack. What do I stop doing, in order to start jogging?

The Jewish community has one great advantage. Not only do we have this story of Jonah in our treasury of wisdom -- we read it every year when hundreds of thousands of Jews come together in our various sacred places. On Yom Kippur.

Irony of ironies! -- This year, we can use our own New Year to help heal a problem that has emerged by the back door from another New Year -- the new year of a millennium that is defined by Christian culture and by its global impact.

So any rabbi, any congregation, that wants to teach and lead the community to address the issues of Y2K can draw on the presence and the mood of self-assessment that will imbue the Jewish community during the High Holydays this fall.

The festival season begins the evening of September 10. Yom Kippur falls on September 19-20. Simchat Torah ends on October 3. That leaves three months to prepare for January 1, though some problems may begin appearing earlier and some may appear only later in 2000, as social and economic interactions keep popping (like the earliest kernels of corn to pop in a kitchen popper, soon to build to a thunder of pops, then to trail off over time).

Three months may be shorter than it sounds, but it is enough time to make a difference if communities can focus on preparing.

Of course, for anyone to teach during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is first necessary to learn -- ahead of time.

What is it that we need to learn? Can Jewish tradition teach us any more than we have already noted, about how to respond to Y2K?

II. From Babel to Community

One way of thinking about what to do is to distinguish between two levels of learning. The first is a set of tools for immediate use in dealing with a range of possible emergencies as 2000 begins. The second is more basic: What is the deeper problem that Y2K points to, and what new life-path would help us avoid such problems in the future?

We may hope there are some ways in which the second set of answers points to the first. For the best way of dealing with a immediate problem is to do so in such a way as to fit into our long-term goals and values.

One of the Torah's gem-like stories -- The Comput(ow)er of Babel (Genesis 11) -- defines both the problem and how to deal with it.

That story tells what happens when humanity becomes so arrogant as to use a "universal language" to "storm Heaven."

Today our universal language is the 0-1-0-0-1-1-0-1-0-0-0-0-1 of the computer. Our version of "storming heaven" is that we have used this language to make almost the whole human race dependent on a single technology.

The Year-2000 bug reminds us of an ancient, earthy wisdom: Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Don't grow all your wheat from a single genetic variety. Don't gamble on a single culture to have all the wisdom the human race will need someday.

Y2K has reminded us how dangerous is that kind of monolithic life. And how arrogant it is to think that any of our technologies could be totally bug-free.

So now we face the question: May computers and chips that do not recognize the Year 2000 actually bring on a recession as businesses fail to get supplies they need or find their banks can't complete a loan? Is there even a chance that in some areas, the electric power grid may fail simply because some computers get the date -- the simplest number -- wrong?

What is to be done? Here too the Bible points the way. When Babel's arrogance brings disaster on its builders, God does what at first seems only a disaster -- God baffles and "babbles" their language, so that they cannot talk to one another. --

But this heightened fever actually becomes a path of healing. For the people learn a multiplicity of tongues.

"Back to the space where you speak face-to-face," said God: "Recreate your local cultures and communities, to replace the towering machine of global arrogance!"

Out of that crisis came the family of Abraham and Sarah, the people Israel -- and all the other peoples that speak their own local mother-tongues in their own localities on Mother Earth.

Whether the Y2K bug creates merely serious problems or some major disasters, the solution is the same -- because the values that the story of Babel teaches are the same:

Regrow local and regional eco- communities, intimately intertwined with earth.

For this purpose, that means:

In communities, not in isolated households, begin now to gather information and discuss the possibilities. Panic is born of ignorance.

And in communities, not in isolated households, relearn how to keep warm with local resources, how to stock and share some essential foods, how to share synagogues and similar communal buildings as emergency living spaces.

In other words, imagine a post-tornado/ earthquake scene, and prepare for it.

Then if disaster comes, we will be able to meet it without martial law and catastrophe. If disaster does not come, we can take new joy in the communities of human beings and the earth they live in. These plants, these animals, these rivers, these human faces bearing in them the Spark of God.

Perhaps parts of our global super-structure, our Tower of Babel, are about to fall apart. Perhaps not. Even if the Tower still offers enough stability for us to walk gingerly across this narrow bridge between the centuries, surely others of our "societal addictions" have become not useful vehicles to carry us across that chasm, but giant burdens riding on our backs as we tiptoe our way.

Which of these burdens may make us collapse and fall? For example: if not the computer, then possibly the gasoline addiction that heats our air to global scorching. If not the gasoline, perhaps the kind of genetic manipulation that in the effort to kill corn borers cheaply, released a poisonous pollen that kills Monarch butterflies.

If we are to live, we need to make these habits our vehicles, not our riders.

Yet we also need a learning that is not so clear at the end of the Bible's Babel. This time we must keep alive the knowledge that will keep us alive:

Each local space and face is a Spark of the Divine, not only the ones we happen to see close by when we wake up each morning,

Loving what we see face-to-face is a lie, unless we also love what we see only from the Moon: the face of earth. All Earth.

From setting aside our habitual addictions to the World Machine, we can draw forth renewal and rebirth of the Organic Earth, in which each organ is sacred and the whole is sacred too. From the reconnection with our beloved places in the earth, we can relearn an arithmetic not of 1-0-0-1-1-0-1 but of sacred spaces, sacred faces.

III: Planning Community, Living Sukkot

So: What does it mean to restore, renew, and strengthen face-to-face communities, both in the short run of the next several months to ease the Y2K transition, and in the long run to prevent the next five versions (whatever they may be) of the Y2K Mistake?

Most people learn better when they get a chance to talk over new ideas with each other, and see that other people are also stepping into new places. So let us imagine the following arrangements:

1. Beginning as soon as possible, the congregational leadership (rabbinic and administrative) briefs the synagogue board and key members on Y2K and dealing with it; starts the process of the congregation's own self-assessment; and selects some people to act as trainers and facilitators for the Y2K training event that will happen in late September.

2. In August or very early September, synagogues announce that they will set up a special Y2K self-assessment and preparatory training. Many congregations may find it most convenient to do such a program on Sunday September 26, during Sukkot.

3. For Rosh Hashanah (Saturday, September 11) or for Yom Kippur, the rabbi preaches on the deeper meaning of Y2K, as we have explored above. This sermon focuses on preparing for Y2K not out of fear but out of intention to strengthen and celebrate community. The sermon also begins to give basic information on how to prepare this way, and announces the coming training workshop and strongly urges all to attend.

4. On Sunday, September 26 or soon after, the synagogue holds a training workshop, using Sukkot itself as a symbol and teaching toward a simple-living, community-sharing "festival" at the turning of the year. This training continues through the fall. People form teams for involving neighbors and congregation members in preparedness groups who can turn disruptions or shortages into communal-sharing and simple-living celebration time.

4. On the day chosen for the Y2K training program, the congregation should ---

(A) Provide copies of a good Y2K handbook.

One, aimed chiefly at individual households, is the Utne Reader's Y2K Citizen's Action Guide (available on-line at www.utne.com/y2k and in batches of 50 or more, for $1 apiece plus shipping costs by calling 800/736-UTNE and asking for Bulk Order. Another is The Y2K Survival Guide by Bruce Webster (Prentice-Hall, $19.99).

Perhaps more important, for a guide focused on community and neighborhood, see All Together Now, by the Global Action Plan. (See below for its address.)

(B) Alert people to continuous flows of information, changed as experience grows. See the World Wide Web at --


( C) Present workshops to cover the following areas of concern:


Financial and similar records;
Emergency food and water supplies, storage, etc;
Health concerns, especially around the provision of drugs and medicines for chronic illnesses where the supply might get interrupted;
Dealing with sanitation and refuse if regular services are interrupted;
Arranging lines of communication if normal forms are interrupted;

Neighborhood and Community

Should synagogues and other congregations designate themselves centers for shelter and food if there are emergencies (as they might in case of tornado or earthquake, or in meeting the needs of the poor through soup kitchens, etc.)? Have they stored food, fuel, water, etc? Do they have emergency generators? (Note that many of these arrangements might be useful back-up for natural disasters.)

Are your schools -- neighborhood and city-wide, public and private -- teaching children about the possible problems and workable solutions, and by doing so preventing panic if there are problems?

Should block groups be setting up neighborhood watches in case police facilities are strained?

Are neighbors asking the city government whether it is prepared -- and using letters to the editors and similar public pressure to find out?

For both households and congregations, there are many other such questions. We append a checklist, to help people turn away from either denial or panic. What can we turn toward? Toward concrete actions that can not only help us prepare for 2000, but help us shape the stronger communities that people yearn for.

Although we hope the checklist will be useful, we must note its shortcomings. Few people, given a piece of paper that lists a lot of work to do, will carry out that work on their own. It is working together, with friends and neighbors who stir and remind each other, that is more likely to get the work done. And in addressing the dangers of Y2K, the greatest joys will come from sharing skills and tools with neighbors, finding out who can supply a wood stove, who can chop the wood to fuel it, who can ferry large amounts of canned food from a warehouse food store, who can do first aid.

Facing a danger alone, we realize how helpless we are -- and retreat into silence and denial. Facing the same danger together, we realize how as a community we have the wherewithal to deal with it.

So in some ways, the crucial checklist is the one listing the friends and neighbors you have called, met with, talked with, shared with.

The Global Action Plan has actually developed two step-by-step guides for empowering a neighborhood to address Y2K. One is called All Together Now: A Y2K Program for Personal and Neighborhood Self-Reliance, and the other, All Together Now: Y2K Community Preparedness Organizing Tools. We especially recommend the first. We cannot supply these handbooks here, but you can download them from the World Wide Web at www.globalactionplan.org. Call GAP at 914/679-4830, or write GAP at P. O Box 428, Woodstock NY 12498 or through Email at info@globalactionplan.org.

We have found the GAP guide is best understood by literally reading it aloud with a friend, and then the two of you joining to teach it to others. Here the existing congregational community can give you a good beginning. If the congregation has called its members together on a Sunday in October to explore how to deal with Y2K, that guide may be the most useful tool.

Why do we include the checklist at all? Because it is a key reminder of the areas in which we need to prepare ourselves. And for households that are motivated enough to act even before there are neighborhood teams, the list is already useful.

The Teaching of Sukkot

What about the long-range questions: How did we get here, to a time when one minor technological decision can cost billions to remedy, 25 years later?

Y2K is not the only case we could cite. DDT. On a smaller but universally visible scale, the Challenger space-ship. On a global scale, burning so much coal and oil as to choke the atmosphere with CO2, and trigger global scorching. And many others. What in the short run looked convenient, quick, profitable, became in the long run deadly.

The Babel story is a warning. A single language, reducing all the quirks of different cultures and communities to one "objective" tongue: What could be more convenient? Perhaps it is -- until we use it to "storm heaven," Till we think it is the Ultimate in Truth, Unquestionable.

In our era, one form of idolatry -- turning technology itself into the Unquestionable -- can make enormous trouble. As Psalm 115 says, "Mouths that cannot speak, eyes that cannot see, ears that cannot hear, a nose that cannot breathe -- and those who make them will become like them." That is, dead. With a heart that cannot feel.

Not that technology is ipso facto evil. Used with care to meet human needs in a human way, shaped with care taken to assess its long-term impacts, some technologies are valuable. But never Ultimate. Never as a stake with which to gamble the planet's life, or human civilization.

But since we cannot know the future, cannot know for certain whether we have asked the right questions about the longer term, how do we limit our danger while reaping the harvest of human ingenuity?

There is a rich teaching of Jewish tradition, a practice that may light up the path into the 21st and the 59th centuries.

For seven days in the fall, the Jewish people taught itself to live in frail and open huts -- sukkot. Taught itself to leave behind the houses that were the solid, strong, convenient technology of an evolving people.

For one week, to live in the simplest of all houses. We built them: we could not walk into a cave and call it a sukkah, we could not huddle under a tree and call it a sukkah. Built. Technological, as indeed we humans are. But very simple.

One week. We did not burn our houses when we left them; they were convenient, efficient pieces of technology.

For one week, we remembered what it meant to camp out. We renewed our skills. And we went back to our houses with a sense that we knew how to live without them, however briefly.

How could we transcribe that tradition into our computerized lives today?

Imagine -- just a fantasy, an imagining -- that for one week every year, the world-wide computer network were turned off. A cyber-Sukkot. (Direct life-saving devices would, of course, continue -- just as we transcend the prohibitions of Shabbat and festivals to save life -- pikuach nefesh.)

To do without the world computer net, we would of course have to keep the older forms of communication and connection going, or restore them. For one week, we would turn the computers off and turn the older systems on. Less convenience, less efficiency, more resilience. The adventure of camping out. The whole human race, camping out. All the 70 nations, celebrating Sukkot -- as the Prophet Zechariah envisioned.

Of course this is a fantasy. Simply by quoting Zechariah, we are saying how hard it would be to achieve such an arrangement. Yet fantasies and visions have their purpose: They teach.

If we hold that vision of a cyber-Sukkot before our inner eye, we may awaken new channels of thought that could draw on the deepest meanings of Torah to address the danger of techno-idolatry. For example --

* Should we be urging that for one week every year, engineers, scientists, ethicists, politically active citizens, and the spiritually / religiously concerned sit together in a myriad neighborhood meetings, to reexamine where our technology is taking us?
* Should we be urging that one year in every seven, technological research and development pause for an entire shmitah/ sabbatical year of reexamination and redirection?

These social changes might not be easy to achieve, but are within the boundaries of what is practical.
Torah was intended to renew our communities across the generations and millennia that separate us from -- and connect us with -- our forebears. For Torah to renew us, we must reawaken Torah. Today, that means reassessing how its teachings address the techno-idolatry that endangers human civilization and the lives of many species on our planet.

* Rabbi Waskow is the Director of The Shalom Center, a network of American Jews who draw on Jewish tradition and spirituality to seek peace, pursue justice, heal the earth, and build community. See its Website at www.theshalomcenter.org. Waskow is the author of Seasons of Our Joy, Down-to-Earth Judaism, and Godwrestling -- Round 2.