Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Judaism not Twitterable?

So I have confession to make. While I love social media (from discussion forums to Livejournal to Myspace to Facebook to this blog to Google+) I don't like Twitter.* It just never felt like the right medium for me. Don't get me wrong, I think there are some colleagues out there that are doing some amazing things with 140 characters (Tweeting the Exodus comes to mind), but I think it's far, far too easy as a medium to lead one down to the dark places of online culture: snark, sarcasm, the lunge-parry-reposte that in many ways is coarsening our dialogue.

So I was happy to see Donniel Hartman's blog post on the subject, and I totally get where he's coming from. As a small and 'ever dying' people (to use one of the far-too popular perceptions about us), we freak out about numbers and so we try (as Hartman puts it) "something, anything" to boost numbers. And we've been increasingly successful, but at a price.

We have begun to master the art of condensing the Jewish message, so that it is communicable through a narrow bandwidth, short-term experiences, and brief social media exposures. The problem, however, is that the message, even if received, is not significant enough and compelling enough to attract ongoing interest and generate long-term commitment.
Herein lays the new Catch-22 of contemporary Jewish life: In order to reach the numbers we need, we have to dumb down our message and water down the experience. A dumbed-down and watered-down Judaism, however, cannot compete in an open marketplace of ideas. Therefore, our successes lay the foundation for our failure. At the same time, when one deepens the message and intensifies the experience, one seemingly loses the numbers game.
The Jewish people have, since our inception, been the carriers of ideas. We changed history, not as a result of our economic or military power, nor by the enormity of our numbers. It was by the depth and significance of what we stood for – a way of life permeated by important ideas and values held together and conveyed through powerful and meaningful experiences – which placed Jews and Judaism as a transformational force in human culture.
This content is not Twitter-able. The journey of a meaningful Jewish life needs a wide bandwidth. It requires knowledge, time, and commitment. If we want Judaism to have a great future, and not merely a great past, we need to set our sights higher and deeper.
I truly believe this is the greatest challenge facing the Reform Movement and Judaism as a whole, as well as every individual synagogue and community. You open your doors wide to welcome everyone, but in our fear of scaring people away, refrain from challenging them with deeper ideas, with more study, with greater commitment. Twitter in many ways is just part of a larger trend on instant gratification that's served as fodder for high holiday sermons since Sinai so I won't delve that deeply in, but he raises a great question, arguably the question of the 58th century: we got them to follow our tweets, to read our blogs; how do we get them to engage in meaningful Jewish experiences for themselves instead of living through them vicariously. Or to put it another way: we got them in the door, now what do we do with them? Projects like Tweet the Exodus, which uses the best of the internet--multiple sources and media, collaboration--suggests a model for Twitter engagement that can be both broad AND deep; more like a Talmudic discussion than Milton Berle rattling off one-liners. So how do we modulate the tweet-voice toward that model?

I get a little nervous about his conclusions: what it means to 'demand more' of an individual in the Progressive Jewish world is very different from what it means in the Orthodox world, and I'd have loved for him to have acknowledged that nuance. Indeed, even getting more specific, like 'demanding more study' can mean very different things and lead to very different outcomes depending on the community and that community's Narrative. However, I think the basic premise is a good one. We got them to follow: how do we get them to lead, if not the community, then themselves.

*At some point in the blog post, you should have made some kind of joke about rabbis' sermons and length. You know, like "if you can say it in five minutes (or 140 characters) then why use 20 (or 1400)?" Go ahead. I think it's joke 42, if you're looking it up.

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