Jewish Theology after Google

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As demonstrated here, the form of digital media is shaping Jewish theology, but as seen in the previous three case studies (Our Jewish Community, Punk Torah, One Shul and Darshan Yeshiva, and Sim Shalom and the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute ), Jewish theology is also shaping digital media which in turn enables more and more post-rabbinic and post-denominational theological functions. Heidi Campbell in When Religion Meets New Media explores these dynamics in detail and has created a new methodology for studying them – the Religious Social Shaping of Technology (RSST) approach. Her approach is taken from the Social Shaping of Technology (SST) method that studies the intersection of sociology and media studies. However, unlike SST, Campbell focuses on the conditions connected to religious users’ negotiations with new media, especially within given social contexts and how individuals and groups of users feel bound by their particular worldviews and belief systems when negotiating with new media. RSST explores the spiritual, moral and technological codes that influence these negotiations (9). Though technology is often seen in conflict with religion, most religious communities do not merely dismiss new technologies, but instead engage in a complex negotiation process with them. The typical assumption is that, “[…] media users are passive and do not make thoughtful choices about how, why and to what end they will use the media technology that they are presented with” (10).

However, Campbell begins from a different starting point. She sees “religious individuals and communities as active, empowered users of new media who make distinctive choices about their relationship with technology in light of their faith, community history, and contemporary way of life” (11). Instead of passive receivers of technology, humans actively form and use technology based on their theological beliefs. An extreme example that makes this point strikingly clear is made by Jay Newman in Religion and Technology: A Study in the Philosophy of Culture in conjunction with the Inquisition. Based on the theology of the Inquisition, inquisitors proactively created new technology:

[They created] highly intricate torture devices used on victims of the Inquisition. Such elaborate machine technology, put to the service of the cruelest forms of dehumanization centuries before the invention of the steam engine, centuries before the Nazi death camps, is well worth remembering in an investigation of the relations of religion and technology. If the religious antitechnologist insists on seeing it as one more example of how technology has corrupted religion, the rest of us still have the prerogative of seeing it as also in part a powerful example of how religion has corrupted technology. (12)

The Inquisition inordinately brings out the uttermost negative side of the human theological influence on technology. Nonetheless, the human capacity to shape technology can also be used for positive purposes as well as everything in between. As part of the RSST approach Campbell looks at religious communities as families of users who create marked moral economies of meaning that then guide their choices with new technology and how they want to interact with them. This family of users usually share certain core beliefs and identity markers but at the same time may embody a rainbow of diversity from gender to age to class. Campbell states, “By members choosing to come together into a shared space, be it physical or ideological space, they create a ‘moral economy’ that requires them to make common judgments about the technologies they will appropriate or reject and rules of interaction with these. As a ‘family of users they transfer symbolic meaning onto these choices” (13).

The RSST approach reveals how this negotiation process unfolds. The users who engage with the digital religion of Jewrotica are a diverse family of users. They share core beliefs of the value of Jewish tradition and culture in understanding and practicing their sexuality, but they also come from every denomination and sexual orientation. Their moral economy is based on having a new approach to Jewish sexuality, but one based on tradition and Jewish culture. One that is safe for everyone. Valerie Steinfeld, a young professional located in Southern California had this to say about the family of users and the moral economy of Jewrotica:

Jewrotica is awesome. It expands the mind and for people who were raised with narrow views on sexuality. Whether you are Jewish or not, or in different sects of Judaism like Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, no matter what your background or where you’re from, Jewrotica gets you to see Judaism and how it relates to sexuality in new ways. I really appreciate Ayo being here and helping us learn different ways to connect with our sexuality. (14)

The diversity of the family of users is shown by the prevalence of non-Jews, orthodox Jews, conservative Jews and reform Jews who visit and use the site. They all share a core belief and moral economy – that Judaism can have something new to say about sexuality and that it can help this diverse family of users connect with their sexuality. Ayo Oppenheimer sees the moral economy and value of Jewrotica in the ability of the Internet to provide a safe, healthy and positive framework for sexual expression. She finds that this is desperately needed as a counter to what is mostly found in Jewish communities today – silence. She maintains:

[…] silence leads to ignorance, shame and embarrassment. Many of our readers have reached out to us to thank us for making them feel less ashamed and less alone […] We have between 3,000 and 15,000 readers visit Jewrotica each day, and we have had over 100 writers contribute to the site thus far. Our readers and writers hail from all around the world and are representative of the various flavors of Judaism. We even have an octogenarian writer who was the president of a Martha’s Vineyard Reform temple for many years […] I try to see to it that Jewrotica is a fun experience for everyone involved. (15)

Again, the diversity of the family of users is seen here, with people contributing to Jewrotica from all over the world and even an octogenarian president of a Reform temple finds his place among the contributors to Jewrotica. The moral economy is also stressed, being an outlet for sexual expression as a counterbalance to the silence that is the norm in the rest of the Jewish community. But how does this translate into the negotiation between Judaism and technology for Jewrotica? In the shared ideological space of Jewrotica how is this moral economy being translated into the choices being made about members interactions with the Internet? What kind of symbolic meaning is connected to these choices?

One aspect where the negotiation process becomes clear is in the rating system developed by Oppenheimer. She has carefully shaped the technology of the Internet to meet the needs and the moral economy of the family of users that make up Jewrotica, facilitating a customized online experience that can cover the different streams of Judaism and different sexual appetites from quite modest to completely unfiltered. In this way Oppenheimer hopes to make Jewish sexuality less of a taboo subject and more a constructive and empowering experience. Under “The Good Stuff” section of the website, the rating system is described:

Also, in order to be sensitive to our diverse audience, each piece of writing is rated and correspondingly tagged for your reading convenience. You can sort pieces by rating as follows:

Rated PGPG pieces are considered to be appropriate for all adult audiences

Rated PG-13PG-13 pieces may reference kissing and touching and include mild sexual jokes. PG-13 pieces are considered to be appropriate for most adult audiences

Rated RR pieces may reference sex directly and may contain descriptions of explicit sexual scenarios. R pieces are considered to be appropriate for many adult audiences

Rated XXXXXX pieces contain explicit content and graphic detail. XXX pieces may reference non-traditional sexual practices including kink and BDSM. These pieces push boundaries and are considered appropriate for some adult audiences

Please note that posts under the Confessions category are quite short and audience-generated. These pieces are unrated. (16)

By shaping Jewrotica’s technology to include a rating system from PG to XXX, from kissing and touching to BDSM (Bondage Discipline Sadism and Masochism), Oppenheimer has allowed a diverse family of users to gather under the same sexual umbrella. However, she has done much more. She is putting the decision making process into the hands of the users instead of the authoritative voices of rabbis and denominational institutions. Each individual user can choose which rating category they feel comfortable with and which gives voice to their individual sexuality. By proactively shaping technology, Jewrotica is making post-denominational and post-rabbinic theological functions possible. Jewrotica is proactively shaping Jewish sexual ethics instead of passively consuming what is taught at Hebrew school and buying into a moral economy of silence around sexuality. It is taking the power away from Jewish institutions and Jewish rabbinic authorities to decide what constitutes Jewish sexual experiences and putting it into the hands of the family of users of Jewrotica. It is empowering Jewish sexuality to take place outside of the institution of marriage and sanctioning Jewish theologies of sexuality to be found wherever Jews are linking up for meaningful sexual experiences even if they take place outside the marriage bed. Moreover, Oppenheimer typifies a post-denominational and post-rabbinic caring and inspiring leader. She is enabling Jews to make their own decisions about their sexuality and inspiring them to have meaningful Jewish sexual experiences whether they are PG or XXX or a combination of different categories.

The rating system is one area where Jewrotica is shaping technology and negotiating and innovating in a shared ideological space that reflects the moral economy of the family of users of Judaica and the deep symbolic meaning inherent in such negotiations with and reconstructions of technology. Now that Jewrotica has completed this negotiation process at least for some aspects of its website, the RSST approach calls for another level of analysis to understand the means Jewrotica and its members are using to justify their use of technology for the Jewish sexual domain. Campbell has named this process ‘communal framing and discourse.’ Campbell argues that discourse must be considered in order to reach further into the justification processes communities employ regarding their use of technology. Researchers into new media use in religious communities need to not only pay attention to how religious communities use new technologies, “[…] but to the language which surrounds its use and introduction into the community as an act of value setting and boundary maintenance” (17).
Campbell gives an example of an online fertility forum for Orthodox Jewish women that provides a safe and open space for women to talk about these usually taboo issues. The forum is similar to Jewrotica in that it encourages open and frank discussions without authority figures and provides anonymity for those women who might feel ashamed or scared to discuss these issues publicly. Women are encouraged to decide for themselves how to deal with their infertility. Learning of this, an orthodox rabbi raised the issue of how complex the Internet is in regard to religious leaders’ authority and how such forums affect the orthodox community in general. He states:

The Internet poses a spiritual as well as an ethical challenge. We do need to make a place for the rabbi online, and the emergence of new rabbinical laws to address these issues […] But if we have a rabbi in every forum that will also discourage some conversation and people will move to other more private places […] We need to encourage our managers to serve as guides to the conversations and hard issues. We need to encourage these conversations so we know what our community thinks. (18)

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