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Clergy of three faiths swap views on technology
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Clergy of three faiths swap views on technology

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Islamic tradition requires two credible witnesses to sight the moon in order to begin and end different festivals.

“We used to stay up until 1 a.m. to know whether or not we could celebrate Eid-al-fitr,” the festival at the end of Ramadan, said Dr. M. Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge. “But we don’t do that anymore.” Instead, like many Muslim communities, his has embraced technology that designates festival times.

Chaudry was speaking before about 50 people from three different faiths who gathered for a “trialogue” at the Faith Lutheran Church in New Providence on May 21.

Chaudry, Rabbi Avi Friedman of the Summit Jewish Community Center, and the Rev. Dr. Murdoch MacPherson of Faith Lutheran Church led a discussion on how their faiths approach new technology.

Friedman described a “two-handed approach: We pull technology in on the one hand, and on the other hand, we say, ‘Whoa.’ That’s the Jewish approach. We want to be able to take advantage of what new technology offers, but not let go of tradition.”

He also said that incorporating new technology is nothing new for Judaism.

“There’s a story in the Talmud about technology. Specifically, on Rosh Hashana, the custom is to blow the shofar, or sound the ram’s horn,” he said. “The obligation, or mitzva, is to hear it. So the question arose, can you blow it in a barrel to enhance the sound? If you do, are you hearing the shofar or the barrel? Our ancestors thought about how to use the tools of technology to speak more loudly and reach more people, but also asked what is the core, the kernel of tradition and how to preserve that kernel.”

MacPherson offered a somewhat similar approach for Christianity, which he termed “embracing in one hand and pushing away with the other.”

“We realize that for all the promise of technology, it also holds incredible destructive power,” said MacPherson. “We have to ask, in the hands of human beings, what is this tool doing? How does it relate to God? With some technological advances, you lose the human community, and maybe it’s not worth the cost.”

The most difficult areas for Christianity, he said, are medical care and end-of-life issues. “One hundred years ago,” said the pastor, “women had 12 children and only three would live to adulthood. So much of Christianity was about how to deal with death and how God responds to death, and how He speaks through death.

“As Christians, the question now is how to deal with life and at what point should we not extend life.”

‘Teach it properly’

Chaudry said some Muslim communities are similarly cautious. Although a “majority” accept scientific calculations and websites offering confirmation of lunar sightings for festivals, for example, some communities maintain the traditional means of sighting the moon and have not embraced the new technology.

An “app” containing the entire Koran is no substitute for the requirement that a prayer leader have the entire text memorized, Chaudry said. It is acceptable, however, for a second leader to consult a printed version to make sure it is read correctly. Whether or not the app may be used in that situation he didn’t discuss.

But it’s definitely okay, he said, to use technology in study. “To learn the Koran, you need someone to sit down in a mosque or school to teach it properly. Now, through technology, you can do it using Skype or a webinar if no one is available.”

The camaraderie among the clergy and their communities was evident. There was plenty of joking around, lots of laughter, and little of the nervous tension that often suffuses these kinds of events. (When Friedman pointed out that someone can Skype into an existing service but cannot be one of the 10 people making the minyan, he added, to rounds of laughter, “We can use technology, but whoa! We don’t want nine laptops and one person and say that’s a service!”)

Perhaps that ease comes from the more than 20 years that the Summit JCC and the Faith Lutheran Church have been engaged together in “dialogue.” In 2011, Freidman and MacPherson invited Chaudry to join them — hence a “trialogue.”

Participants exhibited genuine curiosity and a high level of comfort asking all sorts of questions, and the conversation rambled into different areas. “This year, we tried to talk about technology, but…we never really stick to the topic. As long as we are all talking — and talking civilly — that’s all that really matters,” said Friedman after the event.

The event closed with the equivalent of a kiddush. Said MacPherson: “The coffee is decaffeinated, the cookies are kosher, and Dr. Chaudry says that means they are acceptable to his congregants.”

Members of the crowd chuckled and then headed down the hall for refreshments and more conversation.

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