The tao of Steve, the vows of Isaiah

The tao of Steve, the vows of Isaiah

In 2007 I was in San Francisco for a conference on Judaism and newspapers, which was nearly as depressing as it sounds. As we discussed shrinking synagogue rolls and declining readership, I caught more than a few of my colleagues looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge with suspicious longing.

On the last day of the conference, I passed a crowd of mostly young people lined up on Stockton Street. Some looked as if they had been camping out there for days, and they had: It was the release date of the Apple iPhone.

You couldn’t find a neater juxtaposition between the past and the future. You know that old Western, where the blacksmith hears the “ah-ooh-gah, ah-ooh-gah” of a newfangled horseless carriage? I’m the blacksmith.

I don’t blame Steve Jobs for turning my world upside down, although he did. On balance, I embrace the digital revolution.

And yet.

For years I couldn’t imagine anything better than my Sony Walkman. Pop in a cassette or tune in the radio, and I was good to go.

Then along came my sleek iPod. No more jamming tape or fading radio stations. All my favorite podcasts on iTunes. A CD collection in my pocket. There was no going back.

And no standing still either, which is my real problem with Jobs. I had no sooner fallen in love with my iPod 3rd Gen when Apple released the Mini 1st Gen, which would soon be challenged, and ultimately replaced, by the nano. At each stage of the evolution, I was perfectly satisfied with my iPod. But Apple’s endless quest for innovation and boundless genius at marketing would make it imperative that I ditch my old model for the new.

Call it planned obsolescence or disruptive technology, the quest for the new has erased the boundaries between software and hardware. Even the “hardest” objects now feel ephemeral, disposable, conditional. The Macs we bought in 2004 seemed perfectly adequate for the job at hand. Four years later, and they had to go — either they weren’t compatible with new products, or the manufacturer decided it would no longer support the old models. As Andy Rooney complained on his last 60 Minutes broadcast, “I had one typewriter for 50 years, but I bought seven computers in six years.”

This is intensely exciting for the kinds of folks who line up at Apple stores for the latest iPad and held candlelight vigils when they heard that Jobs had died at age 56. Mourners talked about their “relationships” with their Apple devices. But I find it difficult to form a relationship with anything that will die or be replaced in two or three years. I am wary of investing too heavily in any medium that might degrade or be superseded in less time than it takes to earn a college degree. I may have better photographs and more videos in the “cloud” than I do in my bureau drawer, but at least I know that the photos in my drawer will still be there 10 years from now.

Steve Jobs opened up a world of consumer choice and convenience and made the planet more connected than it ever had been.

But he also made me quote Andy Rooney, for which I cannot forgive him.

A CONSERVATIVE FRIEND was skeptical about the Kol Nidrei service held in lower Manhattan in support of the Occupy Wall Street activists. Some 700 Jews attended the Yom Kippur eve service.

“I am not saying that Halacha was broken,” he wrote. “What I am saying is that Yom Kippur is supposed to be about personal introspection and reflection. Saying ‘Al cheit’ and Ashamnu in the middle of a political demonstration, where some signs say ‘Hitler Banks,’ somehow goes against my idea of how transgressions should be confessed.”

If some of the protesters at Zuccotti Park held anti-Semitic signs, that would be odious, although it wouldn’t necessarily taint the entire movement (the reliable Marc Tracy of the on-line Jewish magazine Tablet reported from the protests that “I have witnessed zero anti-Semitic signs or chants”).

I don’t know where my friend got the idea that prayer is antithetical to political action. Consider Isaiah 58: “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?” The prophet insists that the whole point of piety is to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free.”

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, a leading Modern Orthodox thinker, quotes Isaiah when he writes that a Judaism that “in the end of the day can only think about the rituals of fasting and which forgets a larger social justice agenda is misdirected, mediocre, and fails to serve the ends after which Judaism strives.”

I am not ready to get behind the protesters’ social justice agenda, which seems unformed and scattershot. But I do know plenty of religious people, liberal and conservative alike, who each day grow more dissatisfied with the direction in which they see the country headed. If Jewish introspection and reflection don’t provide a framework for thinking about or responding to the ills of the world as they see them, what’s the point exactly?

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