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Rabbi Laura Baum

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iPhone 5, I-It and I-Thou

Posted: 09/20/2012 8:21 am

Tishrei is the month in the Jewish calendar that has more holidays than any other: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah are the main ones. But in this Tishrei of the new year 5773, there is an additional holiday. It's a day that many people around the world are looking forward to, including me. On the 5th of Tishrei, corresponding to Sept. 21, there will be a special day which I've dubbed Yom Release of the Apple iPhone 5.

I love technology and am looking forward to my iPhone upgrade. Recent studies show that most young adults feel happier when they travel with their electronic devices, and more people worry about losing their mobile computing devices than their wedding rings.

Technology is an amazing tool. But there are also concerns about technology. There are those who worry that young people today will not have the long-lost skills of making eye contact or writing in full sentences (and without emoticons). Concerns about technology are not new. There were people in previous generations who worried that their latest technologies, whether the alphabet, the printing press or the television, would erode people's ability to speak and/or think.

Long before there were iPads or iPhones, and even before there were iPods and iTunes, there was something called I-It and I-Thou. These were two different types of relationships, as described by philosopher Martin Buber in his 1923 book.

An I-It relationship is not a transformative or deep relationship. I-It often describes a relationship between a person and an object, but it can also occur between two people. In these interactions, the "it" generally doesn't make us feel bad, doesn't criticize us and doesn't interrupt us. But that also means the "it" cannot hold our hand when we are sick, help us when we are frail or comfort us when we cry.

Those kinds of relationships require what Buber calls an I-Thou relationship. Rather than an objectified "it," there's a living connection, openness and honesty. This is a deeper and more transformative type of relationship in which a person is willing to do something for another with no expectation of receiving something in return.

This framework of I-It and I-Thou is useful in thinking about how we approach many parts of our lives, including technology. We cannot have a deep I-Thou relationship with our espresso machines, our television sets or even an iPhone 5. Even if we sometimes become so enamored with our technology that we treat it as a "thou," we must not expect the technology to "thou" us back.

Fears about technology often go hand in hand with a concern that we're focused too much on things (the "its" of life), and not enough on ourselves and each other (the "thous"). Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writing in 1951, expressed concern that people were too focused on "technical civilization" and therefore might miss out on appreciating the splendor of other experiences and relationships. He wrote that "things are the shore, the voyage is in time."

The Jewish New Year gives us the opportunity to focus not just on the shore, but also on the voyage. The holiday reminds us to not just be distracted by what gives us instant gratification, but to consider what really matters to us.

When technology helps us have better I-Thou relationships, it's a phenomenal tool. I've seen the power of using technology to build a global online Jewish community. At OurJewishCommunity.org, tens of thousands of people from dozens of countries tune in for streaming High Holiday services. Each Shabbat, people from around the world participate in a video-streamed Shabbat experience and join the conversation by chatting in via computer. Here, technology is not used for its own sake but rather as a means to building an evolving and dynamic Jewish community.

In moments where I am able to celebrate Judaism with people from around the world, I see the value in technology. When I watch my young nephews who live several hundred miles away from me blow out their birthday candles on Skype, I see the value in technology. When I am able to keep in touch with friends I haven't seen in years on Facebook, I see the value in technology. In these types of examples, technology allows for better I-Thou relationships in our lives.

At other times, though, we may be hiding our noses in technology and avoiding deeper relationships. While technology enhances our lives in so many ways, there are also times to put it down so that we can be fully present in other areas of our lives.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about being fully present. They are holidays built into the yearly cycle that give us an opportunity to reflect on the year just ending and the year ahead. We do the difficult work of focusing on ourselves, so that we can then have better relationships and be more present for ourselves and others.

Among my wishes for the New Year is that we can strive to find focus throughout the year. When technology helps us be present and connect to others, it's a wonderful tool. But we also must be mindful of when we're using technology simply for its own sake and evaluate whether it is standing in the way of deeper connections.

And, yes, my other wish is for a new iPhone 5!


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