The Meaning of Community

Yeshiva University’s ‘World of Tomorrow’ Conference

On Sunday 22nd October 2017, Rabbi Sacks participated in a public conversation with Rabbi Ari Lamm as part of Yeshiva University’s ‘World of Tomorrow’ Conference, held under the direction and leadership of its new President, Rabbi Dr Ari Berman.

Listen to the audio recording of the full conversation with Rabbi Lamm, which includes the clip featured in this video.

Rabbi Ari Lamm:

Speaking of thinking locally on the particularity, what does it mean to be part of a community nowadays? On the Jewish end, you can think of a person whose closest rabbinic teacher lives in Israel, whose friends live on either the East Coast or the West Coast, you may live in the Midwest, so can we still speak of a local Jewish community? Or in the broader, general sense you may think of a person in the world of tomorrow - or in the world of today - whose employer is working remotely from Spain, whose colleagues don’t even live anywhere, they switch Airbnb every six months, and who communicates with their best friends primarily over Skype or over FaceTime. So, what in the world of today is the advantage, or is it even possible to think locally? What is local community nowadays?

Rabbi Sacks:

A local community is actually dealt with in Psalm 1, Ashrei ha’ish asher lo halach ba’atzat…v’hayah k’aitz shatool al-palgay mayyim... [Psalms 1:3] To be strong, you need roots somewhere. Lo chein haresha’im ki im kamotz asher tidfenu ru’ach [Psalms 1:4]  Whereas the Resha’im - we won’t call them wicked, we’ll just call them just alienated or destabilised - “are like chaff blown on the winds.” And that’s what Facebook culture actually is. You know, whatever is this week’s fashion or this week’s viral video. I mean, you don’t have grinning cats do you, or whatever it is this week? I don’t know. This is kamotz asher tidfenu ru’ach. This is blown this way and that. That is not an identity.

So here it is, in 2011 a British medical charity - Macmillan Nurses - did a survey of young Brits between the age of 18 and 30. This is 2011, six years ago. (Which in the history of Facebook is quite something because Facebook just had its barmitzvah. It’s been around for 13 years. It has 2 billion subscribers. So, six years ago it was still in cheder, you know?) 

Now, they asked, “How many Facebook friends do you have?” and the average answer six years ago was 237. When asked, “How many of those can you rely on in an emergency?” The average answer was “two”. A quarter said “one”. An eighth said “none”. That is the difference between a Facebook friend and a real friend. The guy you sit next to in shul, or even better, the guy you don’t speak to in shul.

I was doing a Facebook Live a week or two ago with the head of Facebook in Europe, Nicola Mendelsohn, who I have to tell you is an Orthodox and practising Jew, and we were talking about just that, because Mark Zuckerberg has changed the mission statement of Facebook to supporting communities. The truth is, yes, Facebook can support communities, but it can’t create communities. Communities have to be down here on the ground. That’s why you need a minyan. That’s why you don’t drive on Shabbat, so Orthodox Jews live in close proximity to one another. You need those things, and you need face-to-face encounters. 

Therefore, we came up with this wonderful idea of a digital detox. You know what I mean? In order not to be totally dependent on your smartphone, (and my smartphone is a lot smarter than I am, so I’ve already got an inferiority complex, and I haven’t even bought the iPhone X yet. I’ll actually be completely inadequate then), the fact is, that one day a week you’ve got to switch off the iPhone and meet real people in real time and real space, and I proposed “let’s call it Shabbos!” 

I think Mark Zuckerberg, and bless him, Mark and Sheryl Sandberg, both this Yom Kippur came out of the closet and sent a Yom Kippur message of, chattati avitti porshatti, to which everyone said, “You’re absolutely right. You really did.” 

Here it is, all these technologies can support community, but they can’t create and sustain community. For that, you need physical presence, ‘I-Thou,’ and there’s no true substitute for it.