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The Innermost Intelligence of the Smart Phone

The Innermost Intelligence of the Smart Phone

A Kabbalistic Appraisal


As a boy raised on the promise vouchsafed by Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” upon the moon’s crust and Captain Kirk’s invitation to “boldly go where no man has gone before,” I am a member of a generation afflicted with a great disappointment. By this time in my life, according to what I was assured by the Jetsons, I should have been flying to work on my private hoverjet, enjoying gourmet meals materialized ex nihilo at the beep of a red button, and vacationing once a year on the sunny side of a planet orbiting around Alpha Centauri or at least on nearby Mars.

Sitting atop this great heap of broken promises of techno-felicity, I find myself living in a future where it seems the one and only consolation for all my dashed boyhood hopes is encased in a singular technical device, the only item that contemporary Israelis acknowledge by name as a pele, a wonder, to wit, the smartphone.

Am I consoled? The smartphone, to be sure, is no mere device among devices. Who with even a modicum of spiritual sensibility could deny that, for better or for worse, a new dawn of the human spirit is upon us? —The Age of the Smartphone!

But am I consoled? —Actually, for my part, I have found something better than consolation. Thanks to a kabbalistic teaching originally articulated in the very ancient Sefer Yetzirah1 and promulgated for popular consumption in its Chassidic format since the 1797 publication the short treatise, Shaar HaYiud vehaEmunah (“The Gate of Unity and Faith”) by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, it seems to me that a positive appreciation of the wondrous leap for mankind represented by the technological advent of the smartphone is indeed not only feasible, it is a spiritual-intellectual requirement of any thoughtful person who would be at least as smart as his or her own phone.

The Virtual Life of the Smartphoner on the Street

When Alexander Graham Bell uttered the inaugural telephoned sentence in 18762 to his assistant standing in the next room—“Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!”—the first sublime potential of the telephone (Greek: têle phōnê, “far-off voice”) was made manifest as its power to bring closer someone who stood farther away.

A second sublime potential eventually unlocked itself when two interlocutors on the opposite ends of a very long wire running under the Atlantic found that they were quite content with achieving a dimension of closeness that no longer said, “Come here, I want to see you!” (As Mr. Watson replied to the same statement repeated by Bell in their historic 1915 call between New York and San Francisco: “It will take me five days to get there now!”) A happy proximity could be satisfactorily attained by two family members or two friends at a great physical distance from each other within the phone call itself.

Not that this proximity was accepted as genuine or wholesome by everyone or right away. In the 1940s, the novelist Albert Camus could be upset by the eerie spectacle of a man gesticulating fervidly inside a phonebooth. “A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition. We can’t hear him, but we see his pointless pantomime. We wonder why he is alive.”3 How, wondered Camus in dismay, could this count as “being alive,” this self-imprisoned, inaudible one-man act in a glass box on the street corner? Could this really be a living conversation?

In 1983, Motorola Inc. manufactured the DynaTAC 8000x, the first commercially available cellular phone. And once the fad took off 1991, the spectacle that appeared so unnerving and absurd for Camus has achieved epidemic proportions—an epidemic against which today, evidently, no one in his or her right mind desires to be inoculated.

I walk down the street at a quarter past five. I see a fellow pedestrian walking in the other direction, toward me, chatting into his smartphone. His feet touch the sidewalk, his free arm makes tender gestures in the air, the sun shines into his squinting eyes, the noise of the street swirls around him, and yet he is not there. Or he is just barely there. His body is there going through various motions. But he, he himself, is somewhere else. Where? Right beside his wife, as far as I can tell, in his kitchen at home, where his wife is stirring tomato sauce for the spaghetti bolognese they will soon be sharing for dinner.

And now—I am still studying him—now the most remarkable thing takes place. The conversation winds down to see-you-soons, and, just before he holds out the cell and presses the red phone icon, I see my fellow pedestrian puckering his lips—into a kiss!

A man has just expressed sweet affection for a little black appliance in public. I look around. No one has noticed anything unusual. Just another guy on the street kissing his wife in the kitchen.

The Virtue of Virtual Reality

Now, for some social critics, as for Camus, this kind of behaviour might appear like nothing but another sad phase in the general plague of technologized life. The fact that the cellphone epidemic is eating away into the face-to-face encounter between two flesh-and-blood human beings, and by the same token into the precious loneliness that used to be suffered patiently between such encounters which made the encounters themselves all the sweeter, appears as a major step toward the cybernetic dystopia looming just ahead, a world in which humans will lie prone, like macrochips wedged in a green panel, with tiny smartphones implanted under their skulls as they participate in a dense world-web of electronic interconnectedness.

Such social critics, moreover, insist on the simple physical fact that my fellow pedestrian is in reality, in fact, on the street, and that his “presence” at home with his wife is merely a virtual one. It is precisely the self-abandonment to virtual existence that is taken to be so lamentable. The smartphone dimension is said to be a non-reality.

Yet there is a distinctly cavalier dishonesty in this criticism. Where, how, after all, does this social critic make this criticism? More often than not, he formulates his ideas on his laptop, transmits his critique by email to his publisher, who uploads it to the internet, so that the critic’s loyal fans can access it on their smartphones while riding the bus.

That a certain type of intimacy and hence of reality has been compromised since the smartphone revolution took place is not to be doubted. But a rigorous phenomenology of the situation—that is, an honest recognition of the most real dimension of life in which we breathe and move about and share our feelings and thoughts with one another—also points to the equally real fact, indeed, realer fact, that human beings have lived in a profoundly virtual dimension since time began, namely the dimension of language.

Is there anything more meaningful, more real, within human existence than the constant barter and banter of words in which we live our lives? When the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure wanted to represent pictorially “where” it is that language takes place, he resorted, sensibly enough, to drawing trajectories suspended in the air between two human heads.4

This classical diagram affirms the full concrete reality of the heads while it depicts the two-fold action of speaking-and-hearing by means of two abstract geometric arcs. And when I see the man on the street with his cellphone, this scientific estimation of what is real versus what is abstract can certainly make an amusing impression at times. I see his head, to be sure; but where are the dotted lines?! Nevertheless, when I am the man on the street blowing kisses to his wife on the phone—and I am certainly that man at some point during the day—the experience of what is abstract versus what is concrete is very different. I can smell the spaghetti.

How the Universe Was Uttered Into Place

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” (Song of Songs 1:2) The beloved Shulamite says these words about her lover. It is a metaphor for how we feel about G‑d.5

A closely related metaphor speaks of the “breath of G‑d’s mouth,” which “breath,” as Rabbi Shneur Zalman explains, represents, not something ethereal and unreal, but the most real of realities. More in fact, it represents the source of reality itself. “By the word of G‑d were the heavens made and their hosts by the breath of His mouth.” (Psalms 33:6)

The reason that all things created and actualized appear to us as existing and tangible, is that we do not comprehend or see with our eyes of flesh the power of G‑d and the breath of His mouth which is in every creature. If, however, the eye were permitted to see and to comprehend the vital principle and the spirituality within every creature, flowing into it from ‘That which proceeds out of the mouth of G‑d’ [Deuteronomy 8:3] and His breath, then the corporeality, materiality and tangibility of the creature would not be visible to our eyes at all, for its existence is utterly null vis-à-vis the vitality and the spirituality which is within it, since without the spirituality it would be nothingness and literally zero, exactly as before the Six Days of Creation.6

What is it that comes out of the mouth of G‑d to constitute and to vitalize reality? Words! Words! Words! G‑d speaks and reality is released from silent nothingness into being. “Let there be …” said G‑d, eight times explicitly and twice implicitly,7 as everything that is real was permitted, as it were, to be and to take shape in the six primordial days when G‑d invoked the unfathomable idea of a cosmos to percolate from the depths of His inscrutable Mind up to the surface of this superficial layer of thingishness we call the universe. “And G‑d said: ‘Let there be …’” G‑d said this. G‑d made the universe by uttering words.

… even in thoroughly inanimate matter, such as rocks or earth or water, there is soul and spiritual vitality, that is, the investiture of the letters of speech of the Ten Utterances which give life and existence to inanimate matter that it might come to be out the nothingness and zero that preceded the Six Days of Creation. And although [for example,] the noun אבן [rock] is not mentioned in the Ten Utterances recorded in the Torah, nevertheless, vitality flows to the rock through combinations and permutations of the letters that circulate in the Two Hundred and Thirty-One Gates [of binary Hebrew letter combinations], either in direct or reverse order, as is explained in the Sefer Yetzirah, until the combination of the [three letters in the] noun אבן devolves from the Ten Utterances, and is derived from them, this being the vitality of the rock.8

Which means that the very being of this thing called a “rock” which was summoned into reality by the divine utterance of the Hebrew noun êvên, this thing whose very being is derived from this word, must be less real than the word whence it is derived. If the eye were permitted to see a rock as is in its truth, then it would no longer be seen in its mere physical manifestations: its grey colour, its shape, its hardness, its heaviness, its ability to smash windows. The rock would appear as the word, as the word êvên, a primordial word that “proceeds out of the mouth of G‑d.” (What would this word look like? Well, if the eye were permitted to see it … which, alas, is something the eye is not permitted to do ….)

The Smartphone as a "You Have Just Entered" Sign of the Messianic Age

“This is my comfort in my affliction, that Your word gives me vitality!” (Psalms 119:50)

The great disappointment regarding the technological paradise that was promised to the 21st century, it turns out, is a blessing in disguise. For what was promised was a life of consummate ease and comfort, a life of perfect laziness. And such a paradise has dire little to do with the messianic era as envisioned by the prophets.

The comforts promised by the prophets—for example to all the sheep of the world, who are assured they will finally get to snuggle with lions and wolves (Isaiah 11:6)—are but accidental features of an era utterly submerged in a full-time preoccupation with acquiring knowledge of G‑d (Isaiah 11:9). And what is the smartphone but a sign of the general readiness of humanity for such a preoccupation?

Our smartphones submerge us in a reality of around-the-clock communication, where words are more real than things, where the bursting open of the wellsprings of constant conversation is as harmless, indeed as welcome, as a global deluge would be to fish.

The content of this great flood of communication and information, to be sure, still needs to be channeled into better, more decent, holier, smarter words. But the technology, at least, is in place. As is, most importantly, the passion for words.

Am I consoled then? —Never mind consolation! If private flying saucers, zap-into-existence Tiramisu, and candle-light dinner dates on the dark side of the moon are not yet a reality, perhaps this has something to do with the basic economic rule that technology develops in accordance with what human beings are willing to invest in.

We don’t really care about being able to fly home from the office. We want to be able to be home while still at the office. This is no abrogation of space. It is a transcendence of space. Better still, it is a disclosure of the innermost secret of spatiality itself as a host for language, communication, and submersion in divine knowledge.

The smartphone is no mere zonk-gift behind door number two or a consolation prize for technology’s slowness to catch up to science fiction. Kabbalistically understood: the smartphone is the very flower of technological wisdom.

Widely attributed to a revelation experienced by the patriarch Abraham, e.g. in Zohar II:275b, Zohar Ḥadash 37c; Sefer Raziel 8b; Pardes Rimonim 11:1.
The date is not far from 1840, i.e. the Hebrew year 5600, which was prognosticated in the Zohar (116b; cf. Sanhedrin 99a) as a time in which an “opening of the supernal gates of wisdom above,” i.e. the gates of kabbalistic wisdom, would be complimented by a concomitant “opening of the wellsprings of the wisdom below,” which would include technological wisdom. See a translation of Zohar 116b by Simcha-Shmuel Treister and and Tzvi Freeman's article, The Last day of History.

We may note moreover that in the Torah itself the first thematization of wisdom, including its tripartite form of okhmah-binah-daat, takes place in Exodus 31:2ff.: “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with the spirit of G‑d, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass …” (cf. 28:3). Bezalel’s specifically technical know-how pertains to the construction of a dwelling here below to accommodate the descent from above of the divine Indwelling, the Shekhinah. (In Deuteronomy 1:13, the three aspects of wisdom are cited again but in the context of qualifications for being a judge. See Deut. Rabbah 1:10.)
Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (Paris: Gallimard, 1942), p. 29.
Ferdinand de Saussure, Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale, ed. T. d. Mauro (Paris: Payot, 1972), p. 27.
On the anthropomorphism of a “divine kiss,” See Baba Batra 17a re Deuteronomy 34:5. Cf. Moed Katan 28a, Berakhot 8a.
R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya (Vilna edition, 1900), Pt. 2, Shaar HaYiḥud vehaEmunah, Ch. 3, p. 78a.
Avot 5:1. According to Rosh Hashanah 32a and Megillah 21b (see commentaries of Rabbeinu Beḥaye, Rashbatz and Rambam re Avot 5:1), the Ten Utterances are enumerated as the eight instances of ויאמר (“and He said”) in verses 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26 of the first chapter of Genesis, plus the instance in Genesis 2:18, plus as being implied in the word בראשית (“In the beginning”) in Genesis 1:1.
Michael Chighel (Kigel) received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto for his dissertation on the Book of Job, after a specialization in 20th-century French and German thought. In Canada he taught in the departments of philosophy and of Jewish studies at the universities of York, Queen’s and Waterloo. He produced Passages and Messages for eleven seasons on Canadian television (CTS). Until this year he held the Rohr Chair of Jewish Studies at the Lauder Business School in Vienna, where he taught Torah, European ethics and political economy. He has translated a number of books and published various articles in Jewish thought. Michael and his family have recently made aliyah, and now live in Jerusalem.
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Michael Chighel Jerusalem June 20, 2016

Soul-Phone Dear K., I love your "soul-phone" idea! Please write to me as soon as it's available on the market. Can I get it in dark turquoise? Reply

K. Toronto June 19, 2016

The eyes, the lips, the teeth, the 'soul-phone' Another angle to this discussion recently occurred to me, Dr. Chigel, after I read your latest 'exegesis' called "Biliaphillia".

The popularity of smartphone is a technological interpretation of the interior 'thirst' for 'soul-phone'. 'Soul-phone' is like clair-audience, but not located merely in psychic phenomena, but tethered to Torah law and study. When soul-phone is correctly installed and its' usage monitored, it results in clarity of reception and purity of linkage to scripture and holy reason. Sounds easy, easy theoretically, maybe. But the tests are everyday. When it is necessary to pay attention to the efficacy of G-d's finger, we have the ability for our 'soul-phones' to light up our lives with His wisdom.

Thanks for all your amazing notes/footnotes! Reply

Sara Traveling in Europe via April 18, 2015

The Power of the Word... Thank you for this thought provoking article. Having just been studying Exodus 31 and the marvelous gift of wisdom as practically needed, this reference broadened the marvelous experience of being "virtually transported across the Atlantic" to visit with my children while riding a train to Lille. The emphasis on the word's spirituality deepens my experience of travel today. Reply

Bracha Goetz BALTIMORE April 17, 2015

Brilliant, B'H! Reply

Michael Kigel Jerusalem April 16, 2015

"Don do da crime if you can't do da time ..." Dear Rick,

Please please please do NOT get a smartphone based on anything I have written. (Mushka D's point is all too well-taken!) I myself just got my first one last year. My praise for this technoid device is strictly bdieved (a posteriori). I'll try to make my point clearer in a follow-through article.

Enjoy your family's lovely face and voices! Reply

Rick Brown Memphis April 16, 2015

Great article. I see families in restaurants, parents and children all reading or texting on their phones. Occasionally there is a verbal exchange without taking their eyes off the phone. This is progress? I have wondered. Why do I need one of those things that will isolate me from my family?
Thank you for presenting another analysis of this techtoid.
Well done.
Okay, you have convinced me I might have a need to get one.
tomorrow Reply

Mushka D Israel April 16, 2015

Balance & Purpose Even though I use smartphone (in order to be available to some VIPs in my life who live 1000s km away), I am against this invention taking such a huge role in our lives.
A ride in a public transport has never been as quiet as nowadays, where people close themselves from reality via headphones, and putting their eyes into the screen. Almost daily I see people bumping into each other just because they do not see anything besides the screen of their phone.
Some of us prefer walking around with google maps navigator, instead of approaching a stranger to ask for directions.
Have you attended a Megilah reading recently? No megillahs, no noisemakers, it's all in the phone...
I might sound like a grandma, but every action needs to be done for a purpose. When our virtual life overrides our real (could be less "perfect" and "exciting") one, it deserves an outcry for MN! We always have a choice, I wish we have the understanding to make the right one. Reply

Michael Kigel Jerusalem April 15, 2015

Wunder-Zähmung Dear M.

Amen! And nicely put! As the old Bard says: There are more thing in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your cellphone, or by means of any other artificial intelligence.

The smartphone is nothing but an instrument, a vessel (KLI), for holy things. Like any other piece of technology: a parchment scroll, an incense altar, a golden box with two comely cherubs on it, etc..

All vessels and all devices are sanctified only through their proper, careful, well-rationed, well-measured, timely, well-intentioned, genuinely SMART usage.

What all such "holy" vessels embody is strictly ... an opportunity. Reply

M. Wunder-Lust Toronto April 15, 2015

Wearing the shoe and seeing where it pinches .... 24/7 communication was available before the smartphone, no?

I do wholeheartedly agreed with footnote #2: re: opening of the wellsprings of wisdom below" ... but is this earthbound wisdom equal to higher wisdom?

words are as harmless or harmful as the intentionality behind them, and this includes various other technologies man uses.

It seems there are plenty of vipers to be tamed before we'll see much of the animal kingdom peacefully snuggling together in quite the way the prophets envisioned it.

Star Trek was fun in its' time. But some of the wellsprings of that infatuation have led to irresponsible trekking: technologies such as drones, technolgies that opened the gates to harmful human behaviors: cyber-spying/bullying, for instance..

The fullness of an expanded human consciousness is much more than the sum of any technological gizmos. Apparently plants can sing and their music is pleasant to human ears ... Reply

Michael Kigel Jerusalem April 13, 2015

I sing the body electric ... Dear Carmen,

I can only speak for myself, but I'm not sure I'd like to be part of any messianic reality in which I can't kiss and hug my dearest ones, shake hands with my buddies, and even get a good bear-hug now an then.

The virtual interconnectedness that devices like smart phones facilitate is an EXTRA opportunity for interconnectedness. It's not something that, Heaven forbid, should ever replace the sweet physical countenance and contact of our fellow human beings.

Something that Chassidic thought emphasizes about messianic times, moreover (following the Ramban), is that this will be an era in which we finally really get what it means to be embodied in the flesh! Reply

James lloyd cooley topeka,ks April 13, 2015

I donno but this ipad speaks, translation, in Hebrew,,and most others, and it kept me awake all the layla... Reply

Carmen April 12, 2015

Sometimes I think that physical love,desire,passion ...are fated to be no more.It is painfull to think of not embracing a loved one anymore,not kissing a loved one anymore,not surrendering to passions anymore...but sometimes I wonder if that will not be the messianic time ,which we are having a taste now through virtual connections Reply

Michael Kigel April 12, 2015

Hashmal al pi kabbalah Dear Minnie,
Camus wonders if the man in the phone booth is "alive" because he looks like a crazy person person talking to himself inside a glass box. :) Reply

Minnie Israel April 12, 2015

In the "Virtual Life of the Smartphone on the Street", why do we wonder why he is alive? Simply because he could be electricuted? Reply

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