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The Soul of Cyberspace

The Soul of Cyberspace

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Is TCP/IP another name for G-d?
--Rabbi Yosef Y. Kazen

The buildings in this part of Brooklyn are rundown, scarred by graffiti. Iron gates cover nearly every window. Aside from a few cars, nothing moves beneath the hot summer sun. No wonder my cab driver has his pedal to the floor.

In the distance, a billboard appears high on a wall. An old man with a white beard looks out from it. He is the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the seventh Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Orthodox Judaism. The taxi passes the billboard, and everything changes.

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This new block sparkles. It teems with dozens of men in dark trousers, some wearing dark jackets despite the heat, all topped with yarmulkes and sometimes black fedoras; milling, talking, laughing, and gesticulating. A handful of women and children pick their way through the crowd. The action seems to swirl around a rosy, brick Italianate mansion with a multi-peaked facade. This is 770 Eastern Parkway, in Crown Heights, a building known around the world to Orthodox Jews simply as "770." It is the global headquarters of the Lubavitchers and the home of their late Rebbe, who died in 1994 at the age of ninety-two.

I've come to 770 to meet Rabbi Yosef Y. Kazen, director of activities of the Chabad-Lubavitch Web site, to talk with him about his outreach program in cyberspace and about some of the questions I have regarding spiritual work online. I know what Kazen looks like because I've seen a picture of him on the Web. (Nearly all of the research for his book was conducted on the Net.) Still, when I spot him, it is a shock to match this exuberant man who greets me like a friend to the tiny black and white photo digitized in cyberspace.

Rabbi Kazen is middle-aged, tall and husky, casually dressed in a white shirt and dark trousers. He wears glasses, and his carrot-colored beard is streaked with gray. The men he's talking with glance at me curiously, for I am the only person on the block in light-colored clothes and with an uncovered head. Kazen offers me a cigarette - like many of the religious digerati, he smokes incessantly - and we stand, and puff, and chat for a few minutes about the weather, the air, and the neighborhood. We are waiting for my colleague, Daisy Maryles, the executive editor of Publishers Weekly. A modern Orthodox Jew, Daisy, who coordinates the religious-book coverage at PW, has offered to join me here out of professional and personal interest, but also to act as my guide in this unfamiliar corner of Brooklyn.

After Daisy arrives, Kazen leads us down some steps into the modern building that hunkers next to 770. Inside, the secular twentieth century seems to give way to another time, another spirit. Women clad in headscarves and long sleeved dresses bow, murmuring prayers in Hebrew. We walk down a narrow corridor. At a bend, a tiny window opens to an impossibly large room filled with Orthodox standing and talking, reading. It was in this room that Rabbi Schneerson enthralled his followers with his talk on G-d, Judaism, and the Torah. I want to linger, to marvel at the sight, but Kazen draws us away, through a side door and up four flights of battered stairs.

We enter a tiny room crowded with chairs, desks, modems, computers, a watercooler, bookcases and workbenches. Cables snake everywhere. Cheap wood paneling covers the walls, and scratched linoleum adorns the floor in a checkerboard pattern. Most everything is scuffed and stained, a bit grimy, except for the glass over the picture of the Rebbe that hangs on one wall.

We each find a seat. The room is hot, the air close. I eye the watercooler. Its level will drop precipitously before we finish talking.

"The room you have here is ten by fifteen," Kazen tells us, the words spilling out of him in a high, happy rush. "But it's divided into three segments. One deals with people on the Internet, for mailings that go out weekly to individual questions and discussions. There is a computer development area. And then we've got the office end."

"How many people work here at one time?" asks Daisy.

"We can have up to five."

"I hope you like each other," she jokes.

The five are Kazen; Eli Winsbacher, the director of systems for the site; two programmers; and the site's webmaster, or chief programmer, Kazen's son David - who is all of fourteen. That's young for a Webmaster, but not very young. Cyberspace is a romper room of sorts. Bill Gates was nineteen when he founded Microsoft.

"My son used to watch me sitting at the computer, and he always wanted to know what was going on." Kazen smiles at the memory. "So at about eleven and a half he created a little program just for the sake of it. Basically, he created our homepages."

The room that the five elbow into is typical of other religious Internet launching pads. It doesn't take much to put up a Web site. A personal computer, a modem, and a table to put them on will do. With a few exceptions, spiritual sites on the Net are financed on a shoestring. What money there is goes into hardware and operating costs. There's no need for a fancy office. The thousands of people who log on to the Chabad-Lubavitch site each week won't see this room, for cyberspace conceals as much as it reveals.

The Web site that Kazen directs is sleek and colorful, however. Its main page is topped by a picture of the Rebbe, along with the legends, "Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace" and "Judaism on the Internet at the speed of light." The page is festooned with icons of red, blue, green, yellow, purple and gold. There's not a stain, scratch or scuff in sight. Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace is a bright, upbeat place, reflecting the good cheer that is characteristic of the followers of this branch of Hasidic Judaism.

Hasidim, or the Way of the Pious Ones, arose under the guidance of the great Jewish mystic known as the Baal Shem Tov in Eastern Europe in the mid-eighteenth century. (The style of clothing worn by Lubavitchers is a legacy of that time and place.) Hasidism emphasizes the individual's relationship to G-d and devotion toward others. Chabad-Lubavitch was founded in turn by the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shneur Zalman, toward the end of the eighteenth century. Rabbi Zalman stressed the importance of the intellect in Jewish mystical practice, as well as the central role of the tzaddik, or enlightened saint, in the religious life of the community. The succession of Lubavitcher rebbes is dynastic, generally from father to son, although Rabbi Schneerson was the son-in-law of the previous rebbe.

It is difficult to overestimate the influence of the rebbes, and of Rabbi Schneerson in particular, to Chabad-Lubavitch. Throughout his leadership, which began in 1950, the Rebbe promoted an energetic outreach program to non-Orthodox Jews that made inspired use of high tech equipment: radio, television, telephones, beepers, and finally, computers. By Rabbi Kazen's estimate, approximately fifteen thousand Lubavitchers live in the Brooklyn community of Crown Heights, while another five hundred thousand are scattered worldwide. The numbers were significantly smaller before Rabbi Schneerson ascended to leadership of the movement, and most of his followers take their outreach very seriously.

Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace has venerable roots by online standards. In the 1980s, electronic networks like Fidonet connected the digerati, who participated in electronic bulletin boards like Keshernet, a Jewish BBS, or bulletin board system, that Kazen joined late in the decade. In 1989, through Keshernet, Kazen received e-mail from a Reform Jew in Texas who told him about a Jewish woman who had expressed alarm at the flood of e-mail she'd received from Christian missionaries. The woman was eager to read Judaic writings, but there was a problem: she was allergic to ink.

"I said to myself," Kazen tells us, the wonder of it glowing in his eyes, "One second! Here's a niche that hasn't been filled!"

The rabbi e-mailed the woman some Jewish material on prayer. "I then turned around and started asking publishers within the organization to provide materials for me. The basic text of the Chabad philosophy, called the Tanya, is a five-volume book that has daily lessons. I got this book from the typesetter, had to remove the Hebrew, had to play around with the italics and whatnot. So it was quite a bit of work."

Kazen made the Tanya, and other key Judaic texts, available to whoever online wanted them. Along with other members of Keshernet, he then went where all in the community would go for the final word: Rabbi Schneerson. "I asked the Rebbe if it would be worthwhile to look into going onto the Internet. Because in 1990 the Internet was starting to make a few waves, but we were apprehensive because it was a Wild West. And the Rebbe said to go ahead with it - absolutely pursue it."

"A friend of mine, Eli Winsbacher," explains Kazen, "is a computer whiz. I spoke to him about it and I said, 'We've got to develop an electronic Chabad house. An electronic Jewish center.' And he said, 'You're nuts.'"

Kazen laughs. "You know, a lot of people tell me that. But I finally convinced him."

Barreling forward, the two went to Long Island City to meet with officials of the Dorsai Embassy, a not-for-profit corporation that provides computer services to other nonprofit groups. "They looked at us and they said, 'You know, rabbi, it's going to take away time from being home, and time to study this stuff and learn it. Are you ready for it?' And we said, 'Yeah, we're ready for it.'"

Kazen shakes his head. "Two and half years - every night, night in, night out - we spent time there. They gave us our first computer, and they taught us how to put stuff on a gopher [a menu-based program that displays Internet resources such as text files]. So I took everything off the 40-megabyte hard disk I had, and put it on the gopher site.

"We asked the Rebbe if we could go with the name Chabad. [Chabad is an acronym for Hebrew words that mean "wisdom," "understanding" and "knowledge."] He said yes. At the end of '93 we came online as chabad.org. We eventually moved our computers from the basement of my house into this building, and moved the servers [computers that serve data processing power to another, usually smaller, computer] over from Dorsai to here, got the T1 [an advanced phone-line connection to the Internet], and we're running."

That running costs substantial coin, but Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace receives minimal outside funding. Most of the expenses are paid out of Kazen's and Winsbacher's own pockets. "Between the two of us," Kazen reckons, "we actually sank our savings. The return here is spiritual. There's no financial return here." Like most religious Web sites, Chabad-Lubavitch carries few advertisements from outside parties. The site does market a scattering of items, including a menorah-building kit, membership in a tape-of-the-month club, and a cooking video, A Taste of Shabbos, ("Cholent? Babaganoosh? Kugel? Are these code words that unlock the mysteries of an ancient civilization?"). In early 1997, it presented advertisements from several "sponsors," including a commodities a broker based in Florida.

"The idea," Kazen declares with a wave of his hand, "is that Judaism has to be free!"

Kazen's site functions primarily as educational outreach. This is true of most religious outposts in cyberspace. But when Daisy asks him how many "Chabadniks" are linked to the server, his answer comes as a surprise.

"Of our own people, a small percentage - a very small percentage."

"Really," Daisy remarks. "So this is not for your own?"

"Our setup was never for our own group. On the contrary, this was set up strictly to deal with the outside world. I don't know if your average Chabad person is going to want his kid running around on the Net. It's like putting him in the middle of a newspaper store with all the magazines there. So we've never come out within the community to try and push it. My perspective here is of getting out to the world. Getting a message of Judaism to the Jew who doesn't know much, to the Gentile who is interested in finding out what Judaism has to offer."

The Chabad and other Orthodox aren't the only Jews promoting Judaism online. Scores of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanist Jewish groups have established sites on the Web. Pages aimed at Jewish students flourish, particularly on sites connected with Hillel, the global Jewish campus organization. Several thousand Jewish sites probably exist on the Web all told. Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace alone reaches a lot of people - over 2 million in 1995, according to the rabbi. Its pages now average, he reports, "twenty to thirty-five thousand hits a week. And that's just our site." (A Web page receives a hit each time anyone downloads any file - text, visual, audio - from that page. One person may visit a Web page once, therefore, and account for many hits.)

And there are numerous other Chabad-Lubavitch sites online, Kazen points out. This seems natural for a movement that has physical centers in scores of cities in the United States, Canada and Europe, as well as in eight cities in Morocco, and one center in Peru, Kazakhstan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Zaire, among other locales.

"Are the sites connected in any way?" asks Daisy.

"They're all linked," Kazen says, leaning forward with excitement. "The material is all based on the Rebbe's teachings or on general Judaica, but there's a lot of local flavor. For instance, the Baltimore-Washington area is starting to zero in on women in Judaism. There's a guy in Marin County who is zeroing in on games and Judaism, dealing with questions such as: what does polo have to do with Judaism? How can you learn a lesson from it? We've got another guy in California who's presenting kosher recipes from different places around the world."

The online visitors who make Kazen shout for joy are the wandering Jews who respond to the electronic call and return to the fold. He tells us of a police dispatcher in Philadelphia who not only came back to Judaism because of Chabad activities online, but now spends the holidays at Kazen's house.

"I had a student in New Mexico," Kazen remembers, "who's very interesting. He wrote me because he wanted to know if it was permissible to smoke marijuana on Saturday morning, in preparation for prayer, so that he could be more astute." The rabbi chuckles at the thought.

"I wrote him back that, within Judaism, the concept is that the prayer itself gives you the high. Also, that you don't smoke on Saturdays. He ended up spending his summer here, at a yeshiva, and he's planing to pursue additional studies next year. I met him earlier this year, and he said that because I'd answered him in a positive way and didn't throw off his question, I had a profound effect on his life."

This student contacted Kazen through "Ask a Question," a Web page on the site that offers a field where the curious can type in a question and then, by clicking on an icon, e-mail it to the rabbi. Kazen reports that he spends an average of six hours a day dealing with this interactive tool. "Yesterday," he recalls, "I got a question from a woman who had bought an Egyptian pitcher with two handles and wanted to know if she could use it to wash her hands - the ritual hand washing before eating bread. Very interesting. A student at Brandeis University who had cut her finger with a knife while she was peeling a apple wanted to know what do with the knife - whether it was kosher or not, because of the blood.

"These questions come in at eleven at night, twelve at night, and they want to know it now. They don't want to have to wait until who knows when."

Kazen doesn't answer all the questions himself. Sometimes he farms them out. "I will usually try to find out where the questioners are located, who they are, whether they have a contact with a local rabbi or Chabad representative, and send them out there," he says. "I think the good part about the Net is that it allows for people to sit on their own, read, study, question, ask, ask and ask, until they're comfortable enough so that they don't care whether they're associated with a specific stereotype. And that's what I have found to be the power of this thing."

"In other words," Daisy says, "it's an anonymous power when you first ask these questions."

"A totally anonymous power."

"It makes you comfortable asking anything."

"Anything. I've had people who are coming from all walks of life, who ask questions about homosexuality, transsexuality, bisexuality. I've had a psychiatrist from Australia who asked me how he was to cope with patients who are being tested for genetic diseases and who are going to die a horrible death young. The guy isn't American, he doesn't know what I look like, he doesn't even know whether I'm real or not."

Most of the material available on Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace - grouped into areas like "The Jewish Woman" and "Jewish Mysticism," interactive Torah lessons in Hebrew and English - is text-based (although there are graphics and downloadable audio clips, including clips of Chabad songs like "Oh Rebbe"). This seems appropriate for the People of the Word. It's the bells and whistles of Cyberspace, however - the interactive visuals, especially in 3-D - that can attract visitors to Web sites just as nectar attracts bees. Kazen knows this.

"Over the years, we've always had an event called Hanukkah Live on cable TV," he says, "with satellite hookup links all over the world. We figured that this year, we're going to take this to another level." What Kazen is referring to is the "Festival of Light!" (an ambitious online program for the 1996 Hanukkah season that would, as press release puts it, "utilize the power and reach of the Internet to raise the moral and ethical barometer of our planet").

The primary utilization is through "the Global Interactive Database of Good Deeds," intended as a permanent site where, Kazen tells us, "people will be able to participate in lighting their own menorah, by typing in an act of goodness or kindness or a positive thing that they did. And by having a map of the entire world, as every person types in something good that they did, another part of the world will be lit up." This database, he explains, adheres to "our perspective that the Internet is a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy of swords into ploughshares."

Kazen's plans for cyberspace are ambitious, but he is cautious about what he puts online. Among the many documents connected to his site, one set is notably absent: the very foundation of Judaism, the first five books of the Bible. When I ask him why, he grows somber and explains that although he makes numerous biblical commentaries available, "the actual Bible is not on there. To market it on the Net, to say that 'here is an authentic version of the Bible as provided by the movement' - that's a very, very, big responsibility. Anybody can walk into a store and buy a King James Bible. They don't need me for that. I'd much rather go with a synopsis and get the person to go to the synagogue and participate."

"What about the possibility of putting a synagogue on the Web?" I ask. "Can a synagogue be duplicated online?" This seems a crucial question. For religions to move fully into cyberspace, they will have to bring their rituals and sense of community along with them.

"It can be duplicated," Kazen answers, "but only to a certain extent. There are limitations. For example, in Jewish life, the man who is above the age of thirteen has to put on tefillin [leather pouches containing scrolls of Torah passages] every weekday. It's an actual physical act. You're taking a leather box, and you're putting it on your arm, and you're wrapping it on your arm and you're putting it on your head and you're saying a specific prayer. Yes, the prayer itself can be read off the Net. But the actual act needs to be done by a physical person. The concept of Judaism in general is using the material - the animal cowhide, the hair of the lamb created into wool - so that there's actual participation in all the different four levels: the inanimate, the flora, the fauna, and the human being - all into one aspect.

"Can I have a virtual meal?' he continues. "How long is it going to hold me for? I can read a recipe, but I still have to go out there and buy the eggs, buy the sugar."

I ask Kazen whether there are other aspects of Judaism that may not be transferable to cyberspace.

"Well, you can't have a minyan online. You cannot have a quorum of ten people."

I don't understand this. I fail to see why ten Jewish men can't meet in a real-time chat room online and thus constitute a minyan - the minimum number, according to Jewish tradition, necessary to pray and worship communally.

"That's very interesting. Why not?"

"Because the quorum of ten people requires ten physical bodies. Each individual person has a spark of G-dliness within them, which is the soul. It requires the quorum of ten people, which reflect the ten different levels of G-dliness. So therefore you can have nine people who might not be religious at all, and one person who is religious. Their religious commitment doesn't matter, as long as they're Jews."

"And male." Daisy gets in.

"And male, over the age of thirteen. But the concept is that if you have those ten people, you're bringing down a high level of G-dliness that will allow you to say the Kaddish prayer."

"But why," I ask, "can't that take place in a virtual chat room with ten males?"

"Because there's no physical presence. We don't necessarily see the spiritual reality of what is happening at the time, but certain things have to be done with physical people, just as food has to be eaten by physical people."

"So you couldn't have a bar mitzvah." Daisy points out.

"Right. And then don't forget, the clock stops at the end of six days. There is a concept in Judaism called Shabbos, or Sabbath. That day in the week is when we turn of the world and get out and walk into a whole different island in time. That is an aspect that cannot be handled on the Net."

Even so, Kazen and other Chabad have extraordinarily high hopes for the Internet. "Modern Technology and Judaism," an essay posted on the site and based on talks that Rabbi Schneerson gave in the late 1960s and the early 1980s, makes this bold claim:

The advance of scientific understanding is increasingly revealing the inherent unity in the universe, as expressed in the forces of nature.

Being aware of this can serve as a preparation and prologue to the Era of Mashiach, for at that time the Creator's simple, uncompounded Unity will become evident.

The Rebbe is speaking here specifically of radio and television, yet no doubt he would have extended these thoughts to computer-mediated communication.

Kazen confirms this. "This concept of inherent unity in the world," he says, "is very, very strongly shown through the Net, perhaps even more than through radio and television. Because if there's an effect between myself an a person who's in Beijing, or myself and a person in Antarctica, and it's an instant communication, what is the lesson showing us?"

"Is computer-networked technology then a holy technology," I ask, "in that it's serving a holy end?"

Kazen's face lights up as if I've said the magic word. "Yes. Humanity in the years past glorified war. All the monuments that you see glorify war. And Isaiah's prophecy is that there shall be no more war, that there shall be swords into ploughshares. So, how does the world come to that?

"My question is, in a humorous fashion, is TCP/IP [the dominant Internet communications protocol] another name for G-d? Because in essence, this is a way that you're finding a unity between people. Sure, there are haves and have-nots. But ultimately everyone's going to have a piece of the action. So yes, in my opinion this a means toward the era of Mashiach."

Kazen draws a deep breath, then rushes on. "Let's learn from the lesson we had fifty years ago. The most advanced technological country in the world, by not putting G-dliness within itself, created a nation that annihilated millions of people. Hopefully the Net, which is our latest technology, will bring humanity together for a better purpose, and will not be abused. There's a concept of good and light in the world, and this is a technology that can be the means toward that end."

On that inspiring note, we conclude our formal talk and leave the room, picking our way back down those four dismal flights of stairs. Outside, Kazen lights a cigarette and inhales like a man smoking his last smoke. He directs us down the block, into the main entrance of 770, and along a short corridor. To our right, rows of young males are bent over books. At the end of the hallway, we slip into a room lined with banks of telephones and a huge switchboard. This is the ancestor of Kazen's Web room: the media command center from where Lubavitchers around the world were relayed the Rebbe's speeches via telephone linkups. I recall how, as the Rebbe aged into his nineties, beepers were distributed to all of his male followers in order to alert them whenever he came out of his private quarters to pray.

These are, I think, very wired people.

Finally, Kazen leads us upstairs to Rabbi Schneerson's library. The room whispers of sacred history. In glass cases, mementos of rebbes past - photographs, documents, letters, Bibles - are preserved with great care. In once case I find a passport worn with use and age, evidence of the legacy of the Diaspora, the global scattering of the Jews. It occurs to me, looking at it through the glass, that in a virtual way the Internet has, by making possible a convergence in cyberspace of Jews around the world, spurred the reversal of the Diaspora as surely as has the establishment of Israel.

I run my hand along the polished side of an old grandfather clock that marks the moon according to the Hebrew calendar. The wood presses back warm against my fingers - so different, I think, so much more generous to my senses than the Windows clock that ticks off the minutes on my computer screen. A bit later, I press my hand in Kazen's hand, saying good-bye. His hand is warmer still than the wood of the grandfather clock. Touching his hand, I know that I am touching one spark of the living reality behind cyberspace.

Jeff Zaleski is author of The Soul of Cyberspace, San Francisco, 1997.
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Discussion (3)
March 22, 2012
wow
and look how far his work has gone... incredible! thanks for this glimpse
Chava M
West Hollywood
November 29, 2009
Beginning of internet Chabad
Thankyou for the above explanation! I just loved it because it shows that wonderful quality of you Jewish people and your dedication to Torah, to Judiasm and to mankind. So many of us Christians love you so, pray for you, go to Israel, read your Sages' explanation of the Torah and learn so much more than we do from our own. May the one true G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob hold you close to Hes heart forever! Shalom.
Carol Druckman
Chehalis, Washington
November 21, 2009
Light the Shabbat Lamp in Ephrata, PA
Kindly let me know if you would like to help me establish a Study Center in Ephrata, PA: to light the Shabbat Lamp, and offer devotional readings from the following sources every Friday-Saturday sunset: Torah, Zohar, Jakob Boehme, and the "Geistliche Reden" of the 18th-century Ephrata Commune. I am the last surviving Elder of that Tradition (58 year-old retired male). As we were always considered to be crypto-Jews anyway, I would like to join together in a healing teaching renewal. Shalom
Russell Yoder
Ephrata, PA
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