The Chabad.org Blog

Reflections From the SXSW Festival

March 20, 2018

In recent weeks, fears about the power we give to technology and the role it plays in our lives have continued to grow. The steady drumbeat about fear of hackers, bots and neo-Nazi trolls has grown into full-fledged chaos over revelations about massive amounts of personal information harvested on Facebook.

The political ramifications of all of this aside, as a community as a whole, people are increasingly asking themselves if social media and technology has given a disproportionate control of their lives to algorithms.

At the beginning of the month, Farhad Manjoo, technology columnist for The New York Times, wrote about his decision to unplug, at least in part, from technology—opting to gather his news not from social media, but rather from print newspapers. When people looked into his claims of disconnecting from social media, however, it became clear that he had in fact tweeted hundreds, if not a thousand, times over the two months he said he had gone off—leading to the larger question if we even could disconnect.

In the midst of this maelstrom of digital debate, the annual SXSW festival was held in Austin, Texas, celebrating the confluence of technology, digital communications, film and music. I had the pleasure to attend once more and host our annual #openShabbat, an unplugged networking event and Shabbat meal in the heart of the festival. The experience of uniting with hundreds of people from all walks of life to unplug temporarily from the technology that so often tethers us allowed us to forge new connections that we otherwise might miss. Suddenly, serendipitous conversations can take place, unencumbered by the need to immediately like, follow, selfie and share.

It also allows us to reframe our approach to technology as a whole and focus on its true, core purpose. Yes, technology can drag us down, it can become corrupted and used to troll, attack and destroy—but if we connect to individuals and inspire others to do good for themselves and the world, we can find true transcendence in technology.

Glimmers of that transcendence can be found throughout the festival, but perhaps most profoundly—and personally—at the “The Last Survivors: Memories of the Holocaust” panel.

There, Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter shared his experience from the war across platforms—spoken, written, filmed and now recreated via an A.I. “Hologram.” Technology as a key to not just preserving our past, but teaching for the future, was on full display.

The panel closed with a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov, that "in remembrance lies the secret of redemption." Its message for the history of the Holocaust is clear to all, but in that teaching lies a profound message for how we use technology today:

Memory is the thread that binds us to each other and to our Creator on high. When we remember the Divine spark within all of us, and the Divine potential for the technology we use, therein lies the secret to redemption. We remember, and thus we transcend.

People Are Not Algorithms

March 13, 2018 5:07 PM

Dear Friend,

To one degree or another, we’ve gotten used to interacting with robots. Not too long ago, if you needed cash, you had to go the bank, say “good morning” to the teller and show your ID. Nowadays you face a machine, press a few buttons and the cash is right there—no human interaction necessary.

Things have gone so far that we have even started talking to those robots as if they were human. “Hey Alexa,” we say before asking “her” to supply information or purchase something. It’s fun, but it can also be frustrating. You know the polite response you receive is not the result of care or even decency—it’s just a computer algorithm.

The antidote to our automated ills is found in the Passover Haggadah.

We read about four children—the wise, the wicked, the simpleton and the one who doesn’t know to ask; they all have questions, yet we are told to give each one a different answer, each as unique as they are.

This Passover, let’s take this lesson to heart. Let’s remember to be inclusive—to invite everyone to the Seder table, and once they are there, to be mindful of their individual needs (here is a great article with tips on how to do that).

When we all sit together, now that’s true celebration.

‘Soul Talk’ Online Course Reveals the Spiritual Reality Behind All Existence

Four lessons examine human challenges, internally and externally

March 13, 2018 11:33 AM
Rabbi Yehuda Refson, Chabad emissary to the city of Leeds, England, at the filming of a course titled “Soul Talk,”
Rabbi Yehuda Refson, Chabad emissary to the city of Leeds, England, at the filming of a course titled “Soul Talk,”

Look around the world and observe a dizzying array of elements, movement, color and creativity. What’s behind it all? Is there purpose in the seemingly endless struggle for survival and the human quest to live better? Is the soul for real?

These are some of the questions that have intrigued and plagued humanity for all time—from prophets and philosophers to theologians and thinkers. Many answers have been suggested, debated, refined and then redefined in the course of history.

At the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries—as the Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) was taking hold and the seeds of the Industrial Revolution were being sown—a revolutionary book of mystical dimension was making waves in Jewish communities across Eastern Europe. Popularly known as the Tanya, the 54-chapter book detailed how a Jew is to serve G‑d—maintaining inspiration, optimism, faith and motivation even when inevitably faced with challenge and failure.

Almost as if to set the stage for the chapters to come, the Tanya devotes substantial text to explaining the interplay between good and evil, and describing the makeup of the human soul (positing that there are actually two competing souls that vie for control). Written in Hebrew and aimed at the advanced scholar, the Tanya can seem as a formidable text to master.

In the latest offering from Chabad.org Courses, Rabbi Yehuda Refson, Chabad emissary to the city of Leeds, England, will explicate these issues in a four-part course titled “Soul Talk,” to begin on March 19 and continue every Monday for four weeks.

“We will endeavor to explain the Chassidic concept of the soul—the fourth dimension in creation, the G‑dly energy that exists within everything and the power in the soul of humankind to elevate that energy,” Refson tells Chabad.org.

The lessons address G-d, religion and life, leaving enrollees to determine: Can people change for the good?
The lessons address G-d, religion and life, leaving enrollees to determine: Can people change for the good?

“We will look at the great heights of potential embodied in the human soul and the struggle of man to fulfill his own potential, as well as the potential of the world in which he lives,” he continues. “We will look at the challenges human beings face, internally and externally. And we will call on stories from the lives of great people who have exemplified success in that struggle.”

Refson, who also heads the Leeds rabbinical court, studied under the famed Chassidic teacher Rabbi Nissan Nemanov and was ordained by the world-renowned halachic authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.

Each of the four lessons sheds light on another building block of the Tanya’s contribution to the Jewish approach to G‑d, religion and life.

In the first one, Refson will discuss the Tanya’s approach to the soul, both that of humans and other life forms. The second lesson tackles the interplay between the human soul and real life. In part three, the rabbi will examine evil—how something that can be so destructive fits into G‑d’s plan. The final class explores the paradox of a G‑dly soul existing in an earthly body. Spanning teachings from the early sages all the way through to the Six-Day War, this concluding class offers an eagle-eye view on the wisdom gained in the previous three lessons and leaves participants with the answer to an age-old question: Can people reallychange for the good?

Rabbi Yaakov Kaplan, who produced the course, says the curriculum strives to answer fundamental questions, such as “why are we here, what’s happening inside us, and what does it all mean?”

Refson agrees, but takes it a step further: “I hope that participants find encouragement to recognize their own capacity . . . that they discover that challenges are opportunities to allow them to reach greater heights.”

To enroll in this free online course, visit the course page here.

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