Under the pressure of social distancing and social isolation, we are seeing the awakening of a renewed social consciousness.

Not only have our interactions with others not declined, but they have become more meaningful, more precious, more intentional, more purposeful. People meet and greet, apparently with even greater frequency than ever, not in the flesh, but in the instantaneous ether of cyberspace.

Whether through Zoom video conference, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp messenger, email or telephone, people are using technology to connect, to organize, to help each other and to study together.

It is paradoxical, but it is true: Isolation is driving people together.

Long before interactive video conferencing became so central a part of daily life, there was one visionary who understood how to harness its immense spiritual and social potential.

The Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—articulated the basic principle as far back as the summer of 1960, nearly six decades ago:

There is communication through writing and print ... there is communication through speech ... but the possibility of communication through the radio is doubly advantageous. Firstly, the voice does not weaken, but reaches the ends of the earth with the same vigor with which it left the mouth of the speaker. Accordingly, if these are words spoken from the heart they will also enter the heart of the listener. Secondly, the speech is transported without a long interval. Although time does elapse, as everything in this world is bounded by time, it travels very quickly, at the speed of light. (Torat Menachem Hitvaduyot, Vol. 28, 145-148.)

Responding to objections raised in some religious quarters that radio might be somehow “unholy” or detrimental to Judaism, the Rebbe cited a passage from the foundational work of Chabad thought, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Tanya: “There is nothing physical or spiritual that divides us from G‑d ... it is only sin that divides.”

But it isn’t simply that technology is “kosher.” After all, just because something is kosher, that doesn’t mean that it is ideal, or that it should be unthinkingly embraced. What is really key here is that the Rebbe saw the emphasis on interpersonal interaction, interpersonal meaning and interpersonal love as one of the key spiritual innovations of Chassidus. This insight is encapsulated in an anecdote that he published in his first book, Hayom Yom:

The original chassidim of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi once gathered together, circa 1784 to 1787, and the topic of their discussion was that the Rebbe’s innovation is that we are not alone. In the past the rebbe—the head of the academy or the scholar of genius—was alone, and the students were alone too. The path of Hasidism established by the Rebbe is the great and holy innovation that the rebbe is not alone and the hasidim are not alone. (Hayom Yom, entry for the 22nd of Iyaar.)

Loneliness, or alienation, has long been identified by theorists and sociologists as one of the maladies of the human condition, especially in modern times. In the current moment, those who suffer from loneliness are even more vulnerable than usual, so the idea that Chassidus is the antidote to loneliness is now more relevant than ever before.

Philip Wexler, emeritus professor of the sociology of education and Hebrew University, has argued that “the mystical aims of Hasidism do not stand in tension with communal life. Hasidic mysticism is fundamentally social; it is experienced collectively, and is indeed an experience of collectivity.” (Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe's Transformative Paradigm for the World, Chapter 3.)

Against the general consensus of sociologists, Wexler argues that in Chabad thought and practice mystical experience and social experience are fundamentally intertwined: “The sense of being an individual standing apart from the community ... is actually a result of the exile and imprisonment of the transcendent soul within the earthly body. To achieve a personal mystical experience, in other words, is to overcome bodily individuation, to overcome loneliness and alienation.”

This helps us understand the Rebbe’s embrace of new media technologies. They are not simply a practical means to a higher end. Actually, new media technologies present a supreme spiritual opportunity, an opportunity to enhance our experience of collectivity, of togetherness, of oneness. Positive connection and communication is synonymous with spiritual redemption and ascent.

The ultimate expression of the Rebbe’s embrace of technology came with the interactive and international “Chanukah Live” television programs in 1989, 1990 and 1991. Using cutting-edge satellite technology, simultaneous mass celebrations in cities across the globe were all led by the Rebbe, from his synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Giant screens were set up at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, at the Kremlin in Moscow, as well as in locations in India, Japan, Australia and elsewhere.

Even today such an event would be an extremely ambitious undertaking. Back then, personal computers and the internet were not widely in use, and special satellite equipment mounted on trucks had to be deployed. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that the two hour celebration was broadcast by television stations in Israel, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Britain, France, Italy, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and India, and by no less than 70 public television stations in the United States alone. In the decades since, the Chanukah broadcasts have broadened their scope and content, and live broadcasts of Chanukah celebrations and menorah lightings across the globe take place every year.

For the Rebbe, the technology was not an incidental. The medium itself was part and parcel of the message. The satellite orbits in the heavens and thereby facilitates global interconnectivity on earth—that’s the medium. Through the heavenly dimension of divine connection all humanity can come together in dynamic and mutually-supportive interaction—that’s the message.

In the Rebbe’s own words:

In order to make it easier to understand and grasp that one’s action in one particular place is connected and impactful throughout the entire world, in heaven and earth, G‑d revealed additional mysteries that he embedded in nature, whereby one connects heaven and earth, and parts of the earth that are separated by great distances.

By means of the satellite that orbits in space, in “heaven,” and receives commands that are sent there to be transmitted from one end of the earth to the earth, a person can remain in their own “four cubits” ... and connect with a person standing at the other end of the world, speaking to him and seeing him, and communicating with him about providing help with the things he needs, or helping with some good advice and the like ... Moreover, one can actually provide real help and aid instantaneously ... for via the satellite a sum of money is transferred to the bank, or to the furniture or food store, for that individual ...

This is also one of the fundamental purposes of the satellite, that through it the unity of humanity in its entirety will be increased, helping one another even when we are spatially distant from one another, whether with physical aid or spiritual aid, furthering issues of justice, morality, peace and unity throughout the world. (Torat Menachem Hitvaduyot 5752, Vol. 2, 18-19. Also available here.)

Before the age of the Internet, an artist depicted the global reach possible through technology.
Before the age of the Internet, an artist depicted the global reach possible through technology.