Maggids For A New Age


An insightful recent article in the J. The Jewish news weekly of Northern California explored the presence and meaning of a new generation of maggids, or preacher-storytellers, working at the intersection of education, performance and the rabbinate.

We learn (as if we couldn’t have guessed) that the principal maggidic energy is centered in New York and the West Coast, drawing on two centers of both literary and Jewish innovation, and intersecting with the popularity of storytelling projects like Smith Magazine’s “Six Word Memoir” and performance platforms like The Moth.

Outside the scope of the article, but likely central to the growth of the maggid as a new communal touchtone, is the gravitational pressure of the Internet.

And as with all things digital, there are opportunities and losses as the stories of our lives migrate to the Internet. In the old days — say, the late-1990s — pundits articulated the communal value of the Internet by quoting E.M. Forster: “Only Connect.” This bromide no longer serves, as everyone is now connected, but the world is still broken and people are still lonely. Facebook wants to edge aside Forster with “Only Share,” but this is also insufficient. Everyone does have a story to tell, and something to share — but not every 15 minutes.

I hope there is no simple tagline that would encompass the spiritual-communal goals of Civilization 2.0, but there might be a tweet. My 140 characters, with only a bit of irony, would go something like: “Only make every effort to interpret the cloud of data that envelops us in order to seize the stories that bind everything together.”

As modernity struck Europe three centuries ago, chasidic maggids roamed the countryside weaving together the languages of Ukrainian folktales and Talmudic rabbis as they revived a moribund Judaism. Those stories, privileging the experience of the non-elite, helped to cohere disconnected, fragmented communities not by offering information, but by referencing or creating new public stories that empowered the lives people were already living.

Similarly, today’s maggids, online and off, have a vital role to play as they focus our attention not on the information that swirls around us, but on the interpretations that will bring it down to earth.

The Internet gives us space for this. Digital platforms for response, argument and support of ideas we “like” are built into the machinery of large-scale digital communication. To be poetic for a moment: I see the spaces between words in a Tweet, which are included in the character count, not as an attempt to lessen our communication, but as a subtle reminder that what is unspoken, and what connects the words together, is as important as the words themselves.

One story that binds digital life together today is the Singularity. Internet evangelists like Google’s Ray Kurzweil and Larry Page see this emerging digital consciousness as a magic sum of all our experiences, similar to the Force in “Star Wars,” as described by rebbe Obi-Wan Kenobi as “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” Others see the Singularity, as an idea and as a reality, as a Frankenstein that will do humanity in, à la Dr. Strangelove’s nuclear doomsday machine.

Our fear that there is too much happening for any of us to remember biases us toward trusting Big Data as if it were Big Deity. And the high priests who succeed in this new ecosystem are those who find the numerical codes hidden in the noise, revealing who is looking at what, and who is buying what.

The Internet’s communal and spiritual winners, however, are those who understand how to surface the stories that bind us together, drawing our attention to both the intimate stories and public rituals (like The Presidential Inauguration) that remind us who we are.

Studying the battle between my rabbi’s posts on feeding the hungry, and Facebook’s insistence that I rush to Applebee’s, I remember the sage advice of the badger from Barry Lopez’s luminous book “Crow and Weasel”: “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”

Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.