A Preliminary Theology of Social Networks

by Rabbi Hayim Herring

One of my findings from interviews with rabbis that I conducted for my book, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today, was their lack of specific, intentional connections between their personal theology and their congregation’s organizational structure. I asked them how their personal theology influenced their congregational governance, how they worked with volunteers and similar types of issues that are often labeled as the “business” or “administrative” side of congregational life. This lack of conscious connection really didn’t surprise me because structural issues and theology don’t naturally mix. They require a leader to constantly work at making those connections and creating patterns of organizational behaviors that are infused both with spirituality and effectiveness at getting work done. And it’s difficult for rabbis who are juggling many balls to reflect on how their theology can amplify their work on the structural side of congregational or Jewish organizational life.

As people like Beth Kanter and Allison Fine made clear in their book, The Networked Nonprofit, networks are the new form of organizational structure in the 21st-century. (Actually, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps predicted in 1994 in The Age of the Network that networks would be the signature form of organizations in this century and I wrote about network organizations for the Jewish community in 2001 in Network Judaism). The bedrock of social networking sites, the platforms that support network organizations, is relationships. Social networking sites enable many different levels and types of relationships. They allow people who know one another well to remain in closer touch, permit people who know one another casually to deepen relationships and facilitate brand new relationships. They encourage people who share common interests to collaborate in sharing resources and solving problems. Social networks are blind to issues of socioeconomic class, race, gender, sexual orientation, levels of education, professional titles – and the list goes on. In theory, social networks give individuals an equal voice regardless of difference and they enable people to transcend national boundaries.

Networks are really beginning to reach their potential to reshape organizations, so now is the time to ask, “What role can a theology of networks play in our awareness of synagogues and Jewish organizations?”

As I reread the first chapter of Rabbi Art Green’s most recent book, Radical Judaism, I began to glimpse what a Jewish theology of social networks could be like. Green, one of today’s most original contemporary theologians, describes himself as a neo-Hasidic Jew and a religious humanist.

On page 18 of his book, he writes:

My theological position is that of a mystical panentheist, one who believes that God is present throughout all of existence, that Being or Y-H-W-H underlies and unifies all that is…’Transcendence’ … (in this context) means rather that God-or Being-is so fully present in the here and now of each moment that we could not possibly grasp the depth of the presence… There is no ultimately duality here, no “God and the world,” no “God, world, and self,” only one Being and its many faces… There is no end to its unimaginable depth, but so too there is no border, no limit, departing that unfathomable One from anything that is. Infinite Being in every instant flows through all finite beings…”

And again on p. 29, he writes,

Every creature and every life form is a garbing of divine presence. The way in which we treat them and relate to them is the ultimate testing ground of our own religious consciousness…. The purpose of our growing awareness is to reach out and appreciate all things for what they really are. This is especially true with regard to our fellow humans.”

Without meaning to reduce Green’s deep theological thought, he makes the case that the same One underlying unity is within each of us. That awareness is precisely what social networking can reinforce within congregations because networks have the potential to span significant differences. I wonder what the experience of being a part of a congregation would be like if rabbis maintained a vigilant awareness that God’s presence was actually pulsing through all aspects of the congregation and that the current structures and organizational divisions that characterize congregations actually conceal their inter-connectedness and make the parts less than the sum of the whole. Social networking as an organizing concept can enable participants in a congregational community to connect with one another, to share, to learn, to solve complex problems and to see the possibility of each part of a system contributing to a transcendent whole. And if that is not a manifestation of the divine, I don’t know what is.

I understand that social networking has a very dark side to it as well. My point is not to argue the benefits and the detriments of this relatively new way of organizing. Rather, it’s to encourage rabbis and Jewish theologians to bring our theological beliefs to this new form of organizing. Compartmentalizing our beliefs from one aspect of organizational life diminishes the overall power of that organization to have a deeper impact. And that is especially true of congregations.

These are some preliminary thoughts about a Jewish theology of networking. I realize that they are a little amorphous and preliminary. So I’m asking you: what other theological stances do you bring or aspire to bring to congregational life so that belief can animate the structures of your congregation in a way that nourishes them?

Rabbi Hayim Herring is C.E.O. of Herring Consulting Network, a consulting firm that prepares today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations.

cross-posted at hayimsblog.com

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  1. Bill Plevan says

    Great post Hayim, thank you. I agree that connecting theology to community building is a must in Jewish professional education (clergy, educators, program staff). Let me suggest putting Martin Buber front and center in this conversation. His dialogical philosophy sought to bring about what we want to see in congregations, as you articulate it, the realization of God’s presence within a genuine community, a community where people actualize themselves and care for others. Also, Buber’s thought offers important resources for distinguishing between the demeaning, instrumental and self-serving forms of social networking (I-It) and the caring, just and other-affirming forms of social networking that remind us that there is a whole, real person on the other nodes of the network (I-You).

  2. says

    Thanks for the shout out, Hayim. This is a fascinating lens through which to view congregational community. I’ve started to think about synagogues as networks weavers as opposed to synagogues as service providers (even if that service is worship organizer) I like the idea of everyone involved in synagogue leadership: clergy, staff, lay leadership using their connecting skills to weave a vibrant, resilient, robust network of congregants who come to rely on one another, learn with one another, worship together, etc.

    Thanks for moving the conversation forward!

  3. says

    Thank you Hayyim for articulating something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. My theology most definitely informs my approach to my rabbinate but I don’t think I’ve articulated that within the context of my community work as explicitly and extensively as I could or should. I look back to a bio I included as part of my Rabbis Without Borders fellowship with CLAL, where I wrote: ‘It is the language and theology of Jewish mysticism — that there is no-thing but God – that informs her work to connect and more deeply integrate the life of the spirit with the multiple spheres in which we live our lives, inspired and guided by a Jewish wisdom that can be shared in accessible, meaningful ways.’ It very much reflects the kind of theological approach you highlighted in the writing of Art Green. Now I need to go back and think more about ways I can continue to share this as part of the visioning work I’m doing with my community (which, by the way, is using your book as the basis for the study and discussion component that is a part of every board meeting this year).

  4. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom All,

    One of the fundamental lessons of Habad and of measurably successful megachurches such as Willow Creek Comunity Church in South Barrington, IL (a NW suburb of Chicago), Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California and Northpoint Church in Alpharetta, GA (near Atlanta), is that a theology which has community wide acceptance is at the center of all they do. This theology is embedded in their communal DNA.

    In contradistinction, the “theology” and the resultant Judaism experienced in most non Orthodox synagogues as well as other non Orthodox institutions, in North America, undeniably has been rejected of as irrelevant and meaningless by the vast majority of North American Jews. And the ranks of this dissatisfied majority and fastest growing demographic of Jews, unabatedly continue to swell.

    Theology has to earn its way back into the hearts and minds of most Jews. To do this it has to demonstrate practical relevance to the folks who have rejected the status quo. Answering questions like, “Why be Jewish? Why do Jewish and Why Judaism?” is where the journey begins. And based on results, it’s hard to identify that the first step has even been taken.

    Re the fact ” that social networking has a very dark side to it as well,” Martin Buber once wrote: “It is the fate of every great idea that no sooner does it come on the stage of history, that it is accompanied by its caricature.”
    Technology and social networks etc., are morally neutral. How people use them, is what will determine their moral category.

    Thus what’s needed before anything else is a theology of non Orthodox Judaism to provide those moral categories. This theology must have the power to capture the hearts and minds of the vast majority of North American Jews who have voted with their feet that the status quo isn’t “cutting it.” Once that lens is in place and a part of the communal DNA of congregations (a process that hasn’t even begun to take shape in any measurably meaningful way), then and only then can one begin to talk about the subset represented by the title of this post.

    At their best technology and social networks etal, must be in the service of something greater. In this case that something is a relevant, practical, application oriented theology of non Orthodox Judaism that has the ability
    to recapture the hearts and minds of those who have rejected the status quo as it maintains the power to inspire those who have not left.

    We all need to retune into God’s call to Abraham, “Ayeka?” Indeed where are we?