Oral Tradition to Digital Tradition

by Danny Oberman and Raissa Hacohen

Judaism is a religion based on tradition. Our Jewish heritage is passed from generation to generation, and, without the transfer of custom from parent to child, the fabric of traditions quickly unravel. The break in continuity is fast, and red flags are raised in discussions of the Jewish future. As we enter the 21st century, there are signs that technology is about to play a significant role in the transfer of tradition.

Most of us have little knowledge of exactly what customs our great grandparents practiced. Few have any idea how their great grandparents ran their Passover Seders. How did they celebrate? Did they drink red wine or grape juice? What did they sing? What type of dishes did they make? What crises in their communities concerned them? How did they respond to “modern trends”? Sadly, we are in the dark about the details of the Jewish life our ancestors led. Those who are fortunate, have some preserved written record of their ancestors’ traditions – but without visual or audio enrichment.

A fundamental change is transpiring without fanfare. It is conceivable that our Jewish lives will be accessible to our descendants. As our involvement with social media increases, digital records of all of our activities are being created. By listing a family custom on Haggadot.com, or viewing someone’s timeline on Facebook, future generations will have the ability to see us interacting with other Jews and laugh at our concerns or perhaps be impressed with our commitment.

Comments we make on articles we’ve read, videos of us celebrating weddings, bar & bat mitzvas, or even the increasingly common live broadcast of eulogies, will all be accessible to future generations. Our children who are often being educated with digital tools will have future generations searching through their school records and inspired or challenged by what they find.

Unlike our generation, where minimal amounts of information have trickled down to us regarding the Jewish customs of our ancestors, today, an unprecedented volume of current Jewish practice is being accumulated in “the cloud”. Jews in the future will be able to view a wealth of Jewish practice and study the traditions of their ancestors (us) at a level of detail we cannot even imagine today.

Although “Digital Traditions” will serve as key research and educational tools, it is difficult to predict their long-term influence in maintaining Jewish continuity. The next generation must have the opportunity to steal an afikoman or smell an etrog – sensory experiences that are not transferable in any digital format. It is one thing to view history, it is quite another to create it.

While every generation bears the responsibility of passing on traditions, the digital realm has become the great accumulator of current Jewish tradition, culture and dialogue. It is both humbling and empowering to consider that we are the first generation in Jewish history to be leaving behind an unprecedented recording of our lives.

Danny Oberman and Raissa Hacohen co-founded the Fulcrum Project, a platform which leverages social media to promote Jewish engagement. For more information, please visit jewishsocialmedia.org.