An Elul Heshbon hanefesh

Twistees, technology, and t’shuva: An Elul reflection 

In Short

The pandemic has had an “accelerator” effect on both the positive and negative sides of our relationship to digital technologies

A new word has entered our popular lexicon courtesy of the Olympics and Simon Biles: a twistee. A twistee occurs when a gymnast experiences a lack of alignment between their body and their mind in executing a gymnastic routine. Biles experienced this in the preliminary warm-ups of the team gymnastics competition in the Tokyo games. At the end of this reflection, I will return to how Biles responded to her case of the twisties.

For now, I want to take twisties as a revealing metaphor for the relationship between our material and spiritual cultures. Think of our material culture as technology (though, of course, it is more than that). Think of our spiritual culture as Judaism (though it too has more expansive, universal elements). At best, there is alignment between the material and spiritual realm.  

Thomas Friedman strikes an optimist’s note about such alignment in Thanks for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to the Future in an Age of Accelerations. Of the three revolutions shaping our life–climate, entrepreneurial, and digital–the third alone has a specific dating for Friedman. It is in 2007 when Steve Jobs stands in front of a large audience, unveils the smartphone, and lauds the fact that we can now have “the world in our hand.”  

Now follow for a few moments the evolving work of the kohenet gedolah, the high priestess of the impact of computers and digital life on human development Dr. Sherry Turkle of MIT. Beginning with her 1983 publication of The Second Self: The Computer and the Human Spirit Turkle has charted our complex relationships to computer and digital technologies. At first, an enthusiast about the smartphone and other technology innovations in general, a thru-line of worry emerges in her three most recent volumes (Alone, Together, 2011, Reclaiming Conversation, 2015, and The Empathy Diaries, 2020). In a way, she turns the famous Apple promise on its head. If the world is already in our hands, are we paying attention to the unfolding world in front of us? Do we begin to drift from deep conversations with the real people around us? Perhaps no passage captures this better than these several paragraphs from Reclaiming Conversation. 

The mediated life has gotten us into trouble. Face-to-face conversation is the most human–and humanizing–thing we do. Fully present to one another we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.  And conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstone of early development and continue throughout life.

But these days we find ways around conversation. We hide from one another even as we’re constantly connected to one another. For on our screens, we are tempted to present ourselves as we would like to be. Of course, performance is part of the meeting, anywhere but online and at our leisure, it is easy to compose, edit, and improve as we revise.

I want to call this phenomenon a twistee, a lack of alignment between technologies and the spiritual culture of Jewish life we seek to perpetuate.  

The pandemic has had an “accelerator” effect on both the positive and negative sides of our relationship to digital technologies, as I have written about in five different eJP articles in the past 15 months. These articles as well as an essay about a 5th Vessel of Jewish Ethics for the Reconstructing Judaism Evolve journal, are contained in this digital ebook, Perspectives on Pandemic, Judaism, and Technology.


Now let me return to Simon Biles and the twisties phenomenon. What did she do to “cure’ her case of the twisties? She declared a short moratorium on “normal life,” she withdrew into herself and simplified her upcoming balance beam routine. This sounds a lot like the month of Elul to me.

I recommend to colleagues that they take the time to assess the “twistee” that operates so subtly (so sometimes imperceptibly) between our material /digital and spiritual/Jewish cultures. It is worthy of an Elul Heshbon hanefesh.   

Rabbi Jeffrey Schein, EdD  is the senior consultant for Jewish Education and acting co-director of the Mordecai M Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood.  He is the author of Text Me: Ancient Jewish Wisdom Meets Contemporary Technology and the forthcoming volume L’Dor Va’Dor in a Digital Age with Rabbi Hayim Herring.