Surveillance, God and the Thanksgiving Table

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 17, 2017 / 28 Cheshvan 5778

Summary: Rabbi Kosak shares some correspondence with a college-aged congregant on the subject of surveillance and God, then connects that discussion with how we experience Thanksgiving.

This past week, I received a very interesting letter from a 19 year old member, which he has allowed me to share. He went to Neveh Shalom from third to sixth grade culminating in his Bar Mitzvah. After that, though, he grew distant from his Judaism. Part of that distance stems from a philosophical problem he was struggling with.

Although you might think that a nineteen year old is a “digital native,” that doesn’t mean that all young adults are happy with the consequences of our technological world. In fact he wrote that “a subculture I’m a part of values their right to privacy. Tonight I was home for dinner and talked with my mom about her thoughts on surveillance and how it was influenced by religion.”

How interesting! I mean, I also believe privacy is important and undervalued in our society. But I never connected surveillance and religion before.

“Many religions focus on this idea that God is all-knowing and everywhere,” he typed, “creating a sense of surveillance by the person/entity/force we pray to every day. This was one of the reasons I stopped practicing six years ago, a feeling that I couldn’t be myself if I thought that God was always watching me.”

“This idea, he continued, “that free thinking is suppressed by surveillance, is validated in Jeremy Bentham’s theory of the panopticon. A panopticon is a tower in a prison where the guards can see into all of the cells but the inmates cannot tell if they are being watched. This prison design drastically reduced fights and attempts at escape, and inmates reported less frequent thoughts of trying. 

Do you think that religion is a panopticon of its own?”

I explained that the Bible does not depict God as all-knowing or omnipresent. That’s a neo-Aristotelian notion of God that crept into Judaism during the Middle Ages. While that was a cutting edge notion in its day, it has since become the orthodox perspective in many religions. The God of the Bible has limitations and emotions. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously speaks of a God of pathos, by which he means a God who cares about us and is moved by our plight.

In today’s world, we are all being surveilled constantly. What matters to most of us I suspect is who is watching us, and to what end. You may remember a few years back when it came to light that the NSA had the ability to eavesdrop on all American phone calls. Kind of creepy. Worth forgetting.

Then, last Sunday, I was at a friend’s home who has one of those Amazon speakers with the digital assistant, Alexa. It’s sort of cool to be able to talk to “her” and request a song, yet the only way the device works is by monitoring you at all times. That’s not something I want in my home. But a lot of people are ok with that sort of surveillance. Even though Amazon is collecting data to better sell us things, many people find the convenience a worthwhile trade-off.

In other words, it is not surveillance per se that we object to, but the uses to which it will be put. Bentham is presenting us with an image of malicious surveillance. Surveillance used for the purpose of control clearly would change your behavior. We learned that during the Soviet era when Jewish parents had to be careful what they said around their children and neighbors so they wouldn’t be reported to the authorities.

While it is true that Talmudic Judaism has this notion of an “ayin roeh,” of an all-seeing eye, the God we presume is a loving God who is concerned about us, not a coercive or domineering God. That’s a vastly different sort of ‘surveillance.”

I think the most of us are hungry to be known by those we care about and still accepted despite the fact that we are known. We want to be loved even though–or because–we are flawed individuals.

When I think about my relationship with the Holy One of Blessing, I experience radical acceptance and not a “panopticon” form of control. God is the one whom I am certain I can be myself before; I find that freeing.

Which brings me to Thanksgiving. As we gather together with our families, many of us will indeed feel thankful and grateful. We may even feel free to be ourselves.

But it is also true that other people find the holiday very stressful. After all, our families know us; they’ve spent a lot of time surveilling us. Sometimes, under that familial gaze, we can find ourselves falling back into old roles and patterns.

I’ve counseled people who have struggled with that. A congregant in Cleveland experienced her family gatherings as painful. She had changed, yet when she returned home, her elderly mother could only see the daughter she had been and not the person she was. It felt imprisoning to her.

Laura, the boys and I head down to California on Sunday to spend some time with her family. Let me wish you all a joyous Thanksgiving. One where the gaze of your loved ones is gentle, and where you can look back and see them with compassion as well.

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. When was the last time you had a thoughtful conversation about big ideas?
  2. What do you experience when you return to spend time with your parent/s? Or when the kids come home to you?
  3. How well do you feel you are known by your family?

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