When I heard that a panel discussion was going to be held on the topic of personal approaches to faith and their relevance in SL, my interest was piqued and decided to pay a visit. Sitting on the stage were panel members Beth Odets, the owner of TMA and the Second Life Synagogue group, and Rocky, a Christian.
Upon arrival, I was surprised at the number of people present. For most of the discussion, I just listened.
The crowd consisted out of – in Beth Odet’s words – ‘bacon eating’ Jews, orthodox Jews and non-Jews alike. Despite the hopefulness of many who were in that group, I have always been, and still am, very skeptical about the whole idea of SL (or RL) interaction being a means of interfaith peace in Real Life. Just because Second Life is less “personal” does not mean that there is more peace there than in Real Life. Of course, we can all sit together and talk without fear of violence, but does that really mean anything? Intolerance stems from the heart of the RL person. If you’re raised as a child – G-d forbid – to despise those who are different, are a few anonymous peace-talks in SL going to change your inner beliefs? Nevertheless, I do find these panels interesting to attend, especially because they reveal how others view SL issues
I think the Jewish community was represented well, though I am afraid that Judaism itself wasn’t represented at all.
The panel discussed the religious practices that can/cannot be practiced SL, and after hearing this, I came to the conclusion that there was scarcely any Yiddishkeit in it. The Christian side on the other hand was very well represented, less in numbers than in the quality of their answers. For example, they engaged in an interested elaboration on whether someone could be baptized in SL. The Christians concluded that this was not possible, as the water and avatar in SL were not “real” – a conclusion that I fully agree with. I believe that the same goes for us. For instance we, as Jews, cannot shake a virtual lulav and esrog and then claim that we have fulfilled the mitzvah. No matter how special or important it may have been for a person that his or her avatar shook with it, it still does not fulfill our actual obligation in real life.
Certain people in the panel were of the opinion that because our avatars are real in SL, they can fulfill certain obligations sincerely. The problem with this, in my opinion is that this attributes religious values and beliefs to an imaginary reality. Attributing religious values, mitzvos, etc. to cyberspace is nothing less than sacrilegious in my opinion.
Another subject that was addressed during this rather interesting meeting was the subject of griefers in Second Life. I myself can attest of the fact that anti-Semitic grieving, both religious and non-religious, is very present in Second Life. Thus I was very surprised to see how few at the meeting had experienced this. But on a second thought, it makes sense. I have a very Jewish SL name, and most of the SL residents with a Jewish affirmed the presence of anti-Semitic grieving in Second Life. However it is not just ‘us’ Jews who are targeted. A Buddhist avatar described how he was targeted by a fundamentalist Christian who tried to persuade him to leave his religion and embrace Christianity.
Beth Odet’s response to the “greifer” discussion was, perhaps, the most disappointing aspect of the panel meeting. In fact, it contradicts everything I believe in. Essentially, Beth stated that grieving should be ignored because it’s not harmful in real life; better have an anti-Semite in SL than in RL. Of course I understand what she means by this, but it should also be realized that SL grievers are acting on RL thoughts. Beth asserted that getting “upset” over grievers is a bad emotional response. I disagree. It is not a “bad emotional response” to react to a wrongdoing. Otherwise, police and judges in real life are guilty of bad emotional responses. You can’t label all reactions as emotional responses; they’re practical and necessary. In fact, I believe that a bad emotional response is to do nothing and let injustice go. That is cowardice. Ignoring/denying anti-Semitism is the same mistake we made in the 1930’s.
Another subject that took me by surprise concerned the unfortunate presence of cybersex in Second Life. The question was raised whether a married person would be committing adultery by having ‘cyber-intercourse’ with another avatar. Of course, the Torah clearly forbids intercourse with those to whom we are not married. This includes our thought life; our thoughts and actions should be holy, even in SL. Nevertheless, there were some at the meeting who stated that SL intercourse was fine.
All in all, it was an interesting and thought-provoking evening. Most of all, it prompted me to ask the question: “What is Jewish in SL?” Are you “Jewish” in Second Life if you have a Jewish name, if you are a member of Jewish groups, or if you attend events organized by Jews? Or is a SL place/avatar “Jewish” because the people behind the screen embrace the concept of ahavas Yisroel, the Torah, and its values?
“Kol Yisroel areivim ze laze” – all of Israel (i.e every Jew) is responsible for each other.