Dr. Yitzchak Schechter
Klal Perspectives: Technology and the 21st Century Orthodox Community
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Breathing Life into the Golem of Technology
It is both obvious and an understatement to say that technology permeates every aspect of our lives. It is equally clear to me that in order for our community to continue its development, creativity, growth and the deepening of our religious and communal life we need not only to be conscious of technology but to embrace it in all its forms. While this may sound contrary to the reigning religious oeuvre of today, it is far from it. We all fly in airplanes, get medical procedures, use the telephone, use timers for electricity, drive cars and benefit from technology despite the great fears and potential prohibitions that were first cast on these emerging technologies. This is already playing out the same way with the Internet and new technologies we use for our work, household management and even learning.
This next wave of technology is no different; our job is to somehow arrive at the new normal and adjust to that equilibrium. Since technology is here to stay, we must attempt to understand the role it now plays in our lives – including its effect on our psychological functioning and on our families and relationships – and the change it has brought to our communities and to our society. The future religious stability and growth of our community is dependent upon our acknowledging the inevitable role of technology and exploring how to both protect against its dangers and fully utilize its benefits. A denial of reality will only lead to misguided responses, outdated strategies and squandered opportunities, as we continue to fight yesterday’s battles without addressing today’s urgent needs. Similarly, as often happens with topics that appear too big to address, the impulse is to avoid or deny the issue completely, with a net effect of reduced parental, educational and clinical involvement. This result has already been observed in some of the “digital life” research conducted by the Institute for Applied Research and Community Collaboration (ARCC, a group under my direction), which found that children report less adult guidance about their use of technology and social media than expected, even in communities that place great value on internet safety.
This article explores how individuals, families and communities can safely and effectively embrace technology as a powerful and positive tool that can be effectively employed with creativity and vision for the benefit of both individuals and the community. I write this at the intersection of my role as a psychologist and director of a large behavioral health clinic, serving yeshivas, parents, rabbonim and the community, and as the founding director of ARCC, a research organization dedicated to understanding the experience of the frum community and using technology and science to inform and provide actionable guidance to its community stakeholders.
A New Era
It is far from hollow rhetoric to say that we stand at the threshold, or, perhaps just inside the doorway, of a new era, in which technology has created a new metzius (reality). It must be emphasized that the power of technology is not in gizmos and gadgets. It is in the fundamental restructuring of social patterns it has brought about and the opportunities it provides to be mechadesh (innovate) in powerful new ways, potentially revolutionizing our approach to what can be accomplished – both in learning about the true needs of the klal and in developing strategies to meet those needs.
Rather than ignore these profound developments, or treat them solely as threats to be shunned, our community should be clamoring for forward-thinking, engaged leadership to explore the opportunities and implications of this new metzius in terms of all areas of our avodas Hashem (service of G-d), including both halacha and hashkafa, chinuch (education), parenting, klal work and the experiential dimensions of living life as a frum person.
Some illustrative, current real-life examples of this include:
- How do we address the “foreknowledge” newly afforded through personalized genetics for both personal decision-making and shidduchim? ARCC’s work with Columbia University Medical Center has found that shidduch implications have discouraged women from getting the potentially life-saving test for BRCA gene mutations, despite a tenfold increase in risk for Ashkenazi women (Schechter, 2015).
Will the next era of shidduchim involve a resume, photo, and sequenced genome? Who will evaluate all the potential risks of genetics for a match and how, and what are the nafka minahs lehalacha (relevant halachic distinctions)?
- How will the brave new horizons of genome editing, including the ability to use “molecular scissors” and edit the very code of life, be understood by halacha and applied in the frum community?
- How are robots and automated machines (such as driverless and preprogrammed cars) to be treated under hilchos Shabbos and yom tov? What if events or tasks are preprogrammed, or if information is streaming to devices without human input? One emerging example is the Internet of Things (IoT), where everything gets connected to the Internet so that an appliance, such as a refrigerator, automatically orders new milk when the supply runs low, or calls in repairs when it is broken.
- Perhaps even more profound questions must be confronted regarding advances in the understanding of human behavior through big data and the application of this knowledge to various principles such as chazaka and eidus. Does aggregate data influence the parameters of pikuch nefesh?
- How does educational methodology shift, if at all, when we educate children and teenagers in a world of technology? How are children conditioned to cope with their eventual need for computer and internet access, whether to apply basic job skills or maintain a home (online bills, etc.)? How are children protected against, and trained to cope with, exposure to pornographic images, foreign ideas and concepts, non-Torah perspectives and social interactions?
CAPACITY, COMMUNITY & CHANGE
A useful framework for the consideration of the influence and challenges of technology is identifying three interrelated categories – Capacity, Community and Change.
Frequently, the introduction of a technological innovation not only advances a particular function or idea, it facilitates a radical expansion of capacity. Such expansions enable any individual, group, community, corporation or country to effect, know, experience or accomplish so much more than ever before. Not only can technological advances provide for greater qualitative achievement, the dramatic expansion of capacity has already altered the fundamental assumptions about what goals are achievable and realistic, the potential influence and impact of individuals or groups and the necessity for various functions or providers. For example, the newly introduced capacity to search all of human written history or to explore the entire sequenced genome or to have ready access to aggregate data that would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago are each capabilities in expanse, not just in quality. And in each instance there are readily identifiable implications.
The volume and ready accessibility of information provides any school child with access to encyclopedic knowledge that rivals that of the geniuses of earlier eras. Similarly, the ease by which information can now be disseminated instantly across the Earth makes Gutenberg’s earth-shaking printing press now seem as primitive as passing notes in class. This change in capacity for individuals and communities advances the standing of every individual, triggering an entrepreneurial spirit of empowerment. Now, one individual or small group can leverage technology to exert influence in multiple orders of magnitude from previous times, whether exploiting the greater access to knowledge, productivity, communications or wealth. While this seismic shift in power may pose a threat to the frum community’s quest for homeostasis, it also represents an enormous opportunity. The community’s goals can be much more easily brought to fruition and there is an exponential increase in the ability to accomplish great things and to share values, Torah knowledge and overall influence.
But questions abound. How should this enhanced capacity for greater knowledge, access and creativity influence the current realities of the contemporary Orthodox Jewish community? Are we equipped to handle the freedom and autonomy that is facilitated by the Internet and other technology? Can empowerment and openness be encouraged in some domains, such as regarding parnassah (livelihood) and advertising and marketing, but not in others, such as in exposure to ideas and trends not consistent with the sacred worldview of the community? Is such a dichotomy healthy and sustainable, or are new adaptations necessarily uncontrollable, and once embraced in one regard necessarily going to spread to others? For example, can an entrepreneurial spirit be encouraged for efforts within the frum world without risking a recasting of the social orders? Does a yeshivish or chassidish community in reverence of daas torah and institutional wisdom have room for the “disruptive” innovation of technology? And doesn’t the contemporary Orthodox community (and perhaps all communities) strive for homeostasis and stability, necessarily resisting paradigm shifts?
Technology creates and expands the capacity of human potential, but simultaneously requires accepting the risks attendant to that increased capacity, including attitudinal shifts and the democratization of knowledge.
Similarly, there are currently many non-standard or non-sanctioned outlets for creative thinking and for the unofficial dissemination of communal information. This esteemed publication, for example, along with others such as TorahMusings and Hakirah serve as conduits for communal thought, while many online forums and news outlets (e.g. Vos Iz Neias, Yeshiva World, Matzav, Chadrei Chareidim) provide news and information, filtered and selected on a private basis. What impact do these vehicles have on the centralized voice of communal or rabbinic authority?
In addition to providing vehicles for the transmission of ideas and views from both within and outside the Torah community, technology has fundamentally altered communal thought by producing heretofore-unavailable data, now more readily compiled and categorized. If exploited thoughtfully, such data can lead to knowledge, which will no doubt lead to important insights.
This is one of the most important capacities we develop as a result of technology – the ability to evaluate meaningful data and make more informed decisions. Utilizing such data is now standard fare for business, healthcare, marketing, non-profits, etc. From the aggregate monitoring of steps taken on a pedometer to the total productivity of multiple factories across the globe, technology has become the vehicle for informed decision-making. We can only make the right decisions to the extent that we have accurate knowledge of the metzius, and data provides that birur hametzius (clarification of reality). It is fair to ask whether ignoring the availability of such data today amounts to negligence in communal decision-making.
Honesty and striving towards improvement is a hallmark of the mevakesh (seeker) and the religious personality. Just as there is a real and important move towards evidence-based medicine and mental health in the world of healthcare, we should think equally about evidence-based initiatives for the betterment of our community. Measuring our goals and assessing our progress towards them, and not just relying on charisma, history or trust, can and should become more a part of our all-important klal work. Although this will inevitably disrupt the status quo and be unsettling to some, all those who are oskim btzarchei tzibbur be’emunah (faithfully involved with the needs of the community – undoubtedly the overwhelming majority) will soon embrace this approach as they learn how it can vastly improve the success of their efforts.
To a large degree, this is the mission of ARCC (see above) which was established to gather such data through careful study and communal collaboration in order to improve the community’s efforts to recognize and serve its most important needs. Work has already commenced on various projects of this nature through multiple research, clinical and communal centers with potential for wide-reaching meaningful impact.
Dangers Imposed By Increased Capacity
While the increased capacity provided by technology can be invaluable if used responsibly and effectively, it can also be a source or trigger of enormous damage.
First, the absolute flood of information can be both overwhelming and distracting. It takes great effort to maintain the proper perspective and focus and to differentiate between the essential and the non-essential.
Second, all the data in the world is only worth as much as our ability to master it. As the adage goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. In fact, studies show that people often consider the Internet and search engines like Google as extensions of their own knowledge, taking pride in it as if they own that information, and making them feel smarter than they actually are (Fisher , Goddu, & Keil, 2015). With so much data at one’s fingertips, it’s easy to feel the confidence of a distinguished expert with virtually no understanding of what any of it really means. Without the intimate knowledge that comes from careful, responsible study, there is a risk that mounds of powerful data will result in expertise that is at best a mile wide but an inch deep.
A third potential danger of technology’s immense capacity is the side effect of boredom that results when the stimulation is removed. Technology has oriented our brains to anticipate new input on a constant basis. The need for ever increasing stimulation is also reflected in the ever increasing loudness of advertising (in volume and content), the shortening of video clips and the intensifying of messaging, whether in the news, educational programming (ranging from academic conferences down to Sesame Street) or the workplace. Indeed, many mechanchim regularly report that they have great difficulty reaching an over-stimulated and quickly-bored, digital generation.
In fact, 93% of 18-29 year olds currently use their devices to avoid boredom, with 82% of 30-49 year olds but only 55% of those age 50 and older doing the same (Smith, 2015). The desperate need to avoid the pain of boredom is so strong that many people prefer getting electric shocks than being alone with their thoughts! (Whitehead, 2014)
Two manifestations of the impact of technology-induced boredom on children is their attitude towards Shabbos and the increased presence of the “fear of missing out” (FOMO), a byproduct of the always-on and connected culture of social media.
In a soon to be released study conducted by ARCC and Magen, research of nearly one thousand 6th to 8th graders across multiple schools reported that boredom on Shabbos, while relatively low, decreased dramatically among those students who do not have phones and who have lower rates of regular internet use. Even more dramatic, the percentage of students reporting FOMO was close to half among those without phones and those with lower internet usage.
Community: The Global Shtetel
As we become increasingly wired and connected through our devices and the Internet, our definitions of community are changing; it is now less about physical place and more about connected space. Owing to technology, we are able to connect and feel connected to many more people than ever before, be it family members living abroad, children going on a trip when they are young drivers or elderly parents.
But in the rapidly shifting creation of community, there is an important question. Who is in our community? This is so important because to a large degree, a person is shaped and ultimately defined by his community. For an increasing percentage of Orthodox society (including throughout the yeshiva world), online connections – whether simple or advanced – play a major role defining our sense of community.
Asked differently, who are the people with the clout in our lives and the lives of our children to influence us the most? Are we being influenced more by online sources – whether social connections or online content – than by those we actually look up to? Considering the power of online sources to influence us, is it time for Torah leadership to have more of a presence online? Or is that a bad idea for other reasons? If it’s a bad idea, how can we increase the influence of Torah leaders throughout the community?
Considering the available technologies, how is Torah best to be disseminated today, and how are shiurim most effectively transmitted to their proper audiences? Will the comments said in a private shiur with known talmidim translate as well when broadcast across the world? Is the injunction of chachamim hizaharu be’divrechem (scholars, be cautious with your words [as others who hear them may misunderstand]) a warning not to publish online at all?
Rabbi Yitzchak Sagi Nahor, the son of the Raavad and rebbe of the rebbeim of the Ramban, was the driving force behind much of toras hakabalah. In the introduction to his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, he responds to an inquiry about why he has not written and published more extensively by noting “ki haksav ein lo adon” – because that which is written has no master. If that was true in the 13th century, by how many orders of magnitude does that ring true today! These are important questions that Torah teachers, institutions and concerned students must be thinking about as Torah continues to be taught and transmitted.
The ongoing contraction of the globe poses many new questions in the realms of halacha about the definition of a local community. Has the operative definition of aniyi irech (the local poor) changed? Does minhag hamakom (local custom) retain its historical application? What is the impact of globalization on psak, and is there an ongoing role to be played by a local community posek? (See the classic article about the potential loss of mesorah, “Rupture and Reconstruction” by Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik (1994).
Furthermore, how does instantaneous accessibility of every psak and teshuva impact the decision-making of the posek? If a dayan or posek works to formulate a complex response to a heart-wrenching and difficult local situation, how influenced are they by the concern that their complex decision will be subject to instant review and snap judgment in the ultimate “coffee room” of the blogosphere?
Changes in technology and society are happening at an increasingly fast clip. Our community must take note of the impact of these changes on even the most basic of concerns as how to guide our children in preparing to earn a livelihood. Technology has caused the elimination of not only jobs, but even of entire industries. Skill sets once integral are replaced by others, and training for the contemporary needs of the workforce must continually be studied. Is the community’s educational system adjusting to the challenges of the future workforce?
Remarkably, the opportunities afforded by technology may provide professional and parnassah options that are increasingly accommodating to Torah sensitivities. Education for technology positions largely avoids the influences of western culture. The technology-related employee enjoys increased flexibility in choosing the venue within which to work, as well as the degree of face-to-face interaction with customers and co-workers. In certain regards, it is akin to becoming a shleifer (diamond polisher) or diamond dealer in years past, a practical parnassah of umnus kalah unekiyah (a clean and comfortable craft). In fact, many former kollel students and their wives have enjoyed the opportunities afforded by this emerging sector (Shapira, 2014).
What Does Not Change: The Soul of the Matter
Notwithstanding the changes triggered by technology, certain underlying fundamentals remain constant. Regardless of how bold and dramatic the new horizons of technology may be, the innovation is absorbed into foundations of the human experience as well as into life within the context of Torah. Consequently, the degree to which external innovations affect or compromise the Yiddishkeit of an individual or community will correlate to the degree of Torah authenticity already in place.
For those whose religious observance is merely a function of behavioral obedience or conformity, technology’s threat is very real. Assumptions may be challenged when exposed to information, multiplicity of perspectives, joining new communities or secret places of subterfuge. Change threatens to unseat observance born of rote, and religious affiliation tied primarily to social connections is easily compromised by alternative and attractive connections.
The communal response must therefore be an increased focus on the inculcation of its deepest, authentic Torah values and commitment. Torah, and the values and models it offers, is the sam hachaim (elixir of life) – providing the soul to the golem of technology and elevating it to meaningful purpose. It is exactly in this context that Torah as a profound Toras chayim (i.e., living quality) has so much to offer, and where it must impart its deepest imprint.
It is only this authentic connection to Torah that can provide the desperately needed anchor in the turbulent storms of change. With an authentic connection to Torah, the key elements of the Jewish community’s response and attitude to technology need be no different than it was with all the previous changes and shifts it has faced throughout our long history.
Responsibility, Midos, and Values
An authentic connection to Torah depends primarily on three pillars: Responsibility, midos, and values. Personal responsibility remains a hard and fast rule: as parents and children, we are responsible for our actions and the consequences we bring upon ourselves. Midos are the tools we use to build our character, and character cannot be downloaded from anywhere else; it comes only from within ourselves and our values. Our values are the guideposts for how we act and the image we set for ourselves. All three require constant attunement and development. By bringing them to bear on our engagement with technology, we can use technology boldly and confidently to fulfill our aspirations and our mission. We drive a car with the responsibility of steering a two-ton speeding bullet, we drive in accordance with our midos and character – not aggressively, disrespectfully or illegally – and finally we drive to get to the destination we chose based on our values. Accordingly, we must drive the unstoppable freight train of technology as well in accordance with responsibility, our midos and our values.
In considering the many dimensions of the great opportunities and challenges we face with technology, there is one principle we must keep in mind if our children are going to benefit from any wisdom we might hope to acquire and transmit: Are we leading by example? Here, perhaps more than any other area, children are entirely dependent on the messages they receive and behaviors they observe in the adults in their lives if they are to find their own way in managing the unyielding demands of the various devices around them. If their parents are not managing well, with strength and direction, how will they fare and with which strength will they cope? “Do as I say, not as I do” is a failed message in any context, but experience indicates it is even worse when it comes to technology. In fact, in our study of technology in yeshiva students, we found that parents are far and away the largest single source of information and guidance regarding the Internet and technology, yet only a small percentage of students report their parents speaking to them directly, or providing any guidelines, about technology and its use.
Let us then take full ownership and responsibility, and express our most refined midos and greatest values, in how we proactively and consciously lead our lives in order to become true masters of technology. It is too central to the quality of how we live our lives and ultimately to the legacy we leave to our children. The opportunities and challenges are extraordinary, ceaseless and ever-present and by embracing them, we can truly fulfill our loftiest goal of b’chol derachecha dayahu (Mishlei 3:6) – to know Hashem in all our ways.
Dr. Yitzchak Schechter is the Clinical Director of CAPs at Bikur Cholim and the Director of ARCC Institute (Applied Research and Community Collaboration).
 For example, someone with certain symptoms can search every article ever published on the topic, or wear monitoring devices (Fitbit, etc.) to track multiple body functions over an extended period of time. Consider also how Google can track and predict contagious diseases such as the flu by analyzing the search terms for its users (flu, flu symptoms, etc.) and create a social network of contagion spread. This method has been faster, more accurate and easier than any other attempt of medical researchers (Ginsberg, et al., 2008).
 Disruptive innovation is a term coined by Clayton Christensen to describe changes that disrupt the status quo of a community, society or industry.
 In an incredible recent study, Dr. Martin Seligman and a team of researchers from University of Pennsylvania (Eichstaedt, et al., 2015) found that the best predictors of a population’s cardiovascular disease mortality rates are no longer the classic indicators of demographics, socioeconomics or even health, but rather the content of twitter accounts! Regardless of geographic location, people connected to angry, negative or hostile content suffer increased rates of heart disease and conversely, those with more positive, supportive and hopeful content had significantly lower levels of heart disease. This was a more powerful effect than almost any other factor studied (Eichstaedt, et al., 2015). Aside from what this says about the effect of attitudes on heart disease, it demonstrates the powerful effect of online community (as well as the ability to extract useful data from cyberspace).
 There is actually a website called Klout.com that provides a score summarizing how much clout any person has to influence others online.
 Available at http://traditionarchive.org/news/article.cfm?id=104639.
 This is clearly demonstrated in science fiction which, although set in some distant future, surprisingly always features the same social and human issues present when the stories were written.
Eichstaedt, J. C., Schwartz, H. A., Seligman, M. E., Park, G., Labarthe, D. R., Merchant, R. M., et al. (2015). Psychological Language on Twitter Predicts County-Level Heart Disease. Psychological Science .
Fisher , M., Goddu, M. K., & Keil, F. C. (2015). Searching for Explanations: How the Internet Inflates Estimates of Internal Knowledge. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General , 144 (3), 674-687.
Ginsberg, J., Mohebbi, MH., Patel, RS., Brammer, L., Smolinski, MS., et al. (2008). Detecting influenza epidemics using search engine query data. Nature. 2008; 457, 1012–10155.
Schechter, I. (2015). BRCA Genetics in Orthodox Jewish Community. Presented at Stakeholder’s Dialogue. New York.
Shapira, A. (2014). Tech Talk: Hareidim in hi-tech. The Jerusalem Post .
Smith, A. (2015). U.S Smartphone Use in 2015. Pew Research Center .
Soloveitchik, H. (1994). Rapture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy. Tradition , 28 (4).
Whitehead, N. (2014). People would rather be electrically shocked than left alone with their thoughts. Science .