Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
Klal Perspectives, Technology
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Technology – Playing with Fire
There is no denying that technology has significantly improved our lives. The proliferation and increasing sophistication of appliances, gadgets, electronics, devices and software provide ever-greater convenience, comfort and enjoyment. And technology has enriched our spiritual lives, as well. Torah learning opportunities have exponentially increased, and access and exposure to Torah personalities have blossomed. Technology has enabled immeasurable advances in the coordination of chesed activities and tzedaka projects, as well as facilitated global prayer efforts. Through technology, friends have been reunited, and family members living across the globe can share and participate not only in each other’s lifecycle events but in daily life, as well.
With all of its benefits, however, technology is also replete with dangers, risks and challenges. It is seductive, intoxicating and, for some, addictive. Ideas that are both spiritually and socially destructive are now readily available. Similarly, without much effort and often without even trying, we find lewd images flashing before our eyes, compromising our holiness, as well as the health and integrity of our relationships and our attitudes towards intimacy.
The dangers of technology have been well documented. While internet filters and connectivity time regulators are both imperative and invaluable, internet access poses threats in content and risks of excessive use that no filter or program can eliminate. In fact, even the most noble and virtuous use of technology often presents unintended adverse consequences.
Rejecting technology entirely, however, is no longer a viable strategy. Such rejection would be as practical as eliminating telephone use because it can be the conduit of gossip or vulgar speech, or swearing off cars and buses because they often transport passengers to inappropriate places. While communal calls for the wholesale rejection of technology may be effective in messaging its dangers, these calls surely cannot be undertaken with an authentic aspiration for success. Moreover, if successful, elimination of the use of technology would deprive the Jewish community of enormous advances in Torah, avodah and gemillus chasadim.
The community, thus, confronts a conundrum. The benefits of technology are enormous, but tolerating unbridled and unregulated access by oneself or one’s family is reckless and irresponsible. Car travel is invaluable, but it would be inconceivable for a responsible society to allow everyone, regardless of age or training, to drive anywhere, at any time and in any manner or speed. Non-regulation would be grossly negligent and most certainly result in injuries and worse.
The State of “Absent Presence”
Vayomer Hashem el Moshe, “alei eili haharah veheyei sham, v’etna lecha es luchos haeven v’haTorah v’hamitzvah asher kasavti lehorosam.”
Hashem said to Moshe, “Ascend to Me to the mountain and be there, and I shall give you the stone tablets and the teaching and the commandment that I have written, to teach them.”
Commentators are bothered by the seemingly superfluous phrase in Hashem’s invitation to Moshe. After Moshe is directed to ascend the mountain, it surely was unnecessary for Moshe to also be directed “veheyei sham,” and “be there.” Obviously, once Moshe ascends the mountain he will necessarily be there.
Perhaps the pesukim are messaging the following contemporary lesson: Hashem , as it were, summons Moshe up the mountain. “Come Moshe,” says Hashem. “I am the infinite, omnipotent and eternal Being. I seek to share with you the truth and mysteries of the universe.” Moshe climbs the mountain as directed, and Hashem then says “Moshe, I recognize how many congregants, disciples and followers are emailing and texting you. I know how many responsibilities are demanding your immediate attention. However, when you are with Me, I expect you to disconnect entirely and actually be with Me.”
Veheyei sham, “be there,” means “be in the present.” Don’t be distracted, interrupted or unfocused. Hashem is telling Moshe that He does not want to compete for attention, even for the most noble of distractions, such as caring for the Jewish people. “Put them aside when you are with Me, and be with Me.” Kenneth J. Gergen, a psychologist and professor at Swarthmore College, has coined the phrase “absent presence,” the experience of being totally absent in spirit, even when physically present in body. The Torah is teaching that absent presence is unacceptable; it is antithetical to healthy relationships.
Technology introduces a constant and consistent diversion from living a life of veheyei sham, from being fully, spiritually present in whatever conversation, activity, event, davening or learning we are supposedly engaged in. Unfortunately, people experiencing absent presence can be observed everywhere: in our homes, in the workplace, on public transportation, at doctors’ offices or when simply walking down the street. Nevertheless, we must consider absent presence to be intolerable. Being in a state of absent presence is essentially a form of cheating on one’s spouse, neglecting one’s children or simply being unfair to one’s co-workers or chavrusa. Most of all, however, one who is absent present is suffering a life devoid of mindfulness, consciousness and presence.
We cannot resign ourselves to viewing absent presence as an unavoidable consequence of 21st-century living. It is critical that we always retain the capacity to disconnect from technology at will. Only those who can disconnect at will really own their technology, rather than being owned by it.
I once took a tour of the West Wing of the White House. I noticed a container outside of the Situation Room with numerous slots. I asked what the container was for and was told that everyone, regardless of rank or office, must deposit their devices into the container before entering the Situation Room. What is being addressed in that room is simply too important to risk distractions.
The Mikdash Me’at, the Sanctuary of our Shuls, is our spiritual Situation Room. A personal pledge not to bring our cell phone into Shul, let alone ever take it out of our pocket, would yield immediate benefits to our concentration in prayer, to the atmosphere of our minyanim and, most of all, to our creating sacred space in which we truly disconnect from our mundane life and focus on developing our relationships with Hashem.
Our family relationships are also invaluable, and also require effort and focus. Often, couples supposedly spend quality time together, but in fact are only physically in close proximity while their minds are on whomever or whatever they are addressing on their devices. Families would do well to introduce an inviolate rule that electronic devices cannot be brought to the family dinner table. In so doing, both parents and children would be much more present. Similarly, relationships would surely benefit from a practice of leaving devices in the car, or placing devices in the middle of the table, when a couple is on a shidduch date, or on a married couple’s night out or even talking at day’s end. Commitments of this nature not only eliminate distraction and interruption, but also reflect a deep devotion to the relationship.
Ability to Be Alone
Science Magazine recently discussed a study in which participants were asked to rate the unpleasantness of receiving an electric shock, and how much money they would pay to avoid repeating the experience. The participants were then asked to sit alone with nothing but their thoughts. While sitting alone, however, the participants were given the opportunity to press a button that would trigger a shock to themselves. Of those prepared to pay to avoid being shocked, 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women eventually pressed the button rather than sit alone with nothing but their thoughts.
For many, technology has cultivated a deep discomfort with and aversion to being alone with nothing but their own thoughts. Too many instinctively reach for their phone in the elevator, at a red light, in the waiting room or while waiting for chazaras ha’shatz to begin. The preoccupation with being distracted precludes our ability to reflect, introspect, and ultimately, to grow.
Vayivaser Yaakov levado, vayeiaveik ish imo ad alos hashachar (Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until morning – Bereishis 32:25). It was only when Yaakov was left alone, when he was by himself, that he wrestled with what many label his alter ego, his yetzer hara, a battle from which he emerged the victor. Only alone, with the noise of life shut out, can we make space for imagination, creativity, breakthrough and personal growth.
In addition to our need to disconnect from technology in order to connect with others, we need to do so in order to truly connect with ourselves. It would be worthwhile to schedule five uninterrupted, disconnected minutes a few times a week – time to just sit and think. Actually, put these time slots on your calendar and set reminders to do it. Sit in a room by yourself without any media, cell phone or computer. Be truly alone. Solutions to problems, breakthroughs to emotional barriers, ideas, insights and clarity will suddenly arise in the quiet space you have created for them. You will be amazed by the creativity, innovation and thoughtfulness that emerge in the quiet space that our brain and soul crave, but that we rarely provide.
If the thought of shutting down electronics and disconnecting causes you to break out in hives or suffer a spike in blood pressure, you know you have an addiction and an even more urgent need to disconnect. Most of us have an aversion, actually a borderline allergic reaction, to turning off our phone. We have convinced ourselves that others’ access to us at all times is critical and indispensable. And yet, even doctors, rabbis and others who constantly address emergencies manage to disconnect (at least from cell service) when flying for hours at a time. If this is possible while traveling through the air, it must be equally viable with feet firmly on the ground.
If you are going on a date night and are worried about your children or elderly parent, give them or their caregiver the phone number at the restaurant. If there are people that rely on you, let them know in advance that you won’t be reachable for a few hours and arrange alternative coverage. Most often they can wait for the time period to conclude.
If we were honest with ourselves we would stop blaming everything around us for our inability to shut down. Change begins by admitting that we are the only ones blocking and preventing ourselves from disconnecting. We are using technology as an excuse to avoid connecting to ourselves, connecting to others and connecting to Hashem. Impose upon yourself the practice of shutting off technology when connecting with others, and eventually disconnecting when appropriate will become second nature.
The instantaneousness of technology is also eroding our capacity for patience. In the words of Dr. Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University, “The newest generations, unlike their older peers, will expect an instant response from everyone they communicate with, and won’t have the patience for anything less. They’ll want their teachers and professors to respond to them immediately, and they will expect instantaneous access to everyone.”
People not only expect instantaneous access to others, but also expect instantaneous answers to their questions. In an article in the New York Times, “For Impatient Web Users, an Eye Blink Is Just Too Long to Wait,” Steve Lohr writes, “Remember when you were willing to wait a few seconds for a computer to respond to a click on a Web site or a tap on a keyboard? These days, even 400 milliseconds—literally the blink of an eye—is too long, as Google engineers have discovered. That barely perceptible delay causes people to search less. ‘Subconsciously, you don’t like to wait,’ said Arvind Jain, a Google engineer who is the company’s resident speed maestro. ‘Every millisecond matters.’”
Rav Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l, explains that the root of the Hebrew word savlanut is sovel, which means to carry a heavy load or to bear a burden. For example, in recounting Hashem’s promise to redeem us, the Torah states, “Vhotzeisi eschem mitachas sivlos mitzrayim, I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” Sivlos, the burdens of Egypt, is based on the same root word as savlanut, patience. A patient person bears the burden or endures the suffering, and never reacts with impulsiveness or impetuousness.
A more literal translation of savlanus is actually suffering. One who is patient can live with discomfort or inconvenience, or even suffering. The ability to cultivate a sense of forbearance and to live with patience, particularly in the face of relatively small challenges or delays, is a critical tool for a life of serenity and inner peace. Tragically, it is at risk of becoming a lost art.
It is vital that the instantaneousness of technology not compel us to forfeit our capacity for patience. When a download is taking time or a computer glitch occurs, don’t lose your cool. Getting angry, mad or frustrated will expedite nothing, but will actually make it feel like it is taking longer to resolve, and will likely make achieving a solution harder. Take a deep breath, put the delay in perspective and show forbearance.
Connecting, Not Promoting
Modesty is a core Torah value, and is intrinsic to the character of a Torah Jew. When the prophet Micha rhetorically challenges us, “Mah Hashem doreish mimecha?” “What does Hashem seek from you?” Micha responds, “…vehatzneia leches im Elokecha, …walk modestly and humbly with your God.”
The popularity of social media, and to some extent text messaging and email, are all tapping into the less than attractive human inclination to disseminate personal information. While it is wonderful to use technology to connect with family and friends, that is not at all the same as sharing details of our lives and thoughts with a wide web of friends, including those who are “friends” in cyber-speak only. Not every picture needs to be posted. Not every financial success needs to be flaunted. Not every intimate experience or observation needs to be shared, online or offline. Certainly, we can (and perhaps even should) employ the tools of social media to connect in meaningful ways with those around us. However, we must be judicious in determining what we share and why we share it. If we are sharing in an effort to be self promoting, we are violating the fundamental principle of walking modestly before God.
Moreover, when we boast or ostentatiously divulge indulgences, when we brag or even just publicly celebrate our successes, we are inviting others to look at us jealously, perhaps wondering whether we truly deserve the good fortune they may be lacking. Rav Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav Mei’eliyahu, Vol. 5, pp. 4-5) explains that when questions are raised in one’s mind regarding someone else’s entitlement to good fortune, such speculation serves as a prayer of some nature. This prayer, whether or not so intended, elicits God to also revisit the other person’s good fortune.
We have all repeatedly heard of the need to avoid an ayin hara, and may have wondered whether this concern is real or merely an old wives’ tale. The Maharal explains that ayin hara means that God hears the pain of the one who is lacking and is now suffering the added anguish of having another’s good fortune cast in his or her face. Upon hearing this cry of pain, even when silent, God responds by re-examining the good fortune that had been bestowed, and reconsiders whether it was actually deserved. Certainly an ayin hara should be avoided at great cost; after all, who would wish to invite a re-examination of their virtues and entitlements?
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 42) cautions us, “Ein haberacha metzuya ela bedavar hasamuy min haayin, Blessing is not found except in something that is hidden from the eye.” Showing off about a vacation, the brilliance and beauty of our children or grandchildren, our frequent hobnobbing with the rich and famous or our latest luxury purchase invites others to cast jealous glances (and thus prosecuting eyes) upon us.
A wise person once offered sage advice regarding sharing information or thoughts through technology. Before pressing send, enter or post, always ask yourself, “Am I sharing this to be a promoter or connector? Will this be productive and valuable, or is this self serving and grandstanding? Will this result in my being closer to others or will it create distance, jealousy and gossip? If I had to print this picture to show it, or if I had to say this out loud to someone in person and in public, would I still share it?” When in doubt, keep it samuy min haayin – hidden from view.
“New” Is Not Necessarily Better
Change is inevitable. Attitudes and social norms are constantly changing, as are career opportunities and artistic tastes. Perhaps the most perceptible arena of constant change is in the evolution of technology. Through the millennia, enormous advancements in science have revolutionized fields ranging from medicine to warfare, and innovative technological discoveries have dramatically altered normative modes of travel and communications. Each advancement introduces new products, new procedures, new ideas and new opportunities. But never before has “new” occurred at such a frantic and feverish pace, particularly in the arena of technology.
New devices, appliances and software are constantly being introduced. We are bombarded with advertisements and social pressures, encouraging us to upgrade every aspect of our lives. “Upgrade your cell phone, upgrade your software, upgrade your apps, upgrade your car.” We are made to feel inadequate if we don’t have the latest, the most recent and the best of everything.
In the second paragraph of kriyas shema, we recite the words “vhaya im shamoa tishmeu,” which translates literally as, “and it will be if you listen, you will listen.” Why the double language? Rashi, quoting the medrash, explains: “im shamoa beyashan, tishmeu bechadash. If you listen to the old, you will hear it in the new.” What does that mean?
“Old” often has a derogatory connotation. It implies outdated, antiquated, stale, tired and no longer useful. New, by contrast, implies something fresh, exciting, cutting edge and superior. Such perceptions dominate today’s technology-driven world, where old is obsolete and discontinued, while new is sought after by everyone (and likely already sold out). Alas, this paradigm is flawed. The new is not necessarily an upgrade. Often, the old is superior.
Perhaps Rashi is teaching that if we pay attention, and indeed hearken, to the messages, principles, ideals and teachings of the old, namely our Torah, then we will develop the sensitivity to actually hear what’s really new; we will know which of the ‘new’ is authentic, acceptable and worthwhile.
Innovation in technology, medicine, social progress and even application of Jewish practices all bring much opportunity and blessing. However, much of the new is simply incompatible with our existing,, timeless and inviolate values, teachings and practices. In religious life, ideas and practices that are presented as upgrades and progress are often, in fact, downgrades and regress.
As we develop a technology-induced mindset that innovation is necessarily progress, we must be careful to avoid allowing this attitude to spill over into our views of other spheres of innovation and modernization, particularly when innovation is introduced into Torah hashkafa and Jewish practice. As Torah Jews, it is our mesorah, the old and ancient wisdom passed down from parent to child, which serves as the guide and determinant of which new opportunities we are to embrace and integrate. We turn to our elders, as the guardians of the tradition, and value their guidance as the entrusted authorities to tell us which of the new is an upgrade and which of the new is actually a step backwards.
Arrogance and Overconfidence
The Talmud (Sotah 49b) tells us, “As the time for Moshiach approaches, chutzpah will proliferate.” Technology has emerged as a tremendous vehicle and platform for brazenness. The abundance of information available instantaneously at our fingertips is breeding an inflated sense of confidence.
A Harvard Business Review article, “The Internet Makes You Think You’re Smarter Than You Are,” quotes the research of Yale doctoral candidate Matthew Fisher and his colleagues who asked people a series of questions that seemed answerable but were actual not. The questions concerned things people assume they know, but actually don’t—such as why there are phases of the moon and how glass is made. Some people were allowed to look up the answers on the Internet, while others were not. Then the researchers asked a second set of questions on unrelated topics. In comparison with the other subjects, the people who had been allowed to do online searches vastly overestimated their ability to answer the new questions correctly.
In his recent book, David Weinberger, co-director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab and a researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, addresses the Internet’s impact on how we learn and what we know. The book’s title succinctly encapsulates his thesis: “Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.”
A false and distorted sense of confidence in our knowledge and, by extension, in the resulting opinions we form, is not benign or insignificant. Technology has enabled and empowered anyone with a keyboard to express his or her opinions, and to do so confidently and with a voice of authority. Credentials, credibility, expertise and peer review are the way of the past. Before an event could possibly be fully absorbed or an issue could be properly researched, pondered or deliberated, countless posts, blogs and online articles appear with the authors having no sense of modesty or humility regarding the correctness of their position.
Due to the Internet, the lines between news and opinion, fact and fiction, expert and novice, authority and ignoramus, are increasingly blurred. The impact of this is bad enough when the subject is sports, politics, or entertainment. However, when the topic is a halachic issue or a contemporary hashkafic perspective, this phenomenon is downright dangerous.
Halacha and hashkafa adopted by Torah Jewry have never been formulated by analysis of stark information or knowledge alone. Our sacred mesorah (tradition) has always placed great emphasis on the accumulation of experiential knowledge and sensitivities, and placed a premium on guidance from those who have amassed the wisdom of life and serve as loyal conduits of the wisdom of the prior generations. A brilliant scholar who is familiar with vast amounts of Torah but has never been meshameish talmidei chachamim (i.e., “apprenticed” with Torah scholars) is not qualified to issue opinions deserving of communal deference. The Talmud (Berachos 7b) tells us that “Gedola shimusha yoser milimuda, Being mentored by a talmid chacham is even greater than the learning of his Torah.” According to the Mishna in Pirkei Avos, one of the 48 ways that wisdom is acquired is through shimush chachamim.
The ratzon Hashem, the will of the Almighty, on any given issue cannot simply be Googled or searched on the Bar Ilan digital library. In the famous eulogy delivered by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik for his uncle, the Brisker Rav, the Rav distinguished between those who are betrothed to the Torah (erusin) and those who are married to the Torah (nesuin). An engaged couple shares a familiarity, but complete knowledge of one another has yet to be achieved. Solutions to problems, breakthroughs to emotional barriers, deeply personal ideas and insights about one another can typically be enjoyed only by a married couple– two individuals who have actually lived together and have shared intimacy over time. Married couples can often finish one another’s sentences and may intuit and predict what the other is thinking. The Rav explained that those who study Torah are betrothed to it, but it is only the greatest of our talmidei chachamim who are actually married to the Torah, and on whose intuition and instinct we rely when we seek the Torah position on a given subject that is less than clear.
It is remarkable to observe the humility and modesty of our greatest talmidei chachamim, those married to the Torah, when they approach the devarim haomdim berumo shel olam, the complicated issues of our day. This is particularly evident when contrasted to the tone of others, who have barely started dating the Torah, who confidently and stridently espouse their positions on what the Torah and Hashem want from us. In strong terms, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99) cautions us not to be “megaleh panim baTorah,” understood by many as guiding us not to be presumptuous by arrogantly and inappropriately voicing an opinion about Torah when the gravity of the issue exceeds our stature.
The Talmud (Shabbos 119b) tells us, “Amar Rebbe Yitzchak, lo chorva Yerushalayim elah bishvil shehushvu kattan vegadol.” Rebbe Yitzchak said: “Jerusalem was destroyed only because the small and the great were made equal.” The Internet has allowed many to equalize the opinions of the small and the great. While in many respects giving voice to the lesser known can be a positive societal development, that is not the case with regard to halacha and hashkafa. In those areas, equating the great and the small results in churban – erosion and destruction.
When reading internet content, we must be discerning and we must employ great discipline in restraining ourselves from focusing exclusively on the persuasiveness and attractiveness of the content of an article or blog. When developing a view, we must also consider the qualifications, credentials and competency of the author. Only we, not any program or software, can filter the opinions and positions we consume. The burden is on us not to be ignorant and naive consumers of information and ideas. Moreover, when becoming actual participants in the conversation, we should avoid being lured into thinking that we, too, are smarter than we really are, and before we comment, we should ask ourselves about the accuracy and tone of what we want to say.
While filters and other software are enormously important and helpful in confronting some of technology’s threats, it is imperative that we remain collectively aware of the many perils presented by connectedness that can be filtered and controlled only by the individual, with no assistance from technology. Whether as educators, parents or simply on our own behalf, we must remain vigilant and mindful of technology’s impact on our lives and we must learn how to employ it judiciously, discriminately and carefully. Furthermore, we have the opportunity to add wisdom to “smartness”—to educate our children and students how to be thoughtful in managing and filtering their own ever-growing use of smart technology.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi at Boca Raton Synagogue.