What Ancient Texts Can Teach Us About Technological Change

A study session with some Orthodox rabbis results in a few surprising insights about technology -- and how to be a better thinker in general


Recently I had an opportunity, thanks to Rabbi Mark Gottlieb and the smart and generous people at the Tikvah Fund, to speak with a group of Orthodox rabbis about religious reading. In the process I, surprisingly enough, learned something quite interesting about how to think about technology.

The other visitor to the group was the wise and learned Michael Fishbane of the University of Chicago, so I was the only Gentile in the room and the only person who couldn't read or speak Hebrew. Each of the sessions shifted rapidly back and forth between Hebrew and English, which meant that I would often have been utterly lost -- in sessions I wasn't leading -- had it not been for the kindness of those sitting around me, who would whisper translations of key terms or point me to online translations of the relevant Talmudic passages. Thanks to that assistance, I was able to follow the arguments fairly closely. Those were enlightening sessions indeed.

Near the end of the conference, Rabbi Jacob Schacter of Yeshiva University -- who had taught many of the men in the room and was affectionately called "Rebbe" -- led a session offering some Jewish reflections on the age of the internet. Though the men gathered for this conference were modern Orthodox, not the Haredim whom the media usually call "ultra-Orthodox," I immediately thought of the recent ultra-Orthodox rally in New York that focused on the dangers of the Internet. But Rabbi Schacter pursued these issues in a surprising and, to me, enlightening way.

Professor Fishbane and I had prepared some brief handouts to guide the participants in our sessions, but Rabbi Schacter had a rather more ambitious plan. After recommending Clay Shirky's recent books Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus -- he was speaking my language then -- he plopped before each of us a three-ring binder filled with photocopies of passages from a wide variety of rabbinical texts, most of them dealing with the proper preparation of a divorce decree, known as a get. (Anyone who has seen the movie A Serious Man will be familiar with the complexities of the get.)

This seemed a strange way to proceed, but I soon saw the sense of it, because traditionally a get had to be written by a sofer (scribe) according to a very strict protocol -- and with the rise of the printing press in the sixteenth century, debates ensued among rabbis about whether a printed get could ever be legitimate. This led in turn to a fascinatingly complex debate, chiefly focused on the Taz, a name that refers both to a book (the Turel Zahav) and its author (David HaLevi Segal, a seventeenth-century Polish rabbi). The Taz is itself a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, written a century earlier in Safed by Rabbi Yosef Karo.

Rabbi Schacter took us on a virtuosic whirlwind tour of these texts, demonstrating that Karo, the Taz, and their successors became consumed by the question of what we might call the conditions of technological possibility. Why was there no printing press in the time of the Patriarchs, or of the sages of the Mishnah? Were these not great and wise men -- men who talked with God! -- who could have invented the printing press had they thought it appropriate to do so, or had God so instructed them? And was not their failure to do so an indication that the printing press is to be shunned? Some thought so, but others replied, no, not at all: The fact that these men were great sages who knew God did not mean that they could overleap the state of their own age. Technology develops incrementally in any given culture, and even the wisest men of God have no power to escape those conditions. Technological history and sacred history connect, and sometimes overlap, but are essentially distinct.

To open up this history of debate was Rabbi Schacter's chief purpose. He wasn't telling his fellow rabbis what to think about recent technological developments: he was teaching them how to think about such matters. The implicit argument of his presentation was simply that if Jewish leaders today are going to cope wisely with contemporary technological challenges and opportunities, they will need to think as seriously and as faithfully as their ancestors did about the printing press.

So the session was not concerned to answer particular questions but to provide intellectual equipment, and the distinctive kind of intellectual equipment that can be gained by taking your own tradition very seriously -- but not by believing that the answers our ancestors gave to the questions facing them can be directly imported to answer the very different questions facing us. Rather, Rabbi Schacter seemed to be saying, by entering into the conversation with those we admire from the past, we can practice the habits of mind we need in order to be discerning users of technology today. And that, it seems to me, is a lesson all of us could benefit from.