Technology is Jewish
Technology is Jewish
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Judaism and technology sound like contrary ideas. Judaism is four thousand years old and technology is modern and cutting-edge. I open the Torah on Shabbat and read from a scroll inscribed by hand that takes a year to complete with a quill dipped in handmade ink. It is, without a doubt, low-tech by our standards; but, in its day, the scroll was an answer to a technological question, namely, how to preserve the word of God. Judaism’s ability to adapt, adopt, and thrive with technology over centuries down to our own is one of its remarkable strengths.
It wasn’t just Torah that was committed to writing. The Oral Torah (interpretations of Torah teaching) was committed to writing, too. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman legions in 70CE, it was feared that the Oral Torah needed to be written down or it would be lost forever. The Mishnah (from the Hebrew to repeat) was committed to writing in the 3rd century CE. There were concerns that such an Oral Torah, now committed to writing, would usurp the authority of the written Torah, but it was an unfounded fear.
In the 16th century, the Gutenberg press answered a similar technological question about preserving and distributing the word of God. Gutenberg wasn’t publishing Torah books, but his invention wasn’t lost on Jews who created sacred books for worship and education in their own communities. Illuminated, illustrated, and annotated texts became special products of advanced printing presses and duplicating processes to disseminate information that was once the purview of mostly religious scholars and authorities, alone. Fast-forward to the 21st century, technology has developed at a faster rate than in any other era. Now as then, Judaism has benefited from modern technology. We have preserved and distributed Jewish learning on the internet (Sefaria.org; myjewishlearning.com, etc.) even as we read from the Torah scroll and livestream worship services.
Judaism thrives because technology is a means of creating “communities of continuity.” Everybody has a place among us to learn in adult education, to worship in the synagogue, and to participate in special events from a variety of settings. For example, during the pandemic, on a Thursday morning when no one could join us in the synagogue, I stood on the bimah in the Gordon Chapel to lead The Shlenker School’s Torah service. The students weren’t in the room, but we were connected using technology called Swivel. With a device attached to my lapel, the Swivel camera, set up on a tripod in front of me, followed me as I moved from the pulpit to the Holy Ark. When I took the Torah to the pulpit to read, the camera followed me automatically, the students heard me speak and saw me on their laptop screens. Likewise, adult education on Shabbat and throughout the week is in-person and on Zoom, creating a hybrid community that engages everyone, including visitors and members who are out-of-town.
The pandemic, though difficult, accelerated the pace of adaptation of technology. Young and old, alike, upgraded their devices and remained connected. Much of this technology will remain in place for those who can’t enter the building or prefer to remain safely at home. What’s next? The role of artificial intelligence (A.I.) is changing how we encounter the world, too. In some ways, it’s already here, but the future of AI will impact us faster than any past technology we’ve ever known and adopted.
The question about how to preserve the words that God inspired to be written will continue to be asked in every generation, and technology will be key to the answer. Judaism will adapt, adopt, and thrive, again. Just because we open a scroll on Shabbat instead of an iPad, doesn’t mean that the words mean less. On the contrary, their enduring meaning reveal their intrinsic sacredness. Technology hasn’t replaced the meaning of the words on the parchment inked by hand; rather, technology has preserved them and, by extension, preserved us.
So turn on your devices to Zoom or livestream, and Swivel with us. It’s not a new dance; it’s a sign of the times and times to come.