Technology, Change and Meaning, or Information, Knowledge and Wisdom Rosh HaShanah 5779

September 10, 2018

 

L’Shanah Tovah, or as it is said in China, Xinian kuaile!

 

No doubt you know the classic Jewish statement: two Jews, three opinions.  You may not have heard the corollaries: two Jews, three opinions, four rabbis and five synagogues.  That’s true even her in Shanghai, where we are the only Progressive synagogue but there are several other congregations in this unique and not overly large Jewish community.  Disagreement is our great Jewish talent.  The Talmud, the incredible compendium of Jewish law and lore, is essentially one 63 volume-long argument.  We are at heart a people that enjoys arguing often and always, even argument for argument’s sake.  Descartes said, “Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am.” We Jews say, “I argue, therefore I am… Jewish.”

 

In that vein, my 22-year-old son Boaz and I have an ongoing argument.  This is typical for us, especially since he hit adolescence.  We are Jews, we are related, we are of different generations and so of course we argue.  The most intense of these arguments took place when he was in high school and decided he was an atheist.  My response was to buy a lot of books by prominent atheists, read them and then argue from a position of knowledge in favor of the possibility of God’s existence.  Eventually he came to realize that the most virulent atheistic arguments were made by authors writing not so much in favor or atheism as against their own bad religious experiences growing up.  So far, my son has been converted all the way from ardent atheism to ambivalent agnosticism.  As we Jews say, it could be worse.

 

In any case, the argument we’ve been engaging in recently is about the importance of technological change in our world.  He believes, with all the certainty and fervency of youth, that the technology that allows us to have the entirety of the world’s information in our palms on our phones is the most dramatic transformation of society ever.  He also believes that the ever-expanding use of social media, Wi-Fi connectivity and guided instantaneous video and audio experience has changed people and societies more rapidly and dramatically than any of the changes that took place in previous eras. 

 

While I agree with him that things are changing quickly, and I’ve learned since I arrived in China that almost all transactions must now be done on my smartphone, mostly with QR Codes, I also believe that the impact of these changes isn’t well understand yet.  In my view there have been greater changes in the world at several historical junctures.  The transformations taking place now, while compelling and contemporary, are not nearly as dramatic as those in the past.  To name some that have changed things more than the semiconductor revolution has, there was the discovery of fire, the invention of the wheel, and the domestication of agriculture and animals, all more significant than what’s happening now.  But these belong to prehistory.  When have things changed more dramatically in recorded time?

 

I’ve been listening to podcasts about China regularly since I was graciously invited to come to Kehilat Shanghai for these High Holy Days.  My favorite podcast talked extensively about the “Four Great Chinese Inventions,” paper-making, printing, the compass and gunpowder.  Each of these great Chinese inventions was at least as revolutionary a development as that of the Internet or the Wi-Fi enabled cellphone or online shopping.

 

Although the seminal Chinese inventions took some time to migrate west—papermaking took nearly a thousand years!—each had a tremendous impact on every aspect of society.  The compass opened up the whole planet to exploration, navigation and settlement.  Gunpowder democratized warfare—which certainly had its tremendous downsides, of course—and dramatically transformed the organization of nations and entire civilizations.  And together, paper and printing—woodblock printing in China because of the enormous number of characters needed, and movable-type printing here and everywhere else in the world—spread literacy and knowledge in a way they had never before been distributed, created a popular market for all the arts, and enabled the Age of Reason, the rapid development of the scientific revolution and the modern age.

 

In fact, it’s hard to argue that the ability to buy a product and have it delivered to your home the same day, or to look up the lyrics to any song ever written, or find out the favorite color for cars in Uruguay somehow exceeds any of these great Chinese inventions in revolutionary impact on the world.

 

Still, my son Boaz makes a good point about the speed of technological change.  I vividly recall the first time I used email and learned what the internet was, in 1991.  I was already an adult, headed for rabbinic school.  To people who have come of age in the last twenty years being able to rapidly discover any fact instantly is a given birthright.  Immediate information is a boon, and the tremendous increase in the speed with which we can grab data is indeed remarkable.  But information alone does not change much of anything in and of itself.  Information is just stuff, bits of facts, trivia and opinion all mixed together.  It is how information is understood and used that makes all the difference.

 

Speed presents an intriguing problem.  Before recent decades information was spread a fairly gradual pace, and because it took a while to arrive it was usually passed on in a fairly complete form.  Books were long, and readers were expected to have time to wade through extended arguments, discussions and descriptions.  Newspaper articles could be 10,000 words long, and people read the whole thing.  Even news of important, earthshaking events could take a very long time to disseminate.  The Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, which made Andrew Jackson famous enough to later become President of the United States and decorate the $20 bill, took place well after the treaty ending the war had been signed.  It took two full months for that news to reach America.

 

But that was two centuries ago.  The acceleration in the pace of information acquisition has been exponential, and we now have very little ability to restrain that flow and perhaps no desire to do so.  Where we once read books, magazine articles and newspapers for information and entertainment we now receive a flood of quick, vivid images, videos, texts and ideas that constantly change.  Algorithms based on our preferences lead us to more items like the ones we have been viewing.  We are unwilling to work our way through challenging, complex material.  Instead we want to see the ikkar, the central message, the bottom line instantly.  We now have almost unlimited access to information in digestible, short forms that we receive immediately through technology that is designed to move our attention somewhere else quickly.

 

We are all ADHD about our information flow, aren’t we?

 

But the actual point of information is not just data, which we receive in this endlessly free-flowing supply.  It is the ability to understand that information, that data, and then to analyze it and accept it as actual knowledge.  Because in order to understand all that information, targeted and otherwise, we must have some way to comprehend what it all means.  And paradoxically, the more rapidly we receive information the less most of us are able to assimilate it, organize it and evaluate it.

 

We have lots and lots of information.  What we don’t really have is knowledge that might lead to understanding.  And we have least of all in this era is wisdom.

 

Judaism has always charted a different course when it comes to learning.  In ages when most of the world’s population was illiterate, before printing and paper were widespread, we insisted on educating all of our children, boys and girls both.  It is exciting to see Kehilat Shanghai beginning a Hebrew School, Tov!, for the first time, continuing the great emphasis our people has placed upon literacy.  We Jews have always believed that learning was the source of all growth, as the Eilu Devarim passage affirms in our prayer book, Talmud Torah K’neged Kulam, Jewish learning is equivalent to all the other commandments because first we must learn in order to know how to do them.

 

We have also asserted that the proper way to learn, as a Jew, is to gather as much information as possible, collect the facts, but then to analyze, explore, challenge that data, argue about what items truly matter, and do so until we begin to truly understand it.  It is the process of honestly, earnestly and critically seeking to understand information that first leads to true knowledge and eventually, with reflection, to wisdom. 

 

You have heard of the slow-food movement, perhaps?  Judaism advocates for a slow-learning movement.  Take the time to evaluate and understand.  Apply the great, ancient wisdom of the ages and the sages, of brilliant minds over the centuries reflecting on the real issues that matter.  Argue until you get it right.  Seek Torah.

 

In this age of hyperspeed information, how do the ideas expressed in a slow religion like Judaism measure up?  How do we balance our rapid-fire lifestyles with our Jewish tradition of all-encompassing texts and deep thought?  In an era when you can find out anything you want in a near instant and the varied information of the world is instantly and changeably available on everyone’s phone, what does the Torah, written in longhand on parchment, have to offer?

 

A great deal, as it turns out.  For in our unending flow of texts, emails, WeChat and Facebook and Instagram posts we are unlikely to find something wiser than what the Torah teaches: Live your beliefs.  Pursue justice.  Respect the innate sanctity of the world God gives us.  Fulfill your covenantal responsibilities.  Know that God exists, and cares and that your love will be reciprocated.

 

And remember that speed is not always, or usually, the ally of understanding and wisdom, that facile answers are not usually better than careful ones.  Be willing to engage in serious but non-toxic arguments for the sake of learning and knowledge.  Take a Shabbat of rest so that you will be able to appreciate all that you have, and all that God gives, and grow in wisdom and goodness.

 

There is a poem by Rabbi Karyn Kedar that we very much need to learn right now.

 

Steady yourself.

Living takes time.

Each moment is a moment to be lived.

Each emotion is to be felt.

We are here in this world to learn and grow.

Fear can teach.  Confusion instructs. Sadness informs.

Love elevates.

Take the time to experience each breath.

Especially the ones that make you want to run.

 

Patience.  Steady.

Rush and race banish joy and peace.

There is wonder to experience if you take the time.

Step softly and deliberately.

What lingers must be lived and

Once lived completely passes in its own time.

To force the natural rhythms of life is to deny yourself of the

Divine wisdom in each experience.

 

On this Rosh HaShanah 5779 may we each take the time to appreciate our world, and our lives, to truly experience things not at the speed of our texting but of our hearts and minds.  And then may we also be able to find the time to seek God and goodness, and so to discover holiness. 

 

L’Shanah Tovah. 

 

 

 

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