The 20th century saw some of history’s most amazing inventions and innovations, among them radio, television, penicillin, the ball-point pen, personal computers, calculators, jet airplanes, mobile phones and the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (also known as scuba).
But what about the 21st century, which is now more than a decade old? What fantastic cultural and scientific advances has it made? You might guess the artificial heart (gee, I seem to know some people who predate that marvel of medicine!), the iPod, the iPhone or Google. All good choices. But if you ask my wife, she will tell you that hands-down, no debate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the GPS – the global positioning system – has saved our marriage.
While it was conceived exactly 50 years ago by the US Air Force and naval departments, the GPS has come fully into its own as a tool for the masses in this century. For anyone lacking a strong sense of direction – and I, for one, can get lost in a phone booth – this tiny little miracle of man’s mind is an absolute lifesaver.
Just turn it on, and it does the rest. It tells you where you are going and how to get there, how fast you are traveling and what accidents or delays lurk ahead. It advises alternative routes if traffic jams suddenly develop, and it even warns you where the police are hiding, waiting to pounce on your vehicle when it exceeds the speed limit. No more searching for hours for that hard-to-find, dead-end cul-de-sac; no more exasperated attempts at knowing or negotiating those pesky one-way streets. Just place your trust 100 percent in your GPS and follow the little lady’s (we like her voice) instructions. She won’t even get perturbed when she has to proclaim – for the umpteenth time – “Route recalculation,” because you foolishly failed to heed her precise directions.
What a mechaya, what a pleasure. The GPS has opened up a whole new world to me. I just program the address into my phone and off I go, King of the Road.
Until, that is, something goes wrong. The GPS malfunctions, or the battery dies; the phone falls out of the car or the signal is inexplicably lost. Suddenly, when that happens, I am gripped with fear, my serene mood of confident complacency gone with the wind. Surrounded by busy highways, complicated interchanges and nervous, impatient drivers (you actually find those periodically in Israel), I descend into a primal state of panic and pandemonium. I haven’t a clue where I am, let alone how to get to where I’m going. I am helpless, defenseless, hopelessly adrift in a sea of endless concrete and hurtling metal machines. I have lost – abdicated might be a better word – my ability to think on my own, and I have been turned into a different kind of GPS, a Golem Person, Sadly, who has sold his independence – nay, his very manhood – for a few beeps and blips of technological Nirvana.
THAT IS exactly what happened to us on a recent trip abroad. While gloriously gliding along a country road in south New Jersey, the GPS suddenly, maddeningly malfunctioned.
That tiny little device to which we had entrusted our fate cynically sent our lives flashing before our eyes, until we made a bold and daring decision: We returned to the days of old. We shut down the GPS, and we stopped at the nearest service station to buy a map. Yes, a map, that antiquated artifact of a long-gone era, written on something they used to call “paper.” And while sipping our (non-gourmet) coffee, we mulled over that map, noting not only our route, but several intriguing places of interest along the way, which we then decided to visit.
And later, we stopped some locals to ask if we were headed in the right direction. Not only did they confirm our calculations, they told us about a few other choice sites that only the locals would know about. And they let us in on who served the best coffee. And where we might find a good motel if we decided to stop for the night. And the merits of rural vs city life. And a whole lot of other subjects that gave us lots to think about and talk about when we turned off the radio. All in all, it was a great trip.
Now, what, you may ask, does this have to do with Judaism? It seems to me that our generation has largely fallen victim to the GPS syndrome, this time standing for the term “Gaonic Psak Selection.” Let me explain. There was a time, not that long ago, that Jewish scholarship was a challenging, daunting enterprise that required serious mental effort. We had to work hard to find answers to our questions; it took considerable diligence to discover the right spiritual direction. We had to consult the sources, do our homework, research the laws and opinions before we dared venture a decision and draw a conclusion.
Before the Steinsaltz generation came into being, before Rabbi Art(hur) Scroll synthesized every holiday, every halacha and every holy book, we actually had to think in order to arrive at the right answer and formulate a proper mode of behavior. Nothing was spoonfed to us, nothing was broken down into its lowest common denominator and presented ready-made on an electronic platter, as a fait accompli. We pored over the texts and were forced to analyze the various permutations and possibilities until we finally arrived at what we thought was the right answer and approach.
And we asked other people wiser than ourselves for help along the way. Many people, not just a single, all-purpose answer man. We sought knowledge, and wisdom – not only bottom lines.
And you know what? In the process, we learned more than just Torah or Talmud. We learned about life, and social behavior, and the diversity of opinion. We met new people and new ideas, and they invigorated our lives.
We went off on tangents in every direction and found them as refreshing and exciting as a hike through the most verdant forest. We interfaced, and we discovered that the journey was infinitely more important and enlightening than the destination.
All too often today, either because we have become a generation of instant gratification, or because we are too insecure to formulate our own decisions, or – as my dad used to say – because we’re just plain lazy, we ask others to think for us, to tell us how to act or where to go or what route to take. We surrender our independence and submit to mindlessness, because it seems so much faster and so much easier, never realizing that the getting there can be much more fulfilling than the being there.
No, I am not an anti-modernist who wants to turn all the clocks back. I appreciate technology and the manifold advantages it can bring to our everyday existence. But I suggest that every once in a while, on the road of life and on the path to religious awareness, we gather up our courage and do something others may consider outrageous: close the GPS and open up our minds.The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. www.rabbistewartweiss.com; firstname.lastname@example.org