Religious Jews are now deep into the most contemplative and introspective period of the year – or at least they should be.
The focus of their thoughts, with the approach of the Days of Awe, is how to create a more intense, more alive bond with their Creator.
Part of that task involves rigorous selfexamination to discover all the obstacles within each of us to the creation of such a bond, and to assess all the myriad ways in which we have fallen short of that goal in the year past.
By definition, forming a deeper relationship with God is not likely the
current focus for those Jews who define themselves as nonreligious. But
each of us experiences at some level a need to find meaning in his or
her life. And doing so requires thinking about what gives life meaning,
setting personal goals designed to bring one’s life in greater
conformity to that definition of meaning, whatever it may be, and
contemplation of all the habits and patterns of our lives that stymie us
in the realization of those goals.
Unfortunately, the capacity for contemplation and introspection is diminishing by the day.
SHORTLY BEFORE his death in 1936, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the most
powerful personality and spiritual guide of the prewar Mirrer Yeshiva,
delivered an address on the subject of Ikvesa d’Mashicha
the turbulent times preceding the coming of the Messiah. Our sages
describe that period in highly negative terms – e.g., there are no
people capable of either giving or accepting reproof; the most elevated
matters are trampled underfoot.
Levovitz located the source of all these phenomena in one central point:
the loss of the ability to think deeply. The contemplative person, he
said, finds himself viewed as someone with his head in the clouds,
wasting his life.
His audience was composed of young men of stature, as the fortunate
among them would prove over the next decade. In Shanghai, to which most
of the Mirrer Yeshiva escaped, they kept learning 14 hours a day and
more, despite temperatures of over 100 degrees, while suffering from
terrible dysentery, and after having, in most cases, lost every member
of their families.
Yet even among this group of intellectual and spiritual giants, Levovitz
saw a loss of capacity for deep thought. What would he have had to say
about our times, when a person without email or a cellphone occasions
awe and wonder? How can such a person function, we ask, so detached have
we become from the possibility of looking within and thinking without
All those times that used to be used for contemplation – sitting on the
bus, walking from place to place – are now filled in by some
interconnective device or another. We cannot imagine it otherwise, and
experience something akin to terror when left alone, unplugged.
One of the growth areas in neuropsychology today, using the most
advanced techniques of brain-mapping, is the study of how Internet,
cellphones and the like are transforming the way we think and the kind
of people we are.
Nicolas Carr summarizes many of the findings and gathers experimental
proof of how the neural connectors in our brain are being reshaped by
constant exposure to Internet in The Shallows
.New York Times
Richtel recently accompanied five neuro-researchers on a threeday
wilderness excursion, during which they were cut off from their
cellphones, BlackBerrys and Internet (“Outdoors and Out of Reach,
Studying the Brain,” August 15). While rafting on the San Juan River in
southern Utah and camping on its banks, they talked about research
showing that people can learn better after walking in the woods than
after walking down a busy street, because the neural centers of the
brain are less taxed.
Other studies show that performance suffers when we are multitasking –
as when we try to form coherent paragraphs and sustain a logical
argument, while checking our e-mails every three minutes, or when we
attempt to drive while talking on a cellphone.
One member of the group, University of Utah psychologist David Strayer,
was convinced even before the wilderness experience that attention,
memory and learning ability are being dramatically affected by too much
digital stimulation, and that such overstimulation “can take people who
would be functioning okay and put them in a range where they’re not
That the medium in which we think changes the very nature of that
thought would have been no surprise to our sages. For that reason they
viewed the recording of the oral tradition as a cosmic tragedy.
Interestingly, the Greeks had the same fears. A character in Plato’s
Socratic dialogue Phaedrus worries that reliance on the written word
will substitute for oral transmission, creating people who receive their
“information without proper instruction... [T]hey will be thought very
knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant; ... the
conceit of wisdom will replace real wisdom.”
The sages also knew that for knowledge to have any impact on the
recipient he needs time, free from distractions, to absorb what he has
learned. They explained the spaces between different sections in a Torah
scroll as breaks that God provided Moses to absorb what he had just
BUT THE major point about the impact of digital overload is not that we
may think less well or under-perform on certain tasks, but that we are
becoming different types of human beings altogether. We all still know
plenty of very smart people. What is much, much rarer are people
possessing wisdom. (Wise men were always rarer than smart ones.) And
those who do possess wisdom tend to be those quirky types who do not
make themselves constantly available to the world by carrying a
cellphone with them everywhere, or who write with a pen, rather than at
the computer, or who still spend their days with books and not at their
Tufts professor Maryanne Wolf describes The Shallows as a sustained
essay on the “loss of human capacity for contemplation and wisdom, in an
epoch where both appear increasingly threatened.” Wolf worries that the
type of bouncing around from one text to another text, or to some
visual image or video, while being bombarded by messages, alerts and
feeds – is inimical to our capacity for “deep reading” and the “rich
mental connections that form when we read deeply and without
Our eagerness and ability to share the most mundane details of our lives
with half-strangers via Facebook or Twitter seems inversely
proportional to our possession of insights or thoughts worth sharing.
Too much time spent cut off from the deeper recesses of our being have
caused those deeper recesses to shrivel and die.
It is no wonder that the perception of man as merely a more intelligent
animal, whose behavior is primarily the product of instinctual drives,
gains ever more currency as fewer people experience themselves as
exercising free will. Having lost access to their souls, they readily
conclude that it does not exist.
May this Rosh Hashana and the Ten Days of Repentance be ones of renewed
contemplation of the ends of life and the means toward their achievement
for the entire Jewish people, wherever they are on the scale of
The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources.
He has written a regular column in
The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.