In Plain Language: You better think – for yourself!

In the year 5555, Your arms hangin’ limp at your sides; Your legs got nothin’ to do – some machine’s doin’ that for you!

By
January 17, 2019 13:27
4 minute read.
In Plain Language: You better think – for yourself!

‘THE BIGGEST attractions were devices that not only work for you, but think for you – like robots that do virtually anything a human being can do.’. (photo credit: TNS)

 
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‘In the Year 2525,” the iconic, apocalyptic 1968 song by one-hit wonders Zager and Evans, was a huge hit in its day. (Fun fact: The pop-rock duo are the only artists ever to have a chart-topping No. 1 hit on both sides of the Atlantic, yet never have another chart single in Billboard or in the UK again.) But as chillingly prophetic as the song was a half-century ago, it was way, way ahead of its time – almost 3,500 years ahead, to be exact.

My son was one of one of almost 200,000 visitors this past week at the 52nd annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a massive trade fair that highlights the latest gimmicks and gadgets from around the world. Exhibitors came from 45 countries to show off the latest innovations in technology, from smart watches powered by your own body heat to foldable phones to TVs that roll up and fit in your briefcase.

But the biggest attractions – no surprise here – were devices that not only work for you, but think for you. These include robots that do virtually anything a human being can do – such as feeding and cleaning up after your pet, as well as an Israeli model that prepares and serves tea and coffee – and autonomous vehicles of every shape, size and style that are loaded with every possible feature – except, of course, a driver.

And then there are the Focals facial-recognition glasses. Ever have that sinking feeling when someone is walking eagerly toward you and you simply can’t remember his name? Well, these “smart spectacles” – using data from your smartphone or computer – instantly recognize who the person is and project the name, along with selected details, in front of your eyes. “Jim, it’s great to see you!” you can now respond. “How’s Martha and the twins? Boy, you have really slimmed down!” For politicians and rabbis who play to wide audiences, this is a gift straight from Heaven.

But it’s the interview with one of the device’s creators that caught my eyes: “In the past,” he said, quite proudly, “we had to rely strictly on our brains to remember who the person in front of us is. Now, we can rest our brains and let the glasses do all the work.”
The dizzying creation of new and technologically advanced inventions has certainly been a boon to humanity. These products save us time, energy and money, and they catapult us, in a heartbeat, onto the information superhighway. But as we speed along toward our destination, have we lost something precious on the way?

NO DOUBT that knowledge, in all its forms, is a good thing; we Jews, especially, have always valued study and learning. Yet at the same time, we held out as a supreme goal the ability to reason, to extrapolate, to dissect the material in order to arrive at the essential truth of the matter. And, it is hoped, to hone our ability to think on our own.

So, in disciplines like medicine or science or religion, the ready availability of the Internet allows anyone and everyone to access facts and figures and parrot the conclusions of some other supposed expert. But what of our own informed opinion? Has it been lost and buried beneath the avalanche of information?


There is a tricky and delicate balancing act at work here. In matters of religion, for example, we must respect the profound wisdom of our teachers and tradition – not to mention the immutable Divine directives of God’s Torah – while still maintaining our individual ability, if not mandate, to create new inroads and insights within the traditional framework.

The rabbis call these revelations hiddushim; they represent innovative approaches to ancient texts, generated by our own intellect, imagination and creativity. But they ought to be the product of intense study, deep thought and hard work; they cannot emerge solely from prepackaged pieces of someone else’s knowledge. The accomplishment is much less satisfying when you are spoon-fed the finished product, as opposed to when you, yourself, are the chef putting all the ingredients together.

This is the quid pro quo of the ArtScroll revolution, which has provided the public with ready-made explanation and elucidation of Judaism’s holy literature. On the one hand, it has made knowledge of the Torah accessible to the masses in a way that has never been done before. Yet by leveling the textual playing field, it eliminates much of the sweat and struggle and thinking for oneself that is an essential part of study; it inhibits the growing that is the sweetest part of knowing.

In the classic 1973 film The Paper Chase, John Houseman – who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – plays a brilliant, demanding Harvard law professor who drives his students to develop their own legal instincts and learn to think out of the box. To do so, he employs the Socratic – or Talmudic – method, which seeks to arrive at the essence of an issue by means of probing questions. In a particularly dramatic scene, he grills a student who has a photographic memory. With his extensive command of the legal precedents of similar cases, the student answers effortlessly. But then the professor presents an imaginary case for which there is no precedent. The student, who cannot make the intellectual jump from the real to the hypothetical, mentally self-destructs and ultimately fails the course.

In this fast-changing world of ours, education, wisdom and knowledge are all essential qualities. But they are incomplete without something we Jews call seichel, an overall common sense and grasp of the bigger picture that we master only when we learn to think for ourselves. 

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. jocmtv@netvision.net.il

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