Viewpoint: Torah and technology

Our children will lead very different lives than their grandparents.

A man holds up a cellphone during the priestly blessing at the Western Wall (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
A man holds up a cellphone during the priestly blessing at the Western Wall
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
SINCE HENRY Adam proposed his “law of acceleration” in the early 20th century, we have witnessed history step up its pace.
Nowadays, more changes transpire in society – socially, technologically, even politically – within just a decade than did at one point in the course of an entire century. As technology evolves, the effect it has on our lives and its capacity for disruption grows stronger.
The very word “tradition” seems to propose a counterweight. Religion reminds people of ancient verities, things that do not change. But paradoxically, it cannot do that without taking note of all the shifts within society.
The image of the Hasid on his cell phone by the Western Wall may seem funny, but the ever-expanding encounter between tradition and change is profound.
Indeed, profound changes are on the horizon, changes that will demand a more comprehensive response than determining whether or not FaceTiming can count in a minyan.
If someone had told you 25 years ago that in a decade you would hold all of human knowledge in the palm of your hand, it would have seemed impossible, less likely even than living on Mars. Yet each smartphone has access to more information than is contained in all the libraries of the world. And that is just the beginning.
We are on the cusp of manipulating the human genome. The bacterial adaptive system CRISPR is just the beginning when it comes to gene-splicing techniques, and artificial intelligence is in its infancy.
Such technologies, and many more that we cannot even anticipate, will make the disputes of today seem unbearably parochial, like a sibling spat in Pompeii on the morning of Vesuvius’s eruption.
How will Judaism address the possibility of choosing the genetic endowments of our children, or implanting a chip in your cerebral cortex that endows you with greater knowledge of the Talmud than the world’s preeminent scholar? What will we say when we are no longer just manipulating the world, but manipulating ourselves?
These questions will be largely unanswerable until we confront the specific challenges, of course. People are notoriously poor at predicting the future. In a recent survey, political pundits, who spend much of their waking life studying trends, predicted what would happen less accurately than random guesses. Despite the difficulty, we need Jewish thinkers who can lift their eyes to the horizon.
While the Jewish world is continually embroiled in small disputes, the march of life, and with it scientific and technological advances, continues.
In the pages of The Jerusalem Report, we see articles about software start-ups and biotech companies beside comments on the weekly portion, and too rarely do the two merge or confront one another.
Israel stands poised to lead the world in the rethinking of moral behavior in a technological age. The country is home to a robust culture of innovation and a great center of Jewish learning. Reimagining the human story should not be an enterprise left to technologists alone; our sources speak eloquently not only of human nature but of human possibility.
From the b’nai elohim (children of God) in Genesis to the Golem, the Jewish imagination has been captivated by different expressions of life, the expansion of capacities and the dangers as well as opportunities it affords.
The dialogue of religion with technology and science is urgent and overdue. Each year at the TED talks conference, I am astonished to discover that I am the sole member of clergy participating (this past year was a welcome exception with an address by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and a video conference by Pope Francis).
Jews who bless God each morning for the gift of our minds have to learn what the human mind is accomplishing, and begin a serious project to integrate that into our understanding of Jewish philosophy and practice.
Our children will lead very different lives than their grandparents.
They can expect to live longer, to have access to far more information, and to have their natural powers immeasurably increased by technology.
They will also face unprecedented challenges created by many of the same technologies that improve their lives. We owe them a Jewish framework and a Jewish vocabulary with which to think about a different world.
This is not unprecedented in Jewish history: the Talmud, the medieval philosophers, the Hasidim, all broke and shaped paradigms in response to radical shifts in their reality.
It is time for Torah and technology to create a new synthesis as the next chapter of our neverending story unfolds.
Rabbi David Wolpe is the Max Webb senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles