Think Again: A time for looking within

With the approach of the Days of Awe, the focus of our thoughts should be on how to create a more intense, more alive bond with our Creator.

Anousim Shofar 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Anousim Shofar 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 distraction.
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 writer Matt 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 psychologically healthy.”
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 learned.
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 laptops.
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 distraction.”
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 religious observance.
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.