Writing for the Atlantic, Alan Jacobs reports some insightful lessons from a study session led by Rabbi Jacob Schachter aimed at formulating a sound religious posture toward the internet. Jacobs was thrown off at first when Rabbi Schacter introduced the session by handing out a three-ring binder filled with photocopies of rabbinic legal sources regarding the proper execution of a get (a ‘get‘ is a traditional Jewish document of divorce)–a matter with no apparent relevance to the session’s supposed topic.
This seemed a strange way to proceed, but I soon saw the sense of it, because traditionally a get had to be written by a sofer (scribe) according to a very strict protocol–and with the rise of the printing press in the sixteenth century, debates ensued among rabbis about whether a printed get could ever be legitimate.
Why was there no printing press in the time of the Patriarchs, or of the sages of the Mishnah? Were these not great and wise men–men who talked with God!–who could have invented the printing press had they thought it appropriate to do so, or had God so instructed them? And was not their failure to do so an indication that the printing press is to be shunned? Some thought so, but others replied, no, not at all: The fact that these men were great sages who knew God did not mean that they could overleap the state of their own age. Technology develops incrementally in any given culture, and even the wisest men of God have no power to escape those conditions.
Schacter’s message was that contemporary Jewish leader’s coming to terms with today’s technology will require that they, in Jacobs’ words, “think as seriously and as faithfully as their ancestors did about the printing press.” The take-away for Jacobs: “By entering into the conversation with those we admire from the past, we can practice the habits of mind we need in order to be discerning users of technology today.” A valuable lesson indeed.