Thought for the week: Judaism and Technological Change

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 26 January 2016

If you have some spare time that you fancy wasting, you might want to watch a video on YouTube of children being presented with a Sony Walkman.  “What is this thing from the past meant to do?” they ask.  The idea that you need to put something into a machine to make music is beyond some of them.  A device that, only a few decades ago, was the very cutting edge of technology, is deeply confusing to a generation who have never before seen a cassette tape (except as the icon on their phone to say that they have a message).  A generation who, when they save a document on a computer, click on a picture of a thing most of them have never seen, a floppy disk.

These are just two of many examples of the incredible pace of technological change in our lifetimes.  Ninety years ago this week, the television was first demonstrated by John Logie Baird.  There are over 50 members of Alyth who were born before television!  Last week I had the enormous privilege of officiating at the funeral of Alyth’s oldest member, who died at the age of 103.  She was already a teenager when the TV was invented.  And yet, according to a report this week, the TV itself is now almost obsolete, with children now watching more programmes on handheld devices than on televisions.

What do we make of this technological change?
When we experience the unprecedented pace of change in our lives, how do we respond?

The first thing to recognise is that, while the pace of change may be unprecedented, the experience of technology and culture changing around us is not.  We are not the first generation to experience a shifting technological age.  Professor Ludwig Finkelstein z’’l, who was Head of the Department of Physics at City University and a researcher at Leo Baeck College (and father of an Alyth member) argued that much of the biblical narratives of the Kings and Prophets reflected an age of similar transformation, in which our ancestors grappled with the shift from a primitive pastoral existence to a materially more sophisticated civilisation – in their case, largely driven by the needs of war.  Their response was as divided as ours might be: some railed against the new technologies (Professor Finkelstein gives the example of the Prophet Amos) while others, still struggling with the new reality, were able to see the technologies of their time as gifts from God.

We see a similar tension expressed in a midrash on the second half of Genesis 4, a little read passage of Torah because it largely consists of a list of descendants of Cain.  There we read that among Cain’s progeny were Jabal, “ancestor of those who dwell in tents”, Jubal, “ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe”, and Tubal-Cain, “who forged all implements of copper and iron”.
Largely influenced by the link to Cain (the archetypal baddie in the story), and noting the proximity to the age of the flood (when the world was consumed by evil and corruption), the midrash views these inventions with suspicion.  It states that Jabal built dwellings for idol worship, Jubal invented the harp and flute to play music for idolatry, and Tubal-Cain invented tools of copper and iron to be used as weapons by murderers.  New advances are viewed as filled with danger, inspired by evil intent.  Yet we, of course, use the same advances – building techniques, musical instruments, and tools – in all sorts of positive ways, including in our prayer lives.

As we experience the extraordinary pace of technological change, in this week of the anniversary of the television, we might, then, remember the observation of Ecclesiastes: “ein chadash tachat hashemesh”, there is nothing new under the sun.  Our ancestors experienced a similar transformation in biblical times. And though we may, like some of them, find new technologies alienating, might even view them with suspicion, we should also seek to enjoy them.  To recognise them as our age’s gifts from God.