Jewish Philosophy

Judaism and Modernity Part 2: Learning and the Internet
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Thursday 19th June 2014

Jews are known as “The People of the Book”. Whilst this term was originally coined as a pejorative to describe non-Moslems, the centrality of works such as the Tanach and the Talmud meant that this phrase was transformed into a positive decription of our identity. Indeed, Rav Saadiah Gaon (10th C.) aptly said that ‘there is no Jewish people without the Torah’.

In an age of information, the Internet has changed the way we learn. Neuroscientists have debated whether it affects the very way we think as well. The ‘People of the Book’ has also benefited from the scope of available information. Online resources such as the Bar Ilan Database, Otzar Hachochma and mean that rare Jewish books are now openly accessible. Their search engines mean it is easier to research Torah topics, and sources quoted can be easily checked.

The Talmud describes two different intellectual approaches to learning. ‘Sinai’ refers to one who uses vast knowledge, whereas the ‘uprooter of mountains’ uses precise, incisive analysis. The Internet has brought the world of the ‘Sinai’ closer to all. This of course has to be balanced by the dangers of a lack of proficiency and familiarity with basic sources, and to ensure that the art of Talmudic analysis still thrives.

Jewish questions are also asked differently in the age of information – Rabbis are now used to getting questions by text message and email. Whereas beforehand, questions would always be directed to the local Rabbi, one can now obtain speedy access to a range of Rabbinic experts. However, this carries the danger of loss of personal connection to a Rabbi, and the danger of answers being taken out of context.

Can one form a ‘virtual minyan’? Physical proximity is an essential requirement for a minyan. However, if one is not able to be physically present at shul, there is benefit in praying at the same time as the community. Some authorities also permit answering blessings, Kaddish etc. heard over the phone and the Internet. So whilst being connected through Skype does not mean you are part of the minyan, one who is unable to attend shul could still accrue some of the spiritual benefits that a minyan offers.