Judaism has usually been very welcoming of scientific advancement.Whether in the field of medicine and other disciplines regarding the care of the human body, the physical sciences that constantly add to our knowledge of our world and the universe, or the mechanical world that brings ease and comfort to our waking and working hours, Judaism allows us to take advantage of new ideas and inventions that emanate from the human mind.
It is not Judaism’s purpose to erect onerous laws or prohibitions that bring disadvantage to humanity.The opposite is true: From employing Shabbat clocks and timers to regulate electricity use on Shabbat, to determining the Kashrut status of artificial sweeteners, our rabbinic teachers have found ancient principles that allow them to utilize new knowledge to benefit humanity.
In general, Judaism takes the view of Leviticus 18:5, where God tells Israel that the commandments were not intended to degrade life and humanity.Rather, the mitzvot were provided to enhance life: “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which humanity shall live: I am the Eternal.”The Talmud interprets this to mean that “you should live by them, and not die by them” (Sanhedrin 74a).
On the other hand, there is also in Judaism the concept of the “golden mean,” the philosophical concept of moderation.Among Jews, Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon (Moses Maimonides) was primarily responsible for promoting this philosophical notion, common to many cultures, when he said, “The right way is the mean in each group of dispositions common to humanity; namely, that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes in its class, not being nearer to the one than to the other” (Hilchot De’ot 1).
In the practical world, then, the use of computers, cell phones, the Internet, or other conveniences is welcomed in Judaism and is not shunned.What would be dangerous, on the other hand, would be the misuse, the overuse, and the obsessive use of these tools for personal achievement; the unethical use of these tools for personal advancement; or the near-sole reliance on these tools for acquiring what one needs or searches for in life.That which is dangerous would be the mania and fixation that come from needing every new media gadget the moment it is released in the world, and the inability to disconnect from these new media when human contact and connection should be the preferred mode of communication.
Maimonides suggests that striving for the “golden mean” is a learned and practiced discipline.Nothing comes easy, and one must consciously break away from the habits of persistently pursuing the ‘newest’ and the ‘most advanced.’The wisdom is in the knowing how to differentiate when and where to use the new media, and when to rely on the human connections that we have.
Centuries ago, you would have asked what Judaism has to say about powering down from books. Look where we are with books, even though books were then a serious concern, insofar as the Oral tradition originally was designed to remain oral rather than written. So, books, writings, and notes of the Oral tradition, meaning everything aside from the Holy Scriptures, were technically outside the Halakhic loop. Their being permitted was a cocession to forgetfulness and its consequences.
Frankly, as far as today is concerned, is there really any difference from where we power down? The real issue is "what" we power down, and that is a legitimate issue whether it derives from computers, iPods, cell phones, blackberries, books, magazines, etc.
The question has two components.The first is the issue of disseminating information and the second concerns Judaism’s prescription for this malady.Concerning the first issue, the question of information in an IT world raises interesting issues.Often what one describes as information could be classified as gossip or slander. In the Torah (Leviticus 19:16), we are instructed not to slander our kinsman. We are explicitly told not to market such information.What constitutes slander and gossip is a difficult question.The esteemed Rabbi, Israel Meir Kagen, known as the Hafetz Hayim, defines such talk as utterances that are derogatory, damaging and generate animosity between people. The Hafetz Hayim is actually the title of one of his works that preached against slander and gossip, urging Jews to guard their tongues.In an ever-connected world, where people “google” acquaintances and “spy” on facebook friends, it behooves each person to question what is information worth knowing and what is not.
As for the second issue raised, even information worth knowing is not worth knowing 24/7.Judaism urges us to operate on no more than a 24/6 schedule.The opening chapters of Genesis tell us that God rested on the seventh day creating a Sabbath, a day of rest.The fifth commandment, Exodus 20:8-11, teaches us to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy; to refrain from all work on the Sabbath.A stricter reading of Jewish law instructs us that the use of electrical devices is not allowed on Shabbat.Hence our tradition requires us to power down at least one day a week and it offers us an antidote to our ever-connected world.
For those who are not (yet) religiously observant, powering down on Shabbat offers an opportunity to refresh our souls, and reconnect to non-electronic friends, while beginning to fulfill the mitzvah of keeping Shabbat.
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