Spirits in the digital world

Spirits in the digital world

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer called me out at the start of a class on “Focus in an Age of Distraction”: I was on my cell phone. And it wasn’t just me; a number of us who had gathered at Mechon Hadar in Manhattan for a day-long seminar on technology and the spiritual life could be seen checking our phones, at least during breaks.

I am not going to kvetch here about the intrusiveness and ubiquity of digital technology. You can find evidence of its worrisome effects in plenty of other places. Time reported this week on a Gallup poll that found that about half of smartphone users check their phones several times an hour or more (which struck me as low), while among the young, one in five check their phone “every few minutes.” A psychology professor at California State University found that the mere presence of a phone “tends to make people anxious and perform more poorly on tasks.” 

Jane Brody, the New York Times health columnist, devoted two recent columns to limiting children’s screen time, asserting that “children who are heavy users of electronics may become adept at multitasking, but they can lose the ability to focus on what is most important.”

Where was I? Oh yes, I am not going to kvetch about my iPhone, but I am going to suggest that we all take a step back and consider how an undeniably magnificent technology is having unintended and unwanted consequences. And a good place to start is in the study of Jewish text, which, although written at a time when gall-nut ink was considered the height of communications technology, has a lot to say about privacy, gossip, attention span, and the value of face-to-face communication.

Mechon Hadar, with roots in the independent minyan movement, is the Goldilocks of Jewish learning institutions. The approach is traditional but egalitarian, both in the sense of gender and in its attitude toward Jews from diverse backgrounds. It is grounded in Torah, but embraces insights from philosophies and ideologies outside of Jewish tradition. 

At last week’s symposium — which included 20-something yeshiva students as well as older adults attending a week-long “executive” seminar — technology wasn’t treated as the enemy but as a tool and a challenge. Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, Hadar’s dean of students, discussed Jewish speech ethics in the context of social media. The tradition is heavily biased against “tale-bearing” and other forms of slander, yet also acknowledges the need for communities to publicize what Maimonides calls the “lowliness of bad people.” That’s music to the ears of a journalist who believes in a robust coverage of wrong-doers — and terrifying for parents who worry that their kids’ reputations and self-worth can be undermined by a an errant Facebook post or a vicious piece of gossip. In a separate session on privacy, Dena Weiss, who heads the beit midrash at Mechon Hadar, spoke about the care taken by the Jewish legal codes to assure people ownership of their bodies, thoughts, and dignity. 

After reminding us to switch off our cell phones, Kaunfer led us in studying texts about maintaining kavana — focused attention — during prayer. He barely addressed technology, but the lesson was clear: The sages seemed just as concerned as Jane Brody about distractions and short attention spans. As far back as the 13th century, R. David HaKochavi of Provence was already fretting about the inability of his followers to focus on their davening. 

I worry less about my attention span — which has always been spotty — than my ability to stay in the moment when my phone is offering a few dozen tempting distractions. In another article on phone addiction, psychology professor Paul Atchley tells the Times: “With these devices you can get that sense of accomplishment multiple times a minute. The brain gets literally rewired to switch — to constantly seek out novelty, which makes putting the phone down difficult.”

Our phones are turning all of us into that obnoxious clerk who interrupts our face-to-face transactions to answer the phone behind the counter. Rabbi Shai Held, a cofounder of Mechon Hadar with Kaunfer and Rabbi Ethan Tucker, shared that he once told his wife, “I can’t go out of the house — I don’t have my cellphone.”

“That’s deranged!” said Held. “I had no sense that I could connect with a human being.” 

Held, channeling Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, worries that thanks to technology “the natural world is not real to us, other than what ‘I’ can get from it.” That extends to relationships, and to religion, which is valued only to the degree that it provides each one of us a “service,” and whose leaders become convinced that their job is “marketing.” Instead, he insisted, religion should inspire us to serve, not use, others. 

I felt a little guilty after hearing Held, because I had been thinking how useful the day’s classes had been. I had gotten some new frameworks for thinking about technology. Hell, I got a column out of it. But mostly, I had gotten away from my desk, had switched off my phone, and had connected with a lot of interesting and curious people in what science fiction novels used to call “meatspace,” and the rest of us call real life.

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