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Technology and Tradition
by Rabbi Berel Wein

The explosion of creativity and invention that mark the advance of human exploitation of new technologies in all fields of endeavor has been a continuing feature of world society over the last few centuries. In the Jewish world, new innovations in technology always engender questions of halacha and of religious and social policy. Since new technology almost always entails the forsaking of the old way of doing things, it causes dislocation and unemployment for many. In rabbinic literature we have recorded many instances of this problem - how to deal with this question of new technology and the local, and perhaps only, temporary, but nevertheless very real damage that it causes to numerous individuals? I wish to deal with three historical inventions of the new technology that caused a furor in the Jewish rabbinical and social world of the time. There are perhaps lessons that can be learned for our society as well, concerned as we are over new technologies and economic reforms that affect the lives of so many in our wonderful little country.

In the fifteenth century, the printing press was invented. It revolutionized human life and was one of the factors that brought about the Renaissance, the Reformation and the later Enlightenment. It also endangered the powers of the Church and of government to control the education and knowledge of its adherents and subjects. Economically, it displaced copyists and scribes whose services were no longer necessary as before. In the Jewish world, no Jew was allowed by the Church to own a printing press. Yet, within fifty years of its invention the Jews were the avid users of the press and the publication and distribution of Jewish books increased exponentially. The Jews hired Christians to be the "actual" owners of the printing house, while the Jew remained the silent partner, providing the capital and choosing the books to be actually published. The rabbis were so enamored of the new possibilities of the printing press that they even considered its use for the production of bills of divorce - gitin - instead of the traditional hand written ones. Eventually the decision was to retain the hand written form as being the only acceptable form of a get. The livelihood of scribes was taken into consideration in arriving at this consensus. A question arose regarding a certain edition of the works of Maimonides printed in Italy by a non-Jew but primarily financed and published by Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen, the rabbi of Padua. A competing set of Maimonides' works was published under purely Jewish auspices and claimed supremacy over the non-Jewish publication. Nevertheless, Rabbi Katzenellenbogen prevailed over the argument that Jews would be displaced from work because of his edition.

In the middle of the nineteenth century in Austrian Galicia, a matzo-producing machine was invented. Its suitability for producing kosher matzot for Pesach was hotly debated by the rabbis. The dispute still simmers today, though on a very low fire. Though there were many objections raised to the use of such a machine to produce matzot, the most telling one at the time was the claim that it would dispossess of the livelihood of hundreds of poor women whose main source of income was hand-producing matzot. The rabbis, who permitted and eventually prevailed regarding the use of machine-produced matzot on Pesach, acknowledged the social and economic hardship the matzo-producing machine created. Nevertheless, they decided that even though all technological progress entailed individual hardship, the greater good for the larger society should prevail. This view of technology and its continuing advances in human society is reflected in almost every area of Jewish life over the last centuries, in medicine, commerce, media communication, and certainly in the area of the mobile phone. The rabbis recognized that tens of thousands of people are killed every year in automobile accidents. Yet, neither they nor the Jewish society as a whole have ever advocated the return to the horse and buggy. Technology always comes with a price.

Finally, the most bizarre scholarly argument occurred regarding the invention of the radio. One scholar claimed that since Solomon was the wisest of all humans and he did not invent the radio there obviously is no necessity for it in this world. He was chastised by the other leading rabbinic scholars of the time for such an attitude. Solomon's wisdom has nothing to do with the progress of technology. How one employs technology in one's own home and life is a personal decision. But Judaism and Jewish tradition has never been anti-technology.

Berel Wein

Reprinted with permission from RabbiWein.com

 






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