Editors’ Thoughts: The Technological Revolution and the Jew
The production of technological works entails reconstructing the natural world for use against itself. Where once there was a rocky plane, now there is a walled city separating its inhabitants from the outside. Where once there were disparate natural resources, now there are machines that harness the forces of the primal world for humanity’s betterment. “Technological advance” is synonymous with “the formation of a new world order,” and humanity is this new order’s forward guard. Insofar as this is the case, the production of technology is an exertion of the tselem Elokim. Just as God created the natural world, so too do we, uncovering the riches hidden in nature, “create” the technological world. In the ranks of imitatio dei, at least in the physical-creative sense, the production of technology holds a prominent position.
And yet, we find that the Tanakh polemicizes against a particular kind of technology, that of the military variety. In the Torah’s recounting of keri’at Yam Suf,[i] Egypt’s fleet of “horse and chariot” is mentioned a staggering twelve times. The message of the narrative is unmistakable. Pharaoh, armed with the very best killing machines of the day, was no match for God, whose might exceeds that of any army.[ii] In light of this narrative, the production of military machines seems frivolous, if not entirely pointless, when in opposition to God’s will. An extreme reading may even conclude that military technology is unnecessary altogether. The intensity of the moral questions that arise in war places the subset of military technology in a category of its own. However, we may still wonder if the Torah expresses here a general warning about technology.
As a result of the changes achieved by technological advance, the typological “technological man” lives increasingly in a world of his own design. This is especially true in the contemporary era. Today’s technological man is not cold in the winter, nor hot in the summer, due to climate control. The darkness of night is permitted to fall only when he turns off his electric lights. Vast continents are shrunken as he travels the globe in a matter of hours, and communicates instantly with anyone on Earth with a slab of plastic, metal, and silicone he carries in his pocket. His only intimations of agricultural seasons are fluctuations of price in the supermarket. The intoxicating wonder elicited by this new world order sets the stage for its greatest religious danger. In a world that is designed by humanity, we may choose, or, more precisely, convince ourselves that we may choose, to leave God out of our designs. Swayed by the sense that “[our] strength and the might of [our] hands made [for us] all this wealth”[iii] we conclude that we have no need for God. Without a polestar to guide it, raw human creativity can be diverted toward fulfilling the basest human cravings. Technological advance can become maidservant to the will to power, as was the case with Pharaoh’s chariots, or to various hedonistic drives. Thus technology, which raises humanity to new heights of dignified living, threatens also, given the right circumstances, to plunge it to unprecedented depths of moral decadence.[iv]
The Torah’s approach to technology opposes this potential selfish drive by placing the pursuit of a relationship with God at the center of humanity’s creative motivations. The mishkan, am Yisrael‘s first architectural feat, is initiated by the directive, “They shall make for me a Sanctuary and I will dwell among them.”[v] In this instance, it is clear that an enhanced relationship with God is the direct goal of the technological effort exerted. If the mishkan can be used as a model for the Torah’s treatment of technology, then it follows that humanity, in designing a new world, must make a central place for God in that design. By this view, technological advance is redeemed from its potential servitude to hedonism when aimed, directly or indirectly, at enhancing religious practice.[vi] Thus technology may become not only a way of dignifying human life, but a means of preparing humanity intellectually, emotionally, and sociologically for the sanctification of life. In this issue of Kol Hamevaser, we grapple with the challenges that present themselves in the halakhic, hashkafic, and historical realms as Judaism encounters technological advance. As always we hope to present not the final word on any topic but the first one; one which enables an active and thoughtful dialogue within our community. Thank you for reading.
[i] In the passage running from Shemot 14:6 – 15:21.
[ii]This sentiment is encapsulated by the leading verse of The Song of the Sea: “I shall sing to Hashem for He is exalted above the arrogant [and His exaltedness results from] having hurled horse with rider into the sea.” (Shemot 15:1, Artscroll translation with alterations according to Targum Onkelos). The theme of opposition to military technology continues even after Benei Yisrael have formed their own conquering army. See, for instance, Yehoshua 11:6.
[iii] Devarim 8:17. Artscroll translation.
[iv] It is for this reason that our Sages were skeptical of the value of Roman ingenuity, noting that their architectural products (bridges, markets, bathhouses) were intended, after all, for hedonistic gratification (taxes, brothels, pampering respectively). See Shabbat 33b and Avodah Zarah 2b.
[v] Shemot 25:8.Translation mine.
[vi] See Avodah Zarah 2b.