Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The dangers of new technology e.g., the Printing Press

The Atlantic   Near the end of the conference, Rabbi Jacob Schacter of Yeshiva University -- who had taught many of the men in the room and was affectionately called "Rebbe" -- led a session offering some Jewish reflections on the age of the internet. Though the men gathered for this conference were modern Orthodox, not the Haredim whom the media usually call "ultra-Orthodox," I immediately thought of the recent ultra-Orthodox rally in New York that focused on the dangers of the Internet. But Rabbi Schacter pursued these issues in a surprising and, to me, enlightening way. 

Professor Fishbane and I had prepared some brief handouts to guide the participants in our sessions, but Rabbi Schacter had a rather more ambitious plan. After recommending Clay Shirky's recent books Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus -- he was speaking my language then -- he plopped before each of us a three-ring binder filled with photocopies of passages from a wide variety of rabbinical texts, most of them dealing with the proper preparation of a divorce decree, known as a get. (Anyone who has seen the movie A Serious Man will be familiar with the complexities of the get.

This seemed a strange way to proceed, but I soon saw the sense of it, because traditionally a get had to be written by a sofer (scribe) according to a very strict protocol -- and with the rise of the printing press in the sixteenth century, debates ensued among rabbis about whether a printed get could ever be legitimate. This led in turn to a fascinatingly complex debate, chiefly focused on the Taz, a name that refers both to a book (the Turel Zahav) and its author (David HaLevi Segal, a seventeenth-century Polish rabbi). The Taz is itself a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, written a century earlier in Safed by Rabbi Yosef Karo.

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