Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Luddites Unite!

In Uncategorized on March 8, 2009 at 7:16 pm

I remember reading from the responsa of the Chasam Sofer regarding a machine that kneaded dough that was powered by steam. The question was whether such a machine could be used for making matzot for Passover. The answer was negative because of the moisture that the machine produced from being steam powered, but the clincher was: One should not use this machine for anything ever since it was an invention of the devil that had come to place stumbing blocks before the blind on Passover. I remember being somewhat unsympathetic to this point of view and I was in very good and devout company.

Enter Kindle II. The cool hand held electronic device that potentially places scores of books at your fingertips and at a fraction of the cost of a book. The New Atlantis Blogger Alan Jacobs explores what this means to the future of reading. Is it a good thing to be able to give up a book and replace it instantaneously with a dozen others? He’s afraid we may give up on books too easily. I,who often have three books going at the same time, do not share this concern, but I wonder if one hundred years from now, only frum Jews will have “Shabbos and Yom Tov Seforim” while the rest of the world kindles away and whether the Chasam Sofer would see this as an act of the devil that would tempt Torah scholars to desecrate Shabbos.

Unlike the shabbos clock and other halachic accomodations to technology, one can’t imagine how their could be a shabbosdik book substitute. Even now, many of us break out our bound indeces because we do not use the computer’s databases on shabbos. Will we be the only ones using books, say even fifty years from now? Is that a good or bad thing? I guess we might adapt by downloading and printing what we want to learn and let it be part of our preparing for shabbos.

Now that I’ve read similar concerns by blogging literati, I’m feeling a bit more generous toward the Sage of Pressberg. There is a sense that every time a gadget is introduced a tradition takes a hit, the unintended consequences of which are impossible to gauge, so enter insecurity and trepidation. I remember when my friend Rabbi Jim Ponet was busy fundraising for a new building for Yale Hillel–his students began waxing nostalgic about the crowded basement they called “home”. Sometimes we are Luddites, and sometimes we do lose something that is quite valuable that will never be retrieved.

Who would be considered wise? The one who is able to make this distinction.

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