Rachel awakes at 7:10 AM sharp to a small tingling sensation in her left calf. She really doesn’t want to get out of bed, but she knows that in a few minutes the small electrode planted in her calf will start giving her micro electric shocks if she doesn’t get up. It can tell exactly where she is, because that little electrode constantly broadcasts her position to sensors in the walls, on the street posts, and even to appliances in the house. She sometimes wishes she could remove the implant, but she does appreciate the way it delivers her insulin and other meds she may need without any needles. As she walks toward the bathroom, the lights are activated, the shower starts up to the exact temperature she prefers, and the New York Times appears on the LCD touch screen next to the mirror, open to her favorite section.
Even though both of her parents have already left for work, she finds a freshly toasted bagel in the mechanically replenished toaster, and the refrigerator begins filling a cup with orange juice. While she eats her breakfast, the computer screen under the table turns on, and an alert opens, showing her that she still has two homework assignments to complete. Using her finger as a stylus, Rachel begins to plow through some of her homework, which, after completing, she will upload to the school’s central server with the tap of a finger.
Looking at her watch, Rachel realizes that she only has two minutes left before the bus is scheduled to be at her corner. She grabs her purse (backpacks are so last century, all books, papers, and writing implements have joined cassette tapes and Trapper Keepers in the wastebaskets of time!), and heads out the door. Running toward the corner to catch the bus, her watch starts buzzing softly and a text message appears: Bus caught in traffic. Will be 1 minute 43 seconds late. Slowing her frantic run, Rachel thanks G-d once more for GPS tracking, and automated school bus updates!
Walking into school, her electrode transmits all her information to the school system. The earphones implanted in her ears by the school when she entered first grade begins chirping. “Welcome Rachel. Thank you for keeping your perfect attendance record. You still have not completed one H.W. assignment. You must remain in your classroom during the first recess for detention. (Ironic how they never mentioned the mini electric shocks you got if you tried to walk past the door’s sensors before completing detention!) We detect heightened levels of inflammatory cells in your blood today. Please sit in seat E-6 where you will not infect anyone with the bronchitis you may be developing. If these levels increase you will begin to receive Zithromax tomorrow morning. Please hold as we reconfigure the seating chart of your classroom…”
Arriving at her first class of the day, Biology, she sees that the virtual teacher has split the class into four groups based on their H.W. responses, stress levels, previously indicated strengths in absorbing similar information, and the amount of sleep they got the night before. Each group faces one wall which transforms into a massive screen on which the “teacher” displays lessons at the exact level that group can handle. There is no noise in the classroom as the students hear the mechanical teacher through their implanted earpiece, and type any questions they have and send them to the class database.
As the virtual teacher begins to drone on about nucleic-acid macromolecules and their biopolymers, Rachel begins to daydream. She thinks of the archaic world her mother grew up in, where teachers stood in the front of each classroom, where people had to lug around heavy backpacks filled with books, and where each teacher had to juggle giving the same lesson to 25 people despite their various strengths and weaknesses. She dreams of a world where people would raise hands and get called on, where you could have someone else do your homework for you, because your computer didn’t analyze your DNA while you were filling in the homework assignment. And as Rachel daydreams, her student glasses, recording the patterns of her eye movement, note that she is daydreaming again. Immediately, they send an alert to her mother stating that Rachel really does need to get to sleep earlier, if she ever dreams of getting into college.
Rachel’s world seems so far removed from us, but in truth it is closer than you would ever think. Already today, some schools in the UK have attached RFID tags (radio frequency identification) to the student’s uniforms. This allows the school to track where students are at all times, and to take attendance without using a human being. Many established universities allow students to do all their coursework through downloadable video recordings or video podcasts of the classes, as long as they come in for the exams. This past summer I was in the Wayne State Law School during the bar review and saw numerous classrooms filled with students watching their class on a large screen.
Education, and even social life, seems to be moving toward a machine based existence and further from the human based existence we once knew. Text messages, IMs and email have taken the place of conversation, Facebook and MySpace have taken the place of hanging out at a friend’s house, and video games have taken the place of sports in the park.
How does the Torah view this? Does the Torah, which was given so long before the advent of today’s technology, indicate its position on the education modalities offered to us today?
The answer is a resounding YES! The Torah, from the moment it was given from G-d, had a built-in system to protect the vibrancy, relationships, and human interaction that G-d desired we have. The way this was accomplished was that the Torah was split into two parts, the Written Law and the Oral Law. The Written Law is made up of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), the Prophets, and the Writings, 24 books in all. Everything else was given orally from teacher to student, from one study partner to another without even being written down at all.
Many people question why G-d didn’t write everything down for us. They feel that too much trust was given to mankind to properly transmit G-d’s will, when it could easily have been recorded for us on paper. But the reason for this is that G-d didn’t want the Torah to become a knowledge base that someone could simply read and then know. Rather, it was designed to be something that could only be acquired through debate, discussion and human interaction. It isn’t just an encyclopedia, it’s an experience. It isn’t just knowledge, it’s a lifestyle.
In later generations, there was a great fear that most of the Oral Law that had been handed down meticulously for generations would get lost in the chaos of the times. Rabbi Yehuda collected the essential teachings and wrote them down in six volumes, which is what we call the Mishna. However, he intentionally left a number of ambiguous statements and unfinished laws because he also wanted to insure that the Mishna would be something discussed, analyzed, and taught in a personal, interactive manner.
And so this pattern continues until the present. Every generation writes down that which they want preserved for the next generation, but they always leave some ambiguity, some missing puzzle pieces so that you and I can discuss it at our Shabbos table, talk it over with our children, and analyze it in Torah classes.
In 2037, my grandchildren may learn about biopolymers from a wall and an implanted earpiece, but I’m sure they will learn Talmud, Tanach, Jewish philosophy, and Halacha from people. These teachers will probably be just like my teachers. They will stand in front of a desk, encourage people to ask question, help their students develop ideas, and if my grandchildren are anything like me, send them home with extra assignments and detentions.
We clearly need to keep up with the times, to understand the technologies that can assist us and to utilize them. Even our spirituality can be enhanced by technology as seen in the plethora of Jewish knowledge available on the Net, in documents, podcasts, MP3 libraries, and even chat rooms. However, as Jews we always recognize that there’s nothing more real, more deep, and more inspiring than learning our timeless Torah with another human being, another neshoma!
Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.