By Rabbi Naphtali Hoff
Many years ago I was conversing with my grandfather, a product of pre-war Romania, about a particular item that cost “only” a few hundred dollars (with the hope, naturally, that he would help me to pay for it). Despite his advanced age (by then he was already well into his eighties) and the fact that he was many decades removed from any form of serious Torah study, he instinctively quoted – in his heavy European accent – a response of Efron to Avraham found in this week’s parasha, as if he had reviewed it the day before rather than having learned in cheder many decades earlier. “My lord, listen to me; a (piece of) land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is it between me and you? (Bereishis 23:15)
I was always struck by that incident, because it drove home for me the power of girsa d’yankusa, the learning that we do in our youth. In our younger years, our brains are particularly adapted for memorization and internalization. Concepts, ideas and experiences that we store in our mind during our younger years tend to remain with us far longer than things that we learn and experience later on in life.
It is for that reason alone that the World Wide Web can be so damaging, particularly for our youth.
The perils of internet use have been well documented. Much discussion has centered on this readily accessible spiritual danger, which has detrimentally impacted countless lives by what it makes available to be seen and heard. Others have had their spiritual worlds turned upside down after developing new online social circles.
However, there is another element of internet use whose potential impact is far more subtle, but may also have a significant influence on our lives. I refer to the affects that online reading and information gathering may have on our ability to apply the requisite degree of disciplined concentration to our Torah studies, and our capacity to properly retained what we have learned.
A few years back, I came across a fascinating discussion (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, The Atlantic, July / August 2008) about the impact that the internet has had on the way that people read. In it, the author, Nicholas Carr, argued that the internet has had a surprisingly damaging effect on people’s ability to think, pay attention and remain focused.
According to the author, he was no longer able to immerse himself in a book or a lengthy article as he once did. The narrative or prose which used to captivate him for hours can barely held his attention after two or three pages. Instead, his concentration quickly waned and he became fidgety, soon looking for something else to do.
The culprit: extensive online activity over many years, searching and surfing the great databases of the internet. And while he is quick to point out the benefits of the World Wide Web for writers like himself, he readily admitted his concern over the way that it impacted his thinking.
Carr quoted a study of online research habits conducted by scholars from University College London. The scholars involved in the study examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. The researchers typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site.
Clearly, the open-ended, hyperlinked nature of internet browsing resulted in a less disciplined, distractible approach to reading, which discouraged focused, sequential study.
This impact on people’s attention spans has been felt by traditional print media as well. Newspapers started shortening articles, introducing capsule summaries, and crowding their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets. Even the stodgy New York Times began devoting the second and third pages of every edition to article abstracts, claiming that the new “shortcuts” would give harried readers a quick “taste” of the day’s news, sparing them the “less efficient” method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles.
It should be obvious that the above described concerns relate directly to the way that we pursue limud hatorah and educate our children. In order to achieve real success in learning, it is imperative that one find a way not only to block out all outside distractions, but also to develop a systematic, disciplined approach to his learning. As chazal advise us:
Rava taught in the name of Rav Sechora who had it from Rav Huna: What is the intent of the text: ‘Wealth gotten by vanity will diminish, but he that gathers little by little shall increase?’ (Mishlei 13:11) If a man studies much at one time his learning decreases, and if … he ‘gathers little by little’ he ‘shall increase’. (Eruvin 54b)
Chazal understood that without focus and structure, it is impossible to achieve sufficient clarity and success in one’s studies. As Rava stated, “If you find a student to whom his studies are as hard as iron, it is because he has failed to systematize his studies.” (Taanis 7b)
I do not wish to come across as a worrywart, one who bemoans technological tools and advancements. To the contrary, there are many benefits that every such development has on our quality of life and our ability to function as Jews. Thousands of Jews throughout the world routinely access Torah knowledge from websites and email; many others use the web as a powerful Torah database and research tool.
However, such skepticism is also necessary for us to better appreciate the potential damages associated with any such perceived advances.
Clearly, such concern in the realm of Torah study is certainly not new. There has historically been great opposition to such “innovations” as the recording of Torah she’baal peh (in the days of Rebbe and Rav Ashi, respectively) and the codification of halacha (directed at such giants as the Rif and Rambam). Opponents stressed that such measures would decrease reliance on our memory, and would reduce the degree of effort invested in truly understanding the halacha, respectively.
While we certainly recognize the more obvious danger that the internet poses to our spiritual wellbeing, we must also be open to realizing that the superficial, non-linear style of information gathering and processing promoted by the internet also threatens to diminish our ability to engage ourselves and our children in the lengthier and more challenging, but ultimately sweeter and more rewarding, process of esek b’torah.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach and President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.