The Future of the Sefer

The Future of the Sefer
I found the recent Jewish Action issue (spring 2011) about technology and Torah to be worthwhile and relevant. Rabbi Gil Student’s article “The Future of the Sefer” was of particular interest. However, his conclusion was slightly disappointing, and more than a tad worrisome.

Rabbi Student aptly contrasts the deeper reading required of “physical” books with the quicker, more superficial “virtual” reading to which we’ve all become accustomed. While acknowledging that our generation is unfocused and impatient, Rabbi Student argues that it is our approach to the study of Torah that must be modified. Although he acknowledges that Shabbos provides an escape from being wired, he suggests that we modify our techniques of weekday Torah learning to accommodate the Internet’s standards. This concession is painful and fundamentally problematic. Is it not an article of our faith that we must protect Torah from the raging forces of modern societal change?

The Gemara relates that upon entering the next world, each of us will be asked by the Divine court: “Kavata itim la’Torah?” “Did you set aside time for Torah study?” Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook explained, homiletically, that God is asking Kavata itim?—Did you fix or modify the times to the Torah’s unchanging standards rather than the other way around?

Torah study requires one’s full engagement and sustained, undivided attention—quite the antithesis of a “digital version.”

Although unfortunately the most popular seforim now available in stores are the ones that pride themselves on short snippets, they are certainly not meant to be used l’chatchilah by those capable of delving into the depths of a sugya.

Psychologists have pointed out that the best way to change the brain and its focus is by changing—i.e., by simply and repeatedly doing, an admittedly difficult task. Retraining ourselves to focus more can potentially rebuild our attention spans and allow us to learn Torah properly.

Avi Muschel
Kew Gardens Hills, NY

Rabbi Gil Student Responds
Avi Muschel objects to the conclusions of my article. However, he may have overlooked the following two sentences in the article: “Any given person can, and in my opinion should, avoid this pitfall or retrain himself to frequently read long books and articles. But we would be naïve to believe that any such movement will take place on a wide scale.”

Perhaps he is right to be optimistic about the success of musar shmuessen, but I do not see much viability in a widespread movement to overcome this newly increased yetzer hara. We all knew the occasional jumpy guy in yeshivah who could not sit still. He is now the majority, due in no small part to the Internet. Publishers can ignore the majority of their market and suffer the financial consequences or opt to cater to them. Either way, Gemara, Rishonim, and Acharonim will still be available to the select few who choose to struggle and master them.

This article was featured in the Fall 2011 issue of Jewish Action.
We'd like to hear what you think about this article. Post a comment or email us at ja@ou.org.