In Defense of the Inaccessible

November 1, 1999
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Mark Bleiweiss

Possibly the greatest boon for the modern Jew with a modem is the radical accessibility of Jewish learning through the Internet. Not since hakhel – when the king called the entire Jewish people together for a spectacular Torah reading – has mass education been as exciting and well received. Torah is available today to just about anyone who’s seeking it.

So what could be wrong?

The world of the web is fast and flickering, and instantly rewarding, designed to capture the MTV-attention span of its ardent clickers. Hip, rip-snorting, sexy – that’s the way websites maintain the highest number of hits per minute. Jewish learning sites often work this way, too, or else they have difficulty justifying their budgets. Like many modern educators, they sell Judaism with what they think the customer wants, sometimes at the expense of the genuine article. If all you knew about Torah came from the net, you might think that its main concerns were gender, Kabbalah, recipes, politics, and (naturally) sex.

But Jewish learning at its core is about struggle. It is proudly inaccessible – not to be elitist, but to bring out the best in the diligent student. Just try to cuddle up with a talmudic passage and a cup of tea and see if the reading comes smoothly. It won’t, and it shouldn’t. The discourse of Torah study was meant for the intensive pulse of the Beit Midrash where learning partners break their teeth for hours trying to understand sometimes just two lines of ambiguous and deliciously profound text. Each time they return to those lines, they discover new shades of meaning. Each interaction that relates to those lines – with a study partner, another student, a teacher – probes that much deeper. The solitary and usually shallow world of the netsurfer rarely offers this kind of rigorous inquiry.

Human interplay is crucial in Jewish learning. Students who have argued face-to-face and stretched themselves to understand different points of view are far more adept in appreciating others, even while disagreeing. This social dialectic is lost somewhere between the solitary websurfer and the mouse.

Our spoonfeeding Internet and its media equivalents surely have changed the way people think. Information may be widely available, but we are at a loss in processing the overload. One professor criticized that these days “students come to college having sat around for twelve years expressing attitudes towards things rather than analyzing… They have never learned to construct a rational argument to defend their opinions.”

Internet learning is more given to bottom lines than to process. Unfortunately, as Piaget wrote, “each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered for himself, that child is kept from inventing it, and consequently from understanding it completely.”

We have many reasons to be grateful for the Internet, but the blessing is decidedly mixed. Ben Heh-Heh taught: “The reward is in proportion to the effort” (Avot 5:26). By reducing the effort required for serious study, modern web-rebbes may be inventing a wholly new mode of Jewish discourse – one that loses in authenticity, depth, and intellectual precision whatever it gains in accessibility.

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Rabbi Mark Bleiweiss is editor of the Jewish Spectator and director of Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat.

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