The printing press was invented in the 1400’s. Not long after, Sultan Bayezid II banned the press throughout the Ottoman Empire. Historians suggest two primary reasons for the prohibition. The first, and more innocuous of the two, was a concern that Arabic script was too cursive so the proper connections between letters could not be made with the early presses and might lead to significant misunderstandings. The other reason, more insidious, was a fear that the printing press allowed the dissemination of knowledge and information. Print could change the lives of the illiterate by efficiently teaching them to read. Reading would open the underclass to knowledge that would give them the ability to question the power elites. That type of technological and societal change was perceived to be a threat to the power of the Sultan and his ability to control his subjects.
The same Sultan welcomed Jews expelled by the Spanish Inquisition into his empire and supposedly allowed the first printing press to be established by Jews in Constantinople. The flourishing of Jewish culture in the Ottoman Empire has been attributed in part to this technological advance.
Historically, there have been very few bans on educational materials, be they technologically based or otherwise, in Judaism. Originally it was suggested that Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed as well as other philosophical books along with the Kabbalah were not to be learned prior to an individual’s becoming 40 years old and the Talmud prohibits the learning of Ben Sirah, but in general, bans were not the norm. It was only when acquisition of knowledge was perceived to be in contradistinction to Jewish religious guidelines that engaging with that knowledge was shunned. Expanding knowledge was always seen as a means to engage more with society, values, understanding life, even the religious goal of getting closer to god. True there were fears that science might be used to disprove the existence of a higher being but knowledge was a carefully groomed and widely available, even encouraged rite. The Talmud includes many medical, mathematic and scientific discussions. And the most highly respected leaders of the communities were often individuals with both a comprehensive religious education along with a vast secular one.
The last 50 years have changed that. Attendance at secular universities is increasingly rejected. In fact, attending any college is overtly prohibited in certain communities. And in some communities, secular education often does not go beyond the most basic arithmetic and writing. It is as if the Sultan Bayezid has expanded his rules to the current generation, included Jews and expanded the restriction to all areas of perceived threat.
Perhaps the most threatening aspect of change today is the idolatry that social media provides. People are glued to screens at increasing rates causing a profound transformation in how we communicate and interact with one another and the available information. All sorts of vehicular accidents are now attributed to being on a phone while driving. Sleep cycles are off as more and more people jump to their cell phones or tablets in the middle of the night. The ability to recall things is becoming reduced as people rely on Google to act as their brains surrogate data storage center. And the list goes on. Post anything on social media and the trolls, hiding within the anonymity of the internet, pop up proclaiming that they have the absolute truth when in fact they present only their biased narrative. In our time the best available scientific information is deemed irrelevant by those who have no education but vast experience with socialization via media. And, the list of change that digital technology has wrought goes on. Given all this perhaps there is some justification for the banning of smartphones by some religious leaders.
It is clear though that prohibiting the advance of knowledge never works. Despite the difficulties inherent in technology it has a very positive side. Technology offers us an important new method that can enhance both the quality of life and overall well-being. Business is often significantly more efficient, health more readily monitored, driving directions streamlined, available access to archival information at the touch of just a few buttons, the sharing of new information more readily and more rapidly, are all part of this new information world.
Even more important is the basic human trait of inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge. No prohibition can turn that off.
I had a high school teacher who was fond of saying “Each and every technological advance brings its own unique problems.” And, as we know, every medication has its side effects. But, we learn to negotiate these difficulties and develop a cost benefit analysis to articulate the best method to use the data that we have. The question is whether we can harness these new advances for the good, not become addicted to them nor allow them to become false idols.
For all the prohibitions against televisions in the Hareidi world and all of the restrictions on smartphone use it goes without saying that the inevitable will occur – most will have these banned items in just a few years, if they don’t already do surreptitiously.