Ah, how true that we’re living in a time of great innovation! If we review the past century and a half, the Orthodox Jewish community has had to adjust in quick succession to the telephone, the radio, the airplane, television, personal computers, cell phones and the ubiquitous internet to name but a few inventions. Our scholars, rabbinic and lay, have struggled mightily to fit these inventions into the context and fabric of our traditional lives. Legendary leaders such as the Chasam Sofer, z”tl; the Chofetz Chaim, z”tl and Rav Moshe Feinstein, z”tl all in turn penned responsa and essays wherein they attempted to come to grips with how exactly these transforming discoveries would appropriately fit within our Jewish lives. Suffice it to say that these great thinkers reached remarkably similar conclusions as to how we, as Orthodox Jews, should relate to these inventions.
The reactions by the public became predictable. Many initially viewed the innovative devices in question as veritable “tools of the devil,” devices that, if permitted in the home, would pollute the religious and moral atmosphere. Total bans of the use of newspapers and telephones, for example, greeted their arrivals in Eastern Europe during the late 19th century as did the introduction of the radio, television and movies (not to mention the personal computer, cable TV and the internet) over the last half-century. Happily, in time, the Orthodox community, from the leadership to the laymen recognized the essential truth that each of these man-made discoveries or creations was morally neutral, that it was man who infused them with positivity or negativity and moved the debate as to the morality of using these devices to a more appropriate sphere. As a result, it became clear that the telephone, for example, was neither evil nor good, that it could be, and was, used to convey the most sublime messages, such as “It’s a boy,” “We’re engaged” and “I passed,” but also to convey messages of hate and obscenity. This duality is inherent in the nature of all creation and bears remembering whenever we consider how we should relate individually and communally to technological innovation.
Several nights ago I happened upon an on-demand showing of one of those summertime TV competitions, this one entitled generously as “America’s Got Talent” (I’m not responsible for the atrocious grammar, but “America Has Talent” apparently isn’t as catchy a title, hence the slang). This loose talent competition consists of a series of acts that range from stand-up comedy to singing, dancing and novelty acts. Among the latter are performers who present less conventional fare, including acts that can often be kindly referred to as “sensational” or “bizarre.”
On this particular night, a tall, slender gentleman appeared on stage, clad in a dark gray business suit and tie. On his head he wore a black kippah, essentially invisible against his black hair. He introduced himself to the four celebrity judges and began his performance. Over the next five minutes, the man amazingly twisted his body into an unrecognizable shape, astounding the audience with his flexibility, dexterity and double-jointedness. At the end of the performance he appeared to be a third of his original size and quite capable, assuming he had the proper postage, of “mailing” himself home in a standard UPS or USPS box! As he rearranged himself and returned to his original shape, the Jewish contortionist stood up to the loud applause of the audience and the approval of all four judges. His reward was to be invited back to the next round of the competition some weeks hence. He thanked everyone, smoothed his suit and walked gingerly off the stage, his kippah still in its original place, not having moved a bit despite his exertions.
As I thought briefly about what I had just observed, it struck me as a perfectly appropriate, almost representative act for an Orthodox Jew to perform in 2016 on prime time, nationwide television. The concept of Jewish contortionism after all is so rich in symbolism in our times that no other act could have had an equal impact. Just think about how we, as modern Jews, learn to twist and bend ourselves to accommodate modernity and innovation in our lives. What are the possible consequences of these repeated acts of almost inhuman flexibility? What becomes of our religious principles? Like our talented TV contortionist, are we almost unrecognizable at the end of our day in the outside world? How successful exactly are we in bending our principles, without breaking them altogether?
I suggest as we continue to interact with the broader world and with innovations to come, we as Orthodox Jews, as contortionists, remember to infuse our actions with the morality and spirituality that they might otherwise lack, never for a moment forgetting that it is we who ultimately determine whether those actions work for good or evil. Being flexible, while adhering to principle, is the worthy challenge that we must be willing to undertake.
By Joseph Rotenberg