Simchat Torah Technology and the Outdated Torah Scroll

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 21 september 2018

In Memory of Ari Fuld z.l. A Hero in Israel.

We will soon be celebrating Simchat Torah, and Jews throughout the world will dance with Sifrei Torah in their synagogues, community centers, university campuses, and even in the streets. This is remarkable for many reasons. We Jews treat our Torah scrolls as if they are human. We hold them close, kiss them, dance with them, dress them in the most beautiful garb, and build magnificent structures – the heichal or aron hakodesh – to house them. So great is our love for these scrolls that when they are too old and worn to be used, we bury them in a cemetery, similar to the way human beings are buried.

This, however, is most strange. The scrolls that we carry in our arms do not at all fit the times in which we live. They are completely outdated.

We live in a world of sophisticated technology. We walk on the moon, travel through space, communicate via satellite, and make use of the Internet – all without batting an eye. Physicians transplant people's hearts, and replace or repair other parts of the human body with the greatest of ease. Any time now we will witness more scientific breakthroughs that will utterly surprise us, and before we know it, even more amazing inventions will usher us into a world we never dreamed was possible. Everything is moving and changing so rapidly that the term "speed" no longer has any relevance.

Yet here we are, dancing with a scroll that is totally oblivious to it all. The text in this archaic scroll hasn't changed since the day Moshe received it at Mount Sinai. Furthermore, even the manner in which the Torah scroll is written has not been altered. It is still the human hand that must write the text. No word processor can take over. The quill has not been replaced, and nothing dramatic has happened to the formula used to produce the special ink. The parchment, as well, is prepared in the very same way as it was in the days of the prophets. If someone looked at the scroll we carry in our hands, and didn't know better, they would think we had discovered it in a cave where people thousands of years ago used to preserve their holy texts, such as the Dead Sea scrolls.

Jewish law always encourages integrating the latest scientific knowledge into our lives and has no problem with the newest developments in treating infertility, flying a spacecraft, and using technical devices to make it easier to observe Shabbat. Yet, when it comes to the writing of a Sefer Torah, no technological improvements are appreciated. They are basically rejected (1).

Ours is a future-orientated religion. We are not afraid of the latest technologies because they allow us to fulfill, in ways unimagined by our forefathers, the divine mandate to cure diseases, create more pleasant ways to live our lives, and make the world a better place. All this is beautifully expressed by our Sages, who direct us to become partners with God in the work of creation. But the very text that demands this does not allow for any changes in its content and bars us from making use of the latest technological devices when it comes down to the physical preparation and writing of this same text!

What is the message conveyed by this paradox?

While living in a world that is constantly in a state of flux and where matters can change overnight, there must be a place of stability where we can take refuge. We need unshakeable foundations that won't shift like quicksand. Without such footing we would be lost and dangerously overwhelmed by the very technology we have created. While we benefit from all these new inventions, we also pay a heavy price and become the victims of great confusion. Technology and science often create moral problems that overwhelm us. We then begin to wonder whether it would be better to reject our moral standards in order to accommodate all the new possibilities that have opened up. Though many of us know this will only lead to more problems, others are calling for such radical steps, thinking it will bring improvement.

We need certainty but can no longer find it. The situation has become so critical that we realize we have reached a place where our human identity is at stake, unlike our forefathers who had to deal primarily with problems related to ideology.

Looking at and taking notice of a Sefer Torah is therefore of great value. Here is an item that has not changed an iota. Its physical nature attests to its stability. It is the only thing in the world that would not give in to innovation. Its text informs us that while things indeed need to evolve and become more sophisticated, the basic moral positions in the Torah are not to be altered, and its physical representation as an "old-fashioned scroll" sends us that message. It does not want to accommodate everything, nor does it even want to accommodate itself. It is beyond time and space and hence disconnects itself from the so-called new developments that the passage of time always demands. It wants to remain itself, on its own terms, and therefore offers us a haven of stability and genuine identity in a stormy world. In that way, it reminds us of eternity, of another world in which enduring standards prevail and where there is tranquility, something we all long for.

A Sefer Torah teaches us that not everything old is necessarily old-fashioned. Making use of the word processor has in many ways led to depersonalization in our lives; running our world by remote control has not been good for our souls; and walking on the moon has not helped us to know our next-door neighbor any better. On the contrary, technological progress has robbed us of our own humanness.

It is therefore most meaningful that one item has maintained its constancy. It carries a text that has had greater influence in the world than any other we know of. It has changed the universe as nothing else has; it encourages people to move, to discover, and to develop. But it is written on parchment, by the hand of a person, holding a quill, as if to say: Be yourself. Don't get run over by the need for progress.

(1) Although there are some slight changes in the way we produce all these components today, sometimes making things a little easier, basically the formula remains the same. In Ohr Yitzchak, the collection of responsa by Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi of Jerusalem, on Yoreh De’ah, siman 54, the author suggests ways in which a Sefer Torah can be written without the scribe actually writing the letters, making use of the latest technology. This suggestion has not been accepted by the vast majority of halachic authorities. I would add that it is not in the spirit of Judaism, nor is it what a Sefer Torah should stand for, ideologically. This matter indeed goes to the very root of the difficult question as to what extent ideology can play a role in halachic issues – a long and complex topic beyond the scope of this essay.

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