Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Danger of Too Much Information

Speaking this week at the Cybertech 2014 Conference in Davos, Switzerland, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about the importance of secrets.
There isn't any privacy. You know why? You see this thing here, this computer? Porous. Anything that you see around you is perforated and if it's not perforated, it can be perforated. The networks are exposed. The fact that we have networks, increasing complexity of networks, interconnectivity on networks means that anything and everything can be exposed and violated.
That's not something that we've had in history. We have kept human society free because we have had a society of secrets. Individuals have their own space. What is developing now in the world is a fundamental challenge to the idea of privacy and secrecy. There are some who, for obvious and legitimate reasons, extol transparency and transparency has its virtues, but ultimately free societies have limits on transparency. They guarantee individuals or collections of individuals the ability to decide to keep their secrets. For example, the whole idea of intellectual property – that is being fundamentally challenged. The privacy of individuals – fundamentally challenged. The sanctity of our bank accounts – fundamentally challenged. And this goes obviously into public systems: power grids, traffic nets, water systems – you name it. Everything can be violated. Everything can be opened up. Everything can be also sabotaged.
Reading his comments, I began to wonder: What about halachic information? Would Netanyahu's warnings apply to Judaism as well? Is there a value to secrecy in Judaism? As Netanyahu said, "Free societies have limits on transparency." Would the same rule apply to halachic systems? Must everything be transparent? If the sanctity of our bank accounts depends on privacy, what about the sanctity of our spiritual lives?

Commenting on the commandment to build a "cover" for the Ark of the Covenant in the Mishkan, Kli Yakkar writes,
כיסוי מלמעלה, רמז שצריך לכסות סודות התורה שלא לגלותם ברבים כי דברים שכיסה עתיק יומין אל תגלה אותם
A cover above - this is a hint [to the fact that] one must cover the secrets of the Torah, not to reveal them in public, for matters that were covered from ancient times you shall not reveal them.
It seems clear that Kli Yakkar was referring to the public teaching of Kabbalistic teachings - what is called סוד - secret - in Jewish thought. Yet, could his lesson apply to larger Jewish teachings as well. Is there such a thing as too much Torah?
I think that the answer may very well be yes.

Today, every piece of Jewish information is available via the Internet. Whether via normal websites like Aish.com, free portals like Hebrewbooks, or even through pay online portals like the Bar Ilan site or Otzar Hachochmah, if a Jewish scholar throughout history wrote it, you can access it. Information truly is free - open and available to anyone with a computer (and sometimes a credit card). These are, of course, wonderful innovations. More people are learning more Torah via the internet than probably ever before in our history. Thousands are learning daf yomi, mishnah, basic Judaism - you name it - utilizing the great power of the web to learn and grow.
But this great power can dangerous as well, for two reasons.
First and foremost, information can be used not to help, but to harm - even Torah. It can be molded and shaped to exclude, vililfy and distort.
Yet, the more dangerous aspect of "free" information, is knowing how to use it. While information might be openly available, that doesn't mean that everyone - or most people for that matter, know how to use it properly. It can be used to transform that which is pure into impure, and visa-versa.

The Gemara in Eruvin (13b - a little confession - I vaguely remembered the source, but couldn't remember where it was exactly. Guess who helped me find it? You guessed it - HaRav Google!) says,
א"ר אחא בר חנינא גלוי וידוע לפני מי שאמר והיה העולם שאין בדורו של רבי מאיר כמותו ומפני מה לא קבעו הלכה כמותו שלא יכלו חביריו לעמוד על סוף דעתו שהוא אומר על טמא טהור ומראה לו פנים על טהור טמא ומראה לו פנים...
R.  Aha  b.  Hanina  said:  It  is  revealed  and known before Him Who spoke and the world came into existence, that in the generation of R.  Meir  there  was  none  equal  to  him;  then why was not the halachah fixed in agreement with  his  views?  Because  his  colleagues  could not  fathom  the  depths of  his  mind,  for  he would declare the ritually unclean to be clean and supply plausible proof, and the ritually clean to be unclean and also supply plausible proof..
The Gemara is clearly alluding to exactly this problem. The Sages didn't just have the Torah at their fingertips. Rather, their greatness stemmed from the fact that they both had the information, and also knew how to use it properly. The halachah doesn't follow even the greatest of Sages when his knowledge is so vast that it cannot lead to a definitive conclusion.

Today, as we transition to an age where everyone has all of the information at our fingertips, I fear that while we don't really know how to use it properly, we have lost reverence for those unique individuals who do.

In his thoughtful comments on the raging issue of women and tefillin, Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Woolf writes,
I have spent thirty years fighting for the right of learned rabbis to have their own halakhic opinion, contrary to some Rashe Yeshiva who deny them that prerogative. After seeing the half-baked, uninformed and revoltingly disrespectful way in which Facebookers and other Commenters treat Hazal, the GRA, the Rema, the Arukh HaShulhan etc. I begin to wonder. Orthodoxy maintains a balance between deep reverence for Tradition and Gedole Torah, alongside the need to confront new questions and challenges. R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt'l used to predicate his hardest decisions on the agreement of colleagues. He was a giant of Torah and Piety and Humanity who was attached to the entire Jewish People, from Haredi to Hiloni. Still, he was cautious and responsible when he ventured into new territory. Yet here are people filling the Blogosphere, the Newspapers and Social Media who blithely toss out established halakhic categories as if they were so much detritus because 'it makes no sense to me.' As my revered teacher, Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל once said, innovations are the lifeblood of the Torah, but they occur within its autonomous sphere. You engage the system. You don't violate it by judging it because it doesn't fit superficial, media driven ideologies.
I believe that he has identified the primary challenge that leaders of Modern Orthodoxy must face over the coming years.
Today, every layperson with internet access feels that because he read a source (or secondary summary of a source), he can therefore proclaim himself the arbiter of proper Jewish practice. And, every rabbi with access to the Bar Ilan can find a responsa to justify any and almost every desired innovation. But a responsible, authorotative posek will take that responsa - and the breatdth of knowledge -  and place it in a larger context. He will not just know the information, but will also know how to use it.
Not everyone is a gadol. Yet today, it seems to me that we're living in an age where the phenomenon of finding forty-eight reasons to justify anything and everything isn't confined to the Beis Medrash. Rather, all it takes is a blog, a Facebook connection and an acquaintance at the Times of Israel, and you too can be a gadol.
But you can't. Because you're not. And while you might be fooling yourself and your followers, ultimately, you may very well be leading them astray.