One of the personal challenges we all face here and now, in 21st century America, is finding a time and a place for reflection.
In the last century, it was said that no one has had a complete thought since the invention of the telephone, a device that we brought into our homes so that we could be interrupted by the outside world at any hour of the day or night. How quaint – and how naÃ¯ve – that seems today, now that we carry our phones around with us wherever we go, and are continually bombarded by a variety of email and text messages, alerts, apps to play with, and yes, even actual phone calls. There seems to be no room in our busy schedules to simply sit and think, no escape from the deluge of information, interaction, and entertainment made available at our fingertips, the habitually twitching digits of this digital age.
Thinking, in and of itself, is not unique to our species, but human beings have developed a unique set of tools for thought that sets us apart from other forms of life.
First and foremost is language. Much of what we call thinking consists of talking to ourselves silently, carrying on an inner dialogue or monologue. Notice that for the most part, we do not think by somehow imagining that we are writing or typing, or reading our own words on a page or screen. Language is a set of sounds that convey meaning, and for tens of thousands of years – which is to say for most of our history as a species – human beings survived without the aid of the written word. And somewhere along the line, we learned how to internalize speech in the form of thought.
Compared to the spoken word, writing is a relatively recent development, dating back only about 5,500 years. Its purpose was to record speech in a durable form. Before writing, both speech and thought were fleeting, ephemeral, subject to the vagaries of memory. And while we should not discount the power of collective memory, writing gave language a permanence that we had never known before. Writing also made it step back from our words, to see them as fixed signs, available for study.
In other words, writing gave us new tools for thought, allowing us to fix language in place, allowing our words to become the object of prolonged contemplation. Writing recorded the speech and the thoughts of others, allowing readers to view and review their statements and arguments. And writing gave us a way to step outside of our own thinking processes, to observe our thoughts from the outside.
Simply put, writing gave us a mirror for the mind. And in doing so, the written word made possible our capacity for reflection.
That capacity is the subject of an extended essay by Ellen Rose, a professor of education at the University of New Brunswick, which was published in book form, titled “On Reflection: An Essay on Technology, Education, and the Status of Thought in the Twenty-First Century.” In considering the meaning of the word “reflection,” Dr. Rose relates, “when I close my eyes and try to picture reflection, I immediately envision someone sitting in a book-lined room, reading or pondering silently.” She concludes that the essence of reflection is “deep, sustained thought for which the necessary pre-conditions are solitude and slowness.” Dr. Rose rightly argues that reflection is in decline – has been for some time now – because of our many technological innovations, particularly electronic media.
The decline of reflection is a cause for concern among thoughtful people everywhere, but it ought to be viewed as particularly alarming in regard to the future of the Jewish people. Our religion, tradition, and culture are based on the written word, on the Hebrew aleph-bet and the study of sacred texts, on Torah, Tanach, Talmud. Our rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, the bar or bat mitzvah, is a literacy test. Our houses of worship also are houses of learning, our synagogues also are schools.
It is worth recalling that one of the goals of Nazism was to wipe out the capacity for reflection, and not simply in the service of totalitarian domination. Consider the following observation on the part of historian Elizabeth Eisenstein in “Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending”:
Anti-Semitic stereotypes attributed a soft, flabby, and sedentary lifestyle to the bookish Jew, in contrast to the masculine, muscular Aryan. Observers in 1933 witnessed the book-burnings of works by Jews and other “decadent” authors, along with the elimination of the same works from libraries and bookshops. The elimination of Jewish books served as a prelude to measures in the next decade aimed at eliminating the Jews themselves.
The problem we face today is not the elimination of books, but their growing irrelevance to our lives. Could the disappearance of the quiet time we need for reading and for thinking, for the solitude and slowness that forms the basis of deep, sustained thought, possibly be a prelude for a more serious threat to Jewish survival, as a culture or even as a people?
For Dr. Rose, the best hope for the future lies with education. But we also can turn to another opportunity to claim a time and space for reflection, in Jewish worship services of any stream, Orthodox or Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist. Prayer is a form of thought, an exercise in ways of thinking that differ from our everyday thought patterns. And prayer provides an opportunity for profound forms of soul searching, serious introspection, contemplation, and meditation. If we are to reclaim our capacity for reflection, and in doing so safeguard what is essential to our tradition and culture, we will need both our schools and our shuls.