A Jewish Theological Perspective on Technology (Orthodox)

Mois Navon

This encyclopaedia entry explores the Jewish theological perspective on technology, highlighting its fundamental role in improving the human condition and completing creation. It begins by tracing the historical development of Jewish theological approaches to technology, starting with a look at a number of fundamental biblical narratives, proceeding to the relevant Talmudic and Midrashic literature on the subject, and culminating with readings in medieval, modern, and contemporary Rabbinic writings. This review of historical approaches to technology leads to the conclusion that while the human technological endeavour is part and parcel of reaching the goal of creation, it must be guided by divine purpose and ethics. This message is then shown to be reified in the practical demands set forth by Jewish Law – i.e. Halakhah. Bringing prominent examples that demonstrate how Halakhah seeks to regulate new technologies, the entry explores the Halakhic discourse with technology. The entry concludes with a section entitled ‘Eschatology and Ethics’, which discusses how technology must be guided by ethical considerations to bring about the eschatological era as well as to serve humanity in that ultimate era.

1 Introduction

Technology, as the application of science toward developing methods and tools to improve the human condition, is fundamental to Jewish theology. This can already be noted in biblical description of creation, that concludes as follows:

And the heaven and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had done. (Gen 1:3)

The last words, ‘which God in creating had done [asher bara Elokim la’asot]’, translate literally to, ‘that God created to do’ – indicating that God left the world incomplete to allow for humans ‘to do’, to complete creation (Pesikta Rabbati 6; Yalkut Shimoni, Kings I: 186). It is the effort toward completing creation that is the telos (end/goal) of humanity (Soloveitchik 1983: 101), and it is technology, according to Jewish theology, that is the means to achieving this telos (Lamm 1965: 40).

That said, Jewish theology is not so naive as to suggest that technology alone will bring the world to its halcyon completion. Technology is clearly recognized as a double-edged sword, entailing both promise and peril (Kook 1906: 24). Accordingly, Jewish theology seeks to define limits to technological development to ensure that it serves the divine will, ever guided by the values promulgated in the Bible and distilled over the centuries in Rabbinic writings.

Here it is important to emphasize that Jewish theology is a work in progress, as can be seen in the concept of the oral Torah. The Bible, also known as the written Torah, is understood to have been given together with its initial interpretation, the oral Torah (Ber. 5a). This initial oral Torah, however, was not given to seal the interpretations of the written Torah for all time, but just the opposite, to demonstrate that the Torah is to be interpreted in each generation. That is not so say that there are no hard-coded values, nor to say that each generation is free to adapt the Torah to prevailing mores (Hirsch 1990; Soloveitchik 1975). Rather, the Torah (written and oral) provides a ground for approaching the new dilemmas of every generation, allowing each new generation to develop its moral intuitions based on those of previous generations (Wurzburger 1994: 28), adding to the corpus of oral Torah for future generations (for a classic look at this subject see Berkovits 1983; see also Berman 2020).

It is with this in mind that this article will discuss Jewish theology’s approaches to technology. It begins with a historical overview (section 2), exploring the foundational narratives in the Bible that provide a window into the Jewish theological perspective on technology. Moving from written to oral Torah, it discusses the approaches to technology found in the Talmudic and Midrashic literature and concludes with the medieval, modern, and contemporary Rabbinic approaches to technology.

Importantly, though it was noted that the oral Torah allows for evolving interpretation, this historical survey renders a rather homogenously positive approach to technology in general. In contrast, when it comes to applying Jewish theological norms to specific cases – i.e. specific technologies in specific social contexts – things become more polarized. The attitudes to technology – not as a concept but as impacting specific aspects of life – become charged with competing values, as different thinkers come to emphasize different values. This will be attended to in section 3, sampling some of the more prominent technologies that gave rise to great debates within the context of accepted tradition.

Here a note regarding religious approaches is in order. Until the Enlightenment period and the subsequent emancipation of Jewish people, there was a broadly accepted Jewish theological framework. With the emancipation, however, many Jews left both their ghettos and their theological framework (Leiman 2017). Over time, diverse theological frameworks were adopted by different groups, with those who maintained allegiance to the traditional framework (whether strongly or loosely) now referred to as Orthodox. This entry will explain the Jewish theological approach to technology from the perspective of this traditional framework.

Finally, this entry will conclude with a look at eschatology and ethics (section 4). Given the Jewish theological view that creation has a beginning and an end (Navon 2006), it will be shown that Jewish theology has a specific vision both on how technology must be guided by ethics to reach the eschatological era and how technology will serve humanity in this ultimate era.

2 Historical approaches

2.1 Biblical

To speak of the biblical approach to technology according to Jewish theology is quite impossible, for the simple reason (noted above) that Jewish theology understands the Bible, i.e. the written Torah, to be incomplete without the explanations and interpretations that constitute the oral Torah. That said, in reviewing a number of seminal verses in the written Torah general lines of thought can be established that will serve as a framework upon which the oral Torah will build a philosophy of technology.

To begin, the first references to humans making implements are presented in a very ‘matter of fact’ way, which might be described as ‘neutral’: ‘Jubal; he was the father of all such as handle the harp and pipe’ (Gen 4:21); and ‘Tubal-cain, the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron’ (Gen 4:22).

This seemingly neutral approach – that implements and technologies are of little moral consequence – is made stronger in the verse describing the murder of Abel:

And Cain spoke unto Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. (Gen 4:8)

One is immediately struck not by what is said but by what is left unsaid. The verse does not reveal why or how Cain murdered Abel, nor do the subsequent verses, which simply have God pronounce the deed abominable and its executer accursed (Gen 4:9–12). As will be seen, the oral Torah and later commentaries do answer these questions, noting that the murder was carried out with a motive and – more importantly for this article – with an implement (i.e. technology). If this is so, by leaving out these details the Bible is making a powerful statement that it matters neither why someone murdered his brother nor how he murdered him. Rather, of import is that murder – and by extension violence and mistreatment of one’s brother, the ‘other’ – is intolerable.

However, the Bible thickens its approach to technology when God chooses Noah to begin the world anew. This divine choosing begs the question: what so distinguished Noah from the rest of humanity. It can be argued that it was his technological competence, as evidenced by his ability to build the Ark. Here it must be emphasized that he was not chosen simply for his ability to respond to the immediate need of an Ark but because of the indispensable value of technology itself to the continuation of creation, long after the flood waters would reside.

God selected Noah because God values technological proficiency, which is precisely what the name Noah signifies:

And he [Lamech] called his name Noah, saying: This same shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, which cometh from the ground which the Lord hath cursed. (Gen 5:29)

While the verse does not reveal exactly how Noah will provide comfort, it stands to reason that he developed some kind of technology. Without referring to commentaries that do indeed understand the verse in this way (see section 2.2 and section 2.3), one can simply say that the Bible appears to be positively inclined to human technological endeavour – be it in the building of an Ark for salvation or providing some relief to ‘the toil of our hands’.

In contradistinction to this positive stance toward technology, the story of the Tower of Babel voices a nuanced critique. Two verses introduce the story: ‘Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly […]’ (Gen 11:3); ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’ (Gen 11:4).

Clearly the two verses tell of two very different aspects of the endeavour. The first, told in the ‘matter of fact’ tone of the previously-cited verses recounting technological development, echoes the silent approval that has thus far constituted the biblical approach to technology. The second verse, however, relates to purpose, to the application of technology. It is here that the Bible is no longer silent about technology, as God himself pronounces their endeavour a self-aggrandizement that must be stopped (Gen 11:5–9). Importantly, there is no condemnation of technology itself, only of its improper application (Navon 2012).

If the Tower of Babel serves as a negative illustration of the biblical demand for the appropriate application of technology, the Tabernacle (Mishkan) provides a positive one. This can be seen in the juxtaposition of the detailed descriptions of all the technological efforts to build the Tabernacle and its appurtenances (Exod 25–28; 30:1–6, 17–18; 31:1–11; 35–40) against the demand that all such efforts cease on the Sabbath (Exod 31:13, esp. Rashi; Exod 35:2, esp. Rashi). The cessation of creative efforts on the Sabbath reflects the divine process of creation and cessation (Gen 2:1–2). Accordingly, the Sabbath in general, and the Tabernacle in particular, teach that the appropriate application of technology is that which serves to complete creation (see section 2.4).

Though this is not a comprehensive analysis of the entire biblical text, it is nonetheless reasonable to summarize the basic lines of the biblical approach to technology as follows:

  • Human beings are responsible for their actions, the technology mediating that action being of no consequence with regard to human moral accountability.
  • Technology is to be employed to relieve the burdens of the human condition.
  • Technology is only to be employed in the service of promoting the fulfilment of creation.

2.2 Talmudic/Midrashic

While the Bible seemed to leave technology ‘neutral’ (in the sense that it plays no moral role in human action), such an understanding is mistakenly engendered by reading the written Torah without the oral Torah. The written text is streamlined to impart its primary message, in this case, that of human moral responsibility. The oral Torah then comes to add depth to the message, in this case, as will be shown presently, that technology is integral to both human action and the human condition.

On the story of Cain’s murder of Abel, the Midrash proposes three possible ‘tools’ – a stone, a stick, a knife (Bereshith Rabba 22:8) – precisely the three things the use of which the Bible itself says would constitute an act of murder, as opposed to manslaughter (Num 35:16–18). This Midrash, expanding on the underlying ethic of the Bible, thus recognizes technology as enabling human moral action (in this case, murder). Similarly, while we originally read, as ‘matter of fact’, that Tubal-cain was a ‘forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron’, the Midrash finds this technological development to be morally charged, explaining that Tubal-cain refined (taval) the sin of Cain by forging weapons (Ber. R. 23:3). Therefore, the oral Torah clearly recognizes that technology is not ‘neutral’ but provides, in philosophical parlance, ‘affordances’ for human moral action (Vallor 2016).

Technological affordances are not only negative. As noted in the introduction, the Midrash taught that God left creation ‘to do’ (Gen 2:3, emphasis added), that ‘there is still other work to do’. Technology, in the sense of tools and techniques to improve the human condition, ‘affords’ humanity the wherewithal to complete creation. Nowhere is this notion made more clear than in the Midrashic interpretation of Noah’s naming. Whereas the verse in Genesis simply stated that Noah was so named because he ‘shall comfort [yenachameinu] us in our work and in the toil of our hands’, the Midrashim explain that the ‘comfort’ he provided was through his invention of the plough and all manner of farming and agricultural tools (Mid. Hagadol, Gen 5:29), as well as through his harnessing animals to this end (Pesikta Zutra, Gen 5:29). Importantly, the Midrashim are quick to note that the word for the ‘toil’ (itzvon) that Noah comes to relieve is the same word used when God condemned Adam to a life of ‘toil’ (itzavon) as a result of his sin (Gen 3:17). This parallel, note the Midrashim, demonstrates that Noah’s technological innovations served as a positive affordance for human endeavour, alleviating in some measure the curse of Adam.

Here one might think that God would take offense and oppose such apparent defiance of His will. But in fact just the opposite is true, as a mere ten verses later – the next time the text mentions Noah – it says: ‘And Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord’ (Gen 6:8). God chooses Noah to start the world over because God finds him ‘righteous and whole-hearted’ (Gen 6:9). The Midrash (Pesikta Zutra, Gen 6:9), surprisingly, explains that Noah’s exceptional righteousness was manifested through his ability to provide sustenance – a feat he accomplished through his invention of the plough. The plough, it should be noted, is of great technological significance, considered to be the trigger of all human technological development (Burke 1978). Accordingly, it can be said that Noah was chosen for no other reason than for his ability to develop and deploy technology for the good.

In addition to providing a deeper understanding of the biblical text, the Talmud and Midrash also elaborate on the philosophical concepts underpinning the text. For example, in the following dialogue between Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus, the Midrash highlights the significance of technological development as improving on creation:

Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Akiva: ‘Whose deeds are better—Those of God or those of humans?’ […] Rabbi Akiva answered: ‘[…] Those of humans are better. Bring me wheat spikes and white bread’. He said to him: ‘The former is the work of the Holy One, and the latter is the work of flesh and blood. Is not the latter more beautiful?’ He said to him: ‘Bring me bundles of flax and garments of Beit-shean’. He said to him: ‘The former are the work of the Holy One, and the latter are the work of flesh and blood. Are not the latter more beautiful?’. (Tanchuma Tazria 7)

Communicated here is the notion that ‘God-created states are not necessarily good. Judaism does not believe in taking the natural world as it is; we are meant to take the materials God gave us and develop them’ (Amital 2002).

This ethic – that technological development is demanded of humanity to repair the world – is given expression in a number of sources (e.g. Pesachim [Pes.]. 54a, Avoda Zara 2a–3b), well-represented by the seminal Talmudic teaching: ‘Ten things were created on the eve of [the first] Shabbat: […] tongs from which to make tongs’ (Mishnah Avot 5:6). Tongs are necessary for a blacksmith to hold the hot metal he beats on the anvil to shape his new creation, but without an initial set of tongs the work of the blacksmith would be impossible (Rashi, Avot 5:6, s.v. af tzavat). The Mishnah, then, is teaching that the human creative endeavour is so critical that God himself ensures its initiation. The notion that it is God’s will and desire for humanity to develop technology could not be made more clearly.

However, this positive stance toward technological development in Talmudic/Midrashic literature comes with the same ethical proviso found in the biblical approach. It can be seen in a number of texts (e.g. Leviticus Rabbah 22:4; Pes. 56a, esp. Maimonides Pes. 4:10), but most emphatically in the Midrashic embellishment on the words of Ecclesiastes, ‘[c]onsider the work of God; for who can make that straight, which He made twisted?’ (7:13):

Behold My works, how beautiful and commendable they are! All that I have created; I created for your sake. Pay heed that you don’t corrupt and destroy my universe; for if you corrupt it there is no one to repair it after you. (Eccl. R. 7:13)

The Talmudic/Midrashic approach thus follows the biblical approach, lauding the development of technology while also warning against its abuse – the consequences of which will be borne by humanity itself.

2.3 Medieval

The medieval commentators (rishonim) follow the ideas brought in both the written and oral Toral, quoting, expounding, and expanding on them. For example, on the naming of Noah as he who would bring relief from ‘the toil (itzavon) of our hands’, Rashi (France, 1040–1105) emphasizes that the relief provided against the curse of Adam (itzavon) was specifically his invention of agricultural tools. Rabbi David Kimchi (France, 1160–1235) expands on the Midrash, noting that Noah invented the plough through ‘applying his intellect’ to improve the human condition (in this case, to solve the drudgery of agricultural work) – thus emphasizing precisely what technological endeavour is all about.

The oral Torah, as explained in the introduction, is more of a concept than a corpus, allowing and even begging for continued interpretation within its philosophical framework. An important example of this is Nachmanides’ (Spain, 1194–1270) interpretation of the following verses that describe the sixth day of creation:

And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth’. And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. And God blessed them; and God said unto them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth’. (Gen 1:26–28)

While the terms ‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’ here are interpreted by all other medieval scholars (rishonim) in line with the Talmudic/Midrashic readings (i.e. as rulership), Nachmanides breaks company and interprets them in line with the spirit of the Talmudic/Midrashic framework that promotes technological endeavour. These terms, he writes, teach that humans ‘are to rule over the earth itself, to uproot and to pull down, to dig and to hew out copper and iron’ (Gen 1:26; similarly on Gen 1:28). In this reading of these first seminal verses of the Bible – verses that lay out the very goals of human life – Nachmanides makes the bold statement that technological development is not merely accepted but demanded.

That said, it is Nachmanides himself who places hard limits on the technological development demanded by ‘dominion’. On the verse prohibiting the mixing of species (kilayim), he writes:

One who combines two different species, thereby changes and defies the work of Creation, as if he is thinking that the Holy One, blessed be He, has not completely perfected the world and he desires to help along in the creation of the world by adding to it new kinds of creatures. […] Thus he who mixes different kinds of seeds, denies and throws into disorder the work of Creation. (Lev 19:19, emphasis added)

Nachmanides elsewhere (Deut 18:9) expands on the prohibition of kilayim, relating it to the illicit use of ‘powers’ that would tamper with nature and the natural course of the world.

Nachmanides’ approach to technology, the most explicit among the medieval thinkers, echoes the Talmudic/Midrashic approach that followed the biblical approach, emphasizing the importance of the technological endeavour as divine imperative while at the same time circumscribing its reach according to the divine limits set in the Bible.

2.4 Modern

Continuing the effort to strike a balance between promoting and restraining technology, Rabbi Yisrael Lifshutz (Germany, 1782–1860) takes a most liberal stance, explaining that:

Any activity that we have no reason to prohibit is thus permitted in halakhah, without having to find a reason for its permissibility; for the Torah does not mention every permissible thing but rather elaborates on only those things that are forbidden. (Tifferet Yisrael, Mishnah Yadayim 4:3, Yachin 27)

In other words, technological endeavour is to be pursued to the fullest, constrained only by prohibitions explicit in the Bible.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808–1888) takes a more conservative position, as can be gleaned from his understanding of the Shabbat:

On Shabbat, the cessation of work is the belief and acknowledgment that the ability to ‘master matter’, the creative productive power that Man has, is lent to him by God, and is only to be used in His service. (Exod 35:3)

Here the constraint on technological endeavour is broadened to prohibit anything that would not serve the divine goals of creation.

This idea of human endeavour in the service of completing creation is found in the writings of a number of modern thinkers. Rabbi Jacob Tzvi Mecklenberg (Germany, 1785–1865) explains that while Shabbat demands we refrain from melacha – i.e. ‘every activity that is purposeful and beneficial and repairs the world [tikkun olam]’ – it is precisely this activity that we are commanded to do the other six days of the week (HaKetav VeHakabbala, Exod 20:10). Similarly, Rabbi Judah Loew (Poland, 1520–1609) writes that creation was left in ‘potential’, it being incumbent upon humans to ‘actualize’, through their intellect, the work that was started during the six days of creation and thus bring it to ‘completion’ (Be’er Hagolah 2:10). Finally, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (Lithuania, 1820–1892) references the Midrash in which Rabbi Akiva explains to Turnus Rufus that just as wheat and flax require human effort to make complete, so too, continues Rabbi Akiva, the human body requires circumcision to make it complete. Rabbi Soloveitchik learns from this dialogue that the idea of human (technological) endeavour to complete creation is so critical that it is symbolically imprinted in the flesh (Bet HaLevi, Gen 17:1, s.v. ani).

The modern writers, like their predecessors, view the human technological enterprise as essential to fulfilling creation, wherein this enterprise is to be guided simply by the goal of bringing creation to its completion.

2.5 Contemporary

As should be clear, the oral tradition on technology forms a natural continuum, starting with the Talmudic/Midrashic interpretations of the written Torah and evolving throughout the generations, each new period of thinkers building upon the insights of those who preceded them. The contemporary period, even with its radically advanced technologies, is no exception. A long list of contemporary thinkers follow Nachmanides’ interpretation of the divine command ‘to conquer the earth’ (e.g. Soloveitchik 2012; Lamm 1965: 40–41; Soloveitchik 1983: 101; Bleich 1998: 53–56, Amital 2002; Rakover 2002; Loike 2014: 50).

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (United States, 1903–1993), great-grandson of the modern Rabbi whose name he bears, and foremost contemporary voice for the integration of Torah and science, writes of the great importance of human technological endeavour as follows:

‘For thou made him a little lower than the angels and hast crowned him with glory and honour (dignity)’ (Ps 8:6). Man is an honourable being. In other words, man is a dignified being and to be human means to live with dignity. […] What is dignity and how can it be realized? The answer we find again in the words of the Psalmist […]: ‘Thou hast made him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands. Thou hast put all things under his feet’ (Ps 8:7). […] Dignity was equated by the Psalmist with man’s capability of dominating his environment and exercising control over it. Man acquires dignity through […] his majestic posture vis a vis his environment. (Soloveitchik 2012: 10)

That said, Rabbi Soloveitchik also recognizes that this license to dominate must be guided purposefully and ethically. He thus explains that human beings are dichotomous beings, composed of two driving spirits: one (Adam I) is inspired by the ‘quest for power and control’, the other (Adam II), by the question, ‘what is the purpose of all this?’ (Soloveitchik 2012: 15). These two spirits engage the individual in self-confrontation, demanding that he identify ‘with the whole of an all-inclusive human personality, charged with responsibility as both a majestic and covenantal being’ (2012: 60). The all-inclusive individual, then, ‘is questing not only for material success, but for ideological and axiological achievements as well’ (2012: 65). Consequently, technological endeavour (i.e. material success) must be guided by purpose (i.e. ideological) and ethics (i.e. axiological).

In accord with this general approach, a number of contemporary thinkers have sought to provide more definitive borders to the technological endeavour. John Loike (United States, 1950–) and Rabbi Moshe Tendler (United States, 1926–2021) return to Rabbi Lifshutz’s liberal definition that anything not explicitly prohibited in the Torah is thus permitted (Loike 2014: 50). Rabbi J. D. Bleich (United States, 1936–) follows this liberal stance with added proviso to apply common sense:

Jewish tradition, although it certainly recognizes divine proprietorship of the universe, nevertheless, gratefully acknowledges that while ‘The heavens are the heavens of God’ yet ‘the earth has He given to the sons of man’ (Psalms 115:16). In bestowing that gift upon mankind, the Creator has granted man dominion over the world in which he lives and over the living species that are co-inhabitants of that world. Man has been given license to apply his intellect, ingenuity and physical prowess in developing the world in which he has been placed subject only to limitations imposed by the laws of the Torah, including the general admonition not to do harm to others, as well as by the constraints imposed by good sense and considerations of prudence. (Bleich 1998: 56)

Interestingly, while Loike, Tendler, and Bleich all quote Nachmanides’ sweeping license to ‘conquer the earth’, they limit his interpretation of kilayim as a call for restraint specifically to interbreeding. In contrast, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow (Israel, 1957–) finds Nachmanides’ comments as indicative of a considerably more conservative approach:

Nachmanides’ words seem to indicate that mitzvot [i.e. commandments] prohibiting the use of other-worldly forces [including, e.g. modern bio-technologies] stems from ethical and spiritual motivations. Although a person may achieve much by employing such forces, he is limited by these prohibitions. Halakhah requires him to remain within the framework in which he was created; he may not become a creator himself. (Cherlow 2016: 149)

While Cherlow assuredly recognizes the value of modern technologies, he nevertheless understands Nachmanides’ words to counsel restraint (e.g. prohibiting genetic testing for gender selection).

In sum, it is clear that Jewish theology – from the written Torah that is the Bible throughout the oral Torah that starts with the formal teachings of the Talmud and Midrash and extends throughout the generations down to contemporary times – views technological development as part and parcel of the very purpose of creation, with the stipulation that such development be done purposefully – i.e. toward the goal of completing creation (tikkun olam), and ethically – i.e. according to the divine will articulated in the Torah. But just as God has left it to humanity to complete creation, He has left it to us to understand how to do so purposefully and ethically. Herein lies the challenge to human ingenuity, human responsibility, and, ultimately, human worth.

3 Halakhic (Jewish Law) issues

Although Jewish philosophy (Hashkafa), as reflected in the written and oral Torah, provides a guide to both thought and action, Jewish life is ultimately shaped by Jewish Law (Halakhah). Accordingly, an empirical understanding of the Jewish theological perspective on technology can be most readily seen through the lens of Halakhah.

Halakhah, like Hashkafa, accepts technological progress as predominantly positive, albeit with the need for appropriate boundaries and limitations. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that Halakhah’s acceptance of science and technology, as part and parcel of humanity’s partnership with God to fix the world, is most evident in its approach to medicine:

The art of healing […] has always been considered by the Halakhah as a great and noble occupation. Unlike other faith communities, the Halakhic community has never been troubled by the problem of human interference, on the part of the physician and patient, with God’s will. On the contrary, argues the Halakhah, God wants man to fight evil bravely and to mobilize all his intellectual and technological ingenuity in order to defeat it. The conquest of disease is the sacred duty of the man of majesty and he must not shirk it. (Soloveitchik 2012: 59, note 3).

But just as the Halakhah readily applies technology to improve the human condition, it rejects its application if such will render life impracticable, if not impossible. This can be seen, for example, in the rejection of microscopes to account for bugs in food or defects in the butcher’s knife blade, MRIs to scan for blemishes (treifot) in animals for consumption, spectrometers to determine if a woman has issued menstrual blood (niddah), and myriad other measuring devices to determine physical proportions (e.g. tefillin squareness, tzitzit ratio).

With this in mind, the following sections serve to illustrate the Halakhic approach to technology, and thus exemplify the practical realization of the Jewish theological approach to technology. Recognizing that it is not possible to cover every Halakhic issue raised by technology, section topics were chosen to include some of the more notable issues in technology and Halakhah. Within each section, a sampling of issues is brought to highlight how Halakhah negotiates the advent of new technologies, without, however, delving into the Halakhic complexities that lie beyond the limited scope of this entry.

Note: Despite the fact that information and communications technologies are commonly combined as one topic (i.e. ICT), they will be presented separately here in order to focus on specific aspects of each topic. Additionally, the topic of electricity, while fundamental to practically all the modern innovations discussed, has been held separate to address its impact on the Shabbat. Finally, the section on Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been made separate though it encompasses applications related to nearly all the preceding sections in order to highlight a number of prominent issues raised by the technology.

3.1 Industrialization

While the modus operandi of Halakhah, as noted, is to allow for technological innovation to enhance and not hinder the human condition, that very ‘human condition’ is defined by numerous social factors – economic, political, religious, etc. A pertinent example is the Enlightenment period, which (in simple terms) gave rise to a split in the Jewish community. On one side stood those who embraced the new world at the expense of the old; on the other side, those who sought to preserve the old world at the expense of the new. This latter group became so opposed to innovation (in its simple sense of ‘change’) that one of its foremost voices, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Pressburg, 1762–1839), repurposed a mishnaic teaching to mean, ‘innovation is forbidden by the Torah’ (hadash assur min haTorah). As a result, new technologies were now caught in the middle of this great battle between ‘tradition’ and ‘innovation’.

Perhaps the most famous such battle was waged over the industrialization/mechanization of matzah manufacture (Zivotofsky 2004). The matzah machine, invented in 1838, subsequently led to the machine matzah controversy in 1859. The material argument was: could the machines keep clean of leavened dough – i.e. could they do the job according to requisite legal standards (Halakhah)? But even when this was affirmed, the controversy was not over. A socioeconomic argument claimed that the livelihoods of the poor would be lost to the machines. This claim was rebutted, in kind, with the socioeconomic argument that inexpensive machine matza would benefit the poor (Singer 2006). Amidst all the arguments, tensions were kept taut by the ‘tradition versus innovation’ battle. In the end, machine matzah has long been deemed kosher, with some still maintaining that there is a value to ‘the human touch’ (i.e. religious intent or kavana lishma). Nevertheless, even those who maintain this position do not disqualify machine matzah, as the need for kavana can be fulfilled even at the push of the machine’s ‘start’ button.

Interestingly, the value of ‘the human touch’ plays out in another controversy brought about by mechanization: tzitzit (ritual tassels). But here, as opposed to the matzah controversy, the debate remained focused on the material question: is human intent (kavana lishma) and/or human force (koach gavra) an intrinsic requirement (Goodman 2021)? In the end, opinions remain split over the religious requirement but, like the matzah question, even those who maintain the need for ‘the human touch’ nevertheless permit machine-made tzitzit.

3.2 Medical, biotech, and health technologies

Medicine, and all else that advances human health, is viewed as sacrosanct by Jewish theology. The notion is enshrined in the biblical verse calling for the fulfilment of the commandments in order to ‘live by them’ (Lev 18:5) and, upon which the Talmud emphasizes, ‘not to die by them’ (Avoda Zara 27b). As noted above by Rabbi Soloveitchik, advancement in medicine is welcomed with open arms by Jewish theology, yet such advancement is not without controversy. One of the biggest controversies in this area is that surrounding the custom known as metzizah bepeh (Sprecher 2006). The Talmud explains that the mohel (i.e. one who performs ritual circumcision) is to apply oral suction to the fresh cut of the circumcision as a therapeutic procedure (based on Hellenistic medical practice; Sprecher 2006: 19). The controversy over the procedure arose in 1837 when several babies in Vienna died as a result of having the procedure performed on them by a mohel with an oral infection. This incident, along with subsequent similar ones, sparked the ongoing ‘tradition versus innovation’ battle, with traditionalists maintaining the procedure to be indispensable and considering the evidence of its detrimental effects to be inconclusive.

Anomalously, it was none other than Rabbi Moshe Sofer who allowed for innovation to preserve (in spirit) the traditional practice, writing that one may apply a gauze pad and use manual pressure ‘to remove the blood’. This permit can be seen as opening the door to a subsequent technological solution – the pipet – which allowed for traditional oral suction while preserving requisite hygiene. That said, the controversy continues to rage, with many traditionalists rejecting the medical findings.

Moving to contemporary times, controversies in the medical arena can be seen in the form of debates over applying in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other sophisticated forms of artificial procreation (e.g. Loike 2003; Bleich 2015); the use of sonograms and other methods to diagnose the status of the foetus with the option to abort (Bleich 2015); the permissibility of cloning (Bleich 1998); and behavioural bio-enhancements (Loike 2014). Nevertheless, the debates here are not over the application of technology per se, but rather the ability to account for the consequences of the specific applications of the technologies (e.g. Loike 2014: 54). Historically, there has been some debate over how far human beings should intervene in divine processes (Lichtenstein 2003: 134f) – sometimes referred to as ‘playing God’ (Bedau 2014: 566). However, the Jewish approach is very far from the passive acceptance of other faith communities (see Rabbi Soloveitchik above).

3.3 Information technology

While information technology has been critical for Jewish theology ever since God gave Moses the first tablets of stone on Mount Sinai (Exod 31:18), it was the advent of the printing press in 1436 that revolutionized this space. Its reception within Jewish circles reflects its reception in the non-Jewish world, some seeing it as a great boon, even a divine gift, while others decried it as a source of many new woes (Schacter 2020). Even if the new technology was openly accepted, it raised numerous legal (Halakhic) questions, many reflecting the need for ‘the human touch’ (e.g. can a Torah Scroll be printed?).

Interestingly, many of the concerns that were raised by the printing press, both from a Halakhic and social perspective, resurfaced with the advent of the internet. These concerns included the challenge of controlling the quality of content, the potential for spreading inaccuracies, the ease of causing embarrassment to others, the wasting of time, the potential diminution of authority, and the accessibility of inappropriate material (Schacter 2020). But, as with the printing press, the Jewish religious world (with the exception of pockets of reticence within the ultra-Orthodox world) accepted the internet as overwhelmingly positive.

Such acceptance of information technologies can also be seen in other innovations in this realm: audio and video recordings, dial-in shiurim, internet shiurim, religious literature databases (e.g. Bar Ilan Responsa Project, Otzar HaHochma), manuscript sites, and more. The point here is simply that all the technological innovations to further the accessibility of information are wholly adopted, Halakhah merely coming to demand of individuals that they maintain personal integrity by avoiding the negative uses that the technology enables (Neustadt 2017).

3.4 Communications

Starting with the letter that Joseph did not send home (Nachmanides, Gen 42:9), communications have always played an important role in Jewish religious life. The great import of communications can be traced from the Bible to the Talmudic exchanges between the Jewish communities in Israel and Babylon, continuing through the Geonic period when the responsa literature (Halakhic questions and answers) began to flourish, and persisting throughout history (Bacher 1906).

However, it is with the advent of sophisticated global communications – based on satellite, optical fibre, wireless technologies, etc. – that this responsa genre has taken on new proportions, with questions and answers produced on a daily basis via email and SMS messaging. But the great advances in intercommunications, enabled by these infrastructure technologies, have allowed for much more than ultrafast global messaging of Halakhic questions and answers. Modern communications have revolutionized the global Jewish community, allowing for international participation in educational seminars, ceremonial events, and sharing of communal gatherings (Gerstenfeld 2006: 123).

Yet, despite its broad adoption for many purposes, modern communications have given rise to numerous Halakhic questions, often having to do with ‘the human touch’ – here, in the quite literal sense of actual human contact. For example: can one perform the commandments of visiting the sick or comforting the mourner? Can one participate in religious services – e.g. prayer with a minyan, Torah reading, Megillah reading, Passover seder, study conclusion (siyum) – via phone or Zoom? While some accommodation has been made under duress (e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic), by and large, ‘virtual’ participation to fulfil religious commandments is not accepted (Erenreich 2020). In a time when human interactions are increasingly being pushed into the ‘virtual’ space, the Halakhic demand for ‘the human touch’ can be seen as a clarion call, not to distance ourselves from technology, but to appreciate our humanity (on the importance of non-virtual human relations, see Turkle 2011).

3.5 Electricity

With the discovery of the electron in 1897, the world forever changed. Electricity, and all the electronic devices that followed, and continue to follow, allow for so many great improvements in the human condition that it is impossible to enumerate. Electricity has impacted virtually all the applications discussed in the previous sections but is deserving of its own section for its impact on Shabbat, the weekly day of rest. It is an oversimplification to call it a ‘day of rest’, for the positive injunction to rest is accompanied by the negative one to refrain from creative labours.

The Mishnah (Shabbat 7:2) delineates the thirty-nine creative labours (melachot) and ‘electricity’ is, of course, not one of them. Its categorization has provided no end of consternation for the legal decision makers (poskim), with many ideas raised and rejected (Broyde 1991). In the end, while not unanimously accepted, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Israel, 1910–1995) maintains that as long as the operation of an electrical device does not generate heat and light (which would resemble the prohibited labour of ‘fire’), the only prohibition would be uvdin dechol – engaging in weekday activities on Shabbat.

Categorizing electronic devices as uvdin dechol – which is rooted in the ‘spirit of the day’ and not in the thirty-nine melachot – may seem to weaken the prohibition against using them on Shabbat, but precisely the opposite is true. For it is uvdin dechol that underscores the very meaning of Shabbat, the very meaning of technology in the human endeavour, the very meaning of the human place in creation. The idea was perhaps best articulated by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (United States, 1907–1972):

In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbour and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments, and practical affairs, as well as of attachment to the spirit. (Heschel 1993: 29)

Heschel here underscores what could be called the dialectical message of the Shabbat. In a positive sense, Shabbat is a holy day, an ‘island’ in time dedicated to spirituality. In a negative sense, Shabbat is a day when creative labours are forbidden. These contrasting definitions of Shabbat convey a dual message that is ultimately one. On the one hand, Shabbat serves as symbol and reminder of the perfection that human creativity is to strive towards. On the other hand, Shabbat serves as symbol and reminder, by way of contrast, that we must work on the other six days of the week, that we must apply human creativity and technological innovation to complete creation.

It is this very dialectical message that is at the heart of uvdin dechol: we must keep technology in its proper perspective by refraining from its use on that island in time which reminds us of the ultimate purpose towards which technology is developed. Even if, technically, we can use our electronics, fundamentally we must not. This message has taken on such urgency in our ‘always connected’ world that ‘keeping Shabbat’ has become a phenomenon even outside the Jewish religious world (see, e.g., Shlain 2010).

3.6 Transportation

Already in the early biblical stories – be it Eliezer using camels to transport Rivka to marry Isaac (Gen 24:61), or Joseph sending wagons to transport Jacob and family to Egypt (Gen 45:27) – transportation is of noted importance. But as with other modern innovations, the advent of modern transportation – trains (1804), planes (1903), or automobiles (1886) – has had a huge impact on religious life (Gerstenfeld 2006: 122). Perhaps the most powerful example is what can be seen as the fulfilment of the prophecy of bringing the Jewish people home ‘on eagle’s wings’ (Isa 40:31).

As with other advances in technology, modern transportation has raised many Halakhic questions, primary among which are the issues related to crossing the dateline (Tropper 1999). Determining how to count days in such a situation impacts many religious observances, including: omer, niddah, Hanukkah, brit mila, shiva, sheloshim, etc. (Bleich 1989: 26f.). Similarly, travelling to the polar regions where the sun never sets gives rise to questions about how to determine Shabbat, as well as other religious activities timed to the passage of the day, such as prayer and candle lighting (Bleich 2005: 75f). These questions arose once again with the advent of space travel (2005: 75). In all these cases, while some poskim counsel to avoid such situations, most accept the wonders of going farther and faster than ever before and only try to attend to the resultant exigencies.

3.7 Artificial intelligence (AI)

The advent of artificial intelligence (AI) has been hailed as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, bringing automation in ways that were once the stuff of science fiction: social robots, autonomous vehicles, autonomous weapons, virtual reality, virtual assistants, smart homes, and the list goes on. As with prior technological revolutions, the Jewish religious community has largely accepted the innovations as positively benefitting the human condition, albeit with the need to discern the Halakhic implications of each application.

The Halakhic issues raised by the deployment of AI, as with all electronics, are prominent in relation to Shabbat – e.g. can you ask a virtual assistant, like Alexa, for help (Katan 2021), can you ride in an autonomous vehicle (Misholov 2019), can you make use of ‘Smart Home’ infrastructure (Rimon 2017). There are also ethical and social issues for which the Halakhah seeks to reify in law. On the ethical plane, AI raises questions like: should you be polite to your mindless robo-assistant (Navon 2021)? Is it ethical to deploy autonomous weapons (Navon 2023a)? What is the ethical driving policy for an autonomous vehicle (Navon 2023b)? And so on. On the social plane, large language models (LLMs, e.g. ChatGPT) have raised a red flag in the ultra-Orthodox community, which sees the app in the same light as the internet – i.e. promoting immodesty and heresy – and has thus sought to ban it (Goldberg 2023).

Perhaps the most profound issue at the interface of Halakhah, ethics, and society is the position of the Rav, the Posek (legal decisor). If the printing press and the internet engendered a ‘diminution of authority’, AI has magnified the issue manifold times. That is, if people with printed copies of the Shulchan Aruch claimed they no longer needed to consult their rabbi on Halakhic issues (Schacter 2020: 14–16), the internet has made that attitude exponentially more prevalent, many referring to their newfound source of authority as ‘Rabbi Google’. The Rabbinic response has decried the use of computer databases as a substitute for Rabbinical advice, explaining that human rabbis account for what is left unwritten and apply what computers cannot: ‘the human touch’ – here in the sense of empathy, consideration, etc. (Lichtenstein 2002; Bleich 2005: xif.). But the issue has been exacerbated with the emergence of LLMs, which enable individuals to engage in human-like conversations encompassing the gamut of Halakhic topics. As a result, the debate over the role of the rabbi versus the robot is only just beginning (Cherlow 2023a; 2023b).

3.8 Engaging in the commandments

As can be understood from the above examples, the introduction of new technology is met with both an interest to adopt it and a concern to regulate it according to the values expressed in Halakhah. The need for regulation, however, does not diminish the broad acceptance that envisions technology as a means to repair the world and relieve humanity of its burdens. That said, there is an overarching value that emphasizes the importance of exerting effort in fulfilling the commandments as an expression of love for God. This value, known as ‘engaging in the commandments’ (osek be’mitzvah, toreich bemitzvah), presents a counterbalance to the general embrace of technological advancements. It suggests that one should forego technological conveniences that reduce the time and effort required to fulfil a commandment, such as using pre-filled oil candles for lighting Hanukkah candles (Mansour 2022).

This position is important because it reveals a tension between acceptance and rejection of technology within Jewish theology. On one hand, there is a value of improving the human condition to enable a focus on the spiritual. On the other hand, the value of ‘engaging in the commandments’ reflects the aim of spiritual focus itself. However, taking the rejection of technological convenience to its logical conclusion would return humans to ploughing their fields by hand. Furthermore, it could be argued that fulfilling a commandment in its most efficient manner would allow one to engage in many more commandments. Perhaps this tension can be resolved by accepting, as a general rule, technological advancements in all their Halakhically acceptable forms, while allowing individuals to selectively extend the time and effort involved in ‘engaging in the commandments’ as a means of spiritual focus.

3.9 Miscellaneous

As mentioned at the outset of this section, it would be nigh impossible to compile an exhaustive list of the almost-limitless Halakhic issues arising from technology. Nevertheless, listed here are a number of significant issues from the Halakhic reviews of Rabbi J. David Bleich (United States, 1941–):

  • Can microphones (Bleich 1977: 225f), hearing aids, or cochlear implants (2016: 425f.) be used on Shabbat or for the sake of commandments that demand hearing – e.g. shofar, megillah?
  • What is the status of cultured meat (Bleich 2016: 55f.)?
  • Can silk screening be used to produce a sefer Torah (Bleich 2005: 357f.)?
  • Can video surveillance be used to: provide testimony of witnessing a crime, supervise milk production, etc? (Bleich 2016: 101f.)?
  • Can electric lights be used in place of Shabbat candles or Hanukkah candles (Bleich 1977: 219f.)?
  • On Shabbat, can one use an elevator (Bleich 1977: 35f.), photosensitive eyeglasses (1983: 14f.), microwave ovens (1995: 104f.), or leave a radio or television on (1995: 357f.)?
  • Given air travel, what is the blessing for a safe journey (tefillat haderech), and the blessing upon return (birkat hagomel; Bleich 1989: 26f.)?

4 Eschatology and ethics

The Jewish theological perspective on technology, which began with the notion that the world was left unfinished by the creator, allowing for humans to complete it through technological advancements, culminates in the eschatological vision of a world perfected. It will be a time, in the words of Maimonides (Spain, 1138–1204), when

[t]here will be neither famine or war, envy or competition for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God. (Laws of Wars and Kings 12:5)

Yet how, one may ask, will humans be able to so occupy themselves? One answer is provided by the Gemara: ‘There will be a time when the Land of Israel will produce baked cakes and silk garments’ (Ketubot 111b). That is, nature itself will be perfected, in consonance with man’s ethical perfection, and simply give forth all human needs without human effort (Rabbi Elyashiv, Ketubot 111b, s.v. atida eretz yisrael). But the Midrash has another answer: ‘Our work will be done by others’ (see Torah Temimah, Exod 31:15; 34). While it was not clear just who the rabbis of the Midrash thought the ‘others’ were to be, contemporary predictions that AI will fulfil all human tasks within the next one hundred years (Grace 2018) make it seem clear that the ‘others’ will be AI-powered (Moravec 1999).

Yet Jewish theology does not believe that this halcyon (messianic) era will be the product of technology, sophisticated though it may be. Rather, it is incumbent upon humanity to not only develop technology, but to do so ethically. This idea is hinted at in a number of Midrashim. One explains that the verse giving humans ‘dominion’ can go two ways: If they (i.e. human beings) will behave according to the ‘image of God’, then they will dominate, but if they will not behave according to the ‘image of God’, then they will be dominated (Y. Shimoni, Gen 14). Another Midrash, quoted previously (section 2.2), makes the point in the first person:

When God created the first human beings, He led them around all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said, ‘Behold My works, how beautiful and commendable they are! All that I have created; I created for your sake. Pay heed that you don’t corrupt and destroy my universe; for if you corrupt it there is no one to repair it after you’. (Eccl. R. 7:13)

Loike and Tendler take this Midrash to have direct bearing on modern technology: ‘Application of new technology is not a simple matter and not all technology should be introduced to society. Technology that can lead to social upheaval and destruction should not be pursued’ (2007: 42).

Similarly, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Israel, 1865–1935) articulates the necessity of ethical responsibility in the technological endeavour, but with an important twist:

Behold, if human abilities will increase exceedingly, yet human goodwill fail to develop according to pure ethics, will not such power, then, benefit only man’s material being […] selfish concern overriding moral concern […] leading, per force, to an onerous life for all?! […] And in contrast, by applying ethics to guide these powers [of ability and will], great good and blessing will be achieved by both the individual and the world. For truly, the complete good will come specifically from the perfect joining of these two forces – the ability and the will – [with the intent] toward the good end. […] This is the ultimate approach to human endeavour, wherein ‘ability and will’ are unified toward the fulfilment of that sublime goal: the perfection of man. (Kook 1906: 24)

What is so important about Rabbi Kook’s formulation is that he not only warns of the negative consequences of unethical technological applications, but also emphasizes the positive imperative to develop ethical technological applications toward the very completion of creation. Rabbi Kook thus provides a fitting summary to the Jewish theological perspective on technology: pursue technology by all means – within the ethical guidelines of the Torah and toward the divine purposes of the Torah – to bring creation to its halcyon completion.

Attributions

Copyright Mois Navon (CC BY-NC)

Bibliography

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