The Beit Midrash in the Age of Snapchat

From Section:
Technology & Computers
Nov. 30, 2017

Source: The Lehrhaus

This past summer I directed an immersive Talmud Fellowship program for high school women at Drisha, and over the course of a very intensive five weeks, I came to realize that the traditional Jewish learning culture may be more powerful than ever as a force to combat the pernicious effects of technology, and enhance its benefits. Certain aspects of the “old school” way of learning are uniquely equipped to address the new challenges that confront us and in that way, are themselves revolutionary. I will focus on three aspects of that learning.

The intensive havruta experience focuses on this type of relationship, and thereby promotes profound individual growth. A productive havruta involves listening carefully, pushing back, sharpening, questioning, suggesting, inviting dialogue and disagreement. It is a mode of both learning and teaching, and the two operate in a feedback loop: the more one learns, the more one can teach, and the more that one teaches, the more one learns. It is a mode of communication and dialogue that is being erased from contemporary discourse.

There are many positives in these media which are important for adolescent development, but they should complement and not replace face-to-face, in-depth conversations. Educators and parents can foster such development, actively creating opportunities and spaces for meaningful, focused dialogue to take place in real time. Dedicating large blocks of time to serious havruta study is a way to enable students to be present while listening, challenging, and engaging. Our experience certainly tracks with the research on havruta study: it can truly be a transformative mode of learning and can revolutionize contemporary discourse.

Sacred Spaces: Kedushat Makom, Technology Integration and Divestment
Schools and educational institutions spend a lot of time and money strategically thinking about how to best integrate technology into classrooms and learning environments. The online Torah resources, apps, and open source materials at our disposal to influence and animate the way we learn and teach are incredible. The proliferation of resources has shaped and continues to re-shape the fundamental nature of our classrooms, and needs to be embraced. I am actually participating in Sefaria’s Partnership Initiative this year, because the transformative potential is undeniable.

Alongside the focus on technology integration, however, it seems to me critically important for educators and parents to also focus on technology divestment and to create tech-free zones for their students and children. Without adults imposing this from on high, it becomes very hard for kids to learn how to disconnect and self-monitor. Some research suggests that as a result they have become more lonely and isolated, and possibly even more depressed. For them to be fully present in experiences with others, they need the adults in their lives to impose limitations and create a culture of self-discipline.

Focus and balance: La-asok be-Divrei Torah
A key feature of the Drisha Summer high school program is the focused, holistic, and immersive nature of the experience. Students come to spend five weeks learning in New York City, in a rigorous and intensive program characterized by concentrated text study. While there, instead of sealing them off from the world, they are asked to view communities and societies, culture and art, leisure and literature through the lens of the Torah that they study.

The holistic nature of the experience allows the ideas that are explored with rigor in the texts studied to transcend the walls of the beit midrash and permeate all aspects of their lives. In many ways this is what it means to be la-asok be-divrei Torah. The core experience connects to and influences all else.

Navigating the complexity of this interconnectedness is what our teenagers are confronted with on a moment to moment basis; when they study in the beit midrash and when they explore the urban jungle. To help them in this rapidly evolving and shifting world, the tools and values that are core parts of our traditional frameworks can be enormously powerful. In the age of distraction, the art of havruta, sacred spaces, and holistic learning environments teach them to stop, listen, notice, prioritize, think, and imagine, so they can live fully integrated lives. 

Updated: Feb. 12, 2018
Bible studies | Havruta | Pedagogy | Talmud studies | Technology