Educational Opportunities in the 21st Century

Yeshiva University’s ‘World of Tomorrow’ Conference

On Sunday 22nd October 2017, Rabbi Sacks participated in a public conversation with Rabbi Ari Lamm as part of Yeshiva University’s ‘World of Tomorrow’ Conference, held under the direction and leadership of its new President, Rabbi Dr Ari Berman.

Listen to the audio recording of the full conversation with Rabbi Lamm, which includes the clip featured in this video.

Rabbi Ari Lamm:

Moving to the context of education. Well, of course, we are in a University. Primarily and pragmatically an educational institution. The oldest university in existence is the University of Bologna founded in 1088, and in its operations, it’s essentially identical to the manner in which a modern university operates. Students file into a classroom, a professor gives a lecture, students take notes and then retire to their homes either in or around campus. A thousand years ago that was the case. A thousand years later it’s still the case. Now, for the first time in a millennium, there are possibilities for new models of education that incorporate distance or what have you. So, what opportunities and challenges are present here, and for Judaism, a tradition that is veritably obsessed with pedagogy, what role do we have, what contributions can we make to this conversation?

Rabbi Sacks:

Well, the first contribution we can make is to point out what I haven’t seen anyone else point out, that all the great leaps, the quantum leaps, and civilisation and spirituality have occurred as a result of all coincident with a revolution in information technology.

The invention of writing in Mesopotamia was coincident with the birth of civilisation because for the first time with writing human accumulated wisdom could exceed the content of a single human memory. Judaism was born in the second revolution of information technology — the birth of the alphabet. The first alphabet proto sinitical proto sinaitic, discovered in Serabit in the Sinai desert by the turquoise mines by Flinders Petrie the British archaeologist in 1903, and it is linearly the father or the grandfather of all alphabetical systems.

Once you reduce the sum total of knowledge, not from hundreds and thousands of symbols, but 22 characters, you can for the first time conceive of a society of universal literacy and hence of the dignity of every single individual. The birth of the idea of one God, singular and alone, leads to the idea of the infinite value of one human being, singular and alone. Christianity, now I’m going on a leap year, but Christianity coincides with the use of the Codex, i.e. books with pages as opposed to scrolls.

Codices preceded Christianity, but nobody used them very much. Jews and Greeks both used scrolls. Whereas the Christians were the first systematic users of codices, and that’s why the New Testament has a different structuring principle to it than Tanach has.

The Reformation was the result of a revolution in information technology. Gutenberg and Caxton, the invention of printing. All the ideas put forward by Martin Luther, (and don’t forget this is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation when he nailed the 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral), all of those had been thought through by John Wycliffe at Oxford two centuries earlier, but John Wycliffe of Oxford didn’t have printing, so they remained local, whereas Luthers were printed in their hundreds of thousands.

So, now we are going through one of the greatest information technology revolutions of all time, and we as Jews know, or we should know, that every such revolution is kol dodi dofek, Hashem knocking at our doors saying, “Use this, legahdil Torah ulehadira, to spread Torah in ways we couldn’t have spread it before. It’s made for a small, scattered people like we are. It was made for this, but it’s made for taking a Jewish message to the world.