HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

“Learning Alone” is as Anemic as “Bowling Alone”

by Rabbi Jack Bieler Issue: Technology and Jewish Education
TOPICS : Technology

In his profound book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam discusses how Americans’ “social capital”, i.e., the nature of and extent to which we relate to one another, has been progressively shrinking. The book’s title stems from research that has ascertained that while there are more Americans bowling today, they do so as individuals rather than within leagues. Isolation from human interaction has many effects. It undercuts our sense of democracy—the recognition that our society is composed of multiple ethnic and national groups and the importance of all of us being represented and heard by government. It affects our need and ability to empathize with those who are different from us and our opportunities for exchanging ideas and concerns, exposing ourselves to those who may disagree with us. Human interaction can even teach us a thing or two that is currently beyond our experience, and make us sensitive to the needs of our fellow citizens and human beings.

One of the contributing factors to our increased isolation from one another is the growth and expansion of the Internet as well as the massive resources now available on discs ready for insertion into our personal CD-ROM drives. On the one hand, being able to access myriad libraries, books, magazines, newspapers and essays from the comfort of our homes allows us to research and educate ourselves in ways that were literally inconceivable only a few short years ago. On the other hand, we usually stare at our screens alone, cut off both physically and emotionally from those around us. We no longer have to go to a library, a Beit Midrash, even a university. We can study at home, in a Starbucks or on the beach as long as we are equipped with the proper hardware and software. The Jewish world is well-represented in cyberspace, and there are a plethora of sites that make accessible information, illustrations, translations, primary sources, and answers to questions. One can even prepare for one’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah by means of certain programs and websites without the benefit of a mentor, role model, or teacher.

But the cost in “Jewish social capital” that one ends up paying when he chooses to opt for virtual rather than in-person study is not negligible. When we sit alone in front of a computer screen, we may be relating to someone’s ideas, but not to the authors of those ideas as individuals and human personalities. Taken a step further, we have no sense of classmates, no atmosphere of excited learning where students and teacher feed off of one another, and no community of learners and learning. Even in a chat room, where give-and-take occurs, the conversation never reaches the personal level where one can look into another’s eyes, watch the expression on someone’s face as they talk and respond to or question them. What sort of relationship do I develop with a peer, let alone a teacher if we never see one another or hear each other’s voices?

The Rabbis in the times of the Talmud understood well the importance of face-to-face study as opposed to sitting alone in a room, surrounded by books, or for that matter staring at a computer screen, reflecting upon and composing one’s own ideas in isolation.

Berachot 63b

(Deuteronomy 27:9) “Hasket (listen) and hear Israel! This day you shall become a people unto the L-rd, your G-d”…

R. Tanchum son of R. Chiya, a man from Kfar Acco said:…The word hasket implies: Make yourselves into groups (kitot) to study the Torah, since the knowledge of the Torah can only be acquired in association with others, as stated by R. Yose b. Chanina…What is the meaning of the text, (Jeremiah 50:36) “A sword is upon the boasters (badim) and they shall become fools”? A sword is upon the disciples of the wise who sit separately (bad bevad) and study the Torah. What is more, they become fools…what is more they are sinners… (i.e., not only do these scholars fail to make progress in their studying, but they even retrogress and will have to give an accounting of why they did not make more productive use of their time by learning together with one another rather than alone).

And then there is the haunting account of R. Yochanan’s heart-wrenching lament when his longstanding study partner passed away and an adequate replacement could not be found:

Bava Metzia 84a

Reish Lakish died and R. Yochanan was plunged into deep grief. The Rabbis said, “Who shall go to ease his mind? Let R. Eleazar b. Pedat go, whose Torah interpretations are very sophisticated.” So he went and sat before him. With regard to every statement made by R. Yochanan, R.E.b.P. said, “There is a source that supports you!” “Are you the son of Lakish?” he complained. “When I stated a law, the son of Lakish used to raise 24 questions to which I would give 24 answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law, while you say, ‘A source has been taught which supports you’. Don’t I know myself that my ideas are correct?” Thus he went on tearing his garments and weeping, “Where are you O son of Lakish, where are you O son of Lakish?”

The traditional Jewish term for one’s study partner, the roles played by R. Yochanan and Reish Lakish for one another, is chevruta, which suggests much more than simply studying with a friend. The assumption is that one’s study partner becomes over time his companion, an extension of himself, someone who comes to mean a great deal, a literal “fellow traveler”. Because the seeking out of ideas is shared so intimately between those who study together, the bonds that unite them become deep and meaningful. To expect this to happen via the Internet or even some type of advanced interactive software does not appear to be viable. We should continue to study with one another in person, even as we have our computers at our side, ready to look up at amazing speed the raw materials that will make our mutual learning with one another successful and productive.

Rabbi Jack Bieler is the Rabbi of Kemp Mill Synagogue and a member of the Judaic Studies faculty at M.J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, MD. Rabbi Bieler can be reached at: jackbieler@aol.com.

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