Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Laptop in the Beit Midrash?

[Note: This week’s Toronto Torah עלון is now available on-line here.]

One afternoon a few weeks back, while waiting for minchah, I studied a teshuvah (responsum) by Rav Yitzchak Weiss, courtesy of my Bar Ilan CD-ROM – using a laptop. A gentleman strolled past and commented, “Try bringing that… kli [implement] into the Satmar beis medrash, it wouldn’t last a minute!”

I was non-plussed to be addressed that way, but, in truth, I share his sentiment; I am not a fan of having a laptop in the beit midrash, for several reasons:

• I like to make notes in my sefarim – not exactly do-able in a virtual margin, or at least not in the familiar way;

• Laptops, and their power sources, are clumsy, particularly in rooms that were not designed for this sort of use and which therefore lack outlets;

• This is a function of my generation, but I still find laptops stand out in a beit midrash, and distract people from their learning;

• Most of all, a laptop poses a distraction. It provides access to email and to games and to the Internet, and to distractions which can pose as legitimate for seder time (Israel News, updating our Toronto Torah website, working on our weekly Toronto Torah bulletin), but which are not.

Having said that, I now use a laptop in the beit midrash, for a few reasons:

• I have no time at home to write up shiurim and source sheets, so I need to do it in the beit midrash itself;

• I need access to sefarim beyond those stocked in our beit midrash here;

• I spend considerable time developing shiurim on new technologies (next week: Bionic Eyes), and sites like Tzomet have a lot of internet-only information necessary for understanding those halachot.

But I am still troubled – both by the problems I mentioned above, and one additional problem: Ease of Publication. Laptops, through their access to email and to the Internet, make publication entirely too easy.

Read a teshuvah and have a question, or an insight? Send it by email to your thirty closest friends. Think of a novel idea? Post it to your blog. Give a shiur? Post audio and video for all to download. Even without Net access - type up every quasi-chiddush that comes to mind and archive it for your eventual self-published sefer.

The result is that learning becomes shallow, with little thought and little review. Every question, every answer, every thought, is instantly conveyed to the masses, without careful error-checking, analysis, or even editing.

Certainly, other people are not vulnerable to this phenomenon; it’s likely only me. Nonetheless, for me, having a computer around is like being a football coach walking around with a mike on him; it lends itself to hyper-publication.

So I continue to lug my laptop to the beit midrash, but at heart I agree with my pre-minchah heckler; I am not comfortable having this kli in the beit midrash, either.


  1. This is a function of my generation
    wadr (and I am much older than you) i'd submit that this is true of the whole post. I must print from my BI-CD because I read much faster from a page of paper. The current generation has been brought up by the screen and don't need to do this. Technology will continue to evolve and we will continue to learn

    and to use it in learning.

    (or as Mitch Marmorosh Z"L said to the big D "right rebbi, back to the good old days, bubonic plague")

    Joel Rich

  2. Joel-
    Do you think the publishing part (the last bit) is also a function of the generation?

  3. Did a Rabbi from a few hundred years ago make similar comments about Sefarim being printed on printing presses for the first time? We take those for granted, even though though we have only had printing presses since the 1600's. How long will it be before laptops in the Yeshiva will be accepted, or even mandatory at some point.

    I remember seeing an advertisement for a compendium of Sepharim that was sold on ~200 GB USB drive. I have not seen it marketed in years. Anyone know what I am talking about?

  4. yes - think about the # of "halachot of x" sfarim in the last generation compared to 50 years ago. I'm not saying it's necessarily good - now every thought of any posek is turned into a psak and everyone is a published scholar (learned articles quoting blog comments)

    Joel Rich

  5. Or one could look at this "instant publishing" as a type of collaborative writing. I have a thought--I send it "out there" for others to look at. If they are being honest, they will comment on the strengths and weaknesses. They will bring in support that proves or disproves what I have written. They will be part of a dialogue rather than an isolated reader sitting somewhere with a bound book. And, as they are part of the process, involved in it as well, they will realize that what I have written is not the "last word" but more in the nature of a working draft.

    Unlike other types of print media, where the copy you are reading is the author's "final word," publishing online is only the beginning of a conversation.

  6. Marc-
    Not that I can recall, no. Although the Church was against publishing, until they brought it under their control.

    I see that as a function of crisis in the Jewish community; look at the post-Crusades and post-Expulsion publication explosions as well.

    Yes, I see that as a definite positive of this medium.