Sunday, April 21st | 16 Nisan 5779

March 24, 2017 6:19 am

Why People Must Learn From Other People

avatar by Pini Dunner

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Moses Breaking the Tables of the Law (1659) by Rembrandt. Photo: Wikipedia.

Anyone who uses an iPhone is familiar with the silvery voice of “Siri” — an electronic personal assistant that (who?) responds to questions. You can ask Siri anything, and “she” will either give you a one-sentence answer in a monotonic voice, or pull up the most relevant answer from the Internet and send it to your screen.

Siri’s creators realized early on that users would relate to the disembodied voice coming out of their device, and tried to give Siri a personality. In fact, the relationship users have developed with Siri is so humanized that they are not just asking her frivolous or informational questions, but also more fundamental questions, such as, “What is the meaning of life?”

Siri’s creators put a lot of thought into scripting various responses to this particular question, ranging from the rather cheesy philosopher-related pun, “I Kant answer that. Ha ha!” to the more evasive, “That’s easy… it’s a philosophical question concerning the purpose and significance of life or existence in general” or,“All evidence to date suggests it’s chocolate.”

But for all the cleverness that these answers demonstrate, the fundamental question of life — and others like it — are misdirected if they are aimed at electronic repositories of knowledge.

The ubiquity of electronic information, a revolution that has mushroomed exponentially over just a few decades, has had some quite extraordinary consequences — as people now rely on devices instead of humans to get information.

An astonishing 2012 study carried out by Birmingham University in the UK discovered that more than half of children aged 5-15 used Google as their first point of call when seeking information. And if, by some chance, Google was not able to provide a satisfactory answer, 20 percent went to Wikipedia as their next stop, while just 3 percent — that is, just 3 out of 100 children — asked their teacher or parent for assistance.

After all, why bother asking Mom or Dad if Siri knows better? And, of course, she has a better sense of humor.

Judaism is entirely geared away from this emerging model of study that relies almost exclusively on non-human informational resources. Jewish tradition is heavily based on mentoring and role-modeling, not just information and knowledge. And this message emanates loud and clear from our Torah portion this week — “Vayakhel” — which begins with Moses congregating the entire nation together at God’s request, so that he can teach them the laws of Sabbath observance.

The Midrash observes that there is no portion of the Torah that begins with the words “Moses congregated the people” besides this one, which means that God particularly wants important information, such as the complex laws of the Sabbath, to be imparted only when there are groups of people together. The Talmud uses this text as the source for the custom that mandates that — in the lead up to any festival, and particularly Passover — one should arrange public lectures on topics related to the festival, and should make them as interactive as possible.

The whole concept of learning — most certainly when it comes to the study of Torah — is not just about obtaining and absorbing factual information. There is something much more valuable than facts, namely the interaction that occurs between people discussing and reviewing those facts. Neither Google nor Siri will ever be able to help children — or adults — understand the importance of information. Excising this crucial element of learning from the equation is not just a mistake, but potentially dangerous.

I am certainly no Luddite. I am partial to both Google and Siri, and use them frequently. But it is clear to me that information is always one-dimensional if it doesn’t involve interaction with others, and I am acutely aware of how much both my knowledge and my quest for knowledge is the direct result of my parents, my teachers, my study partners and all of my real life intellectual interlocutors.

The Kabbalah, our most revered type of Torah learning, cannot be truly understood unless it is “received” from someone who in turn received it similarly from their teacher. Siri may be great, but she will never be able to teach us as much as we can learn from each other.

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