How History Can Help Us to Live in the New Digital World

We who live through such times cannot always know where they will lead, or what changes they may bring, but we can embrace the potential they offer

Changes on the horizon
Photo: Anat Hermony/Flash90

What will the future look like for humanity? How are the rapid technological advancements changing the way we live? We may never fully understand the many changes we are going through until we wake up one day to a new and strange reality. But we might gain some perspective by considering the past.

As new technologies change the way we communicate, older methods are disappearing, and the digital world is now so much a part of our every day lives we can hardly imagine living without it, even as our dependence on digital communications increases daily.

We watch in real-time how the digital revolution is changing the ways we learn and go to school, how we buy and sell, and how we interact socially with one another. These changes are radically transforming every aspect of our lives, and still, we remain unsure where this is all leading us.

What we can do is look back at earlier time when our ways of communicating changed radically and how that impacted society and what changes it engendered. When the printing press was built, it allowed us to mass produce copies of standardized texts which meant that large segments of society could now read the same books and newspapers and communities accepted widespread, common conclusions. This change in communications created the infrastructure that led to the Protestant revolution that was based on a single “authorized” text of the Bible and put into the hands of the people. It was the power of the printing press that even paved the way to the creation of the modern nation-states that could now gather people groups based on common language, culture and religion into commonwealth, a development that changed the ways we live today.

These changes naturally stirred the interest of many who looked on and wondered how to capitalize on the new powers print media made possible while others contemplated who would determine what and when people read, and who would profit from it.

Daniel Bomberg (c. 1483 – c. 1549) recognized the power of the press and put his efforts into becoming one of the most important printers of Hebrew books, until this day. The interesting thing is that Bomberg was a Christian, and he employed rabbis and scholars in his Venice publishing house where he printed and produced the first Mikraot Gdolot (Rabbinic Bible) and the first complete Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. These editions set the standards that are still in use today, including layouts of the commentaries of Rashi and Tosfot, some of Judaism’s most important texts. His publishing house printed about 200 Hebrew books, including Siddurim (prayer books), codes of law, works of philosophy and ethics, commentaries, and more. He was the first non-Jewish printer of Hebrew books. Bomberg was so devoted to the preservation of Jewish thought, that he risked his life and clashed directly with the Pope until he eventually received permission to print the Hebrew manuscripts (though later the Catholic Church would burn them).

But it was too late. The books Bomberg published had already created a common language among between Jews around the world, a development that would change Judaism and Jewish life for generations to come. An interesting anecdote showing just how far an awareness of the potential for innovation during times of great change can travel, this Christian’s dedication and love of Hebrew inspired a German Jewish cantor named Rafael Frank to develop a script for the Hebrew alphabet at the beginning of the 20th century that is still the most beautiful of all Hebrew letter design. His letters were cast in the small Leipzig foundry C. F. Rühl and thus the name “Frank-Rühl-Hebrew,” which today is still second-to-none in modern digital Hebrew fonts.

History will one day look back and explain how revolutions started and what changes they brought about, but we who live through changing times cannot easily discern where they will lead or what opportunities, and dangers, they bring. Russia joined the First World War thinking her military advantage insured victory, but in the end the social and economic upheavals of the time toppled the Czar’s regime and brought about a revolution that changed the whole world in ways no one could have predicted.

The changes that we are living through today are impacting every aspect of our lives, about how we understand and practice religion, politics, education, economy and the future of our planet. It is critical in these times to cultivate thoughtful introspection of what repercussions these changes are having on us and those around us, and remain alert to the potential breakthroughs change presents.

And through it all, we must contemplate meaningful moral convictions and ethical standards that can help guide us through the turmoil to better shores beyond.

“Blessed is the one whose confidence is in the Lord. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

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