There seems to be some confusion about technology and how it relates to Jews. I get the impression that “technology” is used most commonly nowadays to mean “shiny electric things we use for convenience and entertainment”. A student of history (and language) would be quite aware of the much broader meaning of technology. Technology is the application of skills to produce something useful, essentially. In modern times, this involves the application and advancement of science. In ancient and medieval civilization, technology was more like a craft (“making stuff”). So it perplexes me that “technology” has become a word that is infamous when mentioned in a sichas mussar, and simultaneously arrogant when mentioned in historical analysis. In fact, I would dare say that we imagine the future of civilization most superficially (especially in science-fiction) when we come to see technology as something we would be privy to have rather than something to actively create (as part of a much larger Creation).
Why do I describe technology as “creation”? Well, simply put, human creation is a mirror of Divine Creation. HaShem willed the specific existence we know out of infinite possibilities, and we express our dynamic, ever-expanding will by forming something that had not previously existed in physical form. In one sense, just as Creation was yesh me’ayin (limited thingness out of unlimited not-thingness), our creation is also new, unexpected, and previously non-existent. On the other hand, our physical and psychological creation is like a different stage of Divine Creation, yesh mi’yesh (limited thingness resulting from a combination of other limited things). And as Shlomo HaMelech said several times, “ein chadash tachas ha’shemesh”; HaShem transcends time, and thus all is already created in reality1.
Our Lives Should Mirror The Divine
In fact, there are many indications that the world was created in order to be completed by man, both physically and metaphysically. It is fundamental to the Torah’s ontology and teleology (which are basically the same) that Creation is meant to achieve “tikkun”, to be repaired by being improved systematically in many different ways using the same Divine Oneness. Without getting into it, a term sometimes found in Kabbalah to describe this is translated as “fixing vessels”, but the better translation for us is probably “machines”. Machines (and all of technology and craft) accomplish tasks as conglomerates of parts and functions, powered by some kind of energy. So, from a broad perspective, technology is an intended microcosm of Creation.
At the end of the day, I could try and find where the Torah tells me to be creative and innovative (a vague pasuk here and there in B’reishis), but I could also realize that humankind has an intended purpose (a multidimensional “tikkun”) that it will fulfill one way or another, and everyday life should mirror that and seek to actualize the Divine technology. There’s really no need to find textual proofs for logical assertions that are very probably assumed in the text2. If someone really wants to claim that creativity is in some general way stifled by Halacha, the burden of proof would be on them. It seems shallow to me to see Torah as arcane and stagnant just because Yeshayah wasn’t demanding spacecrafts and Chazal weren’t making bifocals. Technology is simply a much larger existential category to them than it is to us, because they understood that material success is interconnected with ultimate purpose. Is technology evil in the eyes of our great ancestors? Probably not. Do smartphones make us better off than we used to be? Not necessarily at all. Should you do things with excellence and purpose? That sounds like a good idea.
Indeed, some say art is a silly waste of time. Some say it’s inherently valuable. They’re all wrong.
Much of what I posited regarding technology will apply here, but there is something more fundamentally misunderstood in art that needs to be discussed. The purpose, definition, and value of art has always been a topic of discussion, it seems, and theories of art deal with psychology, sociology, morality, science, and philosophy. Objectivity and subjectivity, though, are always at the heart of the debate: What are we supposed to express? Should my art reflect my subjectivity because it’s subjective, or maybe it’s objective? Is anything objective?
If those are the questions, one would imagine the Torah to be pretty straightforward and say something like “HaShem is objective, people are stupid; stop trying to express your driftwood existence and do something useful”, but the jump from existential humility to art isn’t explicit. There’s plenty of “HaShem is objective”, and “don’t try depicting the Infinite”, and even “mortals can be frustratingly ignorant” — but no “thou shan’t do a still-life of petunias”.
Beauty Is A Mirror Of Truth
In fact, the source for hiddur mitzvah (making mitzvos beautiful/special) is “זה א-לי ואנוהו א-להי אבי וארוממנהו”, a pasuk from Az Yashir that demonstrates the immense degree of revelation at Yam Suf, and which is understood by Chazal3 to mean four things, all via different Hebrew roots related to “ואנוהו”. From this one word, not only do we learn to make religious objects aesthetically pleasing, but also to reflect the Divine in behavior, build His Temple, and openly praise Him. That’s a hefty load of theology for one word. It could easily be deduced that beauty must be meaningful if HaShem wants it, and it would follow that art is what HaShem wants. We all then feel vindicated, because we like being creative and “expressing ourselves” anyway, and now even our strict Father in Heaven is cool with it.
But note the context of this pasuk: our ancestors are watching the world around them being totally rocked by its Creator, and reward and punishment materializing simultaneously. They grasp the Divine order (“a housekeeper saw things Yechezkel never saw”), and all of the millions of individuals are enthused to sing the same song (which they have never heard before). What do they now understand as a result? The number of angels? The color of the sun? No. They know something much greater: the goal of understanding the existential aesthetic is to parallel it in actions of existential convergence (the Mitzvos), to build it a monolithic portal from which to be broadcast in the world (the Beis HaMikdash), to be its outspoken champion, and to represent it with every fiber of your being.
There are also halachos governing what can and cannot be portrayed depending on context and purpose, as sort of a Biblical safeguard against idolatry and temple-reproduction. There are healthy limits in Jewish art. That is a fact to deal with. Honestly, the anarchy of modern art, in contrast, helps me understand the necessity of those limits. Expression of any kind can be productive in profound ways, and it can also become a raw force of destruction if it is allowed free reign. Beauty, however it is defined, is ideally a mirror of truth. When it is distorted to obscure the truth with physicality, beauty and its form in art are detrimental.
Chazal say “Three things expand man’s consciousness: a nice wife, a nice home, and nice things”4 (“nice” in the Hebrew also means “proper”), and while I don’t think the list is exclusive, I see that Chazal understand beauty to be useful experientially in order to achieve greater clarity, but not as an end in itself.
Go re-create beautiful truth.