Tackling the intersection of Torah and technology

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‘PREVIOUSLY UNIMAGINED collaborations between halachic experts and renowned faculty members from JCT’s computer science, engineering and health sciences departments, along with guest academic scholars, will provide a groundbreaking centralized authority for the international Jewish community on the (photo credit: REUTERS)

Alexa, can you turn off those lights in the kitchen?The rapid pace of technological development and innovation has many Shabbat-observant Jews asking how can Alexa fit into their Sabbath observance. In fact, this is just one of the numerous contemporary questions that find themselves at the intersection of Torah and modern technology. Is it permissible to ride in an autonomous vehicle on Shabbat? Can “meat” grown from the cells of a pig be kosher, or even parve? The possibilities – and their associated consequences – are seemingly endless.These new-age gray areas within Halacha(Jewish law) stem from the rapid ongoing development of the worlds of Torah and technology. Today’s halachic and rabbinic authorities not only struggle to keep up with the flood of questions regarding issues that never previously existed, but in many cases they also lack the technological expertise necessary to understand the full scope of those issues.Until now, there has been no centralized, scholarly body equipped to organically tackle the multitude of the halachic implications and questions that arise as a result of modern technology. But a couple of months ago the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) launched that very entity – the first-of-its-kind Torah and Technology Research Center, which will provide the diverse, specialized, expertise which is needed to respond to the complex ethical and halachic issues of our times. The expertise will be culled from a unique combination of rabbinic scholars and professors of science and engineering functioning within the kind of mutually supportive environment needed for such a joint effort to succeed.Previously unimagined collaborations between halachic experts and renowned faculty members from JCT’s computer science, engineering and health sciences departments, along with guest academic scholars, will provide a groundbreaking centralized authority for the international Jewish community on the interplay between Torah and modern technology. The center will also work with other organizations (both companies and not-for-profits) to facilitate the development of innovative technologies specifically adapted to meet halachic requirements for Shabbat. Among other areas, it will publish both advanced scholarly treatises and readily accessible academic material for the public, and host international symposia that will bring leading experts from around the world to JCT to discuss the most recent innovations and developments on both the halachic and technological fronts. An innovative web-based forum will also allow the center to encourage public engagement in the discussion of these topics with an eye toward identifying new approaches and new ideas, and with the hope that we can enhance communal understanding, connection and broad buy-in for some of the more complex topics and futuristic innovations.The Torah and Technology Research Center will operate under the direction of internationally respected posek (halachic decisor) Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon, head of JCT’s yeshiva and Jewish studies programs. Rabbi Rimon’s unique qualifications to lead the center are reflected in his halachic writings, which are known for taking readers from the Torah sources to the practical application of Halacha in our modern world within the framework of a user-friendly, pedagogical methodology. This includes a recently published work, Shabbat, a two-volume set of books (the prelude to a planned seven-volume series) which features a comprehensive analysis of the prohibitions of Shabbat.At the same time, on an institution-wide level, JCT is in a unique position to support this groundbreaking center due to its abundance of religiously and technologically sophisticated faculty and students, spanning the range of the Orthodox Jewish world from haredi to National-Religious. Unpacking the Torah-technology balance in halachic decision-making is a natural extension of JCT’s institutional ethos of encouraging students to integrate Torah studies into their day-to-day academic life.Further, the center cuts to the core of the college’s founding vision.The original blueprint of JCT’s founder and first president, Prof. Ze’ev Lev, was to establish a higher education institution that would educate bnei Torah (seriously religious torah students) with a special sensitivity to the State of Israel’s greatest needs. For instance, when JCT’s Electro-optics Engineering Department was launched in 1969, it was the first of its kind in Israel and among the first in the world. Prof. Lev saw the need and JCT’s students delivered, using their unique training in an emerging field to pioneer the technologies that continue to ensure the safety of countless Israeli citizens. Today, the electro-optics expertise emanating from JCT’s campus holds the key to high-speed communication and imaging capabilities that feed Israel’s defense sector and its booming tech start-up scene.Extending beyond engineering, the same vision is embodied in other programs at the college. Addressing the Jewish state’s severe shortage of nurses – as the country stands near the bottom of the OECD in nurse-to-patient ratio – JCT’s Nursing Department has been ranked first among its over 20 peer institutions nationwide by the Israeli Health Ministry.Now, through the nascent Torah and Technology Research Center, JCT is once again filling a pressing need – not just for Israel, but for all of the Jewish people, as they address contemporary questions and concerns at the interface of technology and Halacha.The writer is president of the Jerusalem College of Technology.
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