Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Is Creativity Possible in the Information Age?

We live in an age where more information is available with greater ease than ever before. This applies to Torah just as much as any other subject, perhaps even more. The ingathering of exiles that broke down (to some degree) communal barriers, the relatively low cost of publication thanks to printing technology, the electronic revolution that opens entire libraries through your computer, and the widespread wealth that allows people to take advantage of these technologies offer unprecedented amounts. But is all this information stifling?

Barriers to Creativity

Most people lack the training in both Torah and technology to excel in their use of this additional information. This has led to the growth of the genre of collection literature -- essays and books that collect opinions on various subjects. In itself, this requires highly developed skills of comprehension, summarization and explanation. While the genre can entail a certain amount of creativity in the presentation, it generally includes minimal original thinking. There is very little if any creative Torah in collection literature.

Even those who do not write such literature can find their creativity stifled. The sheer volume of available analyses on any subject is overwhelming. A thorough student will find multiple views on any subject and will have to carefully sort through the different variations of each view. This is usually a non-trivial intellectual effort that diverts attention from original thinking. It also points one's mind in a specific direction, biasing a thinker about the proper way to approach a subject.

Finally, there is a humility factor. A modest student, aware of his limitations, will hesitate before taking a different path than the many authorities of the past and present. If you truly venerate the different commentators, and someone has always said something on any subject, you will find it difficult to disagree and offer a conflicting suggestion.

The Value of Creativity

These are no small problems. Even when overcome on occasion, even when a student has a flash of insight and follows it, these issues can still remain as general impediments to creativity.

While some may accept this situation as a welcome development, it seems to me to be a limitation on our ability to properly learn. The blessing of "Ahavah Rabbah" prior to the morning Shema, which focuses on the study of Torah, contains a request that we be able to hear, to learn, to teach, to keep, to do and to fulfill. The simple understanding of "to keep" and "to do" is that it refers to observing negative and positive commandments. But then what is "to fulfill"?

The Netziv (Ha'amek Davar, Lev. 18:5 in Harcheiv Davar), however, has an original interpretation of these phrases. He sees them as continuations of the types of learning. "To keep" means to remember one's Torah learning and "to do" means to innovate new Torah interpretations. According to the Netziv, creative interpretation is integral to Torah study. It is part of what we ask for in the blessings of Shema.

Regaining Creativity

There are a few strategies to overcoming these barriers. One is to simply refrain from utilizing all of the available resources. This is how I was taught to learn: Choose a few classics to which you always refer and if you come across a big problem that you can't solve, then look beyond that small library.

Another is to overcome your humility and offer suggestions of new approaches. Caution is required here. Some (most?) original thinkers do not have to overcome their humility because they were not blessed with a large portion of it. This eventually becomes clear to readers, some sooner than others. When I realize that an original thinker is arrogant toward his predecessors, I usually just tune him out. I have no interest in what he has to say. The difference between being reluctantly original and arrogantly original is, I believe, eventually the difference between tradition and heresy.

Finally, we have to realize that not everyone was meant to be an original thinker. Such a status requires both extensive and broad training as well as unusual intellect. Those of us who are merely above average (isn't everyone?) but not exceptional should not be offering anything other than the occasional harmless original thought. Therefore, we have time to collect opinions while the geniuses create new sources for us to utilize.

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