How Judaism Is Like an iPhone

Eikev By :  Marc Wolf Posted On Aug 23, 2008 / 5768 | Torah Commentary

Since I am a self-professed “techno-junkie,” it took considerable restraint to wait the year for the second-generation iPhone to be released. Having read every review, followed its development on blogs, and waited patiently, only recently did I purchase my iPhone. Before it was in my hand I knew everything it was capable of, yet I was surprised by one aspect: its simplicity. As an Apple aficionado, I was expecting the attractive design, but after opening the box, I realized that there was one thing missing: a manual. The iPhone expects you to intuit its functions, discover its capabilities, and just use it.

How could something so technologically advanced seem so simple?

Needless to say, I am not the first to marvel at the wonders of the iPhone—or its simplicity. Jeffrey Kluger, a senior editor at Time magazine, recently came out with a book devoted to a science that is gaining popularity in the nonscientific community, and which addresses my surprise. Simplexity—as its name suggests—recognizes that seemingly complex systems can be understood rather simply, and that what we may see as simple may have complex aspects. Simplexity asserts that there are many points when “simplicity and complexity may masquerade as each other.” As a case in point, in his preface, Kluger cites the iPhone, whose “increasingly complex software yields increasingly intuitive user interfaces.” The hypothesis of Simplexity is rooted in how we are hardwired. Kluger writes:

Of all the things that confuse human beings, perhaps nothing trips us up so much as what it means for something to be simple or complex . . . Human beings are not wired to look at things this way. We’re suckers for size, for flash, for speed, for scale; we mistake immensity for complexity and subtlety for simplicity. That has very often been our undoing. Seen through the lens of this surprising new science, the world becomes a delicate place filled with predictable patterns—patterns we often fail to see as we’re time and again fooled by our instincts, by our fear, by the size of things, and even by their beauty.

Thus, to understand something that seems complex, we should look beyond that complexity. I can think of no greater mandate for Jewish life. For a religion sometimes mired in law and ritual, Simplexity would urge us to uncover its simplicity.

This week in Parashat Eikev, we may catch a glimpse of the simplicity behind the complex system of modern Jewish practice.

And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. (Deut. 10:12-13)

Only this? How could such a simple mandate turn into a religion so complex? The answer is relatively simple, actually. We are an inquisitive people. We strive to understand the meaning behind words. We cannot simply read a text that instructs us to walk in God’s paths—we seek to define what it means to walk in God’s paths. Howshould we actively live a life walking in God’s paths?

Faced with the difficulty of explaining the very personal emotions of reverence and love, generations of commentators have emphasized the observance of commandments as the essence of the verse, focusing on the flood of laws Judaism has developed. However, with this concentration, we run the risk of eclipsing its simple message.

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky (1911–2000), reads simplicity back into our verse. In his commentary in Netivot Shalom, the Slonimer Rebbe draws attention to the fact that the mandate is to the individual. The Hebrew word me-imakh(“what does the Lord God demand of you”) is in the singular, spoken to every individual. Quoting Rabbi Isaac Luria, the famous kabbalist, the Slonimer Rebbe states:

‘Every hour, every moment, is distinct from the next since the beginning of time. Likewise, every person is unique from any other, and one is unable to accomplish what another can’ . . . This is fundamental to understanding each individual’s obligation in the world—that each individual should have total clarity of what God demands of him/her. That is the force of the singular me-imakh (of you).

The Slonimer continues to state that we achieve this clarity by recognizing what drives us; what motivates us and inspires us is what defines our true path and obligation to God. With this reading, we begin to understand why the verse ends in the particular, “for your good.”

Traditional rabbinic interpretation of “what God demands of us” sought to incorporate the entire legal and ritual system of Judaism, making something that was rather simple (“only this . . . ”), much more complex. The Slonimer’s reading simplifies this by recognizing that religion must speak to the individual—and through this personalization, it begins to become clear what God demands of us, and how we accomplish that. Both look at the same verse and see either its simplicity or complexity. Our challenge is to balance simplicity/complexity.

While Simplexity would encourage us to look beyond the simplicity of the iPhone, we could never deny the internal complexity of the technology. In Judaism we should seek the same. The challenge is that the technology of Judaism sometimes gets in the way of the simplicity of its interface.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.