If we want to travel safely into the future we must carry with us the wisdom of the past

March 13, 2012
ThoughtForTheDay 20200515 RabbiLordSacks mp3 image 1
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 13th March 2012

One small item of news this week was one of the great signs of our time. The world’s most famous encyclopedia will no longer be published in printed form. It will exist only through the internet. Is this the beginning of the end of the printed word? Will our grandchildren be amazed that people once used newspapers and books? And how are we going to read in the bath?

Truth is that the great changes in the human situation happen when there is a revolution in information technology. There have been three so far. We are living through the fourth. And each had spiritual significance.

The first was the invention of writing: cuneiform in Mesopotamia. This was the birth of civilisation, because writing allows us to accumulate knowledge beyond the limits of unaided human memory.

The second, 38 centuries ago, was the birth of the alphabet, in the form of proto-Semitic, the earliest form of Phoenician and Hebrew writing, discovered by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie in the Sinai desert in 1903. The very word alphabet comes from the first two Hebrew letters, aleph bet, which later became in Greek, alpha beta.
The alphabet encoded all knowledge into less than thirty symbols and created for the first time the prospect of universal literacy and with it universal human dignity. The alphabet made possible the Book of books, the Bible, and Genesis 1’s revolutionary statement that we are all, each of us, in the image of god.

Third was the invention of printing by Gutenberg in Germany in the fifteenth century, which may not have caused the Reformation of Luther and Calvin, but allowed it to spreader wider, faster than any new idea had ever done before, transforming the religious face of Europe.

And now the fourth revolution: instantaneous global communication and the electronic word instead of the printed one. In the long run, by equalising access to knowledge, it will enhance the dignity of the individual. But there’s a long way to go between here and there.

Jews like me love this technology. But we won’t let it stop us remaining the people of the Book. Our sacred text, the Torah, is still written today as it always was, by hand, by quill, on parchment, as an eternal reminder that we must never forget where we came from if we’re to get to where we want to be. If we want to travel safely into the future we must carry with us the wisdom of the past.