By abbi Jason Miller
By Rabbi Jason Miller

I’ve always had a tremendous appreciation for technology. I’m continuously wowed by the innovations that have revolutionized our lives, but I also fear that technology is causing us to lose our foundation with some of the most basic human engagement. I’m a tech evangelist, but I often think about where we, as a society and as a Jewish community, must draw the line.

Last month, we observed the High Holidays and, as we do every year, we heard the Hebrew word teshuvah used a lot. Teshuvah is most commonly defined as repentance, but it literally means “return.” Perhaps it is time we return to basics as a way of resetting for the Jewish new year.

Many people praise technology but also express yearning for the much simpler times before technology dominated our waking hours. Teshuvah can be a path for us to embrace technology as well as a chance to unplug and return to that simpler time.

shutterstock_115680094One way to return to pre-Digital Age times is through the important art of small talk. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Jennifer Breheny Wallace looked at what we’re missing by no longer engaging in small talk with one another. She writes, “Anyone who passes regularly through busy public spaces knows that one casualty of our obsession with digital devices has been small talk. With our eyes glued to our smartphones, fewer of us engage anymore with people whom we don’t know well. But are we missing something in this loss of idle chitchat?”

We probably are. A growing body of research suggests that small talk has surprising benefits. In a study published in 2014 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers found that daily interactions with casual acquaintances, like chatting with your regular barista at the coffee shop, can contribute to day-to-day well-being. Small talk also helps to build empathy and a sense of community. It is much harder to snap at someone if you just exchanged pleasantries.

Another form of teshuvah — returning to pre-tech time — is through literacy. The technology we have now to improve our television and movie-watching experience is amazing. We can stream content on our phones and tablets, binge watch our favorite TV shows and watch our favorite movies on demand. However, as great as these innovations are, they have made us couch potatoes. It has become almost a responsibility to consume all the content we have at the ready.

I’ve heard friends tell me how stressed they are because they “have to” watch an entire season of a television show because they don’t want to accidentally hear spoilers that will ruin it for them.

Thanks to all this on-demand television viewing, we’re reading less, going outside less and exercising less. When our faces aren’t planted on the screens of our mobile devices, they’re busy watching the bigger screens.

In the new year, we should all pledge to go on a TV diet and take on a book regimen or join a book club. Take your book to the gym and read it on a stationary bike or elliptical machine.

We should go outside on a nice day and sit on the porch consuming non-TV content. Even if you choose to read on a Kindle or tablet instead of from a traditional book, at least you’ll be performing teshuvah — a return to literacy.

Another teshuvah is a return to discussion at the dinner table. Too often, someone asks a question and one person at the dinner table quickly pulls out a phone and consults with one of three modern sages: Siri, Wikipedia or Google. This has taken all the fun and excitement out of our discussions. Rather than having a friendly debate, the internet abruptly ends that possibility.

I’m amazed how quickly we can have our questions answered thanks to the power of the internet. However, I miss letting everyone theorize the answer, even if they’re wrong. We can always go to the web later, but why not engage in the discussion first? Let’s do teshuvah — and return to the age of inquiry and opinion. In the new year, let’s pledge not to run to Google and Wikipedia so quickly … especially at the dinner table.

Teshuvah does not merely mean repentance. It is a conscious effort to return to basics. In the coming year, let’s pledge to unplug at times. Taking our eyes off our screens more will lead to increased interaction with each other. Let’s pledge to read more. It will give us a break from the stress of trying to catch up on all our streaming shows and downloaded movies. We should also engage in more dinner table debates before running to Professor Google for the answer.

May the new year be one of inspiration, new challenges and perhaps most important … a return to a simpler life!

Rabbi Jason Miller is a technology entrepreneur, educator and blogger. He is president of Access Computer Technology in West Bloomfield. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.