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Torah study is real deep work

The ancient text may contain the solution to a very modern problem

    Lawrie Cate/ Creative Commons

    According to extensive research, we now have shorter attention spans than at any point in our history. Shorter even, according to some scientists, than that of a goldfish (at nine seconds, they say). The culprit, apparently, is the smartphone.

    Back in 2000, just before the smartphone revolution, we could concentrate intently for around 12 seconds. Today, we are down to just eight. Constant distraction from the small machine in our pockets may even be altering the way our brains work, making us marginally better at multi-tasking, but much worse at concentrating on one activity for any decent length of time.

    Generally, at this point, you would expect me to talk about the marvel of Shabbat as a weekly “digital detox”. An opportunity to disconnect from technology to reconnect with the real people around us.

    And it’s true; the concept of Shabbat is immensely helpful in providing a vital break from our smartphones, proven by the recent widespread popular support for “Technology Sabbaths”.

    But here’s the problem. However you spin it, Shabbat is only one day a week. And we all know that positive behaviours are very tough to learn when they are only applied one day in seven. Plus, the vast majority of us need the connectivity our smartphones provide us with during the other six days of work. So going cold turkey is not an option.

    Yet, without a workable model to help us improve our relationship with them, we have a real problem. Simply put, how can we recover our lost concentration span without embracing life as a hermit?

    I recently discovered Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Piatkus, 2016), a fascinating book devoted to this issue by American university professor Cal Newport. The basic premise is that the ability to work deeply is an increasingly rare commodity in today’s world, so that anyone who can master it will have a huge advantage over others. That being the case, he provides excellent practical strategies for overcoming the distractions that have led to the situation we find ourselves in — chief among them, of course, the smartphone.

    But the reason why Newport’s book resonated so powerfully with me was because of an example he uses to prove the benefits of being able to work deeply. If you want to understand the power of deep work, Newport writes, visit the Kenesseth Israel Synagogue in Spring Valley, New York at 6.00am on a weekday morning and watch the 20 or so people studying Talmud before morning prayers.

    Newport was astounded to discover that the ancient Jewish practice known as limmud haTorah lishmah, or “Torah study for its own sake”, fits perfectly with the latest research into the transformative power of deep work and its ability to vastly improve the way we think, as well as our overall levels of productivity.

    Studying Talmud is difficult. It requires immense concentration, and a mental juggling act of balancing multiple concepts simultaneously in order to understand the text. Studying in a shallow way simply doesn’t work. The power and potential of Talmud study, only comes through training oneself to think deeply.

    So it turns out that there is an optimal solution after all for the distracted age we live in, right at the heart of our ancient tradition. Real, serious, deep Torah study. A transformative type of study that will improve the way we think and concentrate throughout the entire week.

    Of course, the great thing is that it doesn’t have to be in a shul at 6.00am. There are multiple outstanding lectures that take place across the community, as well as fantastic English translations of classic Jewish texts available for those who would prefer to study alone.

    But, if at all possible, I think that Torah study should have two key elements. Like the early morning study group that so impressed Cal Newport, it should take place daily. And however short, the time must be free from all distractions.

    Put the phone on airplane mode and study from an old-fashioned book. Not only will your improved ability to concentrate now beat that of your pet goldfish, but you will have achieved it through connecting with the timeless wisdom of our faith.

    Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum is Rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Community. His new book, ‘Challenge & Continuity: Rabbinic Responses to Modernity, Science and Tragedy’, is out next week and available at www.vmbooks.com and Amazon

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