Whether we like it or not, distractions have become part and parcel of life in the modern world. In 1903, George Simmel, the German sociologist, wrote an essay entitled ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ which described the effects of the modern city on our selves. A century before social media came to dominate all aspects of life, Simmel felt that the modern environment and its constant bombardment of intense stimuli was harming mankind. Overwhelmed by the multiplicity of distractions, man was made blasé, dulled to life’s experiences and indifferent to the world around. Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966), Simmel’s student, argued that the bustling backdrop of modern life encouraged people to avoid precious time alone by filling empty moments of time with monotonous distractions. In his essay ‘Bordeom’, Kracauer writes that “although one wants to do nothing, things are done to one: the world makes sure that one does not find oneself.” For Kracauer, the modern world of constant distraction had alienated man from his core being.
At first glance, Jewish thought appears to frown rather heavily upon distractions. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:9) relates Rabbi Shimon’s declaration: “Someone who is walking along immersed in the study of Torah and interrupts his review saying “How beautiful is that tree! How pleasant is that ploughed field!” He is regarded by Scripture as someone who has forfeited his soul.” When engaged in the study of Torah, the Talmud expects complete concentration, any distractions are deemed to reflect a lack of adequate respect and appropriate attention. Similarly, the Talmud (Megilla 28b) describes how Ravina, Rav Ada Bar Matna and Rava sheltered themselves from a downpour in a synagogue during a Torah discussion so that they could better concentrate on the matter at hand without distraction. As Rashi (1040-1105) describes, Torah requires complete clarity of mind without the most minor of distractions.
Interestingly, whilst the Talmud cautions against diversions, the Talmud itself is replete with seemingly haphazard deviations from the matter at hand. Any page of Talmud often reveals a host of curious distractions from the broader topic under discussion. Even the short talmudic piece (Shabbat 3b) cautioning students from distracting teachers with impromptu Torah questions is itself a diversion from the Talmud’s immediate subject of concern.
The importance of such talmudic tangents are highlighted by Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg in one of his drashot (Lifrakim, Halachah veAgaddatah). R. Weinberg believed there to be two distinct currents within Jewish thought, one represented by halakhah and the other by aggadah. Each strand represents a unique way of experiencing life. The halakhic model is associated with clarity, consistency, reason and, above all, order. The cool legal logic of halakhah reflects “the beauty of order which maintains and matures the old.”
R. Weinberg then highlights a second current within Jewish thought which acts as a foil to the halakhic strand, the non-legal world of aggadah. Weinberg writes:
“There are passionate souls who crave the exceptions to the rule, the abnormal, they desire not the trodden and fixed paths… they yearn to conquer and reveal the new. These individuals are not satisfied with the present, with the regular and the clear, their souls crave for the new and for birth, they pine for the future… These individuals look to the Aggadah which collects and concentrates these rays of light.”
R. Weinberg believed that both these modes of thought are vital components of life. Law becomes dry and rigid without the unpredictable and creative spurts of aggadah. Similarly, aggadah on its own is too frenetic and haphazard to sustain a systematic body of laws to govern society. For a fully balanced life, Weinberg prescribes a healthy melange of order and chaos, halakhah and aggadah.
Seen in this light, distractions might not always be that bad. The Talmud embraces these tangents which often unveil features and emotions inaccessible to pure legal reasoning. The chaotic and random aspects of our lives are ignored if we focus solely on the regimented and legal air surrounding halakhah. Such sporadic tangents bring new and perhaps unexpected insights into otherwise dry topics. They connect previously unrelated areas of thought and action. Opening ourselves to these distractions allows one to see beauty amidst the chaos.
The difference, then, between the distractions sanctioned and proscribed by the Talmud, is thus a question of how instances of distraction integrate with our lives. Diversions are to be avoided if they remain forever disconnected from our existence and present an escape from life. If, however, the meandering and distracted moments of our chaotic minds inform our regimented thoughts and remind us of the turbulent parts of our existence, they are to be embraced.
To avoid the harm inflicted by modern society’s environment of manifold innovative diversions, some advocate for the elimination of distraction from our daily lives. In Matthew Crawford’s recent book, The World Beyond Your Head, one finds a recipe to avoid distraction and a programme to refocus our minds on chores demanding concentration. But, perhaps the problem is not distraction itself, but the way we are distracted today. Perhaps we simply don’t value distraction enough. The onset of social media and the proliferation of YouTube playlists have provided an abundance of ways to occupy every moment of spare time. As Kracauer lamented, our distractions have become predictable, repetitive and, above all, dull. In short, we need to reclaim our distractions and allow our unfocussed and uncensored selves to illuminate our lives. Just as the Talmud invited aggadah into the realm of halakhah, perhaps we too should summon real distraction into our regimented world.