I had a dream last night. It was a marvelous dream. It was one of the best dreams I have ever had, at least to my recollection. The details are not critical. Suffice it to say that in this dream, my brother was alive and well, and I didn’t seem to ever suffer from my chronic pain issue. It actually almost felt like a vision of what could’ve been, had different choices been made. I had a couple of good one-liners in the dream [which made it all the more realistic].
The problem, because there always has to be a problem, is that I don’t remember being so happy. Of course, I was happy on the day I got married and ecstatic when my wife and I shared the births of our three children. And even today, on a regular Shabbat, my three kids were home and we had a whole bunch of Hallmark moments, which made me incredibly happy. But my day-to-day life in the non-dreamworld is always colored by the people I have lost and by personal issues. In the dream I had last night, none of that seemed to exist. It was the kind of happiness that, probably, only a child experiences, assuming a reasonably normal early life.
I don’t think this dream was anything more than a bunch of neurochemicals having a party in my brain. I don’t think this was a message or gift from G-d. If you really want to know why I don’t think this was a divine early Christmas present, I would be happy to elaborate. But for now, let me say that I personally believe this was nothing more than certain regions of my brain being stimulated.
I haven’t recently changed by medication, and I’m not smoking anything that would make me particularly happy. Somewhere, somehow in my frontal lobes, there was a perfect storm of dopamine and as such, I had these wonderful moments. It will probably sound strange that I now raise the following point: what happens when, via technology, we are able to trigger these kinds of dreams?
It is hardly a reach to imagine that such technology, to create perfect dreamworlds, would be abused way beyond any illicit drugs today. Why bother with cocaine or heroin, and their side effects and cost, if a stimulator device, external or permanently implanted, can create this dreamlike world even during our waking state? And if a person need be asleep to experience the full sense of blissful happiness, there will be those who die from the lack of nutrition by virtue of using drugs or other devices to keep them asleep for extended periods of time.
There are many science-fiction stories, and movies and TV shows that deal with a wonderful sleep state that is artificially created. And yes, there is definitely a danger associated with the abuse of such technology. So how does someone like myself, who sees technology as the solution for all problems, come to terms with what seems to be a serious downside that could undermine the foundation of society?
I have been asked quite a number of times if I would have converted to Judaism had I been born not Jewish. There is absolutely no commandment for a non-Jew to become Jewish. And history would seem to indicate that being Jewish is no picnic. Personally, I love being Jewish. I love my history, my people, my land, the teachings of the great rabbis and Judaism’s core morality. That still doesn’t mean I would have converted.
There is one thing in Judaism that I think would have attracted me so much, that I would have converted. Judaism introduced the concept of responsibility above privilege. In pagan societies, 3,500 years ago, the priests were a protected group and often benefited from their position in society. In Judaism, the priestly caste (the Kohanim) served the public. There was definitely privilege that came with being of the priestly family. But relative to the limitations associated with being of this group, I personally would never want to be a “kohen”. The responsibilities associated with being a Jewish priest outweighed any privilege that came with it. The same was even true with a Jewish King. Once again, while this position brought with it great privilege, the responsibilities were even greater. Moses, the greatest profit in Jewish history, suffered so much from his responsibilities, that any privilege he was granted did not make up for it. Judaism has countless examples that with great power comes greater responsibility.
Technology will transform mankind. It will end hunger and disease. And it might do so faster than any of us could imagine. But like any incredibly powerful tool, it must be used responsibly. When the day comes that we can artificially modify our thoughts to the extreme, we will have to use such technology in a way that does not undermine society. There are no safeties or blocks that you can introduce into “the code” that would prevent such mind altering technologies from coming into existence. And there will always be people, even large groups of them, that will ignore all the warnings and push forward with implementing technologies that are tremendously dangerous.
So once again, the only protection we have is this ethereal concept of responsibility. But perhaps, in Jewish law, there is something more.
Perhaps it will be the interpretation of the rabbis that electricity should not be used on Shabbat [unless, as per Jewish law, the circumstances demand it], that will force those who follow the Jewish traditions to avoid such technologies. If you are in a virtual reality machine 24/7, you will not be able to fulfill any of the religious requirements within Judaism. Perhaps, as G-d was transmitting the Torah’s teachings to Moses, He already looked ahead into the future and realized that as much as Jews keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath will keep the Jews even more.
It is this line of thinking that makes me believe that I would have converted even if I had not been born Jewish. On the other hand, the fact that I’m always complaining about my back pain, and more so, how much I love chulent, would probably have driven me to convert as well.
Thanks for listening.