Like many others, I found Simona Weinglass’s piece, “The cyborg revolution is here. Is it good for the Jews?”, to be fascinating. One particular phrase caught my eye, namely: “that’s social Darwinism, the idea that life is a matter of competition and that success determines what is right, that we need to be as fit as possible to keep up is NOT the Jewish view” As Ms. Weinglass states, Jewish Rabbis and/or philosophers dealt with issues of ultimate right and wrong as well as G-d’s role in philosophy, very long before Darwin was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes. But still, the foundation for all of our future social issues must be in the Torah, otherwise, our laws are not worth the papyrus that they are written on.
I would like to break this statement about social Darwinism down and review each part of the statement.
- Life is a matter of competition.
Even in our modern age, competition is still a critical part of our day-to-day life. We compete in school to get the highest grades in order to get into the best universities, and then finally to get the best jobs at the best pay. Many young people definitely compete over spouses, whether it is related to the spouses’ physical appearance, money or other attributes. The Torah teaches us that we should strive to get the best, but the focus of the Torah is on the characteristics of the people we are with. Within the Torah world, we should strive to learn as much as we can, to surround ourselves with scholars as much as possible and to choose a spouse based on his or her characteristics of intelligence, kindness and consideration of others. While physical appearance is definitely referred to on many occasions throughout the biblical texts, it is often seen as a source of confusion and poor judgment. One need only look at the story of King David, and how he came to marry his wife, to see how the physical appearance of a spouse can be a negative influence within the biblical framework. The story of David is not one that we are taught to emulate. So even though the Torah’s view is also that life is a matter of competition, the Torah differs on a fundamental level as to what the rules of the competition are.
- Success determines what is right
I have heard the question asked on multiple occasions whether the Nazis were inherently immoral, or were judged to be so simply because they lost the war. Had the Nazis won against the Allies and succeeded in wiping the world from everyone they deemed to be subhuman, how would we define “right” and “moral” today? If Nazi morality was so ingrained in the minds of our children and grandchildren that they could not imagine life ever having been different, would beating a child with a birth defect to death be considered the right and moral thing to do? The rewards for acting in such a way would likely be similar to the rewards we give to those who act in a moral fashion based on the Torah. We might give such a person who has beaten the child to death, an award and public recognition. Such a person might be seen as one who can be trusted by others and deserving of advancement in the business world.
Basically, the question is, is there such a thing as absolute right and wrong or is it a human creation which is only based on whoever happened to capture the flag? The Torah view is very clear that independent of human action, right and wrong are absolutes that are set down by G-d. Even in the time of Noah when all of the humans [and even the animals] were acting in an immoral way, there was only one person, Noah, who followed G-d’s will. In the Torah reality, strength is not in numbers.
In a Darwinian society, might makes right. In a Jewish-based society, it is the might of G-d that makes right. We accept as an axiom that G-d’s way is the moral way. In practice, a Jewish-law abiding individual is even expected to challenge the courts and even G-d, if either is not following the principles of Jewish law (and the Talmud gives clear examples of such cases).Time is also not a factor in Jewish law. Once cannot claim that the “old ways” are out of date. Even if G-d pronounced from the heavens that a given law should be changed or newly practiced, we are to ignore this pronouncement. The universality of the righteousness and justice of G-d’s law defies the passing of time. The law of G-d as passed down to Moses, and from then on until today, is equivalent to the laws of nature. The rules of gravity don’t change just because thousands of years have passed. The same applies to Jewish law. The rules of justice and morality do not change just because it has been thousands of years since the pronouncement of these rules on Mount Sinai.
- We need to be as fit as possible to keep up
The classic description of Darwinian law is that those that are most fit survive to procreate and establish the next generation. Jewish law is definitely different than this. Firstly, we are commanded to seek out those in need of better health or of financial assistance, and to make it possible for them to remain part of the people and ultimately to procreate and maintain their genetic material within the population. The concept of survival of the fittest might be suitable in Sparta, but has no place in Jerusalem. Admittedly, there are certain practices within Jewish law that need to be performed by people without impediment (such as certain practices in the Temple). At first glance, this would appear to be a reflection of G-d’s distaste with someone who has a limp or is missing a limb.
It would seem strange for G-d to demonstrate a distaste with G-d’s own creation, especially when G-d has the power to change the outcome of the person’s life and eliminate the impediment. In the past, I have spoken on this matter and have summarized the point by saying that actions such as the bringing of certain sacrifices is meant to be the equivalent of a “show and tell” at school. Everything is dressed up nicely, the presentation is practiced until it is flawless, the key presenters wear special clothes to indicate their unique role in the presentation — but it is clear to everyone that this is nothing more than a sideshow.
All of this dressing up is not realistic. Whereas people are fully aware of the fact that the entire event is a simulation intended to look flawless, in practice, real life is not flawless and mistakes will happen. Nevertheless, for that one moment, everyone tries to create an image of perfection in their own minds in order to achieve a spiritually higher plane. In a Darwinian reality, perfection is necessary in order to beat out one’s opponents and then to procreate and pass on genetic material. In the Torah world, it is clearly recognized that perfection is a fantasy that is limited to the divine. It is our role in this world to strive towards our best, towards our own perfection. But in practice, all that one can hope for is the best we can do. In a Torah world, if a person can honestly say that he or she has done their best throughout their lives, then that is the perfection that the Torah was seeking from the beginning.
I imagine it is fair to say that in a world that is devoid of divine morality, Darwin described the rules by which there is continuity of the various species on this planet. The concepts of kindness and working towards the common good have a very different meaning in a world without divine law as its foundation. If the machines and cyborgs that we create have no concept of absolute right and wrong, then chaos will reign and massive destruction will soon follow. This will not be due to divine retribution against those that fail to abide by biblical law. This will simply be due to the fact that without biblical law, it is the nature of nature to self-destruct. I hope that whatever beings we create in our image, that these new ‘lives” take on the moral laws that G-d impressed upon us when we were created in G-d’s image.
Bacteria are marvelous. Some types can survive in heat well beyond human tolerance and some can be re-animated even after centuries of being frozen in ice. Lack of oxygen is not an issue for some bacteria, whereas humans would die within seconds without access to air. It a world without a value system that imbues our actions with purpose, how are humans “better” than a petri dish full of bacteria?
Thanks for listening.