Concerning “Judaism in a Digital Age” by Danny Schiff. Part 2.
This is Part 2 of a contemplation of this book, which again I recommend as an important read, by an author whom, again, I hold in high regard.
Many concepts that the author points out in Judaism in a Digital Age are not unfamiliar to fans of science fiction (much of it by Jewish authors). For a couple hundred years, and especially since the 1940s and 1950s, many such theories have been posited, and we have been already duly “warned” about many things. But let us set that aside for a moment.
As the author discusses our creating pieces of life and even life itself and how we should address these matters as new concepts to which to apply old wisdom, I ponder whether there is a connection between the advice to elevate one’s holiness and emulate the Almighty as much as one can, and our learning to create living beings. We are many millennia away from evolving to the level of the Intelligence that created us (presumably also evolving), but our stories from millennia ago do tell of advanced beings, from the giant angels who illicitly took wives among us and the 10,000-year-old giant Og, to the seraphim and other “celestial beings” who call to one another in praise of our mutual creator. Just think of the ofanim! They are celestial beings that may even be cyborgs, wheel-shaped creatures that accomplish transport of others. To dismiss all of this as fantasy is folly. (That I know of I’ve never met Ezekiel or even Enoch, but I hold them in high regard, too.) On the spectrum of evolution, we have a long way to go.
The whole of the author’s chapter 6 reads like one science fiction writer’s supposition, couched in some sort of scientific credentials. What it ignores, though, and sometimes even conflates (mostly in quotes from others), is that intelligence is brain, not mind. I don’t think artificial intelligence is anything but a mechanical brain. (I will admit that maybe the Almighty looks at us that way, as well.)
A late friend and I used to avidly discuss whether we have a mind or a soul. A mind would be our own individual, personal entity emanating from our brain and shaped by our lived experience, and a soul would be a spark of life that is either given, shared, or tapped into from the outer universe. Inner versus outer. It is possible of course that both exist. Either way, it is also possible as we evolve as humans, tending and developing and elevating our own and each others’ souls (and perhaps we might include animals, as some feel we can elevate the souls of our animal friends as well, some of whom may communicate with angels), that the more advanced souls among us will still hold sway over universal thinking.
There are a couple ways to think of this. We have a belief system presented to us by which to follow a clear path to what we term “holiness.” (Should we call it “kadosh” indicating the notion of separateness in terms of being detached, which I spoke of in Part 1 of this post, or should we view it as the higher calling that we must aspire to individually and collectively?) Should that be our singular goal?
Or should we continue with our practice of religion, which is the entire subject of this book? We of the Abrahamic traditions around the world are all practicing rabbinic interpretations of what we should be doing since the destruction of the Temple. When the Temple existed, it is possible that the Almighty considered us children to be reined in and micro-managed. Since then, we have been encouraged to advance, to be less stiff-necked, less dependent. We have been expected not only to follow, worship, and obey, but to accomplish.
Again, the same Law which was given to the Israelites has been the basis of other religious traditions in the world, no matter how it has been reinterpreted. Perhaps we ought not hold ourselves aloof – “separate” – any longer, we should be partnering with others toward the improvement of all. Yes, we now have many “interfaith initiatives” going on, but shouldn’t we be well beyond this already? We live among each other, we should be well past “stick with your own kind and talk on occasion.” Can we still presume that our own souls are any holier than anyone else’s? Shouldn’t we instead be working toward elevating everyone, without judgment?
To look at this from a different perspective, I think we should be asking ourselves further questions. (This book has set me on a whirlwind of thought.)
Why do we have a “religion” as opposed to merely a code of morality? In civil life we can have ethics without mandatorily having a larger social construct, though we do include a code of laws and enforcement and adjudication to go with them. (Miss Manners and parents handle the etiquette flubs, while civil judicial systems handle the larger matters.)
For many, the religion includes the moral judicial system – if we want to go to Heaven, to avoid punishment, we have to behave. We Jews do repeat daily the paragraph in the Shema about the cows and the oil as reward for perpetuating our tenets. Generally, though, we expect our children to do what is right and good simply because it is right and good. We don’t include a lot of fire and brimstone in our divrei Torah.
What really makes a religion? Does the construct of ritual, tradition, and knowledge constitute a religion, or does a religion circumscribe those? Or does the religion exist only to perpetuate the ritual, tradition, and knowledge, in which case it should be subject to major change at increasing periodicity, addressing those listening in the ever-changing now?
Thus we bring ourselves to the author’s chapter 7, and find ourselves again in agreement with the author. As the author discusses, we have not really changed our thinking fast enough.
As the ball of string of time unrolls, it takes less and less time for it to go around, and we have to move faster and faster to understand where we are, not to mention to keep up with it.
Every day in prayer we also ask that we Jews be brought together once again from the four corners of the earth. Although we now know that there are not four actual corners on a flat earth, we ask it that way, pulling together our tzitziyot to exemplify it.
Even as the rabbis repealed their emergency declaration about electronic services (discussed in Part 1), saying that faces on a screen no longer counted toward a minyan, the technology had already accomplished our goal: it has – just now – brought us together. All of us Jews have been brought together, to live, work, and pray. Yes, much of the Torah is about real estate and property, and we do finally have the State of Israel as a homeland, but I think perhaps we have transcended that. Technology – and I think the author might explore this further – may also provide our new joint real estate. We may be quite far from the level of the angels and universal togetherness, and we are definitely not anywhere near being universally “holy,” but Israel has indeed been brought together from the four corners of the earth.
Maybe recognizing this will be a good first step.