Ianai Silberstein

Harari & the Jewish legacy

There’s something unequivocally biblical in Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A brief history of Mankind”. Given the recent success and best-selling status acquired by his second book, “Homo-Deus”, it is interesting to at least pinpoint some of the biblical aspects of “Sapiens”. For a man who has made a point of dismissing the Jewish contribution to world history because of its lack of incidence in big masses and events, a biblical reading of his work is proof of the light a deep, sensitive, and very intelligent sapiens can cast over his fellow men. Size is not the only issue for ideas: ironically and lovingly speaking, Harari is physically a small, tiny, skinny man; still, I believe the impact of his proposals and thesis are fundamental and huge in understanding the way mankind is evolving, the direction of History.

What is more jewish than throwing light into the nations or pointing at the direction of History? It is clear that Harari has adopted a prophet-like stand in this his second, to me lesser, book. His premonitions are supported by strong data and facts, technology and investigation at the higher level, but he still leaves open a kind of messianic hope for humanity. In a recent interview in he unequivocally hopes that sapiens will cope with over-technification as it did with nuclear energy. Again, what is not jewish or even crudely biblical about hope? After all, our saga as jews begins with the promise/hope of God to Abraham in Genesis when he commands him to leave in exchange of all his blessings. Walking the dessert, be it for Abraham Avinu or Moshe Rabenu, supposes a great deal of hope. That is jewish.

The biblical narrative, which starts with the creation of the world, is based on words: God commands “let it be light”, and light appears; he approves it (he sees it is good, gives it a moral stature), and calls it a day. He makes the woman out of the man (I’m choosing one of the versions regardless of the gender issue) because he says: “it is no good for man to be alone”. Creation in the Bible is a matter of words. Harari would say, God speaks of that which does not exist (yet). For non believers in the creation story as the Bible tells it but rather in the evolutionary theory as science explains it, the spoken word comes to put order into an otherwise chaotic word. The spirit of God becomes a God with a name the moment he starts uttering words and creating the world as we know it.

Harari’s first distinctive assertion in “Sapiens” is that our ability to communicate is specific to our species in oposition to the way other species communicate about concrete, real issues: threats, food, etc. Sapiens talk about each other (gossiping) and talk about “things that do not exist”. While the first allows for social interaction in larger groups, the latter allows for cooperation in huge proportions: the narrative of myths, religions, magic, politics, ideals, moves the masses in ways no other species has been able to. Language is so central to Genesis that the episode of the Tower of Babel is strongly symbolic and essentialy a statement on the role of language in the future of mankind.

The fall from Paradise, chronologically previous to the episode of the Tower of Babel, is the story of our transition from foragers to agriculture and domestication, the beginning of the the “agricultural revolution”, as Harari names it. The confrontation between Cain and Abel is a reflection of the conflict between Sapiens forager and Sapiens domesticator: God seems to prefer the latter. The myth of the flood, as described in length in Genesis, is also a step in the process of the agricultural revolution; Harari deals with this extensively. Then comes the creation of towns and cities, such as Jericho, as Harari explains in detail. Our patriarchs represent foragers turned into domesticators looking for a piece of land for agriculture. This process will take centuries, until the conquest of the land in the book of Joshua, but the Torah deals exhaustively with farming, breeding, property, and money. It is a preparation for an agricultural society.

The cognitive revolution, the second big leap in the history of the species, is reflected clearly in two crucial points of the Pentateuch: the ingestion of the “apple” and the revelation in Sinai. In the first situation man learns to discern between right and wrong; in the second, the children of Israel accept the revealed law as instructions on how to live just and meaningful lives. Once again, it is all a matter of words, of “things that do not exist”, values and norms presumably given by God but in truth created by Sapiens with this very special and particular way of expressing himself. The extensive discussions in the Torah itself and later in rabbinic literature are one more proof of the value of language as a creative force for reality. It supports Harari’s thesis, but one might very well think that it suggests it clearly.

The third revolution, the technical one, is much much later in time, only five centuries ago, so it is futile to try to connect it with the Bible. Altough the book abunds in technicisms, instructions, and scientific phenomena, one cannot dare to say Sapiens was already back then in the stage it has achieved so recently. But the instructions for Noah’s Ark, the animals saved in couples to ensure reproduction, the ten plagues of Egipt, the norms for the Arch and the camps, the treatment of illness and impurity, the building and managemente of the Temple, if not precisely “high-tech”, there’s plenty of technology there. It’s a matter of pulling the argument a little bit further, if necessary. I think it is not.

But what is the point of all this? Harari’s contribution to the understanding of human history is so important in itself that whether his biblical, jewish roots are significant might seem, to put it mildly, irrelevant. As irrelevant asvhe has asserted is Judaism to Universal History. The truth is the relevance is not an issue for Universal History or how we understand ourselves as Sapiens or Humankind, which is what Harari deals with, but rather how his thesis helps us to better understand our nature and purpose as Jews.

As the Ozes (Amos and Fania) have put it so clearly, we Jews have a thing with words. Our mere existence is rooted in our belief that we belong to a certain, sepcific tradition of words. We have created our own history since that Abraham who crossed the desert to those refugees who crossed the sea back to a “promised” land since the XIX century. What is a promise if not talking about something that does not exist? But as Harari claims, once a myth is created, then it can hold an empire, a religion, or a transnational company. Judaism is our creation through language of an ideal which exists beyond the realm of reality. We know there is nature, and natural laws, and phenomena we cannot (yet) fully explain; that is for science to cope with. God is not in nature, but in man. We’ve created the option of hope, redention, and fullfilment beyond reality. If sometimes it has served humanity ill, this is also a matter of language and power. But for every evil use of language and myth there’s an option of hope and fulfillment.

In “Homo Deus” Harari fears the transformation of Sapiens into God through all the power it has gained exponentially in the very recent past. However, our jewish tradition has the antidote for this danger: the Bible itself, the rabbinic literature, and the present day discussions on the role of God in society prove that as Jews we have created our antidote to the poison of omnipotence. Even Harari leaves an open door for Sapiens to realize that no all is in his power, and that the ethical and moral issues regarding our lives (nothing ethical or moral is “real” until expressed by language) will have to be taken into account. Otherwise, millions of our bethren will be expendable and useless. A prospect not only freightening, but in fundametal contradiction with the the concept that “saving a life is saving the entire world” (Talmud).

About the Author
1957, married, a son and a daughter, a grandson. Very closely related to Israel, residing in Uruguay. Retired. Lay leader at NCI, the Masorti congregation in Montevideo. Served twice as President of the Board. Vice President of the Board of the Jewish school. Twenty-one years involvement in community affairs. Attended the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem several times over the years since 2009 for their CLP programs. Writer & lecturer.