From “Who shall live and who shall die?” to “How to live and how to die?”
By Rabbi Hayim Herring
What does it mean to be human? It’s a simple question, with unclear and unsettling answers. “Faster than the speed of light” is a phrase that can equally apply to outer space travel as well as to the state of the velocity of change in our lives. Compared to ten years ago, how frequently do you find yourself saying, “I used to understand the world, but these days I longer do?” That’s because we’re headed into new territory: as individuals, as members of particular families and faith communities, and as members of the broader family of humanity. Rosh ha-Shanah celebrates the birthday of humanity. In that spirit of celebration, I offer some questions that transcend current political divides and refocus our attention on some shared assumptions of what it means to be human, how those might be changing, and how we can navigate some of these changes.
Work and worth. Some people strongly dislike their work and curse it as a burden, and Judaism commands us to rest one day each week so that we can maintain some balance in our lives. But in the first half of the verse that mentions Shabbat, we’re also commanded to work: “Six days you shall work…” (Exodus 20: 9). In Judaism, work provides opportunities for us to be a blessing to others and better the world through it. So even if your work sometimes feels like a “curse,” what will happen to our identities and communities when increasingly significant numbers of “white collar” professionals will be automated out of a job? That has already happened to many honorable “blue collar” workers, with devastating effects. If persistent economic volatility continues to be the new norm, what resources do we need to put into place to help many people from all walks of life structure time purposefully, as they will not have the traditional support of the structure of work?
Redefining Reality. What will happen when instead of venturing outside to experience reality, we can snap on inexpensive miniaturized headgear and exchange it for virtual reality? Will we retreat further into our personal spaces and individual selves, diminishing interactions with other people and places, or be stimulated to physically venture forth to new places after visiting them virtually, and open ourselves up to the world?
Algorithms or Spiritual Rhythms? What will it mean when all of our devices, vehicles and appliances are having connected “conversations” with one another behind our backs (that is, without our awareness)? Will digitally generated algorithms that “suggest” choices that are similar to our prior history of shopping, entertainment and web browsing cause our spiritual attributes of curiosity, serendipitous wandering into new interests, and stumbling upon ideas that enliven our spiritual selves to atrophy?
Empathy or Apathy? How will we learn to develop deep relationships with others when we no longer make eye contact, forget how to read their feelings, and intuit the impact of our words and actions on them because we look down at a screen instead of up at the person before us? (Recommended reading on this topic by a leading expert: Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle, whom I credit for this thought.)
Fluid Gender Identity. Today, individuals who need to claim their true gender identity can do so by undergoing the complex process of gender reassignment, and there is growing acceptance of gender as a dynamic, changeable, social construct. In the future, will more people elect to undergo gender reassignment because they want the experience of living multiple-gendered lives? This is a plausible question, too, if we look to the history of other required medical procedures that began as “life-saving,” and were later commercialized for massive profit by designating them as “elective.” For example, cosmetic surgery was initially developed to help soldiers heal from disfiguring gun shot wounds that left them in physical pain and social isolation. Today, a recent Global Cosmetic Surgery and Marketing Report estimates that the industry currently generates “over $20 billion and is set to rise to over $27 billion by 2019.” If gender identity reassignment surgery follows typical paths of rates of adoption of innovations, and significant numbers of individuals elect to have it, what effect will it have on their relationships with family, friends and people in their social and professional networks?
The Fragility of Community. When social media provide everyone with loud, amplified voices, how do we maintain communities in which we are able to listen to one another? As we begin to accept that shouting people down is an acceptable response to disagreement, how can we hold on to the richness of heterogeneous communities? Ask almost any clergy person today to state a major concern about the future, and he or she will soon express anxiety about the fragility of community.
The Exposed Self. How do we maintain our dignity once our digital lives have been hacked, violated, bullied, or exposed to the world in some other way? When someone without authorization has exposed our private lives to the world, how does that feeling of personal violation affect our trust in others for the long-term?
Creating Sustained, Meaningful, Multi-generation Contact. What does community look like when there are already four generations of people alive in large numbers (and in the near-term future, soon to be five if medical scientists are correct in their predictions about aging and longevity)? How do we create places in society where sustained, meaningful, multi-generational relationships can develop, and wisdom and experience can flow up and down, across generations? What are the new supports, structures and organizations that we need, or existing ones that we need to retool, to accommodate this reality?
We’re certainly not the first generation to feel like vast changes are redefining our most fundamental assumptions of what it means to be human. The projected future convergence of digital technologies, disruptive leaps in biomedical and social sciences, and our willingness to choose behaviors and lifestyles that often wind up owning us, has arrived. Increasingly, wherever I travel, I hear from friends, family and acquaintances that we always seem to be heading into unmapped territory. We’re like the Biblical Israelites on their way out of Egypt, moving toward a promised land, with a big stretch of menacing wilderness that they first had to traverse. In one episode when Pharaoh is considering allowing the enslaved Israelites a limited release from slavery, Moses counters with a response that captures today’s zeitgeist. He explains that he must take everything with him into the wilderness, without conditions, for, “We don’t know what we’re going to need to serve (God) until we get there” (Exodus 10:26).
That’s more than a cagy negotiating tactic. Moses expresses a truth about how to prepare for an unknown future. Because it’s impossible to know what we’ll need for an unprecedented stage of life personally and collectively, the only preparation that can guarantee our future is to commit to travel together as a community. As a part of a community, we contribute our collective caring, insights, intuitions and inspiration that enable us to navigate uncertainty.
Rosh ha-Shanah allows us the time to look back on who we are in order to better see our way forward. If we have understood being created in God’s image as including the capacities to have deep relationships, to contribute productively to the world, to listen and love one another not despite but because of our differences, what is the work that we have to do today to ensure that these traces of Divinity continue to define our humanity? Personally, I’d rather hear sermons on Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur about these kinds of ultimate issues that are not set in some far away galaxy, but have begun to arrive, than conjectures on current politics which, as important as this presidential election is, distract us from much more urgent considerations.
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D. is CEO of HayimHerring.com, whose mission is “preparing today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations.” He is the author of Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today: Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life; Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education; and co-author of the forthcoming, Leading Congregations and Nonprofit Organizations in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purpose (Rowman and Littlefield, November 2016).