Paradigm Shifts, Ancient and Modern – Yitro 5776

I watched a captivating TED talk this week, featuring the futurist author and scholar Juan Enriquez. It was about evolution, and more particularly about how humans are still evolving today. But not only that, but we are in the middle of a particularly rapid period of human evolution. Mr. Enriquez identifies some of the fantastic technological advances of our time, and presents some curious data about the development of the human brain (for example, a doubling in the rate of occurrence of autism in the last decade). He also points out that many of us today take in more information in a day than our ancestors did in a lifetime. Nobody is sure where we are headed, but Mr. Enriquez proposes that our children will effectively be a different species than we are: he suggests the term “Homo evolutis,” since we are effectively taking control of our own evolution.

We all know that in the course of our lifetimes, the world has changed dramatically. Remember when you were sitting around and having a conversation, and somebody was trying to remember the name of that band that had a single hit in 1972 and then disappeared, and gee, that was such an awesome song, but what were they called? And if nobody knew, you had nowhere to turn. Maybe you could go to the library and ask a reference librarian, but that would only be on Monday morning, and by then you would have forgotten.

Or maybe you remember a time when you had to have explicit directions written out in advance to get to a new friend’s house, and if you got lost along the way, you had to find a payphone. Or that the only way to get a flight ticket was through a travel agent. And if you heard a rumor about a celebrity, there was no way to check to see whether or not it was true. And so forth.

But today, everything has changed. Our children and grandchildren may never understand why rotary telephones did not play video, that television shows were broadcast at a certain time, and if you missed it, you missed it. They will never live in a world in which their every movement, purchase, activity, meal, and preference is not recorded somewhere and stored for later use. Juan Enriquez foresees a time in which our memories may be downloaded, and perhaps shared with others, raising a whole host of new ethical questions.

Humans have been on this Earth for a relatively short while; out of 4.5 billion years, Homo sapiens sapiens, anatomically modern humans, came into existence a mere 100,000 years ago. It is a well-known exercise to put the history of the planet on a year-long timeline; we appear on Dec. 31st, less than twelve minutes to midnight. The Torah came down to us at about 11:59 and 40 seconds. It is clear that we and our tradition are recent arrivals.

2001: A Space Odyssey

And yet, human existence has taken quantum leaps forward at various points. One of those jumps was identified today in Parashat Yitro. This parashah is the lynchpin in the paradigm shift of the Israelite nation. The central metaphor of the Torah, and hence Judaism, reaches its climax with the episode at Sinai. Redemption from Egypt leads to revelation, i.e. the giving of the Torah. And this is, you might say, the fundamental paradigm shift of the Five Books of Moses.

Our ancestors go from slavery to freedom, celebrate their departure from Egypt, and then receive the basis for law and custom, the foundational document of ancient Israelite religion and thousands of years of Jewish history and culture. That’s the entire basis for Judaism right there. Peoplehood. The land of Israel. Our Jewish bookshelf. Customs. Traditions. Halakhah / Jewish law, Jewish values – all delivered in a scant 40 days and 40 nights on an assuming mountain in the desert.

12 Mt. Sinai & Second Coming Compared - Deity and Humanity
Gebel Musa in the Sinai desert

And of course it did not end there – the law-giving continues for the rest of the Torah, another 40 years, a longer period but no more than a rounding error on the scale of geologic time.

And somehow, three millennia or so later, here we are, still debating the meaning of those ancient words, still trying to relate to our tradition in our time, still recalling the Exodus and Mt. Sinai, still observing the seventh day as holy.

And yet, many of us are wondering, will my children take hold of any of this? Or will Homo evolutis reject Judaism and Jewish tradition entirely? Will our history and culture be left only to those who have isolated themselves from the creeping invasion of modernity?

The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a few weeks back about millennials and politics. He cited a range of statistics which show a large gap between millennials (those born after 1980) and all Americans of previous generations, and not only regarding how they vote.

Brooks describes this demographic as “the self-reliant generation.” They are more inclined to understand society as “loosely networked individualism,” and hence far less likely to join institutions, less trusting of people, government, and organizations, and of course, far less likely to belong to religious groups. Brooks summarizes the millennial character in this way:

The general impression one gets is of a generation that is stressed, energetic, creative, skeptical and in the middle of redefining, and thinning out, the nature of affiliation. Its members have been thrust into a harsher world where it is necessary to be guarded, and sensitive to risk. They want systemic change but there is no compelling form of collective action available. Their only alternative, which is their genius, is to try to fix their lives themselves, through technology and new forms of social interaction, rather than mass movements.

The coming generations will be much less likely to think of themselves as part of a people, a nation, a group of any kind, and in particular will be less inspired by our national story.

So that leads me back to the Decalogue, to the Mt. Sinai moment of contact between humans and God, and indeed to the moment earlier today when we re-created that contact by standing together to hear the words of the Aseret HaDibberot. Many of us grew up in a time when collective involvement in many things, including Judaism, was a powerful motivator. One well-known midrash suggests that all Jews, past, present and future, were at Sinai, that the experience of revelation was therefore not a one-time historical event, but that we all accepted the covenant as a nation.

For thousands of years, that has been a comforting thought. That ancient paradigm shift was inspiring and powerful. Our foundational story of slavery -> freedom -> Torah -> Israel was an essential piece of who we are. The Jewish nation, the Jewish collective, kelal yisrael, was nourished by that idea of resonating together in the echoes of Mt. Sinai.

But our children are far more skeptical (and I know this from personal experience) than I ever was as a child. We may in fact be entering a new paradigm, a new phase of the relationship with our tradition.

And, like Juan Enriquez, who wonders aloud whether our subsequent generations will be the same species, I am left with the question, “If our ancient stories do not speak to us as they used to, how are we going to convince our young people of the value of this?”

Now, I’m not into fear. I am not fond of those who promote fear and outsize concern for the future, and I will not engage in that sort of thinking. I do not want to raise the flag of anxiety by screaming, “Oh no! What if my children reject Judaism? What if Judaism disappears?”

Rather, I want us to think of this as a challenge, a healthy opportunity to work harder to engage our descendants, and to think about how we have to change what we do in order to stay relevant. Of course, I have no definite solutions, no concrete answers to the question of, “How do we maintain our tradition?” But I have a few suggestions to help managing this new paradigm from where we stand today:

  1. We must be able to define for ourselves why the Sinai moment, and indeed the whole enterprise of Judaism is valuable to us. And the potential answers cannot include, “I’m Jewish because my parents were,” or “I’m Jewish because I’m not Christian,” or “I’m Jewish to spite Hitler.” Those things may all be true, but they will not speak to millennials.

    Rather, we have to say things like, “I’m Jewish because the teachings of Jewish tradition fill my life with meaning and my head with guidance,” or “I’m Jewish because Judaism keeps me grounded and offers me comfort,” or “I’m Jewish because Jewish texts inspire me to work for the benefit of others.” And so forth.

  2. We have to use the tools of technology to create more access points for those who want to be involved. In my Judaism 101 class, for example, I have a few students who participate by Skype every Thursday evening because they live too far away. There are many more online resources for learning and participating – we have to promote them more. And so forth.
  3. We have to be willing to make hard choices about what we offer as a synagogue. If any of our activities are not reaching a critical mass of people, we have to reconsider what we do. Even as we sally forth into the digital age, people will always need synagogues as gathering places; we just have to find the hooks that will bring more in, and we have to make sure that those programs are connective, resonant, and worthwhile. Business as usual in most synagogues means the business of the last century. We have to constantly re-envision what we do, and that’s hard, but it must be done.

Those are just a few thoughts. The new paradigm will surely contain Judaism; it will be up to us what that Judaism looks like. Let’s have those conversations now, and prepare for the future.

Shabbat shalom!



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, Jan. 30, 2016.)


Bosons, Kafka, and God – Shemot 5776

I tend to follow with great interest any news that comes out about particle physics, mostly because I am fascinated by things which we cannot see, yet are fundamental to understanding our world. But also, I love the theoretical aspects of math and physics that speak to the great theological questions that continue to pester us, even as we discover ever more about Creation. Subatomic particles always bring me back to God.

There was a piece of news two weeks ago from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider, a 27-km circular particle accelerator 100 meters underground outside of Geneva, was the international research facility that demonstrated the existence of the elusive Higgs boson in 2012. Without getting too technical, the Higgs boson is a subatomic particle whose existence had been predicted more than 50 years ago by a British theoretical physicist named Peter Higgs, but since the theory indicated that it would decay in a ten-sextillionth (10^-22 or 0.0000000000000000000001) of a second, it would be very hard to demonstrate that it exists. However, as a key particle in the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, proving its existence was extremely important to scientists in the field. The Large Hadron Collider, at a cost of about $10 billion, was built largely (!) to pursue the mysterious Higgs; finding it would effectively “prove” the Standard Model and thus allow many physicists to sleep comfortably at night.

Large Hadron Collider Makes Comeback After Two-Year Hiatus - Modern ...
The Large Hadron Collider

Scientists were so confident in 2013 that they had witnessed the presence of the Higgs in the data obtained from the LHC that they took the accelerator out of service for two years to do some repair work. It came back on line in 2015, and just a few weeks ago, scientists working at CERN went public with a new discovery: yet another, newly-discovered, as-yet-unnamed and -untheorized mystery particle, perhaps a cousin to the Higgs.

What is captivating about all this to me is that in 2013, everything seemed hunky-dory in the field of physics. Big questions were answered. Great theories were proven. Some have referred to the Higgs boson as “the God particle,” because the idea was that once it was discovered, all questions would be laid to rest.

But that did not happen; not all questions were answered. Apparently, the Standard Model predicts many things about matter, but there are others to which there are no answers. (They are too far beyond the scope of this derashah for me to explain.) But that is what makes it interesting.

Are we getting closer to unlocking all of the secrets that God’s Creation has for us? Or is it possible that each door unlocked will lead to another door, which is still locked, and will require many more years and billions of dollars to unlock?

In my first year at Cornell, I read a short story by Franz Kafka called Before the Law. In it, an unidentified man comes from the country to seek the law, and is met by a gatekeeper. The gatekeeper refuses to let the man through the gate toward the law, but tells him that after the first gate is another gate with another gatekeeper and after that another and another, and each gate is even harder to enter. The man spends his entire life trying to gain access. At the end of his life, as the man is dying, the gatekeeper reveals that the gate was created only for him, and it will now be permanently closed. The man has failed.

When I think of the high-level and extraordinarily expensive research that must be surmounted in order to get answers to truly fundamental questions, I think of Kafka’s series of gates that are nearly inaccessible, and each one is harder to enter. And that, of course, brings me back to God.

Kafka, of course, was Jewish, and grew up in a household that knew Judaism; his father was a shohet (kosher butcher). Although he never wrote about Judaism explicitly in his work, this story to me sounds very Jewish. The man strives for entry to the law (i.e. the Torah) for his entire life, but never succeeds; we too strive to live the ideals and mitzvot of Judaism, and we always miss the mark. Part of the drama of the High Holidays is the acknowledgment that each of us has failed in one way or another; each of us is flawed.

kafka statue in this part of town i came upon a unique statue of kafka ...
Statue of Franz Kafka in Prague

But the series of increasingly challenging gates speaks to me of the way that I approach God. God is not provable by any theory or evidence, and that’s OK. God can live comfortably alongside the so-called God particle, the Big Bang, evolution, and so forth, because that is not the way God works. Does knowing where we come from and how subatomic particles behave answer the really important questions, like, “How do I find meaning in my life?” or “How do I make responsible choices in my interpersonal relationships?” No.

Knowing God and understanding the laws of physics are fundamentally different questions. But they are equally challenging in a way that highlights the impossibility of ever arriving at the conclusion. Just as understanding subatomic particles will be an infinite task, so too will our understanding of God.

God is elusive, and sometimes the more we uncover, the more we see that there is even more to know. And yet, we continue to strive for holiness, to seek God wherever Godliness might be found.

Some of us look at those who are deeper and more rigorous in our observance of religious tradition and think, “That guy – he must understand Judaism and God. He’s got it all figured out.” But you’ll have to trust me when I say, it doesn’t quite work that way. We all continue to seek, no matter where we are on the spectrum of Jewish knowledge or traditional practice. And we all return to the same fundamental questions, for which there will never be complete answers. And the whole array of Torah and our tradition remains before us to dig into along our journeys.

And this brings me back to Parashat Shemot, and in particular a passage that has captivated me since childhood. It comes from the episode with the burning bush (Ex. 3:13-14):

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָאֱ-לֹהִים, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם, אֱ-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם; וְאָמְרוּ-לִי מַה-שְּׁמוֹ, מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם.  יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹהִים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; וַיֹּאמֶר, כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶהְיֶה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.

Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’” (New JPS)

Call me Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh, says God. “I am what I am.” We might expect this from Popeye, but not from God.

What does it mean? What does it tell us about who or what God is, about the nature of the Divine? Is God merely ducking the question, knowing that in 5776 / 2016 we’d still be asking?

The great Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berdychiv (Ukraine, 1740-1809) reads this as future tense, “I will be what I will be.”  It is as if God is saying, don’t try to pin me down; you cannot fully understand me, and the same will be true effectively forever.

I suppose what was always the most fascinating thing about this line is the translation itself. When I was in Hebrew school, I was taught that “ehyeh” is future tense – I will be – and therefore goes with R. Levi Yitzhaq.

But actually, Hebrew grammar freaks like me know that although modern Hebrew has a tense structure that accords with European languages (past, present, and future), ancient Hebrew does not actually work that way. The Hebrew of the Torah, if you can believe this, has no tense! It has only moods. Those moods are perfect and imperfect. Perfect refers to actions which have been completed; imperfect refers to things that have not yet been completed. Both of these moods can refer to actions in the past, present, or future; although mood can sometimes suggest tense, tense is not intrinsic to the mood.

Ehyeh” is imperfect. It is an incompleteness, past, present, or future. It might suggest “This is what I am right now, but I will be something different in the future,” or “This is what I will begin to be when we get there.” It could even suggest, “This is what I was being, but I have since changed.”

Ehyeh asher ehyeh” is a layer of incompleteness on top of incompleteness. It says, “Not only have I not completed who I am right now, but even in the future I will not have even begun to be established.” It’s like Churchill’s statement on the Soviet Union: it was (perfect mood, BTW) “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

God is in an imperfect mood. God is not complete. God is still, even today, fashioning God’s self.

This is an imperfect world, and there is much work to do before we achieve perfection of any kind. Maybe it will never arrive, but we first must acknowledge this. That’s the meaning of “Ehyeh.”

Back to the Times story on the exciting, new boson, cousin to the God particle, the Higgs: the reporter who covered this revelation described the discovery of the Higgs as “not the end of physics,” but rather, “the end of the beginning.” This research is in the imperfect mood. Just as physicists will continue to dig deeper to find more answers, and even more unanswered questions, so too will we continue to attempt to enter one gate after another in search of God, in our quest for Torah, in our journey to ourselves. Kafka and the Higgs boson suggest that this search will never be over; our task is to keep looking.



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/2/2016.)