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.)

2 replies on “Paradigm Shifts, Ancient and Modern – Yitro 5776”

Thank you for this thoughtful, erudite essay, Rabbi. You’ve managed to deftly encapsulate our history and describe the millennial social and intellectual dilemma. The larger challenge is to convince this generation of the physical/social benefits of real face-time versus virtual face-time!

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