When I consider where we are as a society and where we might be headed, the words of Leonard Cohen, from the title track of his fantastic 1992 album, “The Future,” continue to ring in my ears:
Things are gonna slide
Slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold
And it’s overturned
The order of the soul
We, the Jews, are excellent at history. Regarding the future, not so much.
Just consider what will be happening, Jewishly speaking, for the next few weeks:
- On Shabbat we remember Creation.
- On this Shabbat Zakhor, we remember Amaleq
- On Purim, Monday evening and Tuesday, we remember how Esther saved the Jews of Persia.
- On Pesaḥ, we remember how we came from slavery to freedom.
And so on. We are excellent at history.
But where in Jewish life do we remember the future? The most enduring symbol of the Jewish future to be that one that is right behind me, above the ark. Parashat Tetzaveh opens (Shemot / Exodus 27:20) with the mitzvah of kindling the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, which symbolizes the continuity of our connection with God and Torah from all the way back to Exodus. It is tamid – always burning, always reminding us of our past and the eternity of the future before us, always serving as a beacon to call us back to our tradition.
We frequently invoke yetzi-at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, in our liturgy. We do so because it serves as a template for our future redemption, the redemption of Olam HaBa, the World to Come. But admittedly, the Olam HaBa model is somewhat inchoate, and frankly, we are in disagreement as to what the real goal in Jewish life is. There are certainly some who understand our performance of mitzvot on this Earth to bring the mashiaḥ, the anointed, supposed descendant of King David, and lead us to Olam HaBa. There are others who see our mitzvot as serving their purpose in the here and now; that is, we fulfill them because it is the right thing to do in the moment, and their reward is intrinsic. (I am in this latter camp.)
But in general, except for mashiaḥ-based ideology, which is somewhat murky and controversial, we do not really speak too much about the future. We are simply not wired that way. Judaism is fundamentally focused on the present.
Which is why Rabbi Danny Schiff’s new book, Judaism in a Digital Age, is so striking. Well-researched and thoughtfully presented, the book addresses not only the future from a Jewish perspective (and in particular, the future of the modern non-Orthodox movements), but also the future from a general point of view, the future of all humanity. And let me say this: the view is mostly pretty bleak.
He opens with a biting critique of the Conservative and Reform movements, explaining in excruciating detail about why movements which emerged “when horses were the dominant means of transportation” are not only no longer relevant, but also destined for continued decline as they confront the “hyper-emancipated” world of the digital age.
He moves on to take a snapshot of society as it is today, how “modernity” ended in 1990 with the widespread availability of the Internet, and all of the ways that immediate access to information through digital means has changed how we live and think and socialize. He revels in the current thinking by notable futurist authors, including the very real threat to society posed by artificial intelligence, and dangles before the reader the promise of immortality based on so-called “transhumanist” ideas about the blending of technology and the human body, which may ultimately serve to destroy any traditional concept of corporeal human life as we now know it.
And here and there he asks the hard questions about Judaism’s confrontation with post-modernity. What value will there be to having rabbis and teachers when all information is available to us without the intermediaries? How can halakhic principles regarding privacy or leshon hara remain in play when all of the details of every person’s life is available to anybody else through a search engine? How can we confront the challenges posed by rising rates of isolation and economic inequality, the availability of pornography, or the endless amplification of self-importance which social media platforms encourage?
Whatever happens in the future, we will certainly respond by (a) failing to consider adequately the full consequences of new technologies, and (b) managing to eke out a new way of living despite dramatically changed circumstances. Rabbi Schiff cites David Zvi Kalman, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, regarding the way we passively accept potentially harmful innovations:
There’s a new technology in town. A few years ago it seemed like a pipe dream, but it’s now arrived on the commercial market in a big way. Large corporations are lining up to use it even as watchdogs point out serious potential for abuse. Reporters look into it, agree that there is a problem, and pen dozens of articles fretting about the downsides, demanding regulation and responsible use. The public grows concerned, and then they grow resigned. Meanwhile, the technology is adopted. Sometimes it is well regulated, more often it is not. There are a few horror stories. We learn to live with it. We move on. This is the ethical life cycle of modern technology, and its major problem is that it doesn’t know how to distinguish between technologies that complicate morality and those that destroy it – this is, it lacks the ability to say no, absolutely not.
We are seeing this tale play out over and over; consider facial-recognition technology, which is now widespread. Our response, according to Rabbi Schiff, must be to accept that the world has changed, and respond within the new paradigm:
Viewed from a Jewish perspective, the digital age is no longer about adapting Jews and Judaism to a slowly opening world of belonging and enlightenment; it is about asking how human beings should optimally function within the cacaphonous tumult of an accelerating epoch of hyper-emancipation, hyper-connectivity, and hyper-individualism.
And this is where I believe that the modern movements have the greatest potential. We are particularly well-positioned to engage with the Jewish future, perhaps in ways that more traditional forms of Orthodoxy cannot.
So first of all, I want to reassure you all that reports of the Conservative movement’s death are highly exaggerated. People have been declaring us dead for years, but I do not think that you have to look around too much here at Beth Shalom to see that this is a thriving, multi-generational community that rejoices and grieves together, that cherishes life and celebrates Jewish living and constantly engages with Jewish text and ritual. And while our membership decreased slightly during the pandemic, we are gaining members once again, continuing to buck the national synagogue trend.
I am grateful for our excellent and committed staff. Our lay leadership is in fine shape, and we are preparing for a capital campaign so we can make much-needed repairs to our building. חזק חזק ונתחזק / Ḥazaq, ḥazaq, venitḥazzeq. Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthen one another.
And even Rabbi Schiff concedes that if there is a new model for how to be Jewish, we have not yet found it. So meanwhile, while we are waiting for that new paradigm to emerge, we are going to continue to do our traditional-yet-contemporary thing. We will continue to pray together, to learn together, and to offer imaginative new programming through Derekh and otherwise.
Now onto the thorny questions about the future:
- Will we all soon be immortal cyborgs?
- Will the chips planted in our brains which connect us all to the shared data storage of all of human history extinguish our individual personalities?
- Will the AI machines we have created overthrow us or imprison us or simply exterminate us all when they realize that we are weaker and far less efficient than they are?
- What will happen to Judaism in a future in which God seems powerless compared to the technology we have created?
Jews have lived through many centuries of change, of social upheaval, of wars and genocides and life-changing innovations. We have made the transition from hand-copied documents to printed books to instantly-searchable gemara on smartphones. And yet, here we are, still reading Torah from a scroll produced essentially the same way for thousands of years, still basking in the glow of a Ner Tamid that – OK, so this one is electric, not an olive-oil lamp – but it is still shining as a beacon, here on Beacon Street.
We have navigated a changing world, and we will continue to do so. We will determine whether halakhah permits us to eat cultured meat that was never actually attached to any animal. We will find a way to grapple with the potential immortality awaiting us in the near future; as Rabbi Schiff points out, our sources do speak here and there about immortality. We will manage to make minyanim a few times a day, even when our physical presence and our consciousness are not in the same place. We will ask the hard questions and answer them within the Jewish system, just as Jews have always done.
Rabbi Schiff lands in a somewhat reassuring place. Regarding the AI-infused future, he says, “No matter how animated, intelligent, responsive, or reliable our AI creations might become, AI will never attain the combination of qualities that will merit the status of being ‘created in the image’ [of God].
We can do this. We in the Conservative movement are especially well-placed to do this. We have been addressing cultural, societal, and technological change for a while, and we will help us all make this transition to whatever awaits us. I’m counting on that Ner Tamid to continue shining, to continue reminding us of the turbulence of our past, the constancy of our present, and the brightness of our future. Our unofficial historical slogan has been, “Tradition and change,” and I expect that we will continue to balance the two successfully.
In the Talmud (BT Avodah Zarah 2a), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “All the good deeds Israel does in this world will bear testimony in Olam HaBa.” Perhaps Olam HaBa will not look quite like what R. Yehoshua ben Levi envisioned, seventeen centuries ago. But whatever form it takes, Jews will be there, still meditating over our words yomam valaila, day and night, and looking to the Ner Tamid as a reminder of past and future.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/4/2023.)