Sunday was our first day of religious school for the year. If you haven’t done this, or haven’t done it in a while, come to t’fillah with our kids. The cantor and choir and the teens getting the students to sing and pray is enlivening. Last night I spoke about the feeling of prayer. This is a place to experience it.
On Sundays, I often tell a story to get the students to think about Jewish life, connect them to themes in the weekly torah portion, or an upcoming holy day. I tell stories, because this is something that humans are wired to respond to. A good story moves us—helps us understand the world. Scientists have been studying the effects on bodies that stories bring: From the psychologist Lani Peterson in the Harvard Business Review: “Scientists are discovering that chemicals like cortisol, dopamine and oxytocin are released in the brain when we’re told a story. Why does that matter? If we are trying to make a point stick, cortisol assists with our formulating memories. Dopamine, which helps regulate our emotional responses, keeps us engaged. When it comes to creating deeper connections with others, oxytocin is associated with empathy, an important element in building, deepening or maintaining good relationships.”
So, friends, I would like to tell you a few stories. Some of you might know them.
Once upon a time, there was chaos, and a great Being decided to bring order. Light separated from darkness, sky from solid ground, water from land. This Being, the Creator, populates the water and the land with other living beings. And, finally, the Creator creates one being, a human that contains all of what will be humanity—male, female and all shades of expression—and the Creator declares that this one being, this human, is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
Now, if this were our Shabbat morning Bagels and Torah, we could have a discussion on meanings in the story. What does it make you feel? What are the symbols and metaphors? We would of course have the original text in front of us. But, this is a different forum, so take a few seconds to absorb the story—let the cortisol, dopamine, and oxytocin do their things. Now, I will do some interpretation.
This story, a paraphrase of the first chapter of the Torah, is perfect for today because tradition (as performed in the Shofar service) calls today the birthday of the world. (There is another tradition that says the world’s birthday was five days ago, and today is the birthday of the first human). In our story, we have a Creator God who is separate from the creation who creates the cosmos by bring order to chaos. Cosmos means order. Step by step until eventually creating the human (HaAdam). And who is this human? One who is “in the image” of the Creator. Maybe it means that humans are also creators. We are God’s embodiment in the world. Builders, creators—we are significant, maybe even the most significant part of the world. (I’m of course not exhausting the meanings of the story.)
Story number two. Again we have a God, a Creator, and this time we also have dirt. Dust, soil, mud, dirt. God takes the dirt and shapes it into a shape, and blows into it, and the clod of earth becomes animated with life. A human. The Creator places this human into a garden that contains all the other living things, obligates the human to take care of the harmony of the garden.
This story is a paraphrase of Chapter two of the Torah.
Here we have a relational God who created a human that is literally from the same stuff of the creation who is to live in harmony with creation. The human is different than the animals, but we don’t have the same sense of hierarchy. There is more humility. In Greek this is linked—humus is earth which is related to the English words humility and humanity. (Adamah and Adam in Hebrew for earth and human.)
Two stories, to versions of how to think of what it means to be a human.
Story number three. Once upon a time, actually, about 13.8 billion years ago… there was a Bang. A big Bang. Everything we know has evolved from that. In the words of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson: “ . . . the cosmos self-diversified into the astonishing array of galaxies, star system, and space . . . One of those galaxies developed our blessed, stable solar system, which generated a geosphere cable of transmuting into first water, then simple life, then oxygen, then complex life, and finally emerging into consciousness. In a continuous cascade of evolutionary development, an intricate interplay of coercion and freedom, of natural efforts to preserve dynamic equilibrium and equally natural efforts to disrupt equilibrium, the universe evolved into the complex interactive processes it is today . . .”
We are all a part of this cosmic process that came from that single point in space-time 13.8 billion years ago. To quote Joni Mitchell (made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), “We are stardust.” We are made of the same stuff of the whole universe, which I find so inspiring, and yet, we are so infinitesimally small, which I find humbling and sometimes frightening.
Some of you might say, “This is science, not a story.” Yes, science, but we humans have to verbalize science to communicate, and we have to use words that have intellectual and emotional resonances—so we tell stories. And, this is a scientific story. I am not saying it is false. It is much more complex than I told, but it’s purpose is different than my biblical stories. And yet, it speaks to something the other stories spoke to: What is a human?
What is a human? Image of God? Animated earth? Stardust like everything else? A bunch of atoms, packets of energy bouncing off of each other?
What is a human? This is a question we are asking this year in our adult education classes. We have been accepted into a program with the organization Sinai and Synapses. The program, Scientists in Synagogues, “offer[s] Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Its aim is to share how some of the most thoughtful Jewish scientists integrate their Judaism and their scientific work so that they can be role models and ambassadors for productive conversations surrounding Judaism and science.” We are going to explore this question of “What is a Human?” through classical Jewish texts and learning about biology. The past, what we know now, and how to use the stories to help us live integrated lives. Lives that are informed by science and enriched by the meaningful path of Judaism. Science and Judaism in harmony, holistically telling stories.
We will also be exploring the science fiction future that is actually happening now. AI, mind-uploading, trans-humanism. (I just listened to a podcast about AI systems that can read MRI and almost read your thoughts). This is happening, and what does/can Judaism say about it? What wisdom can we find in our stories that help us live as humans when the questions of what humanity might be in the future is in flux.
Questions like: do we have free will? What makes us different than animals? What is our responsibility to the rest of creation? Does being a creator also mean that we can be/are destroyers? When we create a computer that can think, does it mean it has rights? Can AI give my loved one an afterlife? Or some questions from Rabbi David Zvi Kalman: “What does it feel like to live in a world where human behavior is no longer unique? What does it mean for your everyday interactions with other human beings (or the online beings you suspect are human)? What does it mean for how you think about God?”
Scientific questions, which are ethical questions, which are Jewish questions. These questions can be anxiety-producing and exciting at the same time.
I don’t have the answers, and that’s why I need you all to explore and study with me.
What is a human? There is something ineffable about our embodied, emotional, often irrational lives. Created in the image of God. Animated earth. Stardust. AI is becoming more like us, but right now, only a human can sit at a bedside of a dying loved one with empathy and love. Only a human can come together with other humans to pray and sing. Only a human, in our messiness, our imperfection, our story telling nature.
This is the birthday of all of us (if you will), let us ask these big questions together with curiosity and hope for what the future might hold.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Michael Satz is Rabbi at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, NJ).