Teshuvah in the Age of Dataism

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Avraham Bronstein

In the thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, teshuvah is inextricably connected to humanity’s overriding mandate to create. “God wills man to be a creator – his first job is to create himself as a complete being,” he wrote. “Man, through repentance, creates himself, his own I.”

Soloveitchik’s emphasis on the human ability to create and shape both oneself and one’s surrounding reality echoes his own context. As Yuval Noah Harari charts in his bestsellers Sapiens and Homo Deus, the modern era has been about humanism and has seen authority stripped from external forces, whether rulers, gods, or some combination, and refocused within individuals. We see the effects of this shift in terms of politics (democracy), economics (market capitalism), and a variety of other fields.

The underlying assumption of our era, Harari notes, is the belief in the inherent integrity and dignity of individuals who possess the free will to express themselves. Increasingly, and along the same lines as Soloveitchik, this is what many contemporary Jewish thinkers came to mean by Tzelem Elokim – of humanity created in the “image of God.” Rather than seeing teshuvah simply as contrition for wrongdoings, Soloveitchik saw genuine teshuvah, the recreation of the self, as the most profound form of imitatio dei.

Harari’s point, though, is that these humanist assumptions were the product of their times – and times are quickly changing. Humanism is becoming obsolete, and is being replaced by what he calls “Dataism,” a worldview focused on the creation and free flow of ever-increasing amounts of information that is analyzed and shared by increasingly powerful computers. Human agency is quickly becoming outstripped by biotechnology and AI that know more about ourselves than we do – and we are increasingly comfortable outsourcing control of our lives to the Cloud.

In Soloveitchik’s footsteps, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently wrote,

It was Judaism, through the concept of teshuvah, that brought into the world the idea that we can change. We are not predestined to continue to be what we are. Even today, this remains a radical idea. Many biologists and neuroscientists believe that our character and actions are wholly determined by our genes, our DNA. Choice, character change, and free will, are – they say – illusions.

Sacks’ foil here is the determinism and predestination at the heart of the Greek tragedies. Today, however, we are less certain about how independent our choices actually are than we have been in centuries. In particular, we are increasingly aware of the external forces that push us seamlessly in specific directions. In a world where our belief in democracy is shaken by fake news driven by social media algorithms, and our belief in market capitalism is shaken by custom-tailored Amazon recommendations and Google search results, it should be myopic to have faith in our ability to perform self-creation through teshuvah.

Harari himself addresses this concern. He concludes:

If you don’t like this, and you want to stay beyond the reach of the algorithms, there is probably just one piece of advice to give you, the oldest in the book: know thyself. In the end, it’s a simple empirical question. As long as you have greater insight and self-knowledge than the algorithms, your choices will still be superior and you will keep at least some authority in your hands. If the algorithms nevertheless seem poised to take over, it is mainly because most human beings hardly know themselves at all.

Read this way, our introspection during this High Holy Days season takes on special urgency. As Harari notes, the technology is improving much more quickly than our ability to adapt to it. The question of questioning who we are – really – and to what extent we are simply responding to stimuli that are carefully calibrated by a computer somewhere to generate our response is critical, even existential. If we don’t want to lose agency over our own lives, this is the time to reassert control. In his Laws of Teshuvah, Maimonides explains that the biblical Pharaoh, by the end, did not actually have control over his choices – the consequence for the life he had lived to that point. Likewise, the self-creation of teshuvah is, increasingly, all that stands between us and a passive, AI-driven journey through life.

Another avenue forward is shifting our understanding of Tzelem Elokim to a meaning that may survive our Dataist future. Even if we admit that we simply don’t have that complete control to shape ourselves and our lives – and perhaps that was always the reality behind the curtain – being created in God’s image still challenges us in a fundamental way.

Harari admits than modern science, for all its success in comprehending human responses and thought patterns, has not yet come to a satisfactory understanding of consciousness itself. Though we know which neurons and chemicals are involved, the actual feeling of transcendent love is still mysterious and awe-inspiring. Perhaps in this spirit, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler wrote that Tzelem Elokim is really about the human capacity to feel compassion and empathy, and responding to others with generosity and kindness. God is not to be emulated so much as a Creator, in this reading, but as a Giver.

Our liturgy may already know this. According to one popular reading of Unetaneh Tokef, we assert that repentance does not affect the circumstances of our lives, but the quality of our response. Our teshuvah – and avodat Hashem more broadly – might likewise focus less on our  agency and choices, and more on the strength of our human connections and relationships, and the cultivation of empathy and love.

Rabbi Avraham Bronstein (SBM 2002) is the Rabbi at The Hampton Synagogue.

 

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