Saturday, January 24, 2004
Return O Israel
Silent Running

At the request of Joseph Katzman, here is a re-print of a sermon I gave on Shabbat Shuvah in 1999. It's the sabbath than comes between Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

This year it falls on October 4th.

Shabbat Shuvah

Return. That is what we are urged to do on Shabbat Shuvah. But return to what? As we look around ourselves in this year 5960, or 2199 of the Common Era, perhaps we see ourselves as being very far indeed from our ancient roots. Here in our sanctuary on the O’Neill Habitat, poised between the gravity wells of the Earth and the Moon, with our original planet turning slowly below us with its blues and browns and whites so beautiful and clear, we have clearly come a long way from wandering in the desert as its barrenness and stark demands on us to work together or perish burned the slavery out of us and taught us to be a free people.

As we work in the null-g factories or the high-energy research facilities or the starship support bays, we realise we are no longer an agricultural people, shepherds and farmers who bring lambs and first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. We measure time, not by the changing seasons, not by the rain that comes on Sukkot or the harvest at Shavuot, or the first shoots of new growth at Pesach, but rather by the dimming and brightening of the central lighting tube on a 24 hour schedule here in our own little world we have created.

And nor are we confined to a small sliver of semi-arable land on the Eastern Mediterranean coast, hemmed in my sometimes hostile neighbours. Humanity has spread to the stars in the last hundred and fifty years, and we have participated in that great Exodus as much as any other group. Artificial habitats carved out of the hearts of huge asteroids orbit nearly every planet in known space, and ships ply routes and carry cargoes unimaginable to any sea captain who carried indigo and pure oil from Israel to the pillars of Hercules.

Jews can be found from Betelguse to Barnard’s Star, and from Proxima Centauri to the moons of Jupiter. Our ancestors would gather around the warm glow of the campfire in the bitter cold of the desert night, and gaze up and the stars in wonder. They would tell each other stories, about life, love, why there is a rainbow, where the tribe came from, the reasons for our customs, and what life is all about. Not all the stories had the same ideas, but perhaps that was the idea. Life is too complex to be wrapped up in a neat bundle, and our ancestors seem to suggest that it’s better to have some of the questions than all of the answers. The stars they wondered at are now homes for humanity, and for Jews. The stars now twinkle like a shabbat candle in the window of a Jewish home. Our father Abraham was promised we would one day be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Well now we are perhaps fulfilling that promise, at least in part.

But our differences with our ancestors go deeper than our physical surroundings, or our mastery over our environment, which approaches what they would no doubt consider almost godlike. No, the differences are more startling when we look inward. Since neural interfacing between the human brain and computers became practicable early in the 21st century, biogenetic and biomechanical enhancement of the standard human has become almost commonplace. This has raised serious questions in the minds of many about whether some of the more radically altered individuals are in fact still human at all.

Those parents with money have been able to boost their offspring’s intelligence, strength, grace, and physical appearance. Such enhanced children clearly have a better chance of success. But what of those whose parents do not have access to wealth? Should they be penalised for being normal? We all know of the tension between enhanced humans and norms that has occasionally broken out into violence.

Within Judaism, the Orthodox have banned all non-essential genetic manipulation as a violation of Halakah. The body that God gave you, as a precious gift, is not to be altered, and is to be returned at death unblemished. The only circumstances in which such techniques may be used are to save the life of the fetus or the mother.

Progressive Jews take a more lenient view, seeing human enhancement as just that – a magnification of Gods creation, albeit under our own direction rather than leaving such matters to divine chance. And yet, as we all know, there are reservations. At the last conference of the Universal Union of Progressive Jewish Congregations at the Neo-Pittsburg Arcology, the platform was revised to reflect this.

Look around you, in this sanctuary. You see black Jews and brown Jews, white Jews, and these days Jews with gills, Jews with third eyes in their foreheads, Jews with antennae, Jews with what looks like lizard skin. We have adapted our bodies to cope with our many and varied new homes. Have we indeed, as our critics say, gone too far?

In the twentieth century, we mastered our physical universe. In the twenty-first, we gained dominion over our own biology. And in the twenty-second, we have gone to the stars. Yama, v’Kedma, Tzafona, v’Negba. Ufaratzta. We have spread out. We have changed. Are we still Jews? Would our ancestors recognise us as such?

Well, we may live different lives, have different problems, face different challenges, but we’re still Jews. Here in the O’Neill habitat we may live in a hollowed-out asteroid, but we still mark the passing seasons with our festivals, the harvest, the planting, the first rains, and we count the Omer still. We may do most of our work in front of a viewscreen with instant access to the sum total of human knowledge, but the Torah we read from in our sanctuary is parchment, written by a sofer, in the ancient way. And most importantly, the words we read, are the same as they’ve always been. They may mean different things to us nowadays. Would the Rabbis sitting in Yavneh have dreamed that the laws of shatnez, of mixing wool and linen in the same garment, or of cross-fertilising different seeds would one day be applied to the deliberate alteration of human DNA? Maybe not. But I believe they would have understood and appreciated that their insights into human nature and the way to live a good and meaningful life, would still be studied and argued over, thousands of years into the future.

There’s an old Midrash about Moses, who at the end of his life is permitted a glimpse of the future. He sees a classroom, and students, who are being taught by Rabbi Akiva. The words of Rabbi Akiva are ones Moses has never heard before. But the great Rabbi ends his discourse by saying, “These are the words which Moshe Rabbeinu received from God Almighty at Sinai”. And Moses thinks for a moment, smiles, and is content.

Return. Return to what? To the land we were given by God? To the way of life of our ancestors? To farming and working with our hands? To an unalterable belief in an all-powerful supernatural deity who controls every aspect of reality? Is that the return we are urged to make this Shabbat?

No. Our generation, like all generations, stands hand in hand with the future and the past. We inherited Judaism from our ancestors, and it is our sacred trust, to pass on to our children and their descendants. One generation passes away, and another generation comes. And the world abides forever. The sun rises, the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. All the rivers run into the sea yet the sea is not full. We come, we spend our brief time, we live, we love, and we make our mark. We change things. What we leave for our children bears our imprint, as the Judaism we received has come down to us infinitely richer for the contributions of those gone before us.

If our ancestors could see us, if they could have glimpsed the future, if the generations could somehow communicate across the gulf of millennia, no doubt there would be much they and perhaps we, would find difficult to accept about each other. And yet, I think in the end, we would both recognise that what we have in common is stronger than that which divides us.

To be a Jew, has always meant to place humanity above all else. To know that human beings are created in the divine image. That no concerns of money, or power, or national interest can ever be worth more than a single human soul. Our Father Abraham left his home in Ur of the Chaldees, at the dawn of recorded human history, to challenge the idols of his day and find ultimate meaning in human existence. May we, his children, return to that faith.

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