Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Singularity and the soul

Singularity- an interesting concept that many science fiction writers have touched on in the past (and will probably continue to do so as people predict it coming ever closer). Probably the best science fiction story on the subject was written by Marc Stiegler called “The Gentle Seduction “ *. The concept is this: at some point in time the rate of scientific advancement is so fast as to become incomprehensible, with changes happening faster than they can be absorbed. One effect of this is the concept that eventually computers become so advanced as to be able to exceed the capabilities of our minds- or to extend them. The extension of this is eternal life through downloading the mind into a computer and continuing to live forever- either virtually or through various artificial bodies when physical interaction is desired. What got me thinking about this topic? A recent BBC documentary** (Ok originally screened in 2006 and recently rescreened…) that somebody mentioned discussing these ideas (I haven’t seen the actual documentary unfortunately)

Aside from the various aspects of how this would affect society, the economy and the job market- there seems to be another area that needs to be addressed- where does the soul fit in? Now, the one view of the soul is that it has three main components- ruach, neshamah and nefesh. The ruach is essentially the animating spirit common to all living things. It is basically the physical component of the soul and finite. The nefesh is the holy spark, the pure part that comes from God, the neshamah the combining influence- the part that is the “You”, the unique part of this life that grows, makes decisions and is needed to lift the physical to the spiritual.

So, what happens when our intellect is removed from the body? What happens to the soul? It would seem that the ruach at least would die. It is tied to the physical, and thus the removal of the physical means it, too, is removed. What about the higher parts? The neshamah is a link, a connection between the physical and the spiritual. If the physical ceases to be, does it? Is there a purpose in trying to perfect ourselves, overcome our limitations, when the limiting factor, the pull of the physical is removed? On the other hand- does the physical have to be the body as we know it? Is the lure of the physical, the challenge to move towards spirituality, as great once we are out of the physical body and embedded in the silicone heart of a machine? Is the neshamah dependant on a meat body, or on a connection into the physical creation of Hashem?

This question seems to be at the heart of this coming issue- is eternal life actually worthwhile? If we are rooted in the mundane and the physical- then the answer is yes. For those that believe this life is it, that death is oblivion and nullity, the answer is clear- continued existence must be preferred over being snuffed out. For those that do believe in an afterlife- the issue of what happens to the soul becomes paramount. If the world to come is where we actually want to be- then eternal life is actually a punishment. It denies us the movement into the realm that we are ultimately destined for. If the soul dies and the intellect continues to exist, is there any value to soulless living? Does spirituality die with the body, or does it continue as long as there is an intellect to interact with the world? (The question of spirituality and artificial intellects that may arise is a different can of worms to be opened in the future!)

Don’t look at me for the answers- questions such as these are going to require the contemplation and teshuvot from the Gedolei hador. But I open to the floor to you, any thoughts or comments on this?

* http://www.skyhunter.com/marcs/GentleSeduction.html (Originally published in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact magazine in August 1989)

** http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/tvradio/programmes/horizon/broadband/tx/singularity/

July 24, 2008 Posted by | Other Torah, Random, Weekly Question/Issue | , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Parshas Matos 5768

You ever feel really excited about something? So excited you get up early, jump out of bed, then rush to do whatever it was that excited you? Or you sit at work, and that one crucial task arrives- you know if you do it, and do it well, you will shine and be the next line in line for promotion- how quickly do you rush off to do it? To be the one to get the praise and accolades for a job well done?

What about the converse? The boss comes and tells you that you are fired, and then asks you to do one last task. How many people are keen then? How many people rush off excitedly, putting all that energy into that last task before they walk out the door to leave the company forever?

Chances are that everyone will identify with the first situation, and look at the second situation as bizarre. Run excitedly to complete the one task after which you will be fired? Most people will drag it out, extend it as far as possible to get the most possible traction from it. These two scenarios are played out in Parshat Balak and this weeks parsha.

In Parshat Balak we read how Bilaam wakes early in the morning, saddles his own donkey and leaves early. He is excited. He wants to curse the Jews. He wants to bring ill fortune and bad luck down on them- so much so that he foregoes the dignity and honour he normally insists on- preparing his own donkey and setting off without the household to accord him honour. He is like the first example- keen, eager, rushing off to do what he wishes.

On the other hand, in this week’s Parsha we see situation two. God tells Moshe to gather an army of twelve thousand men; one thousand from each tribe, to be led by Pinchas. Hashem tells him in clear terms that after the battle, his duty to Bnei Yisrael and Hashem will be completed and it will be time for him to die: he will never enter Yisrael- Bnei Yisrael will be led by his protégé Joshua in their conquest of the land. Not even his sons will take up his mantle of prophecy and leadership once he is gone.

Knowing this, one could forgive Moshe if he procrastinated a bit. If he dragged his feet, took things slowly, listened to the elders, took advice- and basically acted like most of us would in that situation. Instead, Moshe rushes to perform the commandment from Hashem. He does not delay, but right them gathers the army and sends it war.

In Moshe’s actions we can see how we should act. Moshe’s acts is as much an act of zealotry as Pinchas’, but while Pinchas’ happened in a moment of high emotion, an once in a life time situation- Moshe lived in this state constantly. Moshe lived to serve Hashem- for him, any commandment, no matter how small; or how painful to perform, had to be performed immediately, joyously and to the best of his ability. For Moshe, the serving of Hashem was the ultimate reward in itself.

So, too, it should be for us. Undoubtedly the complete acceptance and willingness that Moshe showed is not something easily done. Yet it should be something that we all strive for- to be able to fulfill the complete will of Hashem, joyously and rapidly, without worrying about how it affects us personally- but only that it is the will of Hashem.

July 21, 2008 Posted by | Parshah, Torah | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Intermarriage

Intermarriage is probably most serious issue facing the continuation of Judaism in some areas of the world and for some of the Jewish movements. In the NJPS 2000 survey conducted in the USA, the Orthodox movements seemed to be avoiding this to a large extent- both showing large family sizes and an under 6% rate. However, for the liberal movements these rates were dramatically higher- from 32% in Conservative, to 49% in the unaffiliated community (only slightly lower at 46% in Reform). (Figures taken from here: http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/WillYourGrandchildrenBeJews.htm )

Recently I have seen a discussion of this on another blog (http://factualbasis.wordpress.com/2008/07/16/intermarriage-out-of-judaism/ ). Then today I came across a question on Yahoo! Answers- a mother trying to work out how to keep her children happy with not going to Church with their friends from school. (See the question here http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index;_ylt=AgznOqLlXpjSHDIkirClAVUjzKIX;_ylv=3?qid=20080719202541AArdQQ9 )

I read this question and immediately thought of the figures around intermarriage and how this is a problem for many movements in Judaism (and probably more so in South African Orthodox than in Orthodox in the USA since the Conservative/Reform movement is very small here and thus you have the strange phenomenon of non-Observant Orthodox Jews in many Orthodox communities!) Immediately the obvious question arose: If the parent is so worried about the peer pressure and desire of her children to be like their friends form school, why isn’t the first step to socialize with more Jews and to create a circle of friends for them that are Jewish and thus remove the pressure to conform to a Christian society?

If the spiritual health of our children is important to us (and it should- as much as their physical health is), then why do so many avoid taking the tough decisions to ensure it? If we knew that we were living in the midst of a polluted area and that our children’s health was at risk, how many of us would be reluctant to move to make sure they would be healthy? Yet when it comes to spiritual health, the obvious solution of moving to a place where you would be surrounded by Jews, associate with Jews and be immersed in a Jewish environment is resisted and seen as a radical and fanatical.

In my mind this is just a symptom of the modern malaise of wanting to fit in- nobody wants to be too far from what is considered “normal”. We judge ourselves, our homes, our children, jobs etc by the standards of what society expects. We go on about how we must respect individuality, how uniqueness is desired and welcomed, yet we rush to conform and to not make waves or appear strange to neighbors. Unfortunately, for many this malaise seems to include making sure they conform to a specific societal ideal- being “radical” and associating with a minority group, moving house or school so children will associate with Jewish peers rather than being immersed in the majority culture is not acceptable.

Considering that, are we really surprised at such high assimilation rates? If our children grow up immersed in a society where Judaism isn’t the norm, where the desire to conform is a push to other religions (or to no religion), then why are we surprised when they absorb that and treat Judaism and marrying a Jew as nothing more than an option that is the same as any other option? It’s what they’ve been taught- all options are fine, all options are good, there is no definite right or wrong (and this comes through in the question- the parent is happy to have them choose religion in their teens).

So, as I answered in that question (yep- Allonyoav on Yahoo! Answers is me…) I see only one lasting and real solution- Jews need to acknowledge that if they want Jewish children, and Jewish children that marry other Jews, they need to structure their lives in such a way that Judaism and other Jews are a significant part of it.

July 20, 2008 Posted by | Other Torah | , , , | 7 Comments