June 16, 2024
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June 16, 2024
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“All of humanity pass before You as sheep …” On Rosh Hashanah, God reviews all human behavior, scrutinizes our inner hearts and determines our fate for the coming year. On this solemn day of judgment, we also celebrate divine sovereignty. The shofar blast recalls historical milestones: creation, the binding of Isaac, Jewish selection, Sinai and, of course, the Messianic endpoint of history. Rosh Hashanah is both a somber day of judgment, but also a celebration of divine majesty and religious glory. 

God is infinite and omnipresent, but His “status” on our planet, is dependent upon human decisions and the fluctuations of history. By vesting humans with free will, God abdicated control of His presence in this world—delivering to humans the opportunity to bolster or undermine that presence. Our historical Jewish mission is to draw God into our world, speak in His name and hoist humanity to higher ground. Rosh Hashanah is the grand day of divine authority, human free will and Jewish destiny. 

On this day of gravitas—with both trepidation and anticipation—we look toward the future and pray for prosperity and success. We dream of augmenting God, and moral spirit in this world. But we also look back upon the previous year: Which events—over the past year—have enhanced the presence of God in our world, and which events have diminished His presence? As the new year commences, what is the “state of God” in our world?

War and Peace

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, while also reviving dormant Cold War-era tensions. Worried about potential future wars, many European countries have undergone rapid weaponization, while other superpowers such as China are forging dangerous new alliances in pursuit of regional influence. Often, the world doesn’t realize that it is on a path to war and doesn’t hear the drumbeats of war until it is too late. We are closer to large-scale hostilities than at any point in the past 30 years. There is nothing romantic about war and it doesn’t represent the will of God, who desires peace and accord between His creatures. We pray that the world shifts back toward amity and away from armed confrontation. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) 

We thought that the information revolution of the past 30 yearsincluding the emergence of the internet and social mediawere the transformative revolutions of our generation. Little did we know that these events were merely the warm-up show to the main event—the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The power to create machines that can mimic human intelligence, learn from data and make decisions will radically alter our workplace, our culture and our fundamental definition of human identity. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been evolving for years, but this past year’s debut of chatbots brought this revolution to the forefront. 

We know that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will influence religious thinking, we just don’t know how. The past track record of the religious impact of scientific revolutions isn’t great. Galileo’s 17th century announcement that the Earth didn’t stand at the center of the universe shook the foundations of religious belief. Darwin’s 19th century discovery of the evolution of species has turned the world away from belief in a God who created the world. 

Though many religious people instinctively assume that technology erodes religious belief, it is inaccurate and dangerous to villainize technology as an enemy of religion. This pessimistic view can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is it possible that AI will enhance religious practice? Is it possible that it will make religious texts more accessible, allowing us to explore faith more deeply? Is it possible that AI will liberate us from tedious labor affording us greater time and resources for religious pursuits? Of course, it is also entirely possible that AI will challenge traditional ideas of soul and human immortality, throwing into question fundamentals of belief. 

It is impossible to know how this technology will evolve, but religious people better pay close attention. We are taking a blind leap into the great unknown. We trust that religion is durable enough and eternal enough to outlast any human innovations. We just need to find the answers.

A Polarized and Angry World

Our world is sharply polarized. Society has become radically split along politics, cultural, ethic, economic and gender lines.  Echo chambers amplify pre-existing biases reaffirming our own narrow beliefs. Growing anxiety, as well as dissolving trust in public institutions encourage us to adopt “safe positions,” rather than consider opposing viewpoints. Our world has become angrier, overconfident and full of rage. This world of rage doesn’t reflect a compassionate and caring God. Let us pray that the world becomes more calm and more caring. That would be a more God-like world. 

Social Discord in Israel

Israeli society has been fractured by public strife surrounding the proposed judicial reforms.  This controversial issue has evoked darker divisions which, in the past, were suppressed by the larger issue of national security. The year of social discontent has highlighted the numerous fault lines of Israeli society. To survive, Israel must learn to better bridge between religious and secular, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, between the wealthy elite and the common average-income citizenry, between universalists and nationalists and between those who adopt progressive politics and those who adhere to conservative models. We lazily refer to all these numerous divisions as “left” and “right,” but these schisms do not always overlap and they are far more nuanced than simple stereotypical labels suggest. We could all gain by erasing the terms “left” and “right” from our vocabulary. 

A horrific and roundly condemned statement by a pro-reform activist demonstrated how far we have fallen and how much of our common narrative we are losing. Frustrated by what he perceived as Ashkenazi-led anti-reform protests, he expressed his wish that the Nazis had murdered more European Jews. Though, it was later retracted, I can’t get that horror out of my imagination. For the past 75 years, the Holocaust and our security struggle each provided a common narrative to unify our country. Evidently, those narratives are fraying and in the absence of any common narrative, we are becoming fractured by our differences. 

We are the people of God, meant to teach the world that He is a One God—responsible for everything. When we behave as “one” people, we better reflect His Oneness. When we are badly splintered, we less reflect His Oneness. Social strife in the land of Israel isn’t merely a social problem, it is a theological defect. 

Unfortunately, the social discord has alienated many secular Israelis from religion. Perhaps, religious identification has increased in some sectors, but many secular Israelis have become more alienated. Regardless of who is to blame, this is painful development and religious people must take accountability for any decline of religion and faith. 

My revered rebbe, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, often cited a Talmudic passage cautioning a father against physically hitting his adolescent son—given the likelihood that the son would retaliate, strike the father and violate a sin. Though a father is instructed to discipline his child, he must also factor in the consequences of his son’s reactions. Whether religious people are right or wrong is inconsequential. We have a lot of ground to make up.  

Finally, the social strife has altered international perception of our state. It has emboldened our enemies, who view this instability as a moment of weakness and an opportunity to attack us, God forbid. The social strife has also diminished the allure of the state of Israel in the international arena. Over the past 30 years, Israel has experienced phenomenal success in almost every sector of national interest. This led to a surge of respect for our country and its people. This surge culminated in the “Isaac Accords,” which were not adopted primarily as a gesture of peace, but out of surging interest among our neighbors to align with our country and its successes.

As we are God’s people, when our allure rises, God’s presence similarly rises. Let us pray to find a way to construct bridges and to restore our national unity. Let us hope that we continue to draw admiration from the international community, as they realize that it pays to align with the people of God. 

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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