story · theology

The morality machine

Once, in a plausible past, a scientist built a machine. It was so powerful it could handle complex reasoning. It could calculate absolutely anything.

The scientist programmed the machine so that it could work out the optimal outcome for any decision. If she asked it whether to eat porridge or cornflakes, this contraption would measure up the nutritional value of each cereal against her personal health, exercise and needs.

It would even factor in how happy each breakfast choice could make her, short term and long-term. This machine would crunch those numbers until it spurted out the best possible result. Porridge this morning. Almond milk. No salt or sugar.

This scientist discovered she could put her instrument to use with every daily task. Before long, she had completely optimised her life. She went to sleep and woke up at exactly the right time. She did the perfect amount of exercise. She worked a job that maximised her fulfilment, income and skill set. 

She used it to work out where to do her charitable giving: finding the cause that would save the most human lives for the least amount of money. The machine told her which purchasing choices would have the least impact on the environment for the fairest price to consumer, labourer and business owner.

Such a fine apparatus! Of course, it was only a matter of time before she realised this could have implications far beyond her own life. She brought her machine to the capital city and presented it before the benevolent president.

“Ma’am,” she intoned as she bowed, “this machine will help you make the perfect decision at all times.”

“Let me try,” said the president. She lifted herself from her seat and walked over to the metal block. “For the longest time, I have wondered if I need more advisers to increase the wisdom in my country. Perhaps this machine can tell me how many more I should hire, and what sort of person I need?” 

The scientist typed in the numbers, and you have already worked out what happened next. The answer was so obvious! The machine told the president that she did not need any advisors, because all her decisions could be rationally calculated by the computer. Immediately the president dismissed all her advisors.

Now the real work could begin. The computer informed the president of all the best crops that could be grown in the best soil for the best results. It told her what land to capture and which pastures to disregard. It explained which industries would be most cost-effective. Within a matter of months, the country was transformed.

Then the computer updated the president with which workers were most efficient, and which ones consumed more than they produced. The machine enumerated which people were most likely to disrupt social order. It showed how the population would be healthier and happier if it were smaller and more homogenous. The president gleefully implemented its dictats.

The machine calculated who to imprison. Who to promote. Who to ignore. Who to starve. Who  to execute. 

Because a machine can count absolutely anything. Except the value of a life.

No. The worth of a human being cannot be accounted for by any mathematical system. Life comes from something that is infinite and belongs to that Infinity. As such, it is indivisible, indefinable, immeasurable. No machine can capture God. No machine can understand those inviolable precepts that  we call ‘human rights’.

The idea that there is such a thing as human rights is, fundamentally, a religious ideal. It can only be understood by reference to something holy. The rights of human beings are inviolable because they are given by God. Philosophy’s great atheists – Bentham, Marx, Singer – also explicitly rejected the discourse of human rights. 

Conversely, Tom Paine grounded his rights of man in the biblical account of God having created us equal in Eden. When Jefferson wrote the American Declaration of Independence, he explained that human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” When the colonised and enslaved people of the Americas answered back that they, too, had such rights, they appealed to the same Divine Source. When Wollstonecraft vindicated the rights of women, she insisted that “God brought into existence creatures above the brutes so that they would have incalculable gifts.” 

In this week’s haftarah, God tells the prophet Zechariah: “not by might, nor by power, but only by My spirit” can the Jewish people truly live. All the force and wealth in the world cannot compare to the sacred truth of God’s infinity. We are nothing if we abandon God’s message.

More than a religious value, human rights are a Jewish value. Hanukkah is underway. It is a festival that celebrates an oppressed minority’s achievement of religious freedom in the face of colonial oppression. It remembers how the Seleucids once tried to violate Jews’ every right, but were ultimately defeated. Above all, we are told, it was God who safeguarded their rights.

A testimony to the Jewishness of human rights comes from the author of their Declaration. This week is Human Rights Shabbat, commemorating 72 years since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among its composers was a French-Jewish jurist named Rene Cassin. Cassin was keen to ensure that there was some legal framework for guaranteeing people were protected, no matter where they were from; what minorities they belonged to; or what they believed. 

In particular, in the shadow of a genocide perpetrated against Jews, the Declaration of Human Rights sought to ensure that never again would a group be systematically eradicated. Human rights were supposed to be a counterpoint against genocide.

Genocide, like the choices described in the story of the morality machine, is the result of mechanical thinking. It is something that can only be justified when human beings are reduced to statistics and social consequences only measured in terms of order or prosperity. 

You see, the machine that could calculate anything except the value of a life did not exist only in fiction. It is already a part of our daily reality. 

Before genocide can be carried out in camps, it is developed on spreadsheets and planned on computers. 

Before people can commit atrocities, they have to switch off the part of themselves that connects with their infinite source and plug in only to the finite equations of capitalist mentality. If we are not careful, we can become the machine. We become the automatons that punch out numbers and make calculations and rationally process every evil. 

Our media asks us how many people should be permitted into Britain, and we churn back answers into the polls. We are challenged to decide how many people should die of Coronavirus, and how many should be imprisoned to stop their deaths. We are told to weigh up which tools of warfare our country should have to capture the greatest resources for the least sacrifice. 

We are asked the most unconscionable questions and, barely processing the implications, return answers like amoral computers. If we permit ourselves to think like robots when we weigh up the values of other people’s lives, we truly do destroy the humanity in ourselves. 

We will only break free from such finite thinking when we put it into the perspective of Infinity. It is the infiniteness within someone that makes them holy. It is their Infinite source that makes their purpose sacred.

For the sake of humanity, we embrace human rights.

I wrote this sermon for the Leo Baeck College newsletter and will deliver it to Newcastle Reform Synagogue on Shabbat Vayeshev, 12th December 2020.

judaism · sermon · torah

Rest is resistance

“Take a break,” Moses said to the Israelites. “I’ve spoken to God, and we’re both very keen on this: you need to take Saturdays off.”

“Yes, we know, we’ve heard this before,” said the Israelites. “You told us when we were around that mountain. You told us when we were building the mishkan. You said these exact same words only a few weeks ago in another parashah. You don’t need to keep going on about it.”

“I do, though,” said Moses. “It’s really important. I’m telling you now so you get it. 24 hours of rest. 25 if you want to be extra about it. But definitely no less. You need to take a break.”

The Israelites sighed. “We get it. Tell us something new.”

“OK,” said Moses. “Take a break. Or I’ll kill you. I’m serious now. Not resting on Shabbat is punishable by death. If I catch any of you picking up sticks or lighting fires on Saturdays, that’s it. Dead.”

“But why?  Why does this matter so much to you?”

“Because,” said Moses. “For generations, we were slaves. Our whole lives we worked. When our masters had their days off, we still worked, serving them. We broke our backs. We lost touch with what mattered. We forgot how to think. We forgot how to enjoy life. We have a chance here that we’ve never had before. We can build an entirely new society, where the measure of life isn’t how well we work, but how well we rest. If we instill this day of rest with holiness and make it the cornerstone of our society, we can build a community that resists the tyranny of work and the oppression of masters.”

And that was that. Shabbat became enshrined as the hallmark of Jewishness. No more would people exploit each other on their holy days. No more would we be defined by our productivity. Instead, the marker of Jewish observance was how holy we could make this day by refraining from work.

Generations later, our rabbis were faced with a new question. If work was forbidden, what actually was work? Perhaps in the peasant and smallholder society of ancient Israel, it was obvious. But in the new reality of urban living across a wide Diaspora, it was no longer so clear. They needed to know how to make the day holy.

So they looked to this week’s parashah. Here, in this section of Torah, the commandment to honour the Sabbath bookends descriptions of how to build God’s dwelling place. They looked at all the work that must have been involved in creating this momentous desert structure. Lighting fires. Tanning leather. Dying cloth. Joining wood. Polishing stones. Spinning wool. Carrying. Pushing. Lifting. Choosing. Separating. Drawing. Planning.

If this was the work that was required to build God’s dwelling place in ancient times, they reasoned, then abstention would be the way to build God’s dwelling place today. Just as the performance of work was a holy act in the Torah, not doing the same things could be a holy act in our world. Through their interpretation of this text, our rabbis gave new life to the holiness of Shabbat and the value in not working.

This idea has so much relevance to us today. In recent months, an article has been circulating entitled ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.’ It argues that the generation of people now in our twenties and thirties live in a permanent state of overwork and exhaustion. It gives good material reasons why this should be the case. We were born into post-Soviet Thatcherite Britain. The dominant idea was that anyone could work hard enough to become rich, and we were educated in a system that reinforced this. By the time we entered the job market, the country was in recession, wages permanently stagnated, housing became completely unaffordable and job security became a rare luxury. As a result, we are primed with a need to work hard, but the rewards for this seem completely unattainable.

I think the reason this article was so widely shared was because it spoke to many of my peers’ lived experiences. I doubt, however, that the issue is generational. I look at the teenagers I am tutoring for bar mitzvah, and I am overwhelmed by how much pressure is on them. They seem to be constantly examined, overburdened with extra-curricular activities, and pushed to constantly improve their CVs, even from the youngest age.

At the same time, I see friends in their fifties and sixties who are permanently exhausted. I recently asked an older friend how he was doing. He answered that he wasn’t sure if he was tired from sickness or just living out the regular fatigue that comes from working. We are, as an entire society, exhausted and struggling to keep our heads above water.

This systemic problem may feel insurmountable. The people sitting in this room cannot, on our own, redesign society, push wages up, make housing affordable, or transform the labour market. (Much as I my try to push the line that we can.) Yet there is one thing we can do. We can do what our ancestors did when they left slavery and decided to institute their own rules. We can do what our rabbis did when they were confronted with urban living and needed to re-imagine work. That is: we can shift our focus.

Against a culture that sees work as the end of human existence, we can prioritise rest. In a world that demands us to be constantly online, we can switch off. In a society that tells us we are isolated competitors, we can build meaningful community. We can insist that we do not live to work, but we work to live. Our lives do not have meaning because of how productive we are, but because of how much compassion we can put into this world.

Against the crushing pressure of modern capitalism, Judaism continues to issue forth a two-word rallying cry of protest: Shabbat shalom!

Shabbat-Kodesh_art

I gave an earlier version of this sermon at Kehillah North London in 2013 for Parashat Vayakahel. I reworked it and delivered it at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Saturday 2nd March 2019.