Saturday, October 19, 2019 -
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Rosh Hashanah identifies an irreplaceable humanity

A human competes in a Turing test against a robot superimposed on a Jewish man blowing shofar. (Getty/JTA montage)

By David Bashevkin

Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of mankind. But if Rosh Hashanah is indeed the collective birthday of humanity, why do we celebrate with all our focus on G-d, sin and repentance?

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy is filled with references of G-d’s kingship as humanity stands in judgment before him. If the imagery of the prayer book is any indication, Rosh Hashanah commemorates man’s creation with a court case rather than with balloons and streamers. Is there a celebration of man to be found during this time of year?

I believe there is. Because Rosh Hashanah is, at its essence, a celebration of what makes us truly human.

Every year, I approach Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays as a spiritual Turing test. In a 1950 article titled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” the genius British codebreaker Alan Turing invented a test to consider whether computers can think like human beings.

This is how it works: A judge engages in a conversation with two unknown entities — a person and a computer. If the computer can fool a human judge into believing it is a human being, the computer has passed the Turing test — and, according to Turing, has exhibited the ability to “think.”

In many ways, we “play” a variety of Turing tests each day — and computers are getting better at them. As computer science continues to develop, it can sometimes feel like technology is beginning to encroach on our humanness. Lately, my three-year-old son sustains long conversations with Amazon’s Alexa.

Decades ago, chess was considered a singularly human game. Nowadays, your cellphone could beat a grandmaster. At the World A. I. Conference in Shanghai in August, Elon Musk said that “there is a smaller and smaller corner where humans are better than computers in intellectual pursuits and every year it gets smaller and smaller.”

Humans, he added, “are hopelessly inadequate.”

As computers move faster, it feels like we are moving slower.

The entire process of the High Holidays, in contrast, emphasizes the very qualities that only a human could ever hope to project. While the imagery of judgment looms large, it is our capacity to stand in judgment that makes mankind different.

Brian Christian, in his 2011 book The Most Human Human, reimagined the goal of the Turing test. He entered an international Turing test competition known as the Loebner Prize. Instead of a computer competing to be most human, Christian attempted to see if he could be ranked most human.

The very notion is fascinating. What would you say to prove your humanity? Of course, typing in “I am not a computer” won’t help all that much, since a computer could just as easily be programmed to do the same.

In a 2011 interview in the Paris Review, Christian reflected on his own experience: He answered the question with a recursive cleverness, saying that “humans appear to be the only things anxious about what makes them unique.”

I think a lot about that angst during Rosh Hashanah.

As someone for whom anxiety comes naturally, this answer has always resonated. Most of us spend our professional lives aspiring for the sober analysis of computers, but Christian’s experience is a reminder that our angst over our imperfections may be what distinguishes us. As the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen hauntingly sings, “There is a crack in everything — that’s how the light gets in.”

Whispering during the silent Amidah, we ask for G-d to “grant his awe upon creation.” We pray for awe because life without it can seem devoid of mystery and urgency. A computer doesn’t whisper a prayer before approaching its programmer. Only we do.

After we pray for awe, we pray for honor. The dignity of honor, the nobility of our distinctiveness, only emerges once we first assert our angst.

As we humbly pass before G-d in judgment during the Days of Awe, we assert our very humanity by exercising our capacity for wonder and reverence.

The inimitable nature of the human condition does not emerge from celebrating man’s ingenuity, but rather from our inadequacy: “Praise to those who fear you,” we pray, “good hope to those to seek you, confident speech to those who yearn for you.”

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate humanity by focusing on our capacity to submit, our aspirations to transcend and our yearning to connect. Having a Higher Power that we are reaching toward is precisely what endows our life with such purpose. Computers are measured based on their accomplishments; humanity is measured by our aspirations.

Buried within the humble inarticulate cry of the shofar is the reminder of man’s distinction. Shofar is a curious vehicle to proclaim G-d’s kingship. Why not a jazzy sax solo or a somber battalion of trumpets?

The shofar is distinctive for the same reason as humanity — it is a cry of inadequacy.

You can only blow one note from a shofar. It is a plaintive cry that words can’t capture. On Rosh Hashanah, our visceral aspirations are not cloaked in the poetic prose or creative solos, but in an existential angst that only humanity can express.

Other species may be capable of communication. Computers excel at chess. And soon an algorithm may have most of our jobs. But only human beings have the instinctive capacity to reach out in prayer.

Staring into a siddur, reflecting on what’s gone wrong and humbly reaching out to a more transcendent source to help make it right is a moment of humanity no other entity could imitate or replace.

We spend most of the year racing to outpace and outsmart the endless march of modernity and technological achievement. On Rosh Hashanah, we remind ourselves that the only way we’ll emerge victorious in the race for our individuality is if we embrace our inadequacy.

A successful Rosh Hashanah can produce a more tender and humble sense of self during the year. The chasidic Rebbe of Kotzk famously remarked that “there is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”

On Rosh Hashanah, our hopeless inadequacy may be the very source of our hope.

Rabbi David Bashevkin is the author of “Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought” (Academic Studies Press).



JTA

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