Back to the Future

Parashat Bereishit
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Back to the Future

Remember way-back-when, before the new Millennium? Decades ago, what were your associations with the year 2000? As someone who straddles the line between Gen X’er and Millennial, I distinctly remember binge-watching mediocre science-fiction flicks as a teen: RoboCop, Back to the Future (granted, that’s a classic), Total Recall (directed by my ‘landsman’ Paul Verhoeven), Alien (and its numerous sequels), Jurassic Park, Waterworld and Independence Day. My 1990’s scifi movie-watching habits ingrained a love for the genre till this day.

Despite my love for the genre, I have to acknowledge that science-fiction narratives are almost always dystopian. Very few have a hopeful, redemptive message (the ‘Star Trek’ franchise being a noted exception) and most dwell on a grim and gritty future, currently, Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ series being a prime example.
As a social scientist, I’ve often wondered about why that is the case. What does our flirtation with the apocalyptic say about our collective psyche?
I think that the Hebrew Bible can offer us insight.

Most of us don’t live with a literal understanding of the Bible in general and the Creation story in Genesis in particular. We are not barred from Midrashic, creative, philosophical and existential interpretations of the text. To grasp the Genesis account literally is to squeeze out its creative and philosophical potential and to miss how the text can speak to us Moderns in very profound ways.

This week’s reading according to the luach of the Movement for Reform Judaism focuses on Chapter 3, which is all about ‘the Fruit Incident’. Adam and Eve find themselves in the Garden of Eden. God commanded Adam, before the Creation of Eve in Chapter 2, to not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And the rest is history.

Our Judaeo-Christian culture frowns upon this episode – it is seen as the beginning of Man’s fall from Grace and Eve’s actions have been made circumspect. Both Adam and Eve are cursed; he through the toil of sustaining a living, she through the pangs of childbirth, as both are confronted with their inevitable mortality.

But was it such a bad thing? Perhaps eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was the Edenic equivalent of imagining an alternate reality, perhaps like we do through film, literature and the arts. Had the first couple not eaten from the fruit, they would have been trapped in Eden forever more; eternal, unchanging, robotic.
My contention is that God set them up for failure—or, to put it differently, intended for this outcome all along. Once they have eaten and defied the so-called Divine will, God searches Adam out in the Garden and calls out ‘Ayeika’, ‘Where are you?’ Eating the fruit was the symbolic expression of humanity’s yearning for free will. Without eating from the fruit, human history would not have taken off and we would not have received Torah at Mount Sinai. We would not have the blueprint for Redemption through the act of Revelation, so that we may return to our Edenic state once again. As Deuteronomy 30:19 says, ‘this day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.’

Having said that, human history is not for the faint-of-heart. As desirable as free will is for our purpose in the world (and our authentic relationship with God), there are consequences and there’s a price to pay. The bond for insight is mortality. The investment in wisdom is the vigour of youth. Hence, it is normal to feel ambivalence about this text: without our banishment from Eden, we could not redeem our world, but at the same time we are now faced with great sorrow, suffering and evil.

Perhaps one could say then, that the Fruit Incident in the Garden of Eden led to the world’s very first science-fiction scenario. Adam and Eve were forced to confront their own dystopian future.

The Torah is clear that knowledge requires balance: if we are to have knowledge, then we cannot have eternal life. To have both would be an aspiration to apotheosis: godhood. The checks-and-balances of the human condition would be loosened and the consequences would be without precedent. Had Adam and Eve been able to have both, they would have been like gods. The Torah tells us: ‘And God said: behold, the man is become like one of us, knowing good and evil’ (Gen. 3:22). In sci-fi terms, they would have achieved a type of metaphysical Singularity.

For those of you who aren’t sci-fi or technology nerds, the ‘Singularity’ refers to the moment in human history (presumably in a not too-distant future) where artificial intelligence supersedes human intelligence. It is, to reverse the metaphor, a type of technological apotheosis: computers become our gods. This idea lives at the basis of the many dystopian science-fiction films and books our contemporary culture knows.

Lest you think this is a flight of fancy, there are philosophers and scientists today who believe that the Singularity is imminent, perhaps even in our lifetime.

The fact is that my teenage sci-fi geek self back in the 1990’s would never have believed that I could one day talk into my cellphone-cum-mini-computer that lives in my pocket, summoning instant and infinite knowledge by a mere voice-command. Perhaps we should take the warning of Isaac Asimov and his ilk seriously. The ‘Internet-of-Things’, in which our household appliances and even driver-less cars are controlled through WIFI is poised at a commercial breakthrough and our economy has undergone momentous change through outsourcing human jobs to robotics.

I’m not a scientist, computer expert or a futurist. But the parallels between the Creation Story and our own existential wrestling with what it means to be human cannot be ignored. As we push on into uncharted technological territory, our ancient, deep, wise Bronze Age myths can help us ask those fundamental questions and issues both a warning and invitation. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have unparalleled knowledge and untrammelled power? What does it mean to modify our humanity through technology and to have technological advances that make us virtually godlike? Who is included in the sweep of human history and who is left behind?

We can imagine the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as being Adam and Eve’s first experience of speculative futurology. The Book of Genesis can perhaps take us back to the future and safeguard what is most precious of all in our beautiful, fragile world: our inalienable worth of being created ‘b’tzelem Elohim’, in the Divine Image, as human beings. No matter what our future looks like, that has and never will change; we Jews are called to be the guarantors of that sacred covenant with all of life.

Shabbat shalom.


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