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Sunday, 16 July 2017

Developing a Spirit of Independent-Mindedness

How would you feel if you went to a synagogue or church and the service was led by a robot? if the words and the music had been machine generated? (Some of you may already think you have such a figure in your community, but stay with me). You could programme a machine to lead services, to give sermons, Rabbi Google can teach you about Judaism even now. Your robot minister could listen and talk to you if you had a pastoral problem. Machines can do all these things already.

In Germany they have just unveiled a robot-priest in the Protestant Church called – can you guess? – “BlessU-2”. It has a touch-screen chest, two arms and a head. You can choose to be blessed in German, English, French, Spanish or Polish. You can choose a male or female voice. The robot pastor raises its arms, flashes lights, and recites the Biblical verse “May God bless you and protect you”.  If you want, you can press the screen and get a print-out of the words. In case of malfunction or breakdown, the Church has invested in a backup robot. ‘O brave new world, That has such pastors in it’ (as Shakespeare almost said).  

This may be the future - who knows? -  but the point of the church’s experiment is to provoke debate, which it has done. We all know – or think we know – the difference between a machine and a person, even if we sometimes end up treating other people as machines. But what does it mean to be human? We talk, casually, about the ‘human spirit’ but it is a mystery, this thing we call consciousness. The Book of Genesis tries to capture the extraordinary nature of what it means to be a person, to be alive, to be animated (that word of course is from the Latin ‘anima/spirit’). In the Biblical myth, the inanimate, as-yet-not-quite-human, Adam,  made of dust, inert matter, Adamah, becomes a nefesh chaya , a living being,  by having the breath of life breathed into it by the divine spirit (Genesis 2:7). That’s one, poetic, way of imagining what a human being is.

But in spite of all the amazing neuroscience and genetic understanding and the insights from biology and chemistry, and all the knowledge we have about what makes a human being human, what still remains elusive is the problem - the philosophers call it the ‘hard problem’ - of what consciousness is, what this human spirit in us is. I think this is going to remain a tantalising question for a long time yet: apart from these amazing neural connections up here in our heads, in this ‘three pounds of jelly’ as the great neurologist Oliver Sacks once called the brain, what is it that makes us an aware, spirited human being?  

Whatever this mysterious essence is, it does define the difference between us and a robot, however sophisticated a machine that is, however many millions of calculations per second it can make. We can live in awe of what humanity can now build. Our smartphones are smarter than us. That’s awesome. But it is nothing like the awe of what it is to be human, a living being.

Our Torah text this week describes the qualities of Joshua, Moses’ successor.  Moses is told “Take Joshua, the son of Nun, a man who has spirit/ruach in him, and place your hand upon him...and give him instructions in the sight of the whole community...” (Numbers 27:18-20). This is a bit puzzling if you think about it. Surely everyone has ruach in them – spirit. This is what makes them human – the spirit animating human flesh. The poetry of the earliest verses of Genesis (1:2) describes the spirit of God – the ruach Elohim – generating, animating, all of life, moving through all creation, breathing life into us too.

Ruach  means breath, and wind, and spirit. It’s tangible and it’s intangible, it’s the energy that keeps everything going and it’s a metaphor for the energy that keeps everything going. So what is the text inviting us to think about when it describes the next leader of the community after Moses as a person who has ruach, spirit, in them?
Remember that Joshua is the person who returned from spying out the promised land with a positive report, unlike the majority view of the 10 other spies who were frightened about their futures. They came back and said to the Israelites: we went there and we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, the cities are huge, the people are fierce, we’ll never prevail there, let’s get back to Egypt where at least we knew what the next day would bring.

But Joshua, along with Caleb, give a minority report:  they didn’t follow the consensus, the group-think, they are independent-minded, they offer an Obama-esque ‘Yes, we can’:  we can overcome the forces ranged against us.

We had that story a few chapters ago and now we arrive at the text where  Joshua is described as having spirit within him, ruach. So is it suggesting that this is what makes him a potential leader? That he’s not an automaton? that he’s not pre-programmed? that he’s not robotic?

Do we intuit here something vital being shown to us through these stories, these legends, about leadership?  The importance of being able to really think for oneself, not succumbing to one’s fears, not being an automatic machine-like follower of the views of majority opinion? Is it this spirit of independent-mindedness what makes you someone who can lead, who can inspire, who can animate others, breathe new life into them and stop them becoming petrified, stuck, robotic, soulless?

This notion of independent-mindedness is complicated: I’m not talking about just being contrary, bloody-minded - just because you dissent from majority views doesn’t mean you are filled with the spirit of wise leadership.  I wouldn’t describe climate change deniers as independent-minded voices dissenting from the scientific consensus, but head-in-the-sand, and often self-serving, deniers of reality. Similarly, Brexiteer politicians dissenting from the extensive majority view of informed opinion and expertise, across many fields,  that says that leaving the EU will be culturally, economically and socially disastrous, a form of national self-harm – well, that spirit of independent-mindedness seems to some of us just delusional.

So the question is:  when do you dissent from a majority view? And when do you support a majority view? The point about independent-mindedness is your capacity to bring together in yourself thinking and feeling, to be able to research, and reflect , to listen with an open mind, to weigh up multiple possibilities, to ponder over inconsistencies, to allow doubt to be part of the fabric of your thinking. Like ruach – breathe, wind, spirit – this spirit of independent-mindedness  is always in motion.

It’s a gift to be animated by the spirit, and it requires work not to let your spirit atrophy, or go into eclipse. Sometimes it means learning from the wisdom of youth. And their directness: “Being religious means believing in a culture and a community that bonds over morals and values” – when I hear a young woman at her Bat Mitzvah sharing this thought I can see that she’s understood something that many so-called adults never understand: the recognition that being ‘religious’ is not about whether you believe in a divine being in some form or another, a god of one kind or another - that’s the majority view, the automatic view, the robotic view. No, being religious is about connecting yourself to a way of thinking and living, a culture, a heritage, committed to actions guided by moral values and ethics...

...the Jewish ethical stance towards justice is designed particularly to protect those who are vulnerable - who because of poverty or social status, or being an outsider, or a refugee, or marginalised in some other way, might not be treated with fairness or respect by the powers that be.  So, recent cuts in legal aid which mean citizens are denied access to justice, politicians who wish us to leave the European Court of Justice, government plans to scrap the Human Rights Act (rights developed after the atrocities of the second world war and designed to protect us all from oppression by holding the state to account) - all of these attacks on the principles of running a just society run counter to Jewish ethical principles...

...We have all witnessed recently the kind of horrors that can occur if a society fails to live out its highest moral and ethical principles – the fire at Grenfell Tower, with the burning alive of poor people just yards away from some of the country’s most pricey homes. We know this was not just, straightforwardly, a tragedy for those involved and their families, but a  terrible indictment of a whole set of current attitudes and shabby values: safety regulations are not a luxury, they are a moral necessity - but the mantra of deregulation fails to recognise that; in addition, the privatisation of lower-income property management means that people have to deal with unresponsive companies rather than local authorities whose officials can be voted out (and without legal aid any legal challenge to private companies becomes prohibitively expensive); also, if austerity means cutting housing officers and safety inspectors then you are putting money above morality; all of this is self-evident if you look at society through a Judaeo-Christian ethical lens.

Our sacred texts offer a perspective on these kind of issues that a society ignores at its peril: there’s a huge social inequality that runs through this country like an open wound and I don’t think you have to be a Biblical prophet to realise that a society that allows this to happen has lost its raison d’être and its very soul.

Leadership requires a spirit a independent-mindedness, an ability to avoid automatically following the populist view, the view of what Ibsen called ‘the compact majority’. How we each develop that capacity within us is a spiritual task. But without it we are lost.

[adapted and extracted from a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, July 15th, 2017]


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