Rabbi Yair Robinson
Erev Rosh Hashanah
Mechanical Friends and Real Community.
In 1770, in the Spring, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria welcomed a peculiar guest to her reception room in Schonbrunn Palace just outside Vienna. Wolfgang von Kempelen wheeled in, with some assistance, his companion: a mechanism of a human-sized figure dressed in Turkish garb—turban, flowing robes—seated at a cabinet that included a chess board. Kempelen opened the doors to the cabinet and moved the robes about to show clockwork gears, wound the automaton with a key as one would wind a clock, and stepped away. The “Mechanical Turk” then puffed on his long pipe and considered the chess board. Each courtier present came forward to test his skill against the clockwork device, and each was bested, the Turk checkmating each adversary in turn.
The Mechanical Turk was, of course, a very clever hoax. Hidden in the cabinet was a little person, who, through mirrors and magnets, was able to control the board and move the pieces. But for almost a century, the hoax was perpetuated. The historian Martyn Randy wrote that the hoax was not just possible because of the believability of the elaborate machine, but because of the virtuoso chess-playing capabilities of the little people working from within. One, a generation later, even caught Napolean cheating and managed to checkmate him.
The story of the Mechanical Turk is remarkable for many reasons—the seeming advance in technology and the idea that people could create artificial life being only one. Another was the reception this contraption earned. Here was a device made to look like the old enemy of Austria, the Ottoman, now no more threatening than another piece of furniture. Furthermore, here was the empress in rapt attention. Never mind that when she met with leaders of the Jewish community and Jewish members of the court, she insisted on remaining behind a screen because she found Jews odious; despite being fellow human beings, our people were received with less kindness than a fake, wind-up person. Even worse, this time in history presaged industrialization, with a growing idea that people could become as ordered as cuckoo clocks, wound up and sent off to their tasks. It is not just that the Mechanical Turk appeared to be human, it is that Maria Theresa and others wanted to make people more like how they understood the Mechanical Turk to be.
We can shake our heads and laugh at the gullibility and hypocrisy of some eighteenth-century Hapsburg, but we would be wise to wonder if we in our twenty-first century lives are truly any different. For much of this year, we have been seeing the rise of Artificial Intelligence, or AI, in various forms like ChatGPT, an online tool, now being investigated by the federal government, that uses machine learning to respond to questions posed by human users. Now up to one hundred million users, it has been used to write essays and articles, poetry, and screenplays, write code for programming, and a host of other products that had previously been the domain of human beings alone. There have been some famous gaffes in its use, such as a lawyer using an AI Chatbot to write some briefs for a case that turned out to be fraudulent, but also concerns over cheating on homework all the way to using AI to fake candidates for office or make the jobs of thousands of people redundant. This is not, of course, the first time AI or technology has filled us with both awe and dread. We have watched computers beat grand masters at chess before, but they were not trying to be people per se, but now we have robots speaking at UN press conferences insisting that they are not a threat to humanity.
Meanwhile, we have a parallel phenomenon with increased engagement with social media. Starting out as a way to reconnect with old friends and keep up with family, or meet new people, social media has become the prism through which we, as a society, increasingly refract the world around us. Our social media streams become increasingly ‘curated,’ which is a nice way of saying that we only see posts from people we agree with. There is a word for this—the attention media, as people find a way to make a living off of Facebook and the app formerly known as Twitter and Instagram and TikTok, usually by saying and doing outrageous things, sometimes misleading things, having an outsized influence on the way people think and behave. Not entirely unlike the “Family” that Ray Bradbury imagined in Fahrenheit 451, that people ‘interact’ with on their television walls, increasingly we find ourselves interacting with people who we, frankly, do not know. And in the case of text-based social media like Twitter, the people may not be people at all, but different AI bots who replicate people in order to push an agenda, be it selling a political candidate or a brand of soda, or even more dangerous ideas like whether or not a medication is safe. Suddenly the chess-playing mechanical person, previously seen as charming, becomes a threat to how we perceive and understand reality.
I know, I know, I sound like a Luddite, and we are not getting rid of social media any time soon. And there is good that comes out of social media—think of young people wrestling with their gender identity or sexuality finding support online, for example, or the use of social media for political and social activism with Black Lives Matter and environmentalism. And without a doubt, social media helped ease the dismay of the worst days of the pandemic, and online tools from Zoom to YouTube and Facebook live kept places like our congregation functioning and serving our communities and beyond. But the more we learn about social media, the more we learn that, on the whole, it leads to depression in young people and a warped sense of the world, taking us away from our sense of reality, while increasingly serving as an incubator for hate groups that wish to do minorities like us harm.
In many respects, it seems to me that the Mechanical Turk of 1770 revealed some things about humanity—that novelty sometimes trumps our ability to see and focus on humanity, for example, and that we are easily led astray by the shiny and new. And rather than seeing the humanity in the mechanism, we allow ourselves to become the mechanism and lose our humanity. Truly, as Ecclesiastes writes, there is nothing new under the sun.
On the meta level, pardon the pun, there are people at work trying to limit social media exposure to children, for example, and watching the work of hate groups online. But there is something all of us could do as well. Seek meaningful, reciprocal, in-person human connection. At the beginning of the creation of the world, God says, “it is not good for a human to be alone”: לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ. We can read that text to say that it is about finding a marital partner, but it is also simply true—we are not supposed to be alone. We are created as social beings; that is how we are wired evolutionarily, to want to be with and interact with others. Even the most introverted among us hunger for real relationships with others. Family, friends, people with shared interests and cares, it is that proximity, that bond, that we crave and that makes us healthier and happier. Study after study shows that the less we as individuals interact with others, the more anxious we become, and we become more likely to suffer physical ailments. Social Media and AI try to replicate that experience and it is better than nothing, but it truly is the aspartame version of socialization. It might almost taste like the real thing, but it just does not. We thrive off being with one another and building relationships, while social media—with its yelling at passing clouds, divisiveness, and fragility–too often leaves us feeling angry and lonely.
As Jews, we intuitively understand this need for community. That requirement for a minyan at prayer services is not just some rule to make it harder to organize a shiva—it’s a reminder that we have an obligation to one another to help each other build community, to form relationships with one another that are as much about caring for each other when in need as it is sharing values and principles or a love of dairy food that still upsets our stomachs. I heard it said that all animals are born with whatever skill they need to survive, and we as humans are born with the ability to cry and scream—that is, ask for help. We are not meant to solve all of our problems on our own or suffer alone. לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ it is not good for human beings to be alone. We are not just permitted but are required to give voice to our needs—for support in times of trouble and companionship throughout our days—and we are required, when we hear that voice, to offer ourselves as companionship. That does not mean we are going to always like each other. Heaven knows we can sometimes get on each other’s nerves for one reason or another, and just because we are social creatures does not mean we are necessarily any good at it. And let us be honest, some of us are out of practice. But that does not matter. It is not always about liking and agreeing with one another. If anything, our online lives have taught us how empty that experience can be. But by working at the pantry together, learning together, socializing together, breaking bread together, praying together, we form a bond that also allows us to be present in the hospital room as well as the bar mitzvah reception, at the shiva call and at the baby naming. Not as strangers, not as machines, as fellow human beings.
And while we joke and sometimes shry about the idea of two Jews three opinions, one of the realities of being in real community with others is that we learn to accept the whole person with whom we are interacting. When we do not hide behind a screen, and we see people as people and not just means to an end, even when we disagree and disagree vehemently, we are able to maintain our bonds with one another. Disagreement should not mean exile and banishment—it should be a new opportunity for us to truly see one another more authentically and deepen our bond, to remember the human being in front of us, in all their multifaceted wonder, created in God’s image. The Delaware Way of politics, with all its faults, is also the Jewish way of disagreeing, beginning from a place of respect and commitment for one another as people, and not as some straw man, a subject of derision to tear down, but rather a fellow traveler and community member to build up, making each other better through our interactions.
We came here tonight, at the beginning of the new year, for a myriad of diverse reasons, but one of those reasons is essential to who we are—to seek out community. We have lifted our voices together, prayed together, schmoozed together, and in doing so, have been lifted up, and been reminded, I hope, of how much each of us matters in this world of ours. As we continue into this New Jewish year, may we find and embrace as many opportunities as possible to bond with one another, in person—in learning together, in sharing our lives with one another, in supporting each other, in praying and singing together, in respectful debate with each other, and in striving to improve the world around us. לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ—it is not good for any of us to be alone in this world, so let us seek one another out and affirm the bonds that make us truly human, truly sacred, truly loved. May this be true as we say, Amen.