If you have a fondness for troubling ideas, take a look at religions. In my experience, some of the most vexing ideas come out of religious doctrines and traditions. Judaism aspires to a high bar in this competition. The Talmudic rabbis entertained the idea that the ability to argue convincingly for an ostensibly erroneous idea is actually heroic. To be deemed qualified to sit on the sanhedrin, the highest court of the land, a rabbi had to be able to metaher a sheretz; (Sanh. 17a) -to prove that a creepy-crawly thing, the textbook example of ritual unfitness, could be construed as ritually fit. If this requirement is merely a measure of intellectual dexterity, it is relatively inconsequential. But I think it is much more than that.
The Torah says the world was created by God and God called it “good.” Our experience of living in it has proven more nuanced. For sure, there is good to be celebrated but also the confoundingly bad to be confronted. What about the overlooked? Unrealized potential merits our attention. A sheretz is the paradigmatic example of that which is pointedly unappreciated. To imagine it could be construed as having potential value is to unabashedly ponder the implausible. The matter invites the ingenuity of a fresh lens or framework. It requires curiosity and a willingness to be surprised, to resist what we think we already know, and open our minds to draw unexpected conclusions and lessons. It means thinking outside the box.
This year, I asked several Agudas members what Jewish ideas they thought are worth knowing. I felt reassured by the responses. Folks were very thoughtful in suggesting Jewish ideas of tzedakah, justice, protecting the stranger, and recognizing the divine spark and image in every human being. The promise of these Jewish ideas has long been recognized and they certainly deserve continued emphasis. They have become canonical for non Orthodox Judaism.
We sit on the shoulders of giants. Giants are mighty but may lack agility. What might we find if we got down and stood on our own? First, let’s consider an intellectual sheretz – an unfashionable and unpromising Jewish idea. Let’s resist the temptation to readily dismissed it.
In Israel, about half the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men never work. It is not that they are lazy or self indulgent. Whereas we tend to define ourselves by what we do for work, as in “Hi, I’m a rabbi,” they are dismissive of work because they aspire to what they consider to be a higher calling. They devote their lives to Torah study and prayer. The discipline they impose upon themselves is legendary. I recall that when I was in Rabbinical school, the Ponevitch Yeshiva in B’nei-Brak threatened to expel students who were caught getting a drivers’ license. If you have time to learn to drive, you are wasting time that could’ve been spent studying Torah. This lifestyle is sustained partly by the fact that many of their wives work. But it is also heavily subsidized by generous government programs – “free stuff” which guarantees their basic needs are met.
None of us are ultra-Orthodox Israelis. In the Israeli culture wars, my hunch is that most of us, myself included, would be much more sympathetic to the sensibilities of the secular community than to the agenda of the ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox are understandably resented by secular Israelis who argue that they don’t contribute economically or by serving in the army. The haredi or ultra-Orthodox could be the last place I would think to look for additional Jewish ideas worth knowing.
A cursory glance at Current Events and popular news stories reveals that economic disruption and uncertainty are provoking apprehension and strife. People who depend upon jobs which can be done by immigrants become fearful that lenient immigration policies may erode their job prospects. However, it is increasingly obvious that Artificial Intelligence has the capacity to replace many more jobs, and as robotic capabilities inexorably advance, fewer and fewer jobs will be left for anyone – newcomer and native born alike. Some new jobs are created by this dynamic, but it is pretty clear that what we are facing is qualitatively different than in the past.
Over the next decade, according to Oxford Economics, 20 million manufacturing jobs worldwide will be lost to machines. According to a November 2017 McKinsey report, 1⁄3 of the US workforce may need to learn new skills and find work in new occupations by 2030. Technological efficiency means saving time, which means sparing labor. Sparing labor means eliminating the laborers.
Lest we feel smug that the threat is limited to physical, predictable tasks, consider that technology has a way of rendering today’s science fiction tomorrow’s reality. Which jobs disappear the day your bathroom mirror can test your vision or detect symptoms of melanoma? Stanford engineers are busy developing algorithms which could eventually replace jobs presently done by paralegals, and even some tasks presently performed by judges. The only jobs ultimately not at risk may be the ones which simply aren’t important enough to be replaced – such as being a rabbi.
“If its jobs you want,” once said Milton Freedman, “give workers spoons, not shovels.” “Digging”-work for work’s sake- has no intrinsic value. The point is to simply get it dug. Smart shovels take us even further along. Then no one has to dig. The prospect of having our work done for us should be thrilling, but the implications ignite the fears of those anxious about being left behind.
We used to fear being exploited. We’re learning to fear becoming irrelevant. Even without the “doom & gloom,” as lifespans grow longer there will be increasingly large numbers of capable, able bodied people spending decades in retirement without the paid employment that has given their lives structure and a sense of purpose. Even if our financial security needs are met, we will still have emotional needs. We will continue to aspire to learn and grow. We will always need to live with dignity. How will these needs be met in a post-work society?
“Post-work” may sound futuristic to us, but it is a practiced way of life for the men of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Hebrew University historian Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (recommended by Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama and Bill Gates btw,) points out that despite their unemployment, these ultra-Orthodox men “report higher levels of life satisfaction than any other section of Israeli society. This is due to the strength of their community bonds, as well as to the deep meaning they find in studying scripture and performing rituals.”
Harari suggests, given the advent of smart, dexterous machines pushing humans out of the job market, the “ultraorthodox [indifference toward work] may come to be seen as a model for the future rather than as a fossil from the past.” Harari is a secular scholar and is absolutely under no illusion that everyone will become Orthodox Jews and enroll in yeshivas. Rather, “the quest for meaning and community may eclipse the quest for a job.” (Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, p.42)
Our Talmudic ancestors actually had a name for able bodied individuals who relied on community funding instead of being gainfully employed. They were called “batlanim.” A batlan was a jobless person with a social and spiritual role regarded as highly significant. The batlan was relied upon to perform tasks on behalf of the community which were deeply appreciated but unsalaried. They were supported by the community with the understanding that they’d attend to these needs; in particular they would serve as the minyan, the quorum required for public prayer in the synagogue. God abhors an empty shul. The batlanim kept the lights on. The Talmud even goes so far as to define the difference between a mere “village” and a “town” on the basis of the number of batlanim the community supports. If there are at least 10 batlanim, a settlement is considered sufficiently prestigious to be called a town. A society in which big-city bragging rights depended not upon the acquisition of a professional sports team, but on the number of families the community supported with a guaranteed basic income. Imagine that.
American batlanim might find self worth in providing human companionship for the frail and lonely, or in studying Shakespere and the arts, or in assisting with the excavation of archaeological sites in our national parks. Losing our jobs to algorithms could turn out to be a blessing and not a curse, provided we manage to combine a universal economic safety net with strong communities and meaningful pursuits.
The Jerusalem Post (2/6/19) reports that whereas 54% of [Israeli] secular Jews give money to charity, fully 89% of haredi Jews do. They give more generously also. Much of the difference may be attributed to adherence to religious teachings, but what it means to be a member of the haredi community should not be discounted. If full time becomes part time, and early retirement comes even earlier, what can we learn from the ultra-Orthodox experience about finding meaning in serving community, attending to personal growth, and cultivating a laser focus devotion to a higher cause?
Maimonides introduces his Guide for the Perplexed with a parable of a man who has lost a precious gem in a dark room. (I, p. 6b/11) Knowing the valuable gem is in there somewhere easily justifies risking the few pennies it costs to burn a candle for the search. We, too, are perplexed. A commitment to being metaher the sheretz; taking the risk of considering ideas from under appreciated places, may help us restore the light. We’ll need the light, in order to find the gems.