The minor outbreak of the Ebola virus on American soil is fueling our fears and concerns, and its no surprise. So many of the apocalyptic visions in our contemporary popular imagination—from the Andromeda Strain to Planet of the Apes to any number of zombie movies—have to do with the threat to humanity from microscopic organisms, and to see these scenarios play out in real life (an infected nurse on an airplane!) fills us with end-times fear.
The extent to which we should be afraid has been brought into question, though. The risk is isolated, and, as it’s been pointed out, there are many other threats to public health that are more prevalent. Plus, our own fears tend to neglect the fact that this is not a new disease, and that it has been ravaging African populations for some time.
This week’s Torah portion is an early example of this apocalyptic fear: the story of Noah and the Flood. The story goes that in the generations following Adam and Eve and the Garden, God gets upset at the evil that humanity has brought in the world, and so decides to reboot. God commits to destroy the world by flood, but chooses Noah to build an ark to save himself and his family, and be humanity’s surviving remnant (along with all the animal species).
Why Noah? The text says, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his age. Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)—a seemingly positive assessment. Yet later commentators will see this as a back-handed complement. A midrash picks up on the use of the qualifier “in his age:” While Noah was righteous in his age, that doesn’t mean he would have been considered righteous in any age. Sure, he was righteous, but in the sinful generation that prompted God to destroy the world, that isn’t saying much.
The commentators also pick up on the up on the use of the phrase “Noah walked with God.” Another statement of praise until you compare it with the biblical patriarch Abraham who is described as walking before God. (Gen. 17:1) The midrash compares this to two children of a king—one grown and one young. The young child must stay close and walks with the king, the elder takes the lead and walks before him.
So what is the difference between Abraham and Noah? Both are called by God to join in a covenant, and both are given special responsibilities to carry on God’s work on earth. The most striking difference is their reactions to the news from God that a destruction is imminent.
Sometime after the story of the flood, Abraham is told by God about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah due to their sinfulness. (See Genesis 18. While God promised not to destroy the entire world by flood, targeted destruction by fire is apparently still permitted.) Abraham immediately protests, and argues with God to spare the city for the sake of the innocent within.
Contrast this to Noah’s reaction when told about the flood earlier: silence. Noah retreats to himself, builds the ark and sets out to save his family. How he feels about those condemned to die is unknown, but in any event, the news does not prompt any action or protest on his part.
Noah is faced with news of destruction and his response is to save himself. Abraham is faced with news of destruction and his response is to seek to save others.
So, we should fear the Ebola virus. It is a deadly disease and we need to take all the measures necessary to prevent its spread. At the same time, let’s fear the Ebola virus for the challenge it presents to us. That we may, in face of a real and potential threat, behave like Noah: concerned solely for our own welfare, indifferent to the suffering of others and silent in the face of devastating risks to humanity.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
“A gift is something that cannot appear as such.” – Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death
And God came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the God said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:5-6).
What was it that the builders of the Tower of Babel did that was so wrong? Could you imagine a moment when the entire planet’s human population actually got along long enough to do something together. Here we were one planet, one people – can you imagine? John Lennon would be so proud (“Imagine”). Only, what? God doesn’t see it us coming together as all that good. In fact, He thinks its dangerous. Wait till 2045, the date that Ray Kurzweil, the 1999 National Medal of Technology award winner sets for the singularity.
What is the Singularity?
In short, the singularity is the moment in time, at the current rate of acceleration, that the technology we create, computers, will actually “think” faster than we do.
One of the major implications for faster, smarter, and smaller computers, may very likely be nanobots, artificially intelligent inventions that can be made as small as our blood cells. Could we have such nano-cells floating inside of us to keep us healthy? Could we live, 150 years? 200? Forever?
If we could continually renew and/or replenish our cells through technology would we? Why wouldn’t we? It is certainly Judaism’s point of view that we are partners with God, even in healing the body. If we could get rid of illness, rid of death, shouldn’t we?
I’ve recently watched the documentary Transcendent Man, which details Kurzweil’s expectations for our near future (if I keep my body moving, and if I survive my son’s driving lessons, and if I stop eating whatever deliciousness my wife bakes, I should make it). There is a compelling, yet disturbing argument being made that through faster and smarter technology our lives will be extended beyond the simplicity of one decaying body that ends in 80 to 90 years. If if happens, its because we built the technology to make it happen. The possibility is closer than some think. I’m pretty sure that the bio-tech company a few miles from my house already has the technology to clone me.
What would God say?
They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4).
The rabbis teach that it was not the building that was an affront to God, it was there motivation: “A name for themselves”. In a famous midrash, a rabbinic tale, the people would climb a ladder on one side of the Tower, place their brick and climb down the other side. When someone would fall, the people would mourn the brick that should have been placed, and not the person.
We are told that God already had the Torah, the lessons and the Law before creation came into existence. This is a good model for science as well. We should get a handle on the issues (can does not mean should) before we reach points of no return.
I suggest that the same issue is at hand with the singularity and life-extension (or even re-animating the dead; Kurzweil hopes to bring back his deceased father). Motivation is an issue. There is no question that we will be able to do amazing things -beyond what you and I can imagine today. But the question of ethics, has never, and will never, be overcome by technology.
The most precious commodity we have is life. It is painful enough to see it wasted. A time when life extends forever? Well, that would be worse. Life would be rendered insignificant, meaningless. Death always feels like such a tragedy, but it may very well be better than the alternative.