Sunday, September 4, 2016

#BlogElul 1 5776: Who am I? What do I aspire to be?

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Who am I?

One of the most essential and yet perhaps most difficult of questions to answer. I can tell you where I was born. I can tell you about my family. I can tell you what I do for a living. I can tell you about some of my favorite and least favorite activities. Perhaps I can go a little deeper and tell you about some of the characteristics that are most present in me, and others that are not so present. I can tell you what I most like about myself and what most disappoints me about myself.

How much of the above gets to the essence of who I am?  How much is superficial and descriptive? Is it even possible to respond to the question of 'Who are you?' in words, or is the best answer, perhaps, the way that we conduct ourselves and the things that we do with the length of our days?

As we begin the hebrew month of Elul, which announces that we are approaching another Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, this is the time that our traditions encourage us to reflect on these core questions of essence. Who am I? Who do I aspire to be? This year, those of us in the USA are also asking that question communally in a more intense and reflective way. Once every four years, as we decide who will represent us in the highest office in the land, we look at the character of our leaders and the way that they describe the landscape in which they hope to govern and make progress. We have to ask ourselves, who do we aspire to be? What values will shape our sense of self as a nation?

As in previous years, I will be using my blog to offer brief reflections several times a week during Elul, that provide some food for thought as we grapple with these core questions. This year, I'm going to be using the lens of technology and technological innovation to inspire a different way of trying to get at the essence of what it means to be human. This is inspired by the topic that our congregation has taken on for the coming 1.5 years, supported by a grant from 'Scientists in Synagogues' provided by Sinai and Synapses. Here is an excerpt from a book that has been inspiring a lot of my thinking as I prepare sermons for the High Holy Days this year on this topic:

Kevin Kelly, author of ‘The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape our Future” presents the following insights:

… we’ve been redefining what it means to be human. Over the past 60 years, as mechanical processes have replicated behaviors and talents that we thought were unique to humans, we’ve had to change our minds about what sets us apart. As we invent more species of AI [artifical intelligence], we will be forced to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about humans… We’ll spend the next three decades – indeed, perhaps the next century – in a permanent identity crisis, continually asking ourselves what humans are good for. If we aren’t unique toolmakers, or artists, or moral ethicists, then what, if anything, makes us special?(p. 48-9)

Today, many of the debates about the impact of technological innovation on our sense of self and our communities gets simplified into the binaries of 'good' or 'bad' impacts. But we are, and have always been, creatures who use technological innovation to enable us to do more and be more. From the most basic of tools that enabled us to mold, shape, and change things in our natural environment, to the technologies that enabled us to write - first on clay plastered on rocks, then on papyrus or parchment, and later in books, with printing presses enabling an enormous leap forward in the democratization of knowledge, literacy, and language - we are not and could not be who we are today, either individually or communally, without the integral role that technologies have played in enabling us to become more.

I hope you will join me in this exploration of ideas as we look at the question of 'who am I?' through a different lens, as we begin this month to recenter ourselves and find our way back to more deeply understanding 'who do I aspire to be?'

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