If another Hebrew University professor has created more of a stir than Yuval Noah Harari any time recently, I don’t know who it is. Translated into more than two dozen languages, a best-seller in many countries, including both Israel and the United States, Harari’s Sapiens has catapulted him to fame. By the time I watched his June 2015 TED talk in September, 1.5 million people had preceded me. In a very short time, Yuval Noah Harari has become the best-known Israeli intellectual in the world.
There is, however, nothing particularly Israeli, or even Jewish, about this “brief history of humankind.” Harari does refer casually to the length of the route from his home near Jerusalem to The Hebrew University, but he accords ancient Israel, modern Israel, and the Jewish religion only glancing, and usually condescending, attention. He describes the biblical deity as a being whose “chief interest is in the tiny Jewish nation and in the obscure land of Israel.” The Jewish religion, he reports, “had little to offer other nations.” The citizens of the State of Israel, he says, along with those of most other countries, “may harbour illusions of independence,” but they really can’t do very much at all on their own. However, these remarks betray no special animus toward Judaism or the Jewish state; they are simply reflections of his overall attitude toward human affairs. From Harari’s point of view, ethnic and territorial divisions are just accidents of history that are, inevitably and unregrettably, in the process of being erased. And there is no God.
Harari’s erudite, absorbing, and often witty narrative begins with Homo sapiens’ apparently easy victory over (and partial absorption of) their Neanderthal rivals, pieces together what can be inferred about their dispersion throughout the planet, and describes the ways in which the prehistoric cognitive and agricultural revolutions set the stage for the complex societies and cultures of the ancient and medieval worlds. His book concludes with an analysis of modernity that concentrates on the way in which the breathtaking progress of the last 500 years or so has resulted from the “mutual reinforcement of science, politics and economics.”
Of this progress Harari is not an unequivocal fan. While he often applauds man’s advance and reason’s many victories over ignorance and prejudice, he also observes that “new aptitudes, behaviours and skills do not necessarily make for a better life.” Indeed, it is an open question to him whether “the seventy or so turbulent millennia since the Cognitive Revolution made the world a better place to live.” And even if we are happier than our remote or recent ancestors, what we have achieved may not have been worth the trouble. For we are now “disturbing the ecological equilibrium of our planet” in ways that are “destroying the foundations of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless consumption.”
Yet how much of a catastrophe our possible self-destruction might be depends on the vantage point from which one asks that question. Much of what we Homo sapiens have obtained “was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens.” If we accept only a part “of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.” So perhaps the demise or even disappearance of human beings would be, on the whole, a good thing.
Writing in Ha’aretz in May, Micah Goodman, who teaches Jewish thought at The Hebrew University, took Harari to task for his failure to recognize the superiority of human beings to animals. “If a man suffers from feelings of guilt on account of the fact that he has enslaved animals, it is just this that proves his great difference from them.” This claim might give Harari pause if he sought to elevate animals to the rank of humans. But as Goodman himself observes, Harari’s thought moves in the opposite direction. Here, for instance, is his provocative translation of the most famous lines of the American Declaration of Independence into language that he can affirm:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.
This is part and parcel of his rejection of what he identifies as the “religion” of liberal humanism, a creed that both sanctifies humans and, in spite of its professed secularity, unwittingly relies on monotheism. Indeed, “[w]ithout recourse to eternal souls and a Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals to explain what is so special about individual Sapiens.”
An unbeliever himself, and perhaps not even a liberal, Harari makes no such effort. Nor does he ever make it clear what is so special about Homo sapiens as a species, other than their unparalleled capacity to reshape nature:
As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose. Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if planet Earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about its business as usual. As far as we can tell at this point, human subjectivity would not be missed. Hence any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.
It is astonishing to see how blithely Harari disregards the entire history of philosophical efforts to define the purpose of human existence even in the absence of a “divine cosmic plan.” One has to wonder, too, why such a nihilist would take the trouble to write a 450-page book to enlighten his partners in pointless existence about their condition. However, if he can’t offer us meaning, it seems, he can at least help us (for whatever unexplained reason of his own) find a path to happiness that has nothing to do with meaning.
In Sapiens’ penultimate chapter, Harari questions whether happiness should be sought through the use of chemicals or through meditation and clearly prefers the latter. Showing, for once, a measure of genuine respect for a religion, he sympathetically describes the serenity that can be achieved through Buddhist meditation:
It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain “good” waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back “bad” waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. How peaceful!
But Harari is not prepared to see Buddhism as anything more than a possible path to happiness, one that must be measured for its efficacy against all of the others. Scholars, he tells us, have only very recently begun to study the history of happiness, and “[i]t’s much too early to adopt rigid conclusions and end a debate that’s hardly yet begun.”
What apparently interests Harari more than the next stage of this debate is that the human pursuit of happiness may lead us out of humanity altogether now that we have the capacity to redesign ourselves through biological and cyborg engineering. Tinkering with our genes, we “might fiddle with Homo
sapiens to such an extent that we would no longer be Homo sapiens.” People could then become “a-
mortal,” although not necessarily deathless, since even an a-mortal could be hit by a bus.
A perhaps even more revolutionary project to marry man and machine “will allow computers to read the electrical signals of a human brain, simultaneously transmitting signals that the brain can read in turn.” This could create “a sort of Inter-brain-net,” a post-human cyborg, which “would be so fundamentally another kind of being that we cannot even grasp the philosophical, psychological or political implications” of its existence.
Harari is clearly excited by such possibilities, but he has little confidence that science will be able to take care of itself. It needs to be supplemented by a different kind of inquiry. “What do we want to become?” he asks, and, more fundamentally, “What do we want to want?” For Harari, these fundamentally amoral questions take the place of the classical moral inquiry into what we “ought” to want.
Alan Mittleman, a professor of Jewish philosophy at The Jewish Theological Seminary and the author of many valuable books, sees the same challenges on the horizon as Harari and poses some very similar questions. Borrowing a phrase from the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, he speaks of humankind’s newfound capacity to genetically engineer an “auto-transformation of the species” and worries that our “semisecular society” lacks “the moral resources” to deal with this alarming situation.
Mittleman is troubled not only by the rise of the new technology but by enemies of humanism like Harari. He worries that “[s]cientism’s thoroughgoing objectification of human life comes at the cost of the worth of persons.” Fortunately, however, even the people who try to pay this inhuman price cannot succeed for long. They must, in the end, if they are to retain their sanity, reintegrate their scientific conception of their identity into a “more capacious” account of who they are. Indeed, Mittleman argues, it is impossible to “step outside morality and remain human.”
In Human Nature & Jewish Thought, he tries to show how Judaism can help provide the moral resources for those “Jews, Christians, secularists, and seekers” who are fighting the humanist good fight. He is well aware that “material saturated with theistic assumptions” may be rejected out of hand by people who take “their cues from contemporary scientific naturalism,” but Mittleman does not preach to them. “I do not presume that Jewish ideas come with any intrinsic authority,” he says in his introduction. “The only authority they have is that of reason; they have the potential to persuade.”
So he begins “bottom up with the experience of personhood,” as it is expressed in Judaism. Drawing on biblical, rabbinic, and medieval (and to a much lesser extent modern) Jewish philosophical writings, he sketches a tradition that focuses on the human as a part of nature, but never loses sight of man’s ability to rise above it. It is not long, however, before he acknowledges that what underlies such an account is the basic biblical idea that “[h]uman beings are made in the image of God, and therefore possess intrinsic and undeniable worth.”
Mittleman eloquently spells out the ethical ramifications of this fundamental belief. For the rabbis, “Imago dei has to do with how we take responsibility for ourselves and the world.” “No rabbi,” Mittleman insists, “talks as Socrates does (Apology 40c–42) in welcoming the soul’s imminent flight from its corporeal prison. Instead, both soul and body work together to fulfill the human vocation of emulating God in action.” Some of the medieval Jewish philosophers, it is true, were deeply influenced by dualistic metaphysics, but “the bent of their work is to remain true to the biblical vision of a moral universe anchored in persons, responsibility, and character.”
In the last chapter of the book, entitled “Persons Together,” Mittleman outlines the political ramifications of the most valuable biblical and rabbinic moral teachings. The Bible may demonstrate little interest in politics for its own sake, but its authors did hold to the idea of a kind of social contract. And “[t]he old covenantal theme of legitimacy through consent,” Mittleman writes, “becomes the norm for Jewish communities throughout history.”
Mittleman also identifies a healthy respect for both labor and capital in Jewish tradition. It considers even the meanest occupations honorable and recognizes a nearly absolute right to private property. At the same time, it stresses the extent to which “sharing one’s wealth with those in need is a religious duty.” Tellingly, Mittleman devotes much more attention to the details involved in the fulfillment of this duty than anything else. He writes of the members of the Jewish polity “actively engaged in work for the common good (tovat ha-klal), jointly sustaining the conditions under which persons, in the Judaic version of flourishing, may lead godly lives.”
If Yuval Harari were to read Human Nature & Jewish Thought, he might readily concede that our humanity is ineluctably bound up with morality, as Mittleman says, without acknowledging that any particular moral teaching is really valid. And he might very well applaud Mittleman’s analysis of the shortcomings of some modern philosophers. “I like what you wrote about Kant,” I can imagine the world historian saying to the theologian. “You’re absolutely right to say that his entire ‘secular, post-theological grounding for human worth . . . assumes a long Jewish and Christian prologue to the story of human worth, without, of course, invoking that backstory.’ You are also right to say that Kant and others like him failed to achieve their philosophical goals, since they appealed ‘in an unacknowledged way, to the biblical instincts that motivate them.’ You, at least, unlike them, know the theological source of your own fundamental convictions. But I’m afraid that I can’t see that source as anything other than an imaginary entity, and therefore don’t believe that your recourse to Jewish sources can in any way contribute to a purely rational discussion of the worth of persons and the future of humanity.”
It is not only religion that separates Mittleman from Harari but the humility that follows from it. While Mittleman believes that the main human task is to imitate God, primarily through engagement in moral action, Harari sees Homo sapiens standing “on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction.” This is a challenge that Harari wants humankind to accept, even if he is unsure whether we are up to it. “Is there anything more dangerous,” he asks at the very end of his book, “than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
For Mittleman, human beings, who are not and will never be divine, must know more than just what they want. They must attempt to discern the will of God, which on matters pertaining to the new technology is far from transparent. But Judaism’s basic message is nonetheless clear to him:
Our own survival might well depend on cultivating anew a sense of limits. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden for transgressing a limit. Limits there will always be, many imposed by human nature. Our dignity inheres in knowing when and how to master them, and when and how to accept them with respect.
Harari’s eye is on the new god, who has no fixed limits; Mittelman’s is on the old God who fixed limits for Adam and Eve. The Hebrew University professor and the Jewish Theological Seminary professor share no common philosophical ground. But they do share a certain foreboding about humankind’s use of its newfound powers.
As far apart as they are in principle, therefore, it is not impossible to imagine that Harari and Mittleman will one day find themselves on the same side of the barricades against the scientists who are all too eager to plunge into the unknown and their reckless supporters. But that will depend, of course, on how much like its old self Harari decides that he wants humankind to be.
In the 14 years since he published the Five Books of Moses, Alter has steadily progressed through the Tanakh, producing translations that aim at something like a 21st-century American equivalent of what he has called the “simple yet grand” English of the King James Version, while attending closely to the literary techniques of the Hebrew text. We asked a learned, eclectic group of six critics to discuss the results.
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Each month brings scores of new books of Jewish interest. Here are a few we can’t wait to read this December. And who knows, maybe you’ll find the perfect last-minute Hanukkah gift here as well!