On this Day of Atonement, I feel I should begin with a personal confession… I LOVED the Barbie movie! Though I’ve hardly been to the theater in years, this was the one summer blockbuster that my husband, Andrew, and I managed to see on the big screen. Going in not having ready any reviews yet, I had no idea what to expect. Yes, I was rooting for fellow Barnard alumna, Gretta Gerwig, but curious what this young, brilliant filmmaker would make out of the equally despised and beloved doll franchise.
To be sure, my own Barbie ambivalence runs deep. My 6-going-on-16 year-old, Judith, can get lost for hours setting up elaborate scenes around her Barbie dreamhouse, much the same way I did some 35 years ago. The constant costume changes, pulley elevator shuttling Barbie’s guests up and down the three floors. I remember it all so vividly as I watch my daughter now, with polaroid pictures from my childhood to prove it. (And, incidentally, they haven’t renovated that dreamhouse much since the 1980s to my great surprise!) Of course, that was all before I understood the pressures of being a working mom, a woman in a historically man’s profession, and all of the body image anxieties Barbie has projected onto young girls for generations. Even so, I find it enchanting to watch Judith get lost in her colorful Barbie world, just as I was mesmerized entering Gerwig’s imagination as Margot Robbie took center stage as a stereotypical Barbie doll come to life.
While the movie’s cutting commentary on gender politics certainly resonated with me, I came away musing most about the broader themes that emerged, meditations on the existential struggles of humanity, regardless of one’s gender. Ryan Gosling disco dancing home to his Mojo Dojo Casa House and Kate McKinnon’s weird Barbie evoked plenty of side-splitting laughter, but the film was also unexpectedly poignant, a whimsical ode to loneliness and interconnection, vulnerability and the journey of self-discovery each of us is on. Much like Pinnochio in its time, watching Gerwig’s Barbie on a quest to break out of her toy box underscored that age-old question: What does it mean to be HUMAN?
From the very beginning, Judaism captured the inherent complexity of the human condition, with two radically different Creation stories juxtaposed in the opening chapters of our Torah. In Genesis 1, we read that the first human beings were created in God’s image, B’tzelem Elohim. But just a few verses later, in chapter 2, Adam, the first human, is fashioned by God scooping up some of the adamah or earth and then breathing into him some Divine spirit. On the one hand, we are but dust and ashes, and on the other, imbued with a sacred spark. Classic rabbinic commentaries amplify this tension, positioning humanity halfway between the angels and animals.
In one Midrash, for instance, the rabbis enumerate the four human attributes we received from the “higher beings” and the parallel four from the lower ones: “Rabbi Joshua ben Rabbi Nehemiah said in the name of Rabbi Chanina ben Rabbi Isaac [...] The four attributes of the higher beings are: he stands upright, like the ministering angels; he speaks, like the ministering angels; he understands, like the ministering angels; and he sees, like the ministering angels. But [humankind also] has four attributes of the lower beings: he eats and drinks, like an animal; procreates, like an animal; excretes, like an animal; and dies, like an animal.” (Barbie’s creeping awareness of that last one, of course, is what begins to destabilize her own blissful existence in Barbieland.)
Flash forward from these ancient rabbinic categories of life to 2023 or 5784, and we might add yet a fourth division in the cosmological taxonomy. Far more than angels or animals, today we are probably most likely to compare ourselves instead to machines. Caught up in the rat race of life again now that COVID is at least endemic, we might more aptly call ourselves human DOINGS rather than beings. Tethered to cell phones, with a steady stream of information coursing through us at all times, the line between man and machine is getting blurrier by the decade. And new technologies, especially artificial intelligence, are transforming how we interact with the world and redefining yet again what it means to be human.
In his recent book Judaism in a Digital Age, Rabbi Danny Schiff, one of our LT visiting scholars this year, makes this bold prediction: “By the end of the 21st century, it is plausible that humans of our kind will be rare. In just a few decades, our descendants could well be genetically modified, with brains that are hooked into gigantic reservoirs of knowledge, enhanced physical bodies, life expectancies way beyond our own, and an understanding of the world that will make our current perspectives seem decidedly limited.” These forecasts are no longer just the stuff of fantastical sci-fi films; we can neither deny nor escape this rapidly approaching reality. So what do we do about it?
As you’ve possibly experienced yourself or at least read about in the news, the increasingly sophisticated AI at our fingertips is causing upheaval across multiple industries, with many people legitimately fearing they will even lose their jobs to machines. Even back in 2018 Harvard Business Review was extensively documenting this. Believe it or not, we clergy are not immune from this anxiety; some of my colleagues have expressed fear on our private Facebook forums that we will all soon be out-preached by a rabbinic robots–like those R2D2s roaming Stop n Shop, but wearing a kippah! One classmate of mine out in the Hamptons even delivered an entire 1,000 word sermon written by ChatGPT to his congregation, and then after revealing its authorship, unpacked the experiment with them to the thrill of many local news outlets; you can read about.
So after months of hearing about the seeming magic of ChatGPT, I finally dipped my own rather luddite toes into the AI waters. Starting off with a top-of-mind question, I asked ChatGPT: “What should I preach about on Yom Kippur this year?” I was startled by how fast and relevant its response was. In sheer seconds, it produced a coherent paragraph about Teshuvah and the focus on personal growth during this holiday. I should note that ChatGPT also helpfully warned me to “Tailor your message to your congregation’s needs and the specific teachings of your faith community.” Thanks. Good advice, I thought, but I figured this response was generated by an easy enough algorithm.
Then I upped the ante with a slightly tougher gambit: “Can you find me a good rabbinic parable about teshuvah?” “Certainly!” ChatGPT affirmed enthusiastically, and proceeded to rattle off that well-known story of the feather pillow whose contents are scattered beyond reach like our words and deeds. “Well done,” I thought, more impressed and now also a little spooked. But then in round three, I seemingly stumped it when I changed course slightly and inquired: “How am I feeling right now?” To its credit, ChatGPT responded honestly: “I don’t have access to your personal emotions or feelings, so I can’t determine how you’re feeling right now.”
THIS is why, despite all the reasonable concerns about privacy, intellectual property and the perils of unregulated AI, I just don’t see these bots putting us humans entirely out of business. Machines may be ever more precisely programmed to recognize human emotion and respond with appropriate sound bytes, but they will never truly care.
Not long after seeing the Barbie movie in early August, I entered my own bizarre and overwhelming alternate universe, accompanying my mother to Columbia-Presbyterian hospital for the removal of a benign brain tumor. She is a young 70, had just been snorkeling between tectonic plates in Iceland back in May, and was expected to make a full and speedy recovery after just a few days. But as some of you heard on Rosh Hashanah, I’ve spent the past six weeks unexpectedly ping-ponging between two worlds myself: our lovely little village of Larchmont with all the sweetness of this back to school and “back to shul” season, and the horrific medical saga of my mom’s ongoing post-surgical complications.
At the hospital, I experienced what Meghan O’Gieblyn observes in her provocative book, God, Human, Animal, Machine, how we humans increasingly understand even our own bodies through the lens of modern technology. With each new setback or ailment, I imagined my mom’s brain as a kind of circuit board, misfiring in various ways that her doctors are still trying to unravel. “What can we do to just reboot her?” I kept asking them in despair, as if my mom could somehow be debugged like a malfunctioning computer. Yet these weeks have been a chilling reminder of the limits of even the most sophisticated medical technology and the way physicians–indeed any of us who work tirelessly at our professions–can go on autopilot and become dangerously robotic ourselves if we don’t periodically pause to see the humanity in those we serve.
This most challenging period has also reaffirmed the profound power of simple human gestures, organic expressions of compassion and comfort. Shabbat dinner and home-baked apple cinnamon challah delivered by my LT family to help nourish my children when I had to keep running back to my mom at the hospital. The attending physician who was tasked to tell me on Friday that mom essentially flunked her short stint at rehab and would need to be readmitted yet again on the medical side of the hospital. After a tough team meeting, the rehab doctor unexpectedly broke from his clearly rehearsed script, lamenting with me about hospital bureaucracy, showing me how to log into my mom’s online portal so I could stay in better touch, and even tipping me off about the monthly parking pass after six weeks of paying the daily rate. (Why does no one tell you these things?!) Yes, he was still wearing his white coat, but for a few moments in the hallway he was also just a fellow human, one who took the time to show he cared about my mom and me when he could see that I was both frightened and frustrated. Finally, I cannot overstate how grateful I am to LT mega-mensch, Lee Perlman, who has been a resource and guide as I learn how to navigate this alternate reality.
Through these weeks, I keep coming back again to my favorite scene from the Barbie movie (small spoiler alert!) when Barbie meets her Mattel maker, a little Jewish woman named Ruth Handler. Portrayed in the film by Rhea Perlman, Handler created the first Barbie doll back in 1959 and named it after her own daughter–you got it–Barbara. In a poignant exchange towards the end of the movie, Barbie concedes to Ruth that “The real world isn’t what I thought it was.” “It never is,” Ruth responds, “and isn’t that marvelous?”
Barbie learns what we are already painfully aware of–that being human is hard, even humiliating at times. Unlike the predictable perfection of Barbieland, our real lives are filled with constant discomfort and disappointment, and not everything that happens is fair or makes sense. But what makes us human, as Barbie discovers, is not just our mortality but also humanity’s unique capacity to connect and create, to sense the pain of others and intuitively offer comfort or companionship. To be human is to bravely inhabit our vulnerability and to transcend it together. To be human is to give and receive love, to discover and evolve, to make mistakes and try again the next time to do just a little better. Because to be human is to care, and that is indeed marvelous.
A closing story: There is an old Jewish tale about a soap maker who did not believe in God. One day as he was walking with a rabbi and said, “Rabbi, there is something I simply cannot understand. We have had religion for thousands of years. But everywhere you look there is evil, corruption, dishonesty, injustice, pain, hunger, and violence. It appears that religion has not improved the world at all. So I ask you, what good is it?” The rabbi did not answer for a time but continued walking with the soap maker. Eventually they approached a playground where children, covered in dust, were playing in the dirt. “There is something I don’t understand,” the rabbi said. “Look at those children. We have had soap for thousands of years, and yet those children are filthy. So what good is soap?” The soap maker chuckled and replied, “But rabbi, it isn’t fair to blame soap for these dirty children. Soap has to be used before it can accomplish its purpose.” The rabbi smiled and said, “Exactly.”
Even in this unprecedented digital age, maybe now more than ever, I believe that the texts and traditions of Judaism can help us remain and become more fully human, to actualize our humanity’s greatest gifts and diminish a measure of our inevitable suffering...IF we choose to use them, as today’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, urges us.
Torah or Jewish learning, studying the stories of our ancestors and probing their perspectives, allows us to meaning out of the sometimes seeming randomness of our lives. Jewish spirituality, Avodah, and prayer in particular, offers both a vessel and vehicle for our human yearning, that deep desire to connect to something greater than ourselves, be it God, the generations of our people, or enduring ethical principles that have guided Jews for millenia. And doing Gemilut Hasadim, acts of kindness and compassion, justice and righteous giving, reinforce in us an altruism that no machine will ever manifest. It’s why after rolling out our new LT Family Mitzvah Corps just last week, in less than 48 hours more than 50 families immediately signed on to take part. (In fact, they’re the ones who placed all the stones on our Yahrzeit memorial wall this Yom Kippur.)
As the closing credits roll at the end of the Barbie movie, the unmistakable voice of Billie Eilish hauntingly sings, “What was I made for?” Seeking answers to this ultimate question, on this holiest day of Yom Kippur and every other day of the year too, is a singular privilege of being human. May we never take it for granted, may we find fulfillment using those spiritual tools Judaism offers us, and may we all be sealed for good in the Book of Life. Gmar Chatimah Tovah.