Some years ago, I was crossing from Jordan to Israel on foot. Making it even that far had been an achievement. I’d arrived at the border a few shekels short of the cost of an exit visa and had been forced to permit the elderly Jordanian man with a bristly moustache who was running the forex kiosk to kiss my cheeks and feed me his homemade lentil soup in order to extract a favourable exchange rate.
My relief at being finally released was clouded slightly by the security check on the Israeli side. Why, the man with the rifle demanded to know, was my backpack filled with nothing but dirty socks, torn paperbacks and travel adaptor plugs unsuitable for any country within a 1 000km radius. Fortunately, I’d appropriated enough of the local culture to navigate the situation. I shrugged and looked bored, and he shrugged and looked bored, and let me through. Now for the hard part.
The young officer manning the entry point was clearly sceptical.
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
“I well… you see…”
She gave me a cold look suggesting Mossad interrogation training.
“It’s just that… my mother thinks I should be in Jerusalem on Rosh Hashanah.”
She stamped my passport without a second’s hesitation. “Welcome to Israel, sir.”
So it was that I found myself at the Western Wall a couple of weeks later. It was Yom Kippur and I secured a shaded spot next to a young man who looked like he had a starring role in Fiddler on the Roof, if Fiddler on the Roof had been remade by Tom Ford. He had on knee-high white socks that seemed to be made of cashmere, and a luxuriant glossy coat. Even his payot were silken. The older men around him wore shtreimels so wondrous they would’ve provoked admiration in a PETA member.
I was gazing at the Kottel, wistfully imagining Yom Kippur parties in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighbourhood, when the young man turned to me and said, “Do you think a computer could ever think like a human?”
He seemed serious, and anyway I wasn’t sure what small-talk might have distracted him (Graeme Smith’s captaincy? Seinfeld?), so I confidently regurgitated some half-remembered talking points from ‘Intro to Philosophy of Mind’.
I was halfway through my mangled account of eliminative materialism when the man sitting on the other side of ‘Young Tevye’ politely interjected. He was American-accented, appeared to be in his early thirties, and dressed in modern Orthodox fashion. Identifying himself as a cognitive scientist doing a postdoc in Israel, he gently proceeded to fill in the gaps and correct my many mischaracterisations.
The three of us spent the afternoon discussing philosophy and the connection between scientific enquiry and knowledge of the sacred. In any other city, the conjunction of events would have seemed improbable to the point of being impossible. I would have suspected a fast-induced hallucination. But in Jerusalem, nothing could have felt more natural. That it occurred on that most sacred of days at that holiest of places should only have heightened feelings of uncanniness. But spend a bit of time in that ancient city and your instinctive response to the unearthly becomes, “Nu, you want that miracles should happen at the supermarket?”
But there was another reason why our meeting of minds felt so natural. The three of us came from profoundly different backgrounds. The young Chassid told us that he was born in a sheltered Charedi neighbourhood. He grew up knowing only Yiddish and Hebrew and taught himself English using the interlinear translation in the Artscroll Tehillim. (He was happy to discuss scandalous subjects like physics and epistemology within earshot of his family because none of them would understand us.) The cognitive scientist, who turned out to be from upstate New York, was as comfortable on the university campus as he was in the kollel. My Jewish identity was formed around early Woody Allen films and Schwarma Co falafel.
Yet, in another sense it felt like we inhabited a single culture. A desire to know tempered by a humility, by the very grasping towards the unknowable that is the essence of our learning. “Two Jews, three opinions” is a nice joke about our genetic dafkaness, but it also speaks of how the wisdom of the Nation of Israel is greater than the sum of our parts. Once the initial culture shock had worn off, our amateur philosophical musings felt like nothing so much as a conversation between brothers that had begun thousands of years ago. For an instant, I had a sense that if Hillel and Shammai were to appear before us shrouded in heavenly light, we would have witnessed an intriguing debate on artificial intelligence and the correct way to programme a self-driving car.
But, if the life of the mind is central to our culture, we also recognise that learning is an active process of becoming; the continuous work of connecting to something higher, rather than seeking a fixed conclusion. Grasping in the dark may be a privilege of exile, but only because we are reaching for the light.
On Shabbos, we get a glimpse of the light. The Rambam teaches that we were given Shabbat in order to confirm the truth of Creation. By remembering the day and keeping it holy, we perceive a more profound reality: the unity of Hashem's creation. A unity I felt intently that day at the Kottel.
In some ways, The Shabbat Project is a conceptual Western Wall – a space for Jews across denominational, socio-economic and political divides to encounter each other for the first time, and discover surprising things about one another.
Shabbat itself is a great leveller. It is a day on which servants and even animals are mandated the gift of rest, a day on which there are no cars or iPhones or status updates, digital or otherwise, a day on which not just our physical and creative selves, but our assumptions of the other can be laid to rest.
Simon Shear is a writer based in Johannesburg. He is co-founder of MyTreasury.co.za, which demystifies personal finance decisions.