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Oh, the humanity

by Ben Judah

What you believe can click into place when you least expect it.

I wasn’t in a Jewish headspace. I was a million miles or more from the hilchot shabbat I learnt as a child. I was in bed, binge-watching the BBC/HBO miniseries, Years and Years, when I finally realised why I believe in Shabbat.

The dystopian drama flashes through the lives of a Mancunian family fifteen years into the future. But it wasn’t the nuclear blasts, great floods, or internment camps that spooked me. On some level, I felt I’d seen it all before – not only on TV, but as a Jew. No, what really got under my skin was the subplot about a trans daughter — a transhuman daughter, that is.

It was so unnerving — and also, so believable — this story of a smiling, goofy, teenager slipping away from her family. First craving, then succeeding, in wiring plug-ins and hardware into her mind and body. Syncing her whole existence to the web. Wanting nothing more than to leave her flesh behind and upload her consciousness into the cloud.

And suddenly, unexpectedly, I realised something essential about Shabbat. That we were given Shabbat to safeguard our humanity – from ourselves.

On the surface, Shabbat is a really basic notion – it’s simply to stop. But I’d never before joined the dots, never probed why, on a deeper level, we turn away from our screens (or want to).

For the Sages of the Talmud, Shabbat was everything. A vision for society. A creed of equality. A statement of humanity. One day on which all work and creative endeavour cease, and every Jew — farmer, labourer, rabbi, prince — must simply be.

For centuries, Shabbat was an escape from the tyranny of poverty; a reprieve from a life of mud and bricks and backbreaking labour. The 25 hours of Shabbat were the only rest, the only time our forebears could be truly human. And, at the end of Shabbat, when they smelt the besamim – the rich, warm scented spices intended to revive the spirit, wilting after the loss of the “Shabbat soul” – they would really feel that loss: a dispiriting loss of freedom, of humanity.

This is the deep meaning of Shabbat: that by stopping, by refraining – by creating a “Palace in Time” – we can return, not just to family and friends, but to our essential humanity. Back in the world of the Sages our drudgery enslaved us. Taking us away from ourselves. Denying us the pleasure, the healing power, that is simply to be. But in our world, it is our wonders — our technology, our connectivity — that can have the same effect. Sapping our spirit, our thereness of body and mind, our humanity.

I used to feel that the rabbis of yesterday, poskim [halachic deciders] in Warsaw and New York, had made a mistake when they ruled against switching on and off electric appliances on Shabbat. Worse: that they had driven millions from traditional Judaism, by taking such a strident stance towards electricity. Faced with something never seen, or even imagined by the Sages of the Talmud, they had failed as a generation. I believed the Rabbis had turned a day of rest into a day of stress. Was it really “to call the Sabbath a delight” to turn off the TV? To use a timer?

But I owe them an apology, for only now are the consequences of their stand coming into view. Not being able to flick a switch might have seemed a curse in 1969, but today, a Shabbat without instant messaging, wi-fi, glowing screens, is an unqualified blessing. Because more than anytime in centuries, Shabbat has become different. Unplugged, it feels different. A day apart.

Watching Years and Years I realized what the rabbis of the 20th century were inadvertently protecting. Something beyond family time and Friday night dinners. They were protecting us from the world of 2069. From a future where we never let go of our devices; where we fuse with our devices; where we not only cease to be present, but cease to be human.

Maybe this is what scared me. This thought. This lust for our connectivity to be complete and permanent, forgetting all limits, all stops and starts.

There is nothing more anti-Jewish than transhumanism. Than the fever dreams of the billionaires of Silicon Valley. The idea that the body is to be disdained and replaced – that everything is to be left behind and forgotten. That we must break with how we were created. And make ourselves again.

Judaism is a religion that celebrates the body. That sees it as bound up with the soul. As Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi tells the Roman Emperor Antonius, “The Holy Blessed One brings the soul and throws it into the body and judges them as one.” Shabbat, in particular, has this baked-in dualism. It, too, is about the body. Because switching off reconnects us, momentarily, to time and space. It returns us to the present. It restores our presence.

Facing the dystopia of Years and Years — where once a transhuman, you can never go back — the simplicity of Shabbat is our guide. Maybe, even our message. The thing that will keep our cyborg descendants human. Already, we live in a world where the tech lords regularly switch off their phones, seek intermittent fasting, or mediation, to escape the future they are building. But, even with this so clearly in view, I know we should not be afraid. What we have been handed is not opposed to the wonders of technology, or those wonders yet to come. Only a simple reminder of who we really are.

Because as long as we have Shabbat, as long as we unplug from whatever tech wonders tomorrow brings, we will always be human.

Ben Judah

Ben Judah is a prize-winning New York Times and Atlantic journalist and Forbes 30 under 30 honoree

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