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Friday, November 28, 2014

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What we’ve got that robots don’t

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Ah, summer: it’s not just about sunburns, mosquito bites and barbecues. It’s time for blockbuster movies!

Recently, a slow afternoon found me looking for a matinee blockbuster and there it was, a robot movie called Pacific Rim. It promised a good look at the destruction of cities around the Pacific Ocean (you can see why a Vancouverite would worry about that).

I have to admit: I love robots. Ever since Isaac Asimov created his universe, where robots were a staple, they’ve had a fascination for me. Not the mechanical aspect, but rather the concept that robots could be created that would not only serve humankind, but that would be better than humans. Asimov’s robots cannot harm a human being, nor allow one to come to harm. Essentially, they embody the best we could be as fleshly creatures.

The most poignant of the robots has to be the android Data from the Star Trek series. He so wants to experience what humans feel, yet his creator made sure he was devoid of the ability to feel emotion. Data can’t love or hate, be sad or exuberant.

(Popular culture over the years has grown impervious to the original robot concept of guardians that would never be able to harm humans – sadly, making them more human.)

There is, however, one drawback to being a robot, however angelic. It’s not their lack of emotions. The saddest thing about robots is that they have no choice in what they do. They have no free will.

This lack of free will truly marks off the robot from the human. In Pacific Rim, the robots can’t move without human pilots to guide them. They may be alarming giants, especially in 3D, but they’re essentially no more dangerous on their own than a lawnmower.

Why am I going on about summer movies and robots?

During these summer shabbatot, we find ourselves deep into Dvarim. I maintain that one thread running through this book is the danger free will poses to the existence of the People of Israel. Set free from the stiff leadership of Moses, the Israelites run amok. In their new land, they take up with the nations around them, worship idols, forget the God that saved them, and in short, behave just like people do.

Dvarim’s sermon is delivered by a weary Moses. He’s old and tired, and has seen the Israelites rebel one time too many. He’s a scold.

Yes, Dvarim provides us with much of our foundational theology: sections of the Haggadah for Pesach, the Shema, tfillin, mezuzah, and Birkat Hamazon. But there are too many admonitions, too many reminders of how stiff-necked the Israelites are.

All in all, it’s a dreary, long, sometimes boring and repetitive account, not just of the redemption from Egypt but, more often, a finger-shaking that never seems to end and let people get on with kiddush.

Worse, the underlying motif is that every bad thing that happens and will happen to the Jewish People is their fault. Their wilful disobedience – their free will – leads to tragedy, time after time.

Our wilful behaviour may be our worst enemy, but surely historical, rather than theological reasons, lay behind the destruction of the First Temple and the exile. Yet Dvarim is relentless.

So where to turn for comfort? Wisely, the rabbis chose Haftarot as the answer.

The prophet Isaiah speaks to a people exiled and disoriented after a terrible holocaust, adrift in a strange world whose victory over Israel could spell the end of the people.

Not so, is the prophet’s message. You still exist and count. You will go home again. You are not forgotten. Despite the historical imperative that led to the destruction of the First Temple and Jerusalem, things will turn around.

Unlike some other theologies, Judaism doesn’t believe in fate. “It’s God’s will” is not, or should not, be an answer to why good people suffer, or why the wicked thrive. If fate were to blame, then nothing could be remedied.

The prophet comforts Israel: You have the freedom of your own will to repent and go home again. Your hope is not dried up. God remembers. God has the will to forgive and redeem.

Yes, here’s something else that we humans have that robots will never know: hope.

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