I wish I could devote this graduation speech solely to gratitude and celebration. But we are all adults here. And we need to talk about the hard stuff too.
From the paralysis of government to enact gun control to the threats to our democracy we witnessed on January 6, 2021, our society is in a state of moral uncertainty.
How do you, as young adults, step into this world and become people able to navigate complex, thorny decisions? How do you know what you believe and how do you figure that out?
And while there exist many ethical systems, you have been given the gift of a rich, ancient framework in Judaism that will help guide you and center you as you confront the questions of the 21st Century.
Today, I’ve chosen two real-world case studies to examine with you:
In the summer of 2021
as the US government was preparing for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, international NGOs and governments began to evacuate their citizens. As time began running out, it became abundantly clear that only a fraction of the Afghanis who would face potential hardship were going to be evacuated. Remember those excruciating photos from the Kabul airport? How did people working in governmental and international aid organizations prioritize who would stay and who would go? Should all Afghani translators who worked for the US armed forces get first priority? What about the newly educated class of professional women who might be relegated to house arrest should the Taliban seize power? And then there were thousands of foreign aid workers who had spent the past 20 years building hospitals, roads, and schools in Afghanistan. Shouldn’t they get a seat on the last plane? Who would stay and who would go?
The Talmud, in Baba Mezia, relates the following analogous situation:
Two people were traveling on the road and one of them has a bottle of water. If both drink, they will both die; if one drinks he will arrive at the town.
Jewish authorities were debating cases of triage thousands of years ago. Not surprisingly, there is a deep rabbinic debate or machloket about how to handle such a situation. Rabbi Akiva suggested a utilitarian approach which is to maximize human life by giving the water to only one of the people. Later, other rabbis added to Akiva’s ruling by saying that the water should be given to the individual with the highest likelihood of survival and the chance to live the best quality of life.
The Torah is not an answer key. It will not give you a “yes” or “no” answer. It will not be able to tell you exactly who should be evacuated from the battlefields of Afghanistan, but it does give us moral guidance, with its rich stories and beautiful metaphors, and taken together, it guides us when we are confronted with incredibly difficult decisions.
Now, on to our second example:
Over the last few years, we have seen artificial intelligence make often astonishing and sometimes unsettling advances in how computers can interact with humans. New technology allows machines to respond to questions, interpret nuance, and read social cues. Cutting edge algorithms can combine vision, speech, and language capabilities rather than treat them as separate tasks.
Who among us has not had the following experience?
You have a fleeting thought of buying that baseball bat, that pair of shoes, or that ticket to a concert. And a few days later, you open your web browser to read the news, only to be bombarded by advertisements urging you to buy that same product.
What is the limit of replacing human interaction with robotic ones? What are the dangers of allowing robots to acquire capacities of empathy and social interaction? Will machines be the decision-makers? Can we trust them and do we want to trust them?
Because all of you will be consumers of future technology, how will you navigate the moral uncertainties that it brings?
In Judaism, there is a core idea that humans are G-d’s partner in the creation process.
In Beraishit, Genesis Chapter 2: Verse 3, it reads:
And G-d blessed the seventh day and declared it holy—having ceased on it from all the work of creation which G-d created to make.
See this final phrase. What do you notice? The Hebrew grammar is very unusual. “Asher Barah Elohim La’asot” What is the accurate translation here?
It is technically translated as “Which G-D created to make”
The Rabbis interpreted this unusual syntax to mean “God created earth for humans to make and to improve upon.” We were given intelligence to improve ourselves and the world we live in. To me that means that we humans have latitude to innovate but we must be careful that our innovations are truly improvements. While the Rabbis could not have possibly imagined our modern day robots, they did give us guidance on how to proceed as we innovate. In many ways, this is a lesson on the need for humility.
Class of 2022: Talmudic lessons aside, I’ve also gotten to know your class very well over the past few years, especially over this past year. I know each of you has had to make difficult choices, learning how to triage in your own lives, demonstrating your strong sense of right and wrong, and being willing to advocate for what you believe is right.
My hope is that as you continue to face these ethical questions, you will reach back to what you have learned here and that your understanding of Judaism will help guide you. This Jewish legacy and ancient framework is truly a life long gift that your parents and teachers have given you. Savor the gift and use it wisely.