Chanukah and the Battle of Artificial Intelligence – The Ultimate Victory of the Human Being – Chanukah
Chanukah is generally presented as a commemoration of a landmark victory for religious freedom and human liberty in ancient times. Big mistake. Chanukah’s greatest triumph is still to come—the victory of the human soul over artificial intelligence.
Jewish holidays are far more than memories of things that happened in the distant past—they are live events taking place right now, in the ever-present. As we recite on Chanukah’s parallel celebration, Purim, “These days will be remembered and done in every generation.” The Arizal explains: When they are remembered, they reenact themselves.
And indeed, the battle of the Maccabees is an ongoing battle, oneThe battle of the Maccabees is an ongoing battle embedded deep within the fabric of our society. embedded deep within the fabric of our society, one that requires constant vigilance lest it sweep away the foundations of human liberty. It is the struggle between the limitations of the mind and the infinite expanse that lies beyond the mind’s restrictive boxes, between perception and truth, between the apparent and the transcendental, between reason and revelation, between the mundane and the divine.
Death By Algorithm
Today, as AI development rapidly accelerates, we may be participants in yet a deeper formalization of society, the struggle between man and machine.
Let me explain what I mean by the formalization of society. Formalization is something the manager within us embraces, and something the incendiary, creative spark within that manager defies. It’s why many bright kids don’t do well in school, why our most brilliant, original minds are often pushed aside for promotions while “the survivors” who follow the book climb high, why ingenuity is lost in big corporations, and why so many of us are debilitated by migraines. It’s also a force that bars anything transcendental or divine from public dialogue.
Formalization is the strangulation of life by reduction to standard formulas. ScientistsFormalization is the strangulation of life by reduction to standard formulas. reduce all change to calculus, sociologists reduce human behavior to statistics, AI technologists reduce intelligence to algorithms. That’s all very useful—but it is no longer reality. Reality is not reducible, because the only true model of reality is reality itself. And what else is reality but the divine, mysterious and wondrous space in which humans live?
Formalization denies that truth. To reduce is useful, to formalize is to kill.
Formalization happens in a mechanized society because automation demands that we state explicitly the rules by which we work and then set them in silicon. It reduces thought to executable algorithms; behaviors to procedures, ideas to formulas. That’s fantastic because it potentially liberates us warm, living human beings from repetitive tasks that can be performed by cold, lifeless mechanisms so we may spend more time on those activities that no algorithm or formula could perform.
Potentially. The default, however, without deliberate intervention, is the edifice complex.
AI and the Edifice Complex
The edifice complex is what takes place when we create a device, institution or any other formal structure—an edifice—to more efficiently execute some mandate. That edifice then develops a mandate of its own—the mandate to preserve itself by the most expedient means. And then, just as in the complex it sounds like, The Edifice Inc., with its new mandate, turns around and suffocates to deathThe Edifice Inc., with its new mandate, turns around and suffocates to death the original mandate for which it was created. the original mandate for which it was created.
Think of public education. Think of many of our religious institutions and much of our government policy. But also think of the general direction that industrialization and mechanization has led us since the Industrial Revolution took off 200 years ago.
It’s an ironic formula. Ever since Adam named the animals and harnessed fire, humans have built tools and machines to empower themselves, to increase their dominion over their environment. And, yes, in many ways we have managed to increase the quality of our lives. But in many other ways, we have enslaved ourselves to our own servants—to the formalities of those machines, factories, assembly lines, cost projections, policies, etc. We have coerced ourselves into ignoring the natural rhythms of human life, the natural bonds and covenants of human community, the spectrum of variation across human character and our natural tolerance to that wide deviance, all to conform to those tight formalities our own machinery demands in the name of efficacy.
Society, the Individual and AI
In his personal notes in the summer of 1944, having barely escaped from occupied France, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, described a world torn by a war between two ideologies—between those for whom the individual was nothing more than a cog in the machinery of the state, and those who understood that there can be no benefit to the state by trampling the rights of any individual. The second ideology—that held by the western Allies—is, the Rebbe noted, a Torah one: “If the enemy says, give us one of you, or we will kill you all!” declared the sages of the Talmud, “Not one soul shall be deliberately surrendered to its death.”
Basically, the life of the individual is equal to the whole. Go make an algorithm from that. The math doesn’tThe life of the individual is equal to the whole. Go make an algorithm from that. The math doesn’t work. work. Try to generalize it. You can’t. It will generate what logicians call a deductive explosion. Yet it summarizes a truth essential to the sustainability of human life on this planet—as that world war demonstrated with nightmarish poignance.
That war continued into the Cold War. It presses on today with the rising economic dominance of the Communist Party of China.
In the world of consumer technology, total dominance of The Big Machine was averted when a small group of individuals pressed forward against the tide by advancing the human-centered digital technology we now take for granted. But yet another round is coming, and it rides on the seductive belief that AI can do its best job by adding yet another layer of formalization to all society’s tasks.
Don’t believe that for a minute. The telos of technology is to enhance human life, not to restrict it; to provide human beings with tools and devices, not to render them as such.
Technology’s ultimate purpose will come in a time of which Maimonides writes, when “the occupation of the entire world will be only to know the divine.” AI can certainly assist us in attaining that era and living it—as long as we remain its masters and do not surrender our dignity as human beings. And that is the next great battle of humanity.
The Modern Maccabees of Hi-Tech
To win this battle, we need once again only a small army, but an army armed with more than vision. They must be people with faith. Faith in the divine spark within the human being. For that is what underpins the security of the modern world.
Pundits will tell you that our modern world is secular. Don’t believe them. They will tell you that religion is not taught in American public schools. It’s a lie. Western society is sustained on the basis of a foundational, religious belief: that all human beings are equal. That’s a statement withAll human beings are equal. That’s a statement of faith. no empirical or rational support. Because it is neither. It is a statement of faith. Subliminally, it means: The value of a single human life cannot be measured.
In other words, every human life is divine.
No, we don’t say those words; there is no class in school discussing our divine image. Yet it is a tacit, unspoken belief. Western society is a church without walls, a religion whose dogmas are never spoken, yet guarded jealously, mostly by those who understand them the least. Pull out that belief from between the bricks and the entire edifice collapses to the ground.
It is also a ubiquitous theme in Jewish practice. As I’ve written elsewhere, leading a Jewish way of life in the modern era is an outright rebellion against the materialist reductionism of a formalized society.
We liberate ourselves from interaction with our machines once a week, on Shabbat, and rise to an entirely human world of thought, prayer, meditation, learning, songs, and good company. We insist on making every instance of food consumption into a spiritual, even mystical event, by eating kosherWe liberate ourselves from interaction with our machines once a week. and saying blessings before and after. We celebrate and empower the individual through our insistence that every Jew must study and enter the discussion of the hows and whys of Jewish practice. And on Chanukah, we insist that every Jew must create light and increase that light each day; that none of us can rely on any grand institution to do so in our proxy.
Because each of us is an entire world, as our sages state in the Mishnah, “Every person must say, ‘On my account, the world was created.’”
This is what the battle of Chanukah is telling us. The flame of the menorah, that is the human soul— “The human soul is a candle of G‑d.” The war-machine of Antiochus upon elephants with heavy armor—that is the rule of formalization and expedience coming to suffocate the flame. The Maccabee rebels are a small group of visionaries, those who believe there is more to heaven and earth than all science and technology can contain, more to the human soul than any algorithm can grind out, more to life than efficacy.
How starkly poignant it is indeed that practicing, religious Jews were by far the most recalcitrant group in the Hellenist world of the Greeks and Romans.
Artificial intelligence can be a powerful tool for good, but only when wielded by those who embrace a reality beyond reason. And it is that transcendence that Torah preserves within us. Perhaps all of Torah and its mitzvahs were given for this, the final battle of humankind.