Halakhah: Navigating Between Unity and Plurality

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Aaron Segal


Book Review of Staying Human: A Jewish Theology for the Age of Artificial Intelligence

In the early sixties, Rabbi Norman Lamm published an article in Tradition in which he stressed the importance of the unity theme in Judaism: the metaphysically monistic idea that in an important sense all of reality is really one.[1] God’s own oneness is of course a cardinal Jewish principle. Those who think of God as the only reality–all the rest of “this” being a mere illusion–have a fairly quick route from God’s own oneness to the very strong monistic conclusion that the diversity and distinction we seem to encounter is a mere seeming.[2] But even those of us who won’t go that far down the acosmic road will likely take seriously that God is the ens realissimum–the most real being (a plausible interpretation of Yesodei Hatorah 1:4).  And even those who don’t understand how one thing could be “more real” than another will still think that all of creation depends in a rather deep and intimate way on God, and so that the selfsame divine creative imprint is to be found everywhere and “all at once” (at least from God’s perspective) in all things.[3] This leads naturally even if not inevitably to the conclusion that the diversity and distinction we encounter, even if real, is at best second-class, at worst highly misleading. As R. Lamm puts it right at the beginning of his essay, “The theme of the Shema…underlies every single aspect of Jewish life and thought and permeates every page of its vast literature.  So powerful is this vision of God’s unity that inevitably it must express the corollary that the divine unity is the source of a unity that encompasses all existence” (42). Fragmentation and fracture are like ontological shadows. Deep down beneath, or lying just beyond, all the differences we see, is the Master of the Universe–whose oneness accounts for the organic unity of the whole cosmos.

A year later, Rabbi Walter Wurzburger published a reply, in which he stressed the importance, especially for halakhic Judaism, but also for a moral outlook more generally, of a metaphysical pluralism: of the existence, depth, and even ultimacy of genuine distinctions in the world.[4] He noted that the texts and practices R. Lamm marshaled in support of the unity theme are extra-halakhic–they overwhelmingly derive from Kabbalistic sources, and aren’t generally taken to have the normative force of Halakhah proper; they include such things as the recitation of yihudim, and of k-gavna and the Lekha Dodi hymn. Notwithstanding R. Lamm’s beautiful interpretation of the prohibited 39 categories of labor on Shabbat–as in one fell swoop we integrate our personalities and lives that are otherwise so fragmented into the variegated pursuits of our workdays–halakhic manifestations of the unity theme seem to be thin on the ground.  And it’s not hard to understand why. Distinction and difference are at the heart of Halakhah, and of normativity more generally. Pretty clearly there has to be a plurality of things, some sacred and some profane, some kosher and some non-kosher, some good and some evil, in order for Halakhah and morality to even make any sense. And if Halakhah and morality run deep–if they are part of the basic furniture of reality–then the distinctions needed to make sense of them would have to run equally deep.

I understand if this all seems rather abstruse. People’s attention spans and patience for abstract theology must have been much greater back in the sixties.  (Or, illustrious Jewish thinkers simply cared less about whether their audience could relate.  I don’t know which of these is right.) But I actually think the core issue was and remains pressing, religiously, morally, and societally. As R. Wurzburger himself acknowledges, the monistic impulse is part and parcel of the religious one; it’s hard to imagine an authentic religious orientation that leaves fragmentation as ultimate or final.[5] It’s unsurprising that the mystic is so often a monist. But, on the other hand, it’s undoubtedly true that as halakhic Jews we constantly find ourselves drawing distinctions. How do we hold on to these tendencies together? The issue is morally pressing because of the myriad ways in which the question of monism vs. pluralism connects to a host of ethical questions, including what the correct theory of right and wrong action is, what might rationally justify purely altruistic behavior, and how we ought to balance individual liberty against the collective good. William James, no fan of monism himself, saw clearly just how much the issue of monism matters: after brooding over the subject for many years, he concluded that it was “the most central of all philosophic problems, central because so pregnant. I mean by this that if you know whether a man is a decided monist or a decided pluralist, you perhaps know more about the rest of his opinions than if you give him any other name ending in ist.”[6]  And it was pressing at the societal level–at least in Western liberal democracies–because of the (perceived or real) widespread social atomization that came along with capitalism, division of labor, and increased specialization. R. Lamm was explicit that he was attempting to combat, or at least curtail, the ills of exactly these socially fragmenting trends. His article was meant as a bulwark against the excesses of pluralism.


The pendulum has arguably now swung very far the other way, a development that serves as the backdrop to Harris Bor’s timely book, Staying Human: A Jewish Theology for the Age of Artificial Intelligence, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2021). The subtitle isn’t perfect; the book isn’t so much about artificial intelligence as such, as about the specter of a technological singularity, in which an artificial superintelligence emerges–a being vastly more intelligent than humans–and in the process effectively swallows us pitiful little human beings, “integrating” us into a single, enormously powerful and knowledgeable system. If you don’t have any futurist or science-fictional sympathies, you might be rolling your eyes. I for one–bracketing my religious convictions for a moment–think this scenario has a non-trivial chance of coming to pass in the not-too-distant future. The thought of many of us plugging permanently in to the Metaverse–whether for kicks or of necessity– all the while being supplied with nutrients unawares, is no longer just an abstract philosophical thought experiment proposed to test the truth of hedonism, or just a science fictional dystopia: it’s realistic science-fictional dystopia. (Again, that’s bracketing my religious convictions.) But whatever you think of the future, the present is already much more like this scenario than we’d like to dwell on for very long.  Every time Gmail uncannily predicts exactly what I was about to write next, I get a little nauseous.  Every day that more power and information is transferred to just a few corporations, I get a little more nervous. When the news tells us of an academic paper or poem composed entirely by AI, I get anxious. How long until we’re superseded and subsumed? The ills of a creeping, flattening, singularity are increasingly evident. But very few people are trying to address these ills through a Jewish lens.[7] As I see it, Bor’s book is meant as a Jewish bulwark against the excesses of monism, a mirror image of R. Lamm’s article.

It’s not just technological advances that are heading in the monistic direction. There are intellectual currents that seem to be flowing the same way. Study of Spinoza, whose metaphysical system sees all of us as mere modifications of a single, infinitely intelligent and powerful substance, has experienced a renaissance over the last few decades. And interest in Spinoza hasn’t been confined to the halls of the academy: as Bor notes, a number of recent books have tried to package Spinoza’s philosophy for a more popular audience.[8] Beginning around a decade ago, philosophers started to take seriously the possible truth of monism itself–not just as an interesting historical curiosity–after it had been effectively moribund for over a century.[9]


What does Judaism have to say in response?  You might find it surprising that much of Bor’s book, which is supposed to present a Jewish theology for the age of artificial intelligence, is dedicated to Spinoza and Heidegger. The former is famously a borderline case of a Jewish philosopher; the latter was famously a Nazi sympathizer, and, more to our point, pretty clearly not a Jewish philosopher. But despite them taking up the bulk of the book, their role, as I see it, is primarily to set up the dilemma, not to address it. Spinoza is portrayed as the arch-monist; his philosophical system as a paradigm of rationalism, necessity, uniformity, abstraction, and enlightenment, with all their attendant advantages. Heidegger is portrayed as the arch-pluralist; his philosophical work as championing subjectivity, freedom, heterogeneity, concreteness, and the need for mystical insight, with all of their attendant advantages. The purpose of laying out their views is to exhibit the attraction of each pole. Each philosopher serves the intended purpose well enough. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean no other philosopher could have served that purpose as well, or better. I would have preferred James to Heidegger. The former addresses the question of monism vs. pluralism much more directly and in greater detail, and systematically plumps for all the interrelated advantages that Bor highlights.[10] But maybe that’s a matter of taste. And some social scientists might point to the huge increase in political and social polarization, especially over the past decade, and characterize it as a Babel-like fragmentation of the relatively unified mid-century society that Rabbis Lamm and Wurzburger inhabited.[11] Maybe that’s right.  But that just means that in our age we’re somehow suffering from the ills of monism and the ills of pluralism at the same time. That does nothing to mitigate the need for reflection on what’s right and good in both monism and pluralism.

Bor’s central insight, and his central thesis if I have him right, is that the mitzvot provide us a distinctively Jewish way of simultaneously living the two poles. As he puts it:

Halachah requires us to walk the Way conscious of that which has been revealed by the Torah, both divine otherness and oneness, the God of heaven and earth. Everything we encounter on the way is real and concrete, to be taken at face value. Every facet of the material world makes demands upon us and must be known, scrutinized, theorized, and acted upon according to directives and principles which require forethought, application, and intentionality. At the same time, through the practice of Halachah, we nurture the ability to reach beyond the material to the one in which we all partake, Dasein’s ground, the ground on which Halachah’s paths stretch across. (180-181)

To be sure, living a life of mitzvot doesn’t necessarily provide us with an intellectually satisfying reconciliation. But it should have been clear to anyone who read the exchange between R. Lamm and R. Wurzburger that providing such a resolution might well be an impossible task.  Each side acknowledges the truth on the other side–and agrees that monism and pluralism are apparently irreconcilable. They differ only regarding which we should be attending to. (For a light-hearted reprieve from the heaviness of this discussion, you might watch the PTA-meeting scene from the Simpsons, which reflects a similar dynamic.) If Bor is right, though, the Way of Halakhah provides us an opportunity to experience and symbolize a duality that we can’t fully wrap our heads around. 

It’s in the details of his interpretation of the Jewish calendrical mitzvot that Bor is most penetrating. His suggestion (189) that “Rosh Hashana is the moment of creation when humanity became separate from God. God is encountered in his transcendence…Yom Kippur takes us back to the God of oneness, immanence, the God that preceded creation…” is substantiated by his examination of the laws and liturgy of the two days (189-195), and seems to me, at any rate, to be true to our religious phenomenology. Our detachment from the physical world, our letting go of petty differences, and our embrace of divine purification and cleansing, leaves us with a feeling of wholeness, of ceasing to be pulled this way and that. There’s definitely something jarring about his formulation that “Yom Kippur is Spinoza’s festival” (193), but it points toward something true. 

Sukkot then manages to dwell on both themes together: the “removal of physical protection from the elements”, in order to then sit “under the Succah…absorbed metaphorically into the Shechinah”, coupled with the binding together of the four species and shaking the bundle in all directions, makes palpable the unity and wholeness of reality. There is no greater joy than that. But it is a joy that also finds expression in the seventy bull offerings, traditionally taken to symbolize the vast variety of peoples and languages. Again, Bor argues, the symbolism is borne out in the laws and liturgy of Sukkot, and it’s true to our religious phenomenology. Indeed, I think there’s still more halakhic and aggadic evidence for the centrality to Sukkot of the monism/pluralism duality than Bor adduces.[12] 

Bor moves through the rest of the Jewish calendar, weaving between unity and difference. It’s hard to do justice to his many fascinating interpretive suggestions. But his discussion of Shabbat, which caps the book, is perhaps the most profound. He notes that “On Shabbat, the roles we generally perform are forbidden or forgotten. I am not a lawyer. My friend is not a dentist, teacher, or producer.” (226)  This paradoxically gives rise, as Bor notes, to two opposing ways of being. On the one hand, the suspension of roles makes it so that “existence is undifferentiated, but this is not an indifference ‘which yawns at us,’ to use Heidegger’s words, but an encounter with oneness.” (ibid.) On the other hand, the suspension of roles allows us to temporarily resist the all-consuming and objectifying march of technology, the latter of which makes each of us a mere role-player, a tool in some larger project that isn’t one’s own. On Shabbat we manage in one fell swoop, and by virtue of the very same cessation of labor, to encounter both the oneness of the whole and our ineliminable individuality. “Shabbat allows us to be bored not by or with something but in a profound way. It values us in our uniqueness.  It connects us with others. Unlike the technological worldview, it provides an experience of the All, without seeking to obliterate us.” (227)

Bor’s book contains no concrete proposals for contending with the sweeping impact of artificial intelligence in general, or the prospect of a singularity in particular. As I see things, that’s an urgent desideratum, and more Jewish thinkers and halakhic authorities need to take it up. But the book makes a compelling case that a halakhic way of life is an excellent preparation for what lies ahead. Whatever its merits in addressing the future, it has already enriched my experience of Halakhah in the present.[13]

[1] Norman Lamm, “The Unity Theme and its Implications for Moderns,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 4:1 (Fall 1961): 44-65.  The article was reprinted, with substantive revisions and replies to the critique of Rabbi Wurzburger, in Norman Lamm, Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought (KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2007), 42-67.

[2] For an excellent recent philosophical analysis of this sort of view, see Samuel Lebens, “Nothing Else,” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 11:2 (2019):91-110.

[3] For an elaboration on what’s meant here, see sec. 1.1 of my “Dependence, Transcendence, and Creaturely Freedom: On the Incompatibility of Three Theistic Doctrines,” Mind 130:520 (2021): 1099-1127.

[4] Walter S. Wurzburger, “Pluralism and the Halakhah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought4:2 (Spring 1962): 221-240.

[5] See the first note in Wurzburger’s article.

[6] William James, Pragmatism, Lecture IV “The One and the Many”.

[7] For some of the exceptions, see Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, “In Pursuit of Perfection: The Misguided Transhumanist Vision,” Theology and Science 16:2 (2018):, 200 – 222, and David Zvi Kalman, “Levinas Would Have Banned Facial Recognition Technology. We Should Too,” Tablet Magazine (January 12, 2021) (accessed August 18, 2022).

[8] See e.g. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, (Nextbooks/Schocken, 2009); Steven Nadler, Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die (Princeton University Press, 2020).

[9] The seminal article is Jonathan Schaffer, “Monism: The Priority of the Whole,” Philosophical Review 119:1 (2010): 31-76.

[10] In addition to Lectures III and IV of his Pragmatism, see his A Pluralistic Universe.

[11] Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” The Atlantic (May 2022).

[12] The position of R. Akiva (Mishnha Sukkah 3:4) that we take only one of each of the four species seems evidently connected to his own daring formulation that “Pri Etz Hadar, this is the Holy One Blessed Be He…Kapot Temarim, this is the Holy One Blessed Be He…va-anaf etz avot, this is the Holy One Blessed Be He…ve-arvei nahal, this is the Holy One Blessed Be He (Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, Piska 27).  And yet we don’t forgo any of the individual and distinctive species–we can’t get by with just three of them (Tosefta Sukkah 2:10).  A good number of Rishonim actually endorse R. Akiva’s position as a matter of Halakhah (Ramban commentary on Leviticus 23 and his glosses on Rabad’s Hibur Hilkhot Lulav; Or Zarua Part 2, Siman 308).  In what seems to be too striking to be a mere coincidence, a number of Rishonim working in the same milieu–or connected familially–also insisted that the leaves of the lulav be completely bound together, to the symbolize the absolutely unity in the world of the sefirot (Mar’ot Ha-tzov’ot, R. David ben R. Yehuda He-hasid, grandson of Ramban, cited in Ginzei Hag ha-Sukkot, Y.Y. Stahl(ed.), 14 ff.; Sefer Rokeach Siman 220); and yet those same Rishonim approvingly cite the custom that on Hoshana Rabba we unbind the leaves of the lulav, symbolizing a return to the world of plurality.  Again, we find a way to experience and symbolize both underlying unity and genuine difference.  See also R. Yaakov Nagen’s fascinating Water, Creation, and Immanence: The Philosophy of the Festival of Sukkot [Hebrew], (Maggid Books, 2013).

[13] Thanks to Rabbis Shalom Carmy and David Fried for helpful feedback.

Aaron Segal is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has published widely on metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and Jewish philosophy. Aaron received a PhD in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and rabbinical ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.