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Tisha B'Av 5779: The Uncanny Valley

There is a fascinating theory in the field of artificial intelligence regarding how human beings respond to humanoid objects, depending on the degree of similarity of the object to an actual human. In 1970, a professor of robotics named Masahiro Mori hypothesized that the closer a robot or humanoid object came to resembling a real person, the more real human beings were drawn to it – and Mori’s experiments showed that this was the case, to a point. As soon as the likeness became so close it was almost impossible to differentiate, however, humans suddenly reported feeling afraid of or repulsed by the robot or AI being, and their neural activity demonstrated a significant decrease in affinity toward it. This sudden and significant change or dip in human’s attitudes toward non-human objects is known as the uncanny valley, due to this decrease is affinity occurring in response to the uncanny human-like qualities possessed by the object in question.

If you have ever seen a horror movie, you know that filmmakers pray on this human weakness and vulnerability. Zombies, life-size dolls, and eerily human-looking robots with near-human intelligence are the basis for many thrillers and terrifying plots, and the fear is real; human beings are actually wary of and repelled by creatures, beings, and objects that most closely resemble us, but just aren’t quite actually us. Scientists studying artificial intelligence have posited different theories as to why humans generally are intrigued by and even interested in computers, robots, and even some dolls, but suddenly feel hatred and fear toward those that actually most resemble humans. One theory is that robots and artificial intelligence poses a threat to that which we see as unique and special about being human; the more something non-human resembles a human being, the more of a threat it presents to our human identity.

The Gemara in Yuma (9b) famously elucidates the reasons for the destruction of both Batei Mikdash, and notes that the second temple, whose destruction led to the exile in which we still find ourselves thousands of years later, was destroyed due to sinas chinam, baseless hatred between Jews. Elsewhere in the Talmud, in Gittin (55b), the Gemara notes that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed due to the story that unfolded between a Jew, his friend Kamtza, and his enemy, Bar Kamtza. The story, detailed in the Gemara, is that the unnamed Jew accidentally invites Bar Kamtza to his party, and, rather rudely and despite Bar Kamtza’s outright pleading, embarrasses Bar Kamtza publicly by ejecting him from the party. Mortified and indignant that no one stood up for him, Bar Kamtza tells the Roman emperor that the Jews want to rebel against him, and will reject outright his offerings in the Beis HaMikdash. Not willing to believe that his loyal subjects, the subservient Jews of Jerusalem, would disobey or reject him, the emperor sends a young calf to the temple as a gift. But Bar Kamtza purposely wounds it, creating a blemish rendering the animal unfit to be offered as a Karban. The Gemara concludes that the offering is rejected, and this truly set off the war between the Jews and the Romans that resulted in the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash.

Certainly, if we are told that Sinas Chinam “brought it down, and with it so much pain,” and we are also told that the destruction was due to the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, these explanations are connected. Juxtaposing these two passages from the Gemara, it is evident that the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is meant as a clear example of Sinas Chinam. Why was the anonymous host in the story so incensed by Bar Kamtza’s presence at his party? It is true that the Gemara calls Bar Kamtza the host’s enemy, but in the story, Bar Kamtza seems rather tame, and certainly willing to do anything the host asks so as not to be embarrassed. It is clear that the host was caught in the uncanny valley; Bar Kamtza’s resemblance to the host’s friend, Kamtza, was so close – close enough to have been mistakenly invited to the party! And yet, it was so close, yet so far; he was not Kamtza – and this was the root of the host’s animosity.

Throughout the generations this so close yet so far phenomenon has continued, perpetuating hatred and animosity among Jews. Longing to learn and spread Torah and cleave to God’s will, the Chassidus movement arose – and was immediately opposed, by those who also wished to learn Torah and be close to God. If it was not the Chasidim and Misnagdim, it was a rift between Sefardim and Ashkenazim, disdain or scorn for each other’s traditions, our similar yet vastly different Minhagim. Today, in addition to these groups, we further separate ourselves, in a quest to be unique and known for our unique service of God. We are Yeshivish, Ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox – and if you are not truly one of us, you are barely “us” at all. We are all Jews, and yet, sometimes it is easier to love our fellow Jew who is so completely dissimilar to us – the ones off the derech, completely innocent and unknowing, than it is to love those in our own class, or in our own neighborhood, but who attend a different shul. Today, the miniscule but monumental difference between Kamtza and Bar Kamtza becomes the difference between Shmiel and Shmuel, Ruchie and Rachel, so close, yet we sink deep into the uncanny valley, repelled by our baseless fear and dislike, worried perhaps that the Other is a threat to our uniqueness as our own personal brand of Jew.

It is easy to throw around the phrase “Sinas Chinam” and to know that it is the root of our suffering; it is just a few words, let’s have more Ahavas Yisrael – and yet perhaps this is exactly why it is so difficult. Klal Yisrael is known as an Am Kshei Oref, a stubborn people. We have survived due to our strong will, our boundless determination, and yet the flip side of this great strength is also our greatest weakness. We like to insist that we are right, we like to dig our heels in, raise our eyebrows at the manner in which they do things – whether “they” is the camp down the road, the neighbor across the street, another family member, or a community in another state or country. The uncanny valley is steep, and it is where we are stuck. In a busy airport, we seek out our fellow Jews, in any shape and stripe – we start out drawn to each other, until we take that closer look and realize, hey – you look almost exactly like me, you do almost everything I do – but you are not exactly like me! And with fear and revulsion, love and interest and shared identity turn to hatred and loneliness.

The number one unifying truth of all human existence is that we are inescapably human; and the unifying truth of the Jewish people is that we are irrevocably Jewish. All our enemies have noticed it and have not differentiated; to the eyes of villains and persecutors, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. Why should we be any different? A fellow Jew, no matter his or her practices, is never a threat. Though Sinas Chinam may at times seem like a throwaway concept, meant for children’s songs and story books, it is very, humanly real, and it is the actual threat to our existence and to our redemption. It is the kind of hatred that comes from the uncanny resemblance but not quite sameness of our fellow Jews, in a beautifully diverse and wonderfully unique nation. Each of us, every sect, community, family, and individual, has reasons for doing things the way we do. Our stubborn and ever-present desire to grow, to draw close, and to preserve our identity is what drives us, and in that we are identical.

This Tisha B’Av let us try to vow to catch ourselves when we size up our fellow Jews (as we so love to do) and let us use that scanning to notice how we are the same, how are goals and values are shared, how we are all fasting this Tisha B’Av hoping for the same redemption, looking forward to sharing the same space in the Land of Israel, the same Avodah in the same rebuilt temple. Please - let’s show God that we can handle sharing such a space. Look not at those few differences that make our likeness so uncanny – look instead for those things that make us inescapably, irrevocably, pieces of the same whole. Together, we will climb out of this valley of exile, loneliness, sadness, turmoil, confusion, distance, and hate – and together, we will rise as one al kanfei nesharim, and go home. Looking forward to seeing you all in Yerushalayim!

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