A rabbi and a futurist trade words of wisdom

the Assimilator blog
November 6, 2015

Futurist Ray Kurzweil and Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz, the Aleph Society, spoke on stage at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

They talked about evil and progress, then the audience went upstairs for cocktails. Steinsaltz is a writer on religious principles, Jewish theorist, and a popular university and radio commentator.

Kurzweil is a prolific inventor and writer, known for his predictions about technology, who brought his kids up Jewish in Massachusetts. He is a director of engineering at Google.

“Our tools are better and better. Our brains are not better. There are depths of human viciousness and human evil. We have a little hell within us,” said Steinsaltz.

“The amount of violence in the world is at its lowest level ever,” said Kurzweil, who grew up a Unitarian Universalist. “Life has already expanded.” Kurzweil cited political theorist Hannah Arendt on evil.

“That won’t be helped by more information,” Steinsaltz said. “It’s not just information. As communication has improved, so has democracy,” said Kurzweil.

“Democracy is a nice name,” Steinsaltz said. “Democracy is a good idea, and democracy is theoretically with people that have equal intelligence, democracy can work.”

Kurzweil quoted Winston Churchill on democracy. Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the 1940s and 1950s. “The most beautiful time in the history of Rome was the time of the emperors,” Steinsaltz said.

And then, just as Steinsaltz seemed on the brink of a broad argument against democratic rule, the moderator cut everyone off and asked them to predict the future. The rabbi said most people are like chemical elements, but some are like radioactive elements, “the moving power,” he said. Kurzweil did not respond directly.

The setting was a dinner for the Aleph Society at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, New York. After, the audience retired for drinks, a chicken dinner and dessert.

Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz is a philosopher, social critic and author called by Time magazine a “once in a millennium scholar.” His work in education earned him the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor.

audience comments

The dialog sounds like cynicism in one corner and optimism in another. When times are good, which orientation prevails? I wonder if Judaism isn’t paddling upstream in an era of stability and prosperity. Even more to the point, was Judaism ever about cynicism? I thought it was supposed to be the antidote to it. — Dana Lieberman

I consider futurist Ray Kurzweil one of the greatest minds today. In his sphere, he’s on a plane with Einstein. His philosophy, thinking and book The Singularity Is Near is genius. I personally heard Kurzweil speak at a packed audience lecture in Las Vegas, Nevada in January 2013. I posit the singularity, nanotechnology and molecular assemblers are our future. — Clyde Dinkins

related reading:
Aleph Society | main
Museum of Jewish Heritage | main

Wikipedia | Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz
Wikipedia | Hannah Arendt
Wikipedia | Winston Churchill