In the dystopian future depicted in Aldous Huxley’s classic “Brave New World,” people are industrially engineered, manufactured, and programmed. Through advanced technology, perfect social stability and harmony is achieved — at the cost of free will and any semblance of humanity.
When reflecting on his novel in the preface to the 20th anniversary edition, Huxley acknowledged that his views had evolved over the two decades since he wrote the book in 1931. The book presents the antagonist with the binary alternative of either living in the insanity of the “Utopia” or living a primitive life removed from modern civilization. Later in life, Huxley realized that there was a third alternative, a way to reap the benefits of technology while avoiding or minimizing the adverse consequences. In this third scenario, he wrote, “[s]cience and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they were made for man, and not as though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them.”
A generation before Huxley, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch also addressed the problem of dehumanization of people, particularly in the area of procreation and childbirth.
The word tazria appears only twice in the Torah; once in reference to childbirth (Vayikra 12:2) and once referring to the activity of plants in the perpetuation of their species (Bereishit 1:11). The role of the parents, particularly the mother, in childbirth can be viewed as a purely material physiological process. Rabbi Hirsch understood the subsequent impurity and the corresponding offerings that follow childbirth as being a process meant to force the parents, and the reader of the Torah, to consider the human element of childbirth and parenting.
In his 2001 report on human cloning, bioethicist Leon Kass mentioned, among other things, that one of the dangers
inherent in human cloning is the potential for the dangerous shift from begetting children to manufacturing children. To manufacture a child is to determine in advance what the child’s future life will be. “Cloning is thus inherently despotic, for it seeks to make one’s children
after one’s own image (or an image of one’s choosing) and their future according to one’s will,” he said.
After childbirth, the Torah proscribes an elevation offering and a sin offering. The most basic interpretation of this ceremony is the need for the parents to
understand that the child will lead its own life and is capable of both elevation or sin. Parents have an opportunity and an obligation to guide and nurture the child along the path, but ultimately, the life belongs not to the parents, but to the child.
Rabbi Hirsch writes, “If anywhere, it is surely here, that the fact must be established that once born, the child is a morally free agent.”
Huxley’s alternative challenges us at all times to consider whether we are controlling technology or if technology is controlling us. One of the earliest and most central teachings of the Torah is that after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil we can no longer live in the utopia of Eden; instead we live in a world where our moral choices decide our destiny. When we harness technology to improve our lives, and still manage to retain our moral autonomy, we can have the best of both worlds.
By Rabbi Jonathan Gross
Rabbi Jonathan Gross was the chief rabbi of Nebraska for ten years and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the author of a number of books, including “Ai Vey: Jewish Thoughts on Thinking Machines” and “Values Investing: An Omaha Rabbi Learns Torah from Warren Buffett.” His books and writings can be found at www.ThatsGross.org.