Technology, Angels, and Mankind

In the modern world, we often avoid explicitly comparing our technological lives with our spiritual lives. After all, we have been praying the same way for a very long time indeed – what does it matter that now we have email and cars and running water? When we daven to Hashem, has anything really changed? Technology has changed the relationship we have to nature, but it has made any changes at all to the nature of man.

At least part of the answer is that no, of course the fundamentals have not changed since Avraham’s first prayer to Hashem. That kind of relationship has nothing to do with how technology has improved our standard of living, and our everyday lives.

On the other hand, we too often ignore a basic, underlying fact: we invented and developed and in all respects created technology, just as surely as Hashem created the world. For mankind, technology is a way of completing the creation of the world, of fulfilling our mission to finish G-d’s work.  To be sure, it is not the only way – there are many others – but it remains unique among all of these because technology is how we separate ourselves from, and in turn control, the natural world. We are walking in Hashem’s footsteps through the ways in which we use our ingenuity to shape and control the physical world around us.

Hashem does not use technology – he uses angels as his tools, to carry messages, to manage the workings of the natural world. The midrash tells us that every blade of grass has its own angel. Angels, like software programs, do as they are told, and all but the highest level of angel operates with no more autonomy than does a tool in our hands.  We are told that angels do not multitask – they can only do one job at a time.

Higher level angels seem to be almost human – Avram meets angels at his tent, but in the light of day, he recognizes them for what they are. When looking for his brothers near Shchem, Yosef meets an angel,  but the exchange is brief enough that Yosef thinks he is a man.  But in the dark Yaakov could confuse an angel with a man, just as, if we are confused, we can carry on electronic conversations with computers without realizing that our interlocutor has silicon for brains. Midrashic stories of angels that seem to have minds of their own are understandable for those of us with temperamental computers.

We should not rule out the possibility that just as we are meant to be seeking to emulate Hashem’s creation, and we build a mirror of the world in heaven (the beis hamikdash shel mala and the beis hamikash shel mata), that high technology is indeed meant to be an analog to the angels themselves. In terms of technology, we are in uncharted territory. But as we get closer to machines that think for themselves, perhaps we are just imitating the highest order angels that, when it is dark, can be confused with men.  In that sense, at least, mankind is elevating itself close to the highest level possible – for the first time our creations can, in limited conditions, be confused with angels themselves.

But these exceptions aside, angels are part of the natural world – the Midrash tells us that every  living thing in the natural world has its own angel. Hashem does not have angels because he is too busy, or is unwilling to be concerned with petty matters. The angels have a very specific job: to insulate the natural world from Hashem, thus allowing us to exist and have free will, operating in a world physics, chemistry and biology, natural laws that the human mind can grasp. G-d has no limits, but the world he created, large as it is, is not infinite. It is the angels that allow this to be possible, that allow man to live in a world created by Hashem without a short-circuit between the finite and the infinite that would destroy us as surely as hearing G-d directly at Har Sinai. For us to exist, we need that buffer of the natural world, of the angels that act as G-d’s computer programs in the world around us.

So while G-d made the natural world, he is not in it. When G-d gets involved, there are no laws of nature, no computer programs saying what is and is not possible. The supernatural splitting of the Red Sea was done by no angel: Hashem tells us “I, and no Seraph” did the deed. Splitting the sea, like creation itself, was never meant to be a natural act, in the sense that it was all part of the normal angelic program. Supernatural events in the Torah were not carried out by angels, but by G-d Himself. Similarly, in the Beis Hamikdash, where miracles were commonplace, there is no mention of angels as our interlocutors. It is the place where Cohanim and Hashem coexist, with no buffer on either side.

Technology is man’s way of imitating G-d. We, too, write computer programs and create tools that act to subdue, control and direct the physical world to do our bidding. And they are analogous to G-d’s creations – while our airplanes do not flap their wings like the birds Hashem made, there is no denying that both birds and airplanes fly through the air. It is a curious fact that while the natural world inspires our creation, we almost never end up doing things the same way Hashem does them: not only do airplanes not fly like birds, but our seaborne vessels use propellers instead of flippers, ground vehicles are wheeled or tracked, without legs and hoofs or paws.  Our solar power has nothing in common with photosynthesis, save only that both draw from the sun’s rays. In all of these cases, early inventors started by trying to do things G-d’s way, only to discover that they don’t work well for us. Ornithopters are inefficient for our needs, as is photosynthesis. G-d did not make the natural world so that we would go about things the same way he did. On the contrary; we are forced to innovate in new and different ways. When we walk in Hashem’s footsteps in the act of technological creation, imitatio dei is not a literal reflection of the G-d’s creation, but using his spirit to create in different and novel ways.

And just as birds and airplanes fly using different mechanisms, G-d’s creation and our own melachos are similar only in spirit and not in technique. But just because we don’t create in the same way that G-d does, does not mean that we don’t create at all: an airplane may not work like a bird, but it still flies. Our technology is different from Hashem’s, but they both serve their respective purposes.

But we are meant to restrain even our technological impulse. On Shabbos we create many things – we can procreate, we can learn and discover new concepts in Torah, by saying Kiddush we even create the reality of Shabbos itself! But none of these things are things that involve technology. None of them can be done by an angel. Shabbos is a time when G-d sets aside his tools, and we set aside ours. Both parties are meant to explore and grow without commanding our respective angels. The natural world continues on Shabbos, just as a building remains standing, or a light lit before Shabbos keeps burning.

The definition of what we are not allowed to do on Shabbos, of course, come from the 39 forms of work that we did to build the Mishkan, G-d’s home in our world. These are all technological acts, acts of technological creation. The 39 melachos are at the core of humanity’s skillset: in the ancient world they were the mechanical capabilities that separated us from animals, and allowed us to control the natural world. In a nutshell (and as widely commented on by Chazal), the technological acts of building G-d’s home, the Mishkan, are comparable to the divine acts of creating and directly manipulating the world.

This dovetails nicely into a machlokes in the Gemara about what a person should do if he loses track of time, and has no idea which day of the week it is. One opinion holds that he counts six days, and then has Shabbos. The other opinion is that he should have Shabbos first, then count six days. Rabbi Sacks explains this beautifully: the man who waits six days and then holds Shabbos sees things as G-d did – he worked for six days and then rested. But Adam had Shabbos first! So the answer to this question speaks directly to whether we imitate Hashem directly, or from man’s unique perspective. Direct imitation of G-d is making ornithopters; if we see it from Adam’s perspective, we invent airplanes. Only by making airplanes are we really imitating Hashem, because Hashem’s true creation was not the bird per se, but making something that did not exist before.[1]

This might explain why, though the Torah and Chazal discuss angels, there is virtually no curiosity about what they actually are or how they function. We really don’t need to know, because we have no obligation to create angels of our own. Thanks to technology, we have our own way of manipulating nature. The outcome of both is the same, which is why they share the same root: “melacha” is applied technology by mankind, and a “malach” represents Hashem’s technology.

[1] This might explain a good deal of halacha that suggests that truly artificial things are superior to natural ones – in things ranging from replacement organs to foodstuffs.

Comments are welcome!