This derashah was delivered for Yom Kippur 5779 at St. Albans Masorti Synagogue
In the early 22nd century, humanity defeated death. For the prior two hundred years they had been pouring information, data, resources, and wisdom into the loose collection of networked storage which was called then, the Cloud. In the 22nd century, when the Cloud achieved sentience and became the Thunderhead, it managed to apply itself in a way humans never could- it found ways to stop, even reverse aging. For the first time, no one had to die.
Yet the Thunderhead was also wise enough to know that if no one ever did die, humanity would stagnate and rot. If no one felt the distant pressure of potential destruction, they would never do anything. As a result, the Thunderhead created the Scythes. The Scythes are an order of select individuals, the best of humanity, who are selected to undertake the greatest honour in society- they murder people. Except they call it ‘gleaning’ and they do it in service of the immortal order which the Thunderhead presides over.
While the Thunderhead can manage a larger population than humanity ever could, handily providing them all with peace, food, and shelter, it still required some checks on populations. So the Scythes, a group that in a different era would be called religious, committed themselves to gleaning- removing a fraction of a fraction of a percent of humanity. The chances of being gleaned within the next one hundred years is 1%. That means of course that the odds of being gleaned break even only at one’s 5000th year on Earth.
As a result, people live many lifetimes, create many families, reset their appearance back to a prior age over and over again- they call it ‘turning a corner.’ And the Scythes, who are the only force acting independently of the Thunderhead’s oversight, go on fulfilling small quotas of murders, randomly selecting those to be gleaned. Naturally, this utopia has some elements of dystopia as well- but I don’t want to spoil the end for you.
This brief summary is of the plot of Scythe, a young adult novel by Neal Shusterman, which imagines our future in an immortal world in a beautiful and terrifying way. Like most good science fiction– Shusterman’s vision of the future isn’t without its antecedents in our own time. The world of Scythe is fascinating because it could happen. In fact- there are many many people working quite desperately to make sure it does happen.
We live in a world where scientists, philosophers, and perhaps most-critically, philanthropists, are being gradually convinced that death is a disease. They argue that death is simply unnatural: we only age and die because of errors in our genetic code, failures in our cell reproduction, small mistakes which add up to eventually cause total system failure, ie. death. However, they tell us, if we can only address these small errors along the way, with gene therapy, stem-cell replacement, and other rejuvenation technologies, then we can actually slow, and even potentially stop ageing altogether.
These crusaders against death criticise two concepts which they believe hamper our ability to see the truth of the matter. They argue that the human tendency to believe that: 1) death is natural, and 2) that death is necessary keep us from correctly addressing the problem.
Is Death Natural?
What we consider to be ‘natural’ affects what we fight against and what we are willing to try and change hugely. Take the two disparate examples of homosexuality and schizophrenia. For much of the last 500 years, the medical establishment, under the influence of Christian moralising, believed that homosexuality was ‘unnatural.’ Seen as a condition that merited treating- therapeutic approaches were justified, regardless of their cruelty, on the basis that this was an ‘unnatural condition’ which needed to be ‘cured.’ Money and resources and time were poured into inhumane therapies and procedures which hurt, maimed, and killed innumerable homosexual individuals. We don’t even have to look far back in time to see examples of this. Of course, less than an hour from here we can learn about Bletchley Park and the amazing work that Alan Turing did there with cryptography. What’s less happily celebrated is that Turing was also the victim of a medical establishment which believed they were justified in chemically castrating him in order to ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality. Directly or not, a medical approach which saw homosexuality as an unnatural disease was responsible for his, and many more deaths.
On the other side- for the better part of the last several thousand years, schizophrenia, and actually, most mental illness, was accepted as a flawed variation of human character. People who suffered under the grip of a deceptive mind weren’t considered to be the victims of a disease but simply evil- immoral minds, with damaged souls and compromised spirits. The mentally ill were not treated because no one believed that they had an illness deserving of therapy or treatment. Only in the last few centuries have people started to view mental illness as illness and not just simply madness- and unfortunately most of the early efforts to come up with ‘medical’ treatments and therapies for schizophrenia and other illnesses were cruel and unjust, often leading to more harm. Thankfully, we have finally reached a point where we recognise that mental illness is not natural- it is not inevitable, and it is not a flaw in character to suffer from it.
So– is death natural? The scientists at Google’s Calico Labs have been working for five years with the greatest resources known to contemporary society to defeat ageing and prove that death is unnatural and thus, treatable. Similarly, biologists like Aubrey de Grey have promoted the idea that we are wrong about death - that death itself is a disease. De Grey has created the Methuselah Foundation to help raise money to fight ageing and death, including a prize which currently stands at 4.2 million dollars for anyone able to significantly prolong the life of a mouse and demonstrate an anti-ageing technology. These scientists, among many many others, are slowly trying to change the narrative- to sell us on the idea that death is a unnatural process which is not inevitable nor untreatable.
I can’t help but have some admiration for these individuals, who are claiming that something which 100% of humans experience is actually just a bug in the genetic code that they believe they can eradicate. It’s quite a Sisyphean endeavour to try and stop something which has a 100% incidence rate and a 100% fatality rate. No one, ever, has escaped from death. If it is indeed a disease, it is the most virulent plague, the most devastating pandemic that we can ever imagine. I am not a biologist or a geneticist or even remotely educated on the intricacies of human metabolism and ageing- but I am capable enough of observing that death is not some fringe event which affects an unfortunate few. Natural or not, death is universal– at least for the time being–– which brings us to the second question facing us: is death necessary?
Is Death Necessary?
In Scythe, the omnipotent and omniscient Thunderhead realises quite quickly that death, while now entirely preventable, is nonetheless crucial to human experience. Even in the absence of natural ageing and mortal life-spans, the Scythes are needed to ensure that humanity does not become complacent in its immortality. If death and ageing are in fact necessary, then what purpose is it that they serve?
There are more or less two answers to this- often separated and cast as the religious answer and the scientific answer. I suspect they’re not so different, but nonetheless: 1) the religious answer is that mortality is a consequence of sentience, as told by the Garden of Eden story in Genesis. Before eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, humans were both lacking in consciousness and ageing. They would have lived eternally but unknowingly. Once they choose to know, to experience life fully, the consequent punishment / effect was to experience a mortal life, outside of the Garden. 2) the scientific answer is that all systems need to clear away old material to make way for new replacements- trees shed their leaves in the winter even as the sap within begins to regenerate new leaves and new flowers.
As I said, I suspect these aren’t as different as they seem, but the result is the same conclusion: death has a purpose, a necessary function. Natural or not, we need death.
I think however, that there is in fact another function to death, one which the scientists who have set themselves to defeating it have no good answer to. The most powerful response to the debate around whether death is natural is to point out its universality. Similarly, the universality of death can also be seen as its functional purpose. The fact that every single one of us experiences death not only defeats any sense that it is unnatural but also provides an apt application of the function of death- we need death to bind us all together.
Death is the only thing that we all share.
On Yom Kippur, when we come together to approach God in sincerity and repentance, when we confess in the plural and recite our communal transgressions, when we take the time to remember those who are not here today- those for whom we mourn- we would do well to reaffirm this one simple truth: death, however much we dislike it, is what enables all of us, all humanity, and all life, to share an experience. We will all be either mourners or mourned - most likely, we will be both. We cannot escape it, we cannot treat it- but we can commiserate, and we can comfort.
To return to the words of Scythe, we find perhaps the greatest statement of the need and naturalness of death, from the mouth of someone who is tasked with dealing death in a society cured of the ‘disease’ of it:
“My greatest wish for humanity is not for peace or comfort or joy. It is that we all still die a little inside every time we witness the death of another. For only the pain of empathy will keep us human. There’s no version of God that can help us if we ever lose that….Death makes the whole world kin”
Death makes the whole world kin. Without it, we would be strangers from one another, estranged from the experience of life that is shared by all life. We should be very wary of medical technology and scientific arguments which aim to defeat death- because we would lose something very great without it. To help people live better and longer lives is admirable and appropriate- but to see death itself as something to be defeated is dangerous.
We say of those who have died, ‘May their souls be bound up in eternal life.’ We carved the initials of that phrase into the tree that memoralises our dead and we carve it on headstones and in the prayers we recite. It is death that binds us to each other- that allows us to understand each other. Despite the pain and suffering it causes us, it saves us from much greater pain in that it allows us to connect with one another, to empathise with all life, and to value life as we live it. I am willing to be proven wrong- but I believe that death is both natural and necessary and that it is the tie that binds our souls up in the bonds of life. Death is that which makes the whole world kin.
On this Yom Kippur, as we contemplate the lives we have lived the past year and the life that faces us in the coming year, this is my prayer for us:
May we accept death as both natural and necessary. May we find in the painful experience of loss a recognition of each other. May we find comfort from Heaven and from one another. May we always die a little inside everytime we witness the death of another. May those whom we have lost be bound up in the bond of eternal life- and may we, and they, find that death makes us all kin.