Observer and Observed - Kol Nidré 5779

This derashah was delivered at Kol Nidré 5779 at St. Albans Masorti Synagogue


We’ve all had the sensation: you’re going about, minding your own business, when suddenly you experience the inexplicable sensation that you are being stared at. It happens to all of us– and what is remarkable is that this shared experience actually has some real evidence behind it. Several scientists have conducted experiments, the results of which were published in a 2015 meta-analysis, that indicate that people are able to perceive someone else’s attention focused on them, even when they are nowhere nearby.

We’ve all felt the weight of someone else’s eyes on a crowded bus or in a coffee shop, but for these studies, the scientists separated two subjects into two totally separate rooms, each sound-proof and light-proof. The observer, a fair distance away and in their own sealed room, was asked to intently stare at a CCTV monitor image of the observed for alternating periods, focusing on the image for a minute, then looking away for a minute, etc. What they found was that there were repeatable, although subtle, biochemical changes in the person being watched- changes which are entirely inexplicable under our current model of sensory perception.

If these studies turn out to be correct and repeatable, it will considerably challenge mainstream perception of how human beings interact. If you can affect someone by looking at a live image of them in another room, then our influence on one another must be more than physical. It also must mean that we possess some sensory ability to perceive when we are being watched– perhaps it was an evolutionary trait, along with senses like vision and smell, which remained unused or underdeveloped.

What’s perhaps even more remarkable is that we are not the only ones who act differently when being watched.

A famous experiment at the Weizmann Institute in Israel in 1998 proved something that experimental physicists had been seeing for years: some particles acted differently when they were being watched. In a broad sense, we experience this ‘observer effect’ all the time- in order to check your tyre’s pressure you have to let out some of the air– meaning that measurement of the pressure is inherently incorrect because in order to measure it you have to alter it. That’s not news to anyone. But what was shocking was that electrons only show up as particles sometimes– specifically, when someone is watching them.

It sounds absurd- but the so-called ‘double slit experiment’ has been proven and repeated many times. We know that electromagnetic radiation (AKA light) is neither exactly a particle nor exactly a wave. It seems to sometimes act like a wave and other times act like a particle. This facet of light was demonstrated in 1801 by the first double-slit experiment. Many came after, which demonstrated that electrons, atoms and other matter often operates the same way. What the 1998 experiment proved is that the presence of an observer forced the electrons to act like particles and go through one slit or the other. It didn’t matter if the observer was a human being or a digital algorithm calculating the outcome- all that mattered was that if something was watching the electrons acted one way, and if no one was paying attention, they acted a different way.

It may sound bizarre to suggest that we can actually perceive someone watching us, and it certainly is bizarre that elementary particles behave differently when watched! What each suggests is that the act of watching, of paying attention, of looking at something– it actually interacts in some unexplainable way with the thing being watched. Although we can neither record nor measure the effect, it is clear that our attention affects the world around us, both at the very small scale of particles and waves and at the much more mundane level of staring at one another.

As we turn to begin Yom Kippur and reflect on the past year, we can surely see the ‘observer effect’ in action in our own lives. How differently do we behave when we believe no one is watching? What things will we do when we believe we are unobserved? At the most mundane, we may indulge in the occasional nose-picking or not-so-stealthy fart. Slightly less innocuous, I suspect many of us would engage in behaviours when unobserved that we wouldn’t dare do while being watched- perhaps dancing around the house in only pants or singing along to Adele at full-volume in an empty car. At a more critical level though, the moments when we believe we are alone are those in which we’re willing to indulge our dark passions, our addictions, our secrets. What things do you have tucked away in the quiet recesses of your soul that no one else sees? What secrets do you keep for the moments when no one else can see you?

The truth is- whether we admit it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not– we act differently when we believe we’re being watched. When we consider the effect that such an idea can have on electrons, on elementary particles, and among people participating in scientific staring contests, we should not underestimate the role of the ‘observer effect’ in religious life as well.

Over the course of the next 25 hours we’re going to recite the Ashamnu, the prayer of community confession, many times. Each time, the maḥzor includes several prayers just prior to the Ashamnu to help introduce it. The one which we will read this year is rendered in the English as:

“You know the mysteries of the universe,

The deepest secrets of everyone alive.

You probe our innermost depths;

You examine our thoughts and feelings.

Nothing escapes You;

Nothing is secret from You.

Therefore, may it be Your will,

Our God and God of our ancestors,

To forgive us for all our sins,

To pardon us for our iniquities,

And to grant us atonement for all our transgressions.”

This prayer is attributed to the 2nd century rabbi known only as Shemu’el and it reminds us of something we’d probably rather ignore, something many of us find strange and alienating in the modern world: in the eyes of Judaism, there is no time or place in which you are ever unobserved. There is, in fact, a cosmic ‘observer effect,’ which means that if and when we believe that there is a God who is watching us, we act differently. To be our best selves we actually might need to believe that God is watching– we may need to feel that sensation of eyes on the back of our head to be good. We may need to be forced, like the wave-electron, to make choices when observed that we otherwise would not have to make.

I want to suggest to you as we begin Yom Kippur and 5779 that there is merit in choosing to believe that you are being watched. Our immediate assumption, out of guilt or paranoia or just unease, is that what we mean when we say God watches us has to be threatening or creepy. But there is another way to understand it. When we recite, as we will do repeatedly, that God knows the mysteries of all creation, sees the secrets of everyone alive– we are simply recognising that God, like the observer of the double-slit experiment, affects our behaviour simply by paying attention.

Imagine- for a moment, how differently you would approach life if you genuinely believed there was a capital-O Observer present. Like the electrons or the participants in the experiment, you would react, consciously or not, to the idea that someone, something was watching.

In an era of near-ubiquitous CCTV, in an era in which we put smart devices into our homes which listen to our conversations, in an era in which we routinely talk to Alexa, Siri, Google, and ask them to intervene in our lives- is it really such a difficult stretch to imagine God as a omniscient presence- always watching, always listening, always observing?

I think, perhaps counterintuitively, that this concept of interminable cosmic surveillance is probably easier for us to understand than it was for our ancestors. And I think- as strange as it might be- that if we choose to believe the supposition of the maḥzor that God watches all of our behaviour, it can help us to live more ethical, more spiritual, more honourable lives.

The sensation of total isolation is increasingly an illusion- whether it is our phones, our cars, our homes, or our bodies themselves, we are choosing to be observed more and more. We are signing over permissions to these anonymous observers to listen, watch, and record our lives. All I’m suggesting is that we apply that same thinking to God.

The knowledge that we are being watched, the sensation of being observed– it can help make us better. If we think twice before we assume we are alone, we may be more likely to resist those temptations which have the greatest pull over us in the moments when we feel least-connected to the perception of others. If there is an Other who is an Observer, we are accountable to something beyond ourselves, even for those moments when we delude ourselves into thinking it is just ourselves present.

It may sound strange to suggest that we actively choose to see God as some great cosmic CCTV, but I think there is a distinct benefit to be gained. We are increasingly accepting of omniscience in many aspects of our lives, but we incorrectly attribute that omniscience to algorithms rather than the Almighty.  If we can internalise the sensation of being observed, find it comforting rather than threatening, we can be the best versions of ourselves.

I want to end an unlikely message with an unlikely quote, from the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca:

sic vive cum hominibus tamquam deus videat, si loquere cum deo tamquam homines audiant.

Live among humanity as if God was watching you, and speak with God as if humanity can hear you.

Letters, X, line 5

My prayer for us as we enter this Yom Kippur is Seneca’s: May we speak with God today as if each of is listening to one another, and may we live out this year behaving, believing, that we are being observed- being our best and acting our best due to the presence of the One who knows and sees all.

Ḥatimah Tovah.