Steve Jobs, Yom Kippur, and the Eternal Mystery

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I was never emotionally attached to Steve Jobs in the way many of his fans were, though I have certainly admired his Herculean technical accomplishments. But his untimely death, just before Yom Kippur—the Jewish Day of Atonement—has awakened some strong and unexpected feelings in me.

From what I have read of Mr. Jobs, he had a spiritual side to his personality that was less publicized and less obvious than his inventive and managerial genius. Robert Thurman, a professor of Buddhist studies who met Jobs in the 1980s, has noted Jobs’s interest in Buddhism, and in the “Zen vision” of simplicity. But I was struck most forcefully by Jobs’s reflections on human mortality, in a commencement speech he delivered June 12, 2005, at Stanford University. (June 12 just happens to be my birthday). It had been a year since Jobs learned that had a rare type of pancreatic cancer, for which he had undergone apparently successful surgery. (Six years later, alas, recurrence of that cancer would bring about his death). Here is part of what he had to say:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

On Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition and teaching holds that some are inscribed in “The Book of Life”, while some are not. Growing up in a Jewish household, this notion always held a kind of dread for me, even though I never entirely believed it. But who knew?—maybe it was true. And maybe I would be judged unworthy of being inscribed in the Book of Life. Even to this day, on the eve of Yom Kippur, I still feel that old uneasiness creep over me like a cloud-cast shadow—even though, theologically, I consider myself “technically agnostic.”

Why “technically”? And what does all this have to do with Steve Jobs? As I tried to suggest in my very first blog posting on this website, my intellectual convictions about G-d are not always consistent with my feelings about Him/Her. (You can see from my use of “G-d” that some part of me wants to honor the spirit of holiness inherent in the concept of “Ha-shem”—another designation aimed at not using the Divine Name directly). When asked if I “believe” in G-d, I usually answer, “No, but I love Him very much!” This, of course, predictably produces more questions and considerable perplexity. And that’s fine with me, because I have no logical explanation for my contradictory attitude. And here is where the late Steve Jobs comes in. He urged those Stanford grads to “…have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.” And I believe that what I truly want to become is, well…a child of G-d.

But what does this mean? In what can “godliness” consist, if not in a full-blown, unequivocal acceptance of G-d’s existence? What meaning could prayer have, if one is not fully committed to the idea that an omniscient and omnipotent Creator is listening? If it were all a matter of cold, hard logic and a purely scientific attitude—along the lines, say, of Prof. Richard Dawkins’ argument in favor of atheism—prayer would make no sense at all (see the Sept. 20, 2011 New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/20/science/20dawkins.html?pagewanted=all).

But I believe that Steve Jobs was closer to the “Truth” than Richard Dawkins. We need not accept Dawkins’ premise that religious faith is simply a matter of faulty syllogisms and axioms. There is the important matter of the “heart and intuition.” One doesn’t offer intuition as “proof” or argument, but as a declaration of how one chooses to live. And one doesn’t necessarily assume that prayer is something you send out, like an email, with the expectation that an all-powerful Creator will listen and respond. Dawkins says that, “Religion teaches you to be satisfied with non-answers…It’s a sort of crime against childhood.” But Prof. Dawkins has confused the religious impulse with doctrinaire religiosity. The religious impulse continually stimulates us to ask questions; indeed, as the theologian Paul Tillich understood, doubt is a fundamental part of a mature faith.

Prayer, for me, involves the confluence of four “elements”, akin to the ancient Greek elements of earth, air, fire and water. Prayer is the convergence of humility, mystery, gratitude, and transcendence. There is the humility of realizing, as Steve Jobs poignantly realized, that we are all fallible and mortal. There is the mystery of how the Universe came to be, and of what natural laws and principles govern its sublime manifestations. There is the gratitude of being given the great gift of life, transient though it is. And then, there is transcendence—the sense that, beyond any one of these elements, there is some emergent experience that is simply more than the sum of its parts. This is the part of life Prof. Dawkins is missing. He is a bit like the hectoring grammarian who knows everything about the structure of prose, and nothing of the magic of poetry.

Steve Jobs left us another great teaching, one that is particularly apt as many Jews fast for Yom Kippur: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

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