If you’ve ever used kitchen tongs to reach into a steaming pot of pasta, you’ve demonstrated a skill of great interest to both rabbis and robotics scientists. Jewish scholars have argued for centuries about the origins of the first tongs that lifted those first objects of creation. And robotic scientists have struggled to enable robots to dexterously use tongs, or grippers, to lift objects. In both cases, opposing forces play a crucial role.
The classic rabbinic text Pirkei Avot (Teaching of our Fathers), discussed a fundamental question of creation: “How were the very first pair of metal tongs for lifting cast metal objects out of a fire created?” Anything cast from metal must be lifted out of the fire. If the first pair were cast of metal, then how could it be lifted out of the fire? This paradox is related to the fundamental question: How could there have been a God before the world was created? After lengthy arguments, the rabbis concluded that this was the result of a miracle: God created the first pair of tongs as one of his last works as the sun was setting on the sixth day of creation, just before the first Sabbath began.
This Rabbinic paradox is related to Moravec’s Paradox in robotics: Many tasks that are hard for humans, like precision spot welding, are easy for robots, while many tasks that are easy for humans, like reliably clearing a dinner table, are extremely difficult for robots. Articulated by Hans Moravec in 1988, this paradox is at the center of research in contemporary robotics and provides a different perspective on the complexity of grasping.
We believe these twin paradoxes, from rabbis and robots, have something to teach us about human learning and understanding. The first paradox is included in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s seminal three-volume study, “Heavenly Torah,” which contrasts two rabbinic theologies.
The first theology in Heschel’s text is that of Rabbi Akiva, who believed and argued fervently that God is imminent, close to us, and part of our daily lives. His theology went so far as to say that if we are not witnesses to God, God does not exist. Rabbi Akiva thought that there could be no God without humans (hence the tongs paradox above).
The second theology Heschel discusses is that of Rabbi Ishmael, who distanced human beings from almost any connection to God; God exists independently of humans, existed before humans, and has little direct connection to us. Rabbi Ishmael argued that the central purpose of Judaism is to affirm the oneness of God by avoiding at all costs the worship of idols. All of Jewish law exists as a strategy to reaffirm the oneness of God and prevent us from creating idols. Rabbi Ishmael felt it was obvious that God existed long before humans were created.
Heschel’s brilliant insight is that the opposing theologies of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael provide the essential dialectic tension to reveal the deeper meaning in the Torah and in our lives. Without Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Ishmael is a fanatic thinker who can’t sympathize with the need to have a personal relationship with God on a daily basis. Without Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Akiva ignores the grandeur of God who can limit the limitless and make the finite infinite. Both viewpoints are strengthened by their opposites.
As a metaphor for Heschel’s insight, we can return to our original topic, a pair of tongs. To function, to grasp and hold something, a pair of tongs requires that two opposing forces push against one another. Precisely the same is true of the two rabbinic theologies. It is in the space between the tongs and between the theologies of the rabbis that meaning and the “divine” reside. For the rabbis, when an individual engages with and holds both theologies, pushing against each other, that liminal space, the gray area is where insight and meaning happen. For the religious person, where the two meet is where the divine resides and is encountered. In Judaism, when we study a text, we are told to study in “chevruta,” with a partner. Why? So there is another to push against an individual’s ideas, to find the meaning in the text. The opposing force is where meaning is found.
The opposing forces of the tongs can model the divine. The complexity of tongs and the projects they are trying to solve highlight the sophistication and genius of human agility. Only through understanding robotic tongs have humans truly been able to appreciate this complexity. A single tong, force, or viewpoint, without opposition, is ineffective. Opposing forces are essential for tongs to grasp hot objects and for humans to grasp complex ideas.
Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman is executive Director of UC Berkeley Hillel. Ken Goldberg is chairman of the UC Berkeley Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. This essay resulted from a year of informal monthly Talmud study sessions with a mix of faculty and staff.