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Saturday, January 28, 2023
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I recently read an interesting article by Alan Zeitlin, “Should Rabbis Fear Robots?” Zeitlin interviewed several rabbis, asking them whether the brand new ChatGPT program could deliver sermons and answer halachic questions as well as human rabbis.

For those who don’t know, ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence program that has recently been made available to the public, and the early reviews have been astounding. Think of it as a Google search program on steroids. It can quickly write a resume and cover letter for you, get relationship advice, produce a complete essay on virtually any topic and perform a host of other complex tasks. Therefore, it’s not a big stretch to ask whether ChatGPT can do everything your current spiritual leader does and maybe more.

Want a good dvar Torah on Parshat Shemot? No problem. I requested the dvarTorah from ChatGPT and in a matter of seconds received the following:

“Parshat Shemot tells the story of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt and the beginning of Moses’ journey as a leader. One of the key themes of this parsha is the idea of redemption and liberation.

“At the beginning of the parsha, the Israelites are in a state of slavery and oppression. They cry out to God for help, and God hears their cries and chooses Moses to lead them out of Egypt.

“Moses is initially hesitant to take on this role, but with God’s guidance, he becomes a powerful leader and brings the Israelites out of slavery and into freedom.

“This story teaches us about the power of faith and the importance of standing up for what is right. It also reminds us that God is always with us, even in times of hardship and struggle.

“As we read this parsha, we can reflect on our own lives and think about the ways in which we may be called upon to be leaders and advocates for justice and righteousness. May we have the courage and faith to follow in Moses’ footsteps and work towards a world of freedom and equality for all.”

Not bad for someone who didn’t even attend a yeshiva day school! Then again, one can visit Aish.com, Chabad.org, or a multitude of other sites and get the same kind of divrei Torah, too.

Rabbi Shlomo Litvin, a Chabad rabbi in Kentucky, isn’t worried about artificial intelligence programs replacing rabbis. Said Rabbi Litvin, “Something artificial will always be artificial. What will be missing, no matter what, is the human soul, and that wisdom is what people come to shul to hear. There is no replacement.”

Rabbi Erez Sherman of Los Angeles, CA, is similarly not threatened by the possibility of robotic rabbis and pointed out that a big part of a good sermon is how the sermon is delivered, something an AI program cannot easily duplicate. And Rabbi Greg Wall of Westport, CT, believes that what rabbis transmit can’t be threatened by something that boasts no lineage. “It’s about mesorah,” Wall said. “When you hear a rabbi speak, they learned it from a rabbi, who learned it from the one before him. Knowing where it comes from provides authenticity that I don’t think any system or machine can have.”

What about answering halachic questions? On the surface, it seems that if an artificial intelligence program can access the huge data repository of responsa that has accumulated during the last two millennia, it should be able to easily spit out reasonably accurate answers to halachic questions.

I recently participated in a discussion about this subject on social media with several others, and the comments are worth sharing.

A few people saw no reason why most halachic questions couldn’t be answered by an AI program. (One person quipped, “RabbiGPT just needs to know when to refer the questioner to PosekGPT!”) They pointed out that Facebook, TikTok, and other social media programs are already using sophisticated algorithms specifically tailored to an individual’s likes, needs, and emotions, and that answering halachic questions wouldn’t be any different. In many cases, artificial intelligence programs might even understand you better than you understand yourself.

However, most of the other people who participated in this discussion felt otherwise. Rabbi Reuven Spolter summed it up well: “Real psak is the application of halacha to a specific person in a specific situation. Halacha is a flexible code that adapts to different people, their needs, and the specific situation that caused them to ask their question. It is also based on relationships. Only when a posek knows you and takes the time and effort to understand what’s motivating the question, can you obtain an appropriate halachic answer. And that is something that an artificial intelligence program cannot fully duplicate.”

What does ChatGPT itself think about whether it can answer halachic questions? A query to the AI program produced the following response:

“As an artificial intelligence, I am not able to provide definitive answers to halachic (Jewish legal) questions. Halacha, or Jewish law, is a complex and nuanced area of study that requires in-depth knowledge and understanding of the Torah, Talmud, and other Jewish legal texts, as well as the principles and guidelines that govern Jewish religious practice.

“While I have been trained on a wide variety of texts and topics, including Jewish law and tradition, my knowledge is limited to what I have been trained on and I do not have the ability to make judgments or provide definitive answers on halachic matters. I recommend consulting with a qualified rabbi or other religious authority for guidance on halachic matters.”

Now that’s a pretty good answer – recognizing one’s limitations is definitely a strength! Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the applications of this remarkable new technology.

The challenge for our rabbis and for ourselves—as it has always been with any new technological advances we encounter—is to figure out the best ways to harness these exciting applications, while remaining faithful to our history, traditions, customs, and practices.


Michael Feldstein is a contributing editor for The Jewish Link. He owns his own marketing consulting firm, MGF Marketing, and can be reached at [email protected]

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