Subscribe to receive new posts:


Upcoming events

There are no events to display


Finding God inhering naturalistically in all things -- a theory usually called panentheism -- is the only adequate religious response to science.
-R. Jeremy Kalmanofsky

When a Jewdroid Walks into Shul (Part 2)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 @ 01:10 PM
posted by Roger Price
Share Button


That the age of robots is coming, and soon, seems indisputable.  For some, though, achievements to date in mobility, dexterity and intelligence (discussed in a prior post), may be as unsettling as they are amazing.  Surely future developments will be disruptive and challenging in a wide variety of circumstances, many of which cannot even be anticipated.

How will the Jewish community react when an artificial entity is created that not only looks human, but is thoroughly versed in all things Jewish? Will the Jewdroid’s presence be too much to bear or is Judaism’s tent big enough to hold him too? Shall we reject the Jewdroid whose existence is unprecedented or shall we welcome the stranger? What assumptions and values shall inform us? Let’s look at some objections to a proposed Jewdroid.

The first, and most trivial argument, is that based on appearance: the droid does not “look Jewish.” A similar objection was raised against the Bulbas at William Tenn’s imagined interstellar Neo-Zionist convention. Whether coming from Jews or non-Jews, that line assumes that there is such a thing as a Jewish “look.” Whether there ever was a “look” is doubtful, but today any argument based on a presumed Jewish look involving a distinctive set of physical traits shared by all Jews is not only obnoxious, it is contrary to the evidence of the varieties of contemporary Jewry. In the world in which we live, Jews come in many shades, shapes and sizes, each with a wide range of physical features. Why, there are even Ginger Jews! Looks alone cannot compel a conclusion that our Jewdroid either can or cannot be Jewish. Our droid could come in any hue and be a Jew. 

Then there is the argument based on ritual: the droid cannot be circumcised. This objection is premised on the recognition, early in the Torah text, that male circumcision is a sign of membership in a covenanted community. (See Gen. 17: 9-14.) Putting aside the obvious counter that the droid could be a fembot, that is, a humanoid robot gendered feminine, this argument cannot withstand scrutiny.

The contention seems to assume that our droid would not be formed as an outwardly anatomically correct human male, but there is no engineering impediment to doing so. In the movie, A.I., Artificial Intelligence, Gigolo Joe, one of the humanoids, was designed and apparently functioned completely and very well as a male lover. There is no obvious reason why our droid could not be similarly formed, or even provided initially with a section of synthetic skin which could be removed.

Even if he were formed somewhat less than anatomically correct from a human viewpoint, as Rabbi Mark Goldfeder, a Senior Lecturer at Emory Law School, suggests, he could still be accepted under the halakhik principle of nolad mahul, because he could be considered to have been formed “pre-circumcised.” Indeed, there is precedent for the belief in some traditional circles that a number of major biblical figures were born pre-circumcised, starting with the first fully formed man, Adam (Michelangelo’s depiction in the Sistine Chapel, notwithstanding), and including Moses and Jacob. They further view the pre-circumcised condition to reflect perfection. Consequently, the argument from ritual should not bar our humanoid from being considered Jewish.

A third objection is the argument based on descent: our droid would not have a Jewish mother. It is true, of course, that the Jewdroid would not be born of a Jewish mother in a conventional, biological sense, and it is also true that since the Mishnaic Period, Jewish identity has, for the most part, been transmitted to a child by its mother. Conversely, according to Shaye J. D. Cohen, a professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard, it is also true that before the Mishna, one’s Jewish identity was determined not by the mother but by the father. The reasons for the transition are not clear, but the argument for matrilineal descent is one that is grounded on a custom developed in response to unique circumstances, ones which may no longer be particularly pressing, or even relevant, today. In fact, different social challenges in the United States over recent decades have led the Reconstructionist and Reform movements to accept conditional patrilineality, meaning recognition of a child as Jewish where the child’s father, but not mother, is Jewish and where, in the phrasing of the Reform rabbis, there are accompanying “public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.” Today, though not everywhere, not having a Jewish biological mother does not preclude one from being Jewish.

Perhaps more importantly, if our Jewdroid is an adult, well established, and diverse, processes for conversion of individuals provide models for acceptance without biological Jewish ancestry. (See also, e.g., here, here, here, and here.) These approaches involve issues both of personal identity and communal status. Once the conversion is complete, though, at least within the denomination in which it takes place, the convert is to be treated as no less a Jew than one born into the community. S/he is to be welcomed and embraced. If our Jewdroid commits to living a Jewish life, through study and action, he would seem to qualify for Jewish status by conversion, if not otherwise.

A fourth argument, again similar to one raised against the Bulbas, acknowledges that while Jews may have different physical appearances and come to their Judaism other than through biological descent, at least Jews must be human. This is the argument based on species.

In relying on a biological classification, however, the objectors display a cramped understanding both of the reality of the evolution of modern humans, i.e., homo sapiens, and the possibility of other life forms in the cosmos. The authors of the origin stories in Genesis surely understood humankind to be the pinnacle for God’s creation. What they did not know, and could not have known, but what we know quite well today, is that the first humans were neither created fully-formed nor fashioned from the dust of the Earth, nor, in the female’s case fashioned from a rib of the male. (Compare Gen. 1:27, 2:7, 22.) Rather, our species evolved, slowly, over time, finally emerging just two to three million years ago. While this seems like a distant period, if we imagine the history of our planet as occurring over the course of twenty-four hours, mankind did not arrive until one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight.

Looking inward, there is no reason to place special value on our species simply because of its relatively recent arrival in a multi-billion year evolutionary chain. To the contrary, other species have been around much longer and could make a reasonable claim to supremacy through proven adaptability and survival. Humans have surely developed and refined skills such as communication and tool usage to a greater extent than have other creatures, but we have not yet demonstrated our ability to survive for long nor even to care of our home planet.

Looking outward, as we have previously recognized on this site, Rabbi Norman Lamm , long time Chancellor of Yeshiva University in New York, once considered man’s place in a universe with the potential for extra-terrestrial life. While he agreed that Judaism has seen mankind as the purpose of creation, and man made in the image of God, he also believed that “there is nothing in . . . the Biblical doctrine per se . . . that insists upon man’s singularity.” (See Lamm, Faith and Doubt (KTAV 1971), at 99, 128.) Eschewing speciesism, he wrote, “Judaism can very well accept a scientific finding that man is not the only intelligent and bio-spiritual resident in God’s world.” (Id. at 133.)

What we learn from our broader perspective about our place in the cosmos is that we and indeed everyone and everything on this planet owe our existence to the same source. We and all else are made of stardust, the product of explosions of supernovae billions of years ago. Whether we are carbon based and naturally born or silicone based and manufactured, we are cosmological cousins, distant and removed by history, but bound nevertheless to the ultimate origin of all. Consequently, as author Arthur C.  Clarke has written, “(w)hether we are based on carbon or on silicon makes no fundamental difference; we should each be treated with appropriate respect.”

The most fundamental objection to the Jewishness of our droid is theological: the droid is not made in the image of God. The biblical story of origins is quite emphatic that humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation. They are the last listed in the litany of creatures which were made to live in our world, and they are charged to have dominion over all other animals, on land, in the air and in the sea. (See Gen. 1:26.) And if that is not clear enough, they are told to fill the earth with offspring, to subdue it, to take all seed bearing plants, all fruit bearing trees, indeed, all green plants for food.  (See Gen. 1:28-30.)

Even greater than the commands to reproduce and to use other living creatures for their benefit, is the essential nature of the human. According to Genesis, by way of Everett Fox’s translation, God said “Let us make humankind, in our image, according to our likeness!” To emphasize this particular decision, the text shifts from prose to poetry, as it describes God’s ultimate work in the first week of creation:

God created humankind in his image,

In the image of God did he create it,

Male and female did he create them.

The poem is essentially repeated several chapters later at the beginning of the genealogy of the line of Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth. (See Gen. 5:1-2.)

The text could not be more clear in elevating the stature of humans to that of the creator God, yet the meaning of the phrase “image of God” is not so obvious.  Part of the resolution of the puzzle depends on the time period we are considering. According to the late Professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Rabbi Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951), “(t)here is no doubt that the original signification of this expression in the Canaanite tongue was . . . corporeal, in accordance with the anthropomorphic conception of the godhead among the people of the ancient East.”  (Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Varda 2005), at 56.) The late Rabbi Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) was more specific in the original edition of his Torah commentary (The Torah: A Modern Commentary (UAHC  1981), at 22). There he states that the Hebrew word for image, tzelem, is related to the Akkadian salmu, which “applied specifically to divine statues in human guise.”  Similarly, Professor Leon Kass holds that the root of tzelem means to cut off or chisel, as from a statue, indicating a physical resemblance. (See Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom, (Free Press 2003), at 37.)

Moreover, as noted above, when Seth is born, the narrative echoes the previous text: “Adam . . . begot one in his likeness, according to his image . . . .” (Gen. 5:3.) This is completely understandable. What would we expect, other than our children would look like us? So the concept that humans are shaped like God, and, conversely, that God is shaped like humans, seems a quite plausible projection within an anthropocentric framework of the origin of the world and the place of humans in it.

Yet, if familiar external physical features are crucial, then any objection to a Jewdroid based on an anthropomorphic image of God surely fails. If Adam looked like God, and Seth looked like Adam, and our Jewdroid looks like the descendants of Seth, then it must pass the image test.

Belief in the corporeality of God, that God has a figure and shape, changed over time, but it persisted into the Middle Ages. It was taken seriously enough, and apparently was prevalent enough, that the Spanish born rabbi philosopher Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known more familiarly as Maimonides  or Rambam (1135-1204) opened  his major work, The Guide for the Perplexed, with a refutation of the idea. He argued that in Hebrew there was a word for form other than tzelem, and that tzelem really meant the essential and distinctive quality of a human, his intellectual perception. (See The Guide for the Perplexed  (Friedlander trans. Cosimo 2007), Ch. 1, at 13-14.)

Maimonides further recognized that the capacity to learn and reason differs from one person to another (Ch. 17, at 288-89), and that there were four finds of wisdom, one involving cunning, another with the acquisition of moral principles, a third with workmanship and, most importantly, the “knowledge of those truths which lead to the knowledge of God.” (Ch. 54, at 393.) Man will attain true perfection, he said, when the knowledge of God’s ways and attributes leads man to commit “always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.” (Ch. 54, at 397.)

Professor Kass, like Maimonides, argues that “image” involves more than mere physical resemblance. He wants to understand how man could be more godlike, aside from appearance, and looks at God’s activities and powers as described in Genesis. Among other attributes, he finds that God “exercises speech and reason, freedom in doing and making, and the powers of contemplation, judgment and care.” (Kass, above, at 38.)

We could argue, at length and depth, about whether the academic line from Maimonides to Kass concerning God’s essential attributes is either complete or valid. Everyone from biological anthropologists to philosophers has an opinion. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, referrencing the movie A.I.,  argues that the uniqueness of humanity lies not in intelligence, but “in loving and being loved.”  We will defer diving into that pool. What is important for now is that if the identified attributes are descriptors of being made in the “image of God,” then our postulated droid, who would be created intelligent and learned and thoughtful and compassionate, would seem to qualify.

How then, could our Jewishly knowledgeable and committed droid not be considered Jewish? And how then, if he is, could he not receive a Jewish name, celebrate his bot mitzvah, be counted in a minyan and serve on the shul board?

In his reported responses during an interview with JTA, Rabbi Goldfeder appears to take a contextual approach to the sufficiency of evidence for the hypothetical robot who walks into his office and wants to be counted in a minyan. The rabbi is quoted as saying that such an event would “(n)ot necessarily” provide enough evidence for him, but adds “(w)hen something looks human and acts human, to the point that I think it might be human, then halachah might consider the threshold to have been crossed.”  Moreover, he believes this tentative conclusion is supported by a Jewish ethical perspective.

Rabbi Goldfeder also stressed that he was engaging in a “theoretical outlaying of views.” That qualification did not impress Rabbi Moshe Taub, an Orthodox rabbi, who literally summoned seven pages filled with chapters and verses to attack Rabbi Goldfeder’s views as “bizarre and misguided.” This, in turn, prompted a reply from Rabbi Goldfeder, which included the statement that “(o)bviously I am not of the opinion that a robot can actually count in a minyan . . . ,” but no exposition as to why the threshold could not be crossed.

For all his citations and quotations, Rabbi Taub’s position is quite simple: the robot may not be part of a minyan because it is neither human, nor male nor Jewish. This approach would, of course, also bar women from being counted in a minyan. So, it’s not just robots whose participation Rabbi Taub would prohibit. Women need not apply either. Presumably, he would preclude the robot from reading Torah at a bot mitzvah, just as he would ban a female from reading Torah at her bat mitzvah. It is a defensible position, in the sense that it is based on thousands of years of tradition, but it is also a position that, in the United States, at least, has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of American Jews.

The failure of the argument is not that it lacks historic grounding, but that it is uniquely devoid both of imagination and pragmatism. The first failure is ironic given the fertile musings and considerable ingenuity of the sages upon whose stories and views Rabbi Taub relies. The second failure is neither sensitive to, nor sensible for, most Jews today. To the contrary, it is rather stifling. In Rabbi Taub’s insular world, his approach may work, even work well.  In the world most Jews occupy today, as the late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) is said to have taught, the Jewish tradition has a voice, but not a veto. And Jewish rules and rituals should function primarily to benefit the Jewish People, not the converse. When they fail to do so, they must be reevaluated and even discarded.

We are not yet at the point when a learned and committed Jewdroid is going to walk into a rabbi’s office and asked to be counted. But we are, as Yuval Noah Harari has written, already in “a world in which culture is releasing itself from the shackles of biology.” (Harari, Sapiens (Harper 2015) at 409.) So that day is coming, maybe within a generation, and we need to be prepared. We have all listened as a soon-to-drop-out-of Hebrew-school  teenager stumbles through a reading of the weekly parasha and gives a less than enthusiastic or challenging d’var. We have all seen the leader of a minyan scramble to find the tenth person to fill the required quorum. We have all encountered synagogues with inattentive, unproductive and bored Board members and search committees futilely looking for “someone else” to carry the load. Don’t we need to think more than reflexively about whether our Jewdroid can become a contributing part of our community?

A passage in the Talmud, attributed to Rabbi Eliezer the Great, asserts that there are literally dozens of decrees in Torah calling on us not just negatively to avoid oppressing the stranger, but also affirmatively to treat the stranger with respect. (See, e.g., Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:18-19.) The Jewdroid of the future can be both capable and qualified to function constructively within the Jewish community. How shall we greet, how shall we treat him when he walks in the door? Whatever we do, the most important thing, according to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) is “not to be afraid”.

Share Button

Leave a Reply