Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, and Endurance,
These are the seals of that most firm assurance
Which bars the pit over Destruction’s strength;
And if, with infirm hand, Eternity,
Mother of many acts and hours, should free
The serpent that would clasp her with his length;
These are the spells by which to re-assume
An empire o’er the disentangled doom.
-Percy Bysshe Shelley, from Prometheus Unbound
Back in the day, when Anne and I were expecting our first child, I would often scour the shelves of some of the bookstores on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where we were living at the time. I especially enjoyed going into the big Barnes and Noble on 82nd and Broadway and seeing what books were available about having a child. As a seminary student on a very limited budget, a new book purchase was a special occasion, so I remember bringing home the now classic, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and as to be expected, I started comparing what was in that book with what was going on at home: what stage we were at, what to look forward to, how to prepare for God willing, a healthy baby in the small apartment.
I wish I could tell you I started playing Mozart in the house so my kid could come into the world already outfitted as a musical genius. I wish I could tell you that we got Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on Audible to play throughout the house, but Audible hadn’t been invented yet. Instead, while in utero, my kid developed with the loving accompaniment of two dogs frequently barking, the sounds of a dinging elevator, footfalls in the hallway, and the roaring mechanisms of a garbage truck just outside, a couple of times a week.
Try as I might, and despite both my best and my worst and careless efforts, my baby developed into what he needed to be – with his own thoughts and feelings, and his own independence, preferences, and interests, which thank God, continue unabated. I’d like to think that his outlook on life includes our examples and expectations as well as the rumbling, noisy machines of The City of New York Department of Sanitation. We are what we experience — which comprises everything, all at once.
And now, as we seek to discover a new year together as a community, I deeply appreciate your willingness to experience this sanctuary with its melodies and its Torah. I have been thinking about the challenges in our world through the lens of Torah. As some of you may know, this year, Unshakeable CAA is a proud recipient of a financial grant from Scientists in Synagogues, a project organized by Sinai and Synapses in collaboration with CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, with funding from the John Templeton Foundation. We are joining 14 other communities across the United States to explore ways that science and Judaism can learn from each other, across disciplines. There are a variety of topics. Our winning proposal is entitled The Future of the Future: Ethics, AI, and Well-Being. We are organizing this year of learning about AI with community members, Samuel Baker, Peter Stone, and others. We hope that you will join with us throughout the year as we present a variety of ways and engage about this important topic.
This morning I would like to speak about artificial intelligence, AI, and machine learning through the lens of Jewish parenting. I could speak to you about AI through the lens of grizzly bear behavior, as I learned about this summer in Alaska, but that will be for Tuesday evening, 3 October, when I show some pictures and videos of my summer sabbatical.
Our civilization is filled with stories of scientists who strive to create life – to go beyond boundaries and to innovate and advance in ways not yet imagined. Perhaps most famously is the story of Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, authored by Mary Shelley in 1818. Yet, long before Frankenstein, our Torah has an important story of the quest to create and sustain life, which is the centerpiece of today’s Torah reading. Through the depictions of motherhood of both Sarah and Hagar, we learn about how to nurture life and how and when to let it go out into the world. Through these powerful examples in our Torah, we have what we need to consider the ethical issues and the dilemma of AI that is an ever-growing part of our world. What are the boundaries of letting go and letting AI? How can our ancient wisdom tradition respond to such cutting-edge innovation, the impact of which on our lives is still in its infancy?
Today, on the birthday of the world, when we sing the prayer hayom harat olam, which can be translated as “today is pregnant with eternity,” on a day when we begin again and all possibility is open, we are presented with the contrast between how two ancient mothers, Sarah and Hagar, each navigate their love for their children and how their children need to develop independently of them, in the world. When we read about these mothers with their sons we ask ourselves — to what have we given birth in our lives and how does what we make challenge us and outlive us?
Our Torah describes Sarah nursing Isaac as an infant and then the text immediately describes her as weaning her child. Sarah gets one verse and then she and Isaac are never together again. She is shown laughing when an angel proclaims that she will give birth at an advanced age. With Isaac, she is filled with radical amazement as her breasts flow with milk. About herself, in that one verse of connection, she cries out in astonishment: heinikah vanim Sarah – Sarah is suckling sons! She gets so excited she is connected to the act of giving life, beyond her single son, Isaac, that our sages teach that she does or at least imagines herself as giving food to the entire world, which is why she says vanim, or children, which is plural. After this single verse of intense connection, our Torah teaches that Isaac is weaned and then she disappears from her son’s life. Her days as his provider are over. She has birthed something extraordinary into the world and then she is finished suddenly, unable to aid in its further development. The Torah portrays just one day of Sarah reveling in her newborn son.
With Hagar, we see a mother who is perpetually connected to her child. When she is banished from Abraham’s home by Sarah and languishing in the desert, she gives up on her son Ishmael. However, Hagar hears from an angel and with an abundance of water, she doggedly resumes her role as a provider for her son. She will arrange a wife for him and she is with him throughout his adult days, never to be separated from her creation – perhaps the original helicopter parent. In Hagar’s case, she is presented with a compelling case not to abandon her child, and to make sure he develops gradually and with her steady hand. It is instructive to consider the different ways of Sarah, Hagar, and their respective sons.
Do we marvel at how our children develop? How much input do we really have after a while? How do our creations, a la Frankenstein’s monster, take on a life of their own? What happens when we suddenly realize we are yesterday’s news? There is a moment in the recent Christopher Nolan movie Oppenheimer, that has stuck with me. The movie is based on the book called American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Now granted, the movie was over three hours long and I fell asleep a couple of times, however, in the closing scene, Albert Einstein gives J. Robert Oppenheimer some advice. After the success of the Manhattan Project and the world’s uncomfortable lurch into the atomic age, Einstein says to Oppenheimer something like: “When they start hosting dinners in your honor and giving you medals and awards, you should know that it is more for them than it is for you. You are no longer relevant and it is your work that will take on a life of its own, after your death.”
One of the most compelling pieces of Talmud for me is when Elijah the prophet relates to Rabbi Natan what God’s reaction was when Rabbi Yehoshua, in a heated argument with his colleagues, effectively told God to go jump in a lake – that God was not relevant any more when compared to human industry and ingenuity, and that God should stay out of mortal quarrels. Lo bashamayim hi – it is not for heaven, it is for us. According to Eliyahu haNavi, the Kadosh Baruch Hu laughed about this potential insult and said – nitzchuni vanai, nitzchuni vanai – “my children have triumphed over me, my children have triumphed over me.”
This is a great story. God recognizes that the world that God has made continues with the Divine no longer in the catbird seat. Can we really hold onto that which we bring out into the world? And yet, this story gets a bit chilling when we think about our children as technology, and not exclusively as children. Many of us are perhaps playfully fascinated by a future zombie apocalypse, yet many of us also lose sleep when we think about a day when our technology – our phones, our computers, our networks, our cars – basically, all aspects of our lives, control us and has real, demonstrable power over us, telling our story and making decisions by themselves about us without consulting us.
A ghastly day like that would make our current challenges with technology seem paltry – deep fakes, the failures of grids and other infrastructure, spyware, disinformation, even the new UFO office that just opened at the Pentagon to report and research sightings. All of this would pale in comparison to a creation of ours that overpowers humanity, eliminates our livelihoods, breaks our bonds of social trust, and even perhaps tries to kill us. Shanah Tovah!
The war would not be about rival, evenly matched technologies spoiling for a fight with each other, like Jacob and Esau, if you don’t mind my metaphor. Rather, the technology would turn on its maker, or as we sadly see when Sarah weans Isaac, the new generation — the creation would make its maker obsolete.
How do we describe all of this which seems to be coming at us a mile a minute? Some of our bold original Jewish thinkers try to wrap our minds around AI and its possibilities as well as its dangers by comparing it to forms of Jewish magic. In a recent article published by the Hartman Institute, Michael Rosen, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, offers various models to understand AI within Judaism – likening it to the creation of the golem, an animated, anthropomorphic being, or even a dybbuk, which is usually a malicious possessing spirit of bodies or homes in Jewish folklore. This afternoon between Mincha and Ma’ariv, we will study a few texts about how to make a golem and how a golem can be deployed — do join in! Just to be clear: we will not actually be making golems nor deploying them this afternoon – you have to leave some stuff for the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
Early in my career, I was teaching Religious School and I asked my students what they were looking forward to and how they were going to celebrate Hanukkah, which was just a couple of weeks away. One of my students, with absolutely no cunning, told me he was looking forward to getting a bicycle. He knew he was going to get one, he said, because he had prayed for one. I asked him about his prayer. He responded with such middle school swagger as he said: I prayed Baruch Atah Adonai – Bicycle. He was so sure that this would be a successful approach. And lo and behold, he did get his bicycle.
There is a concept in our mystical tradition — a phrase that we all know, but that we probably didn’t know was Aramaic. Abracadabra — which is translated as I will create as I speak. Abra, I will create; k, like the Hebrew k’mo, like or as, and dabra, which is Aramaic for I speak. What we will into the world is an accrual of what we offer. With machine learning, all that is available can be used to great benefit — again, everything, all at once. All that we are. There are doctors currently using AI that can diagnose difficult illnesses which bring great relief to all. In such a short time, there has been huge positive gains in many areas of critical technologies.
However, AI is not magical. It is neither golem nor dybbuk. It is a birthing into our world of a new generation, and we see the examples of both Sarah and even Hagar, as cautionary tales. Programs like Chat GPT use precedent and bias to advance learning, and precedent and bias can hurt us. AI can make decisions that affect our school admission or our approval for a bank loan or a housing application. It can easily intensify the raging epidemic of loneliness in our communities while at the same time seducing us into giving our energy and affection to alluring and sycophantic bots that don’t really exist. AI can exclude habitually underrepresented voices. On a geopolitical level, AI can create chaos and disaster. In addition, AI reflects what God declares just before God decides to destroy creation back in Genesis — yetzer leiv ha’adam ra minurav — the tendency of the heart of each person is evil from their youth. If one is building on what prior generations have built, knowing even a little bit about world history, this is not a sterling model for success — rather, this compounds the inherent faults and magnifies that which is most base about human existence. Generative AI is the sum of all that has already been. This is pernicious and leaves little room for curiosity, transformation, intimacy, and teshuvah. As we seek to understand AI, we must grapple with the burdens of our inheritance. With a chill, we realize that a group also has a self, or at least an identity that does not reflect who we as individuals would like to be. As a group we can heed the words of the cartoonist, Walt Kelly: “we have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.”
What model shall we follow — Sarah or Hagar – Sarah: one who releases our progeny into the world to develop without us to grow independently, or Hagar: one who clings to our creation, inviting the danger of losing ourselves as we do? AI is incarnational — independent like we are; the sum of all that we are. We harken to the Lord God who expressed caution after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge: behold, my creation has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. And now, what if this creation advances and takes from the Tree of Life and eats and thus, lives forever?
Rather than speculate on the future of AI, as a rabbi, I’d like to think first about the human condition. Each of us has an urgent need to be recognized and appreciated — to be seen. We also have a profound need to be part of something we admire — not just an algorithm or part of a transaction. In our root, we need to feel belonging. We need to feel intimacy. As the celebrated song puts it — we need to love and be loved, in return.
To counter the deleterious effects of invasive technology which concretizes the sharpest edges of the status quo, to limit the impact of the worst that AI can do, we need to double down on empathy. If we refuse to release our grudges and our chronic umbrage, the machines win. We degrade the majesty of the human if we don’t constantly apply the lessons of forgiveness, mercy, and giving the benefit of the doubt. If we disappear as Sarah does after our moment of triumph, we put our world in peril, allowing us a spiral death loop of recrimination. We are not there when the machine develops and grows. How each of us longs to be understood by another! In this coming year, can we attempt to understand at least one other person, even if we don’t quite know what they are talking about, even if their opinions are different from ours, and even if it is super inconvenient to do so? To do so, gives us the basis of hope and taps into the deepest levels of what it means to be a partner with God, as a human. Like Hagar, let us hear the voice of God encouraging us to look for water in order to aid and encourage our creation to be as upright and compassionate as it can be in this world.
We need to avoid AI playing spiritual moneyball with our souls — privileging the choices that come from our wiring while eliminating the better angels of our nature. Let us not trade away our ineffable soul for the baubles of our constant demand for convenience and our addiction to progress. We should not just marvel at technological inventions for their own sake — we should not mirror the desire to destroy the world, just because we may have the power to do so. Rather, in this New Year as we are getting to understand another, we should also endeavor to slow down time. We should prioritize moments of ease and simplicity, Shabbat!, and set aside our striving and our desire to one up each other. This year, we should live only in that one verse with Sarah as she exclaims with unbridled joy that by her lactating efforts, she sustains her son and the entire world. We should live in the desert with Hagar, always looking for water to give to our beloved. May this be the year of our giving and receiving intimacy, as guided by the wisdom of our Torah.
We know that the world will eventually end, and we certainly know that we will die. We know that those who know our name will be few in number, and perhaps in a generation or two, we will be hatzir yaveish — dry grass in a fleeting dream. How we live life is more important than anything that we acquire. We can create and dispose of things so easily, we can think we have set it and forget it, but what we choose to put into the world will be remembered by generative AI that will influence generations to come. Our legacy will be written in how and for whom we live today. This is what the Book of Life is. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Human All Too Human: “there is not enough love and goodness in the world to permit giving any of it away to imaginary beings.”
This is a season to remember that we are encountering our deepest anxieties about what it means to be human. Perhaps as the historian Yuval Harari maintains, these anxieties will deepen knowing that AI may have hacked or will soon hack the essence of who we are. In response, in defiance, may we live with generosity, kindness, and the radical amazement that we are not the destroyer of worlds, but rather the sustainers of meaning and uplift in a world that seems so out of kilter and disharmonious. In the most simple of acts, we can be the bearers of intimacy — living with awe like Sarah as she gives life to Isaac and with sacred obligation like Hagar as she continues to instruct and shape Ishmael.
As my family did so long ago in New York City, you and I can still create significance even in discordant accompaniment with the city’s garbage trucks. We can bring relevance while still knowing that like Sarah with Isaac, we only have a verse in the Torah before we disappear. In the spirit of Hagar’s journey, we can learn the grace of leave-taking. Our work will involve advocating for honest and ethical boundaries and international cooperation in our beleaguered world as the power of AI continues to grow. And at the heart of what we can do, we can live life everyday as if life was holy, and not only the stuff of cheat codes, rational flow charts, spreadsheets, and the metrics of profit and loss. Let us zealously guard and bestow intimacy in the most appropriate way — and then we too will merit exclaiming: heinikah vanim Sarah. We, as Sarah, sustain worlds. This is our request: hochmah todieini — Oh God, teach us wisdom about these elusive things. Remind us constantly that we can be astonished and grateful getting to live our one wild and precious life today.
A gut gebentsht yohr – leshanah tovah u’metukah tikatev v’tichatem.
May we have a good, sweet and blessed year – signed, sealed and delivered.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Neil Blumofe is Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, TX. This Rosh Hashanah day 1 sermon kicked off their program, which is entitled The Future of the Future: Ethics, AI, and Well-Being).