OPINION: We are safe from AI rabbis for now… and ChatGPT agrees

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OPINION: We are safe from AI rabbis for now… and ChatGPT agrees

Rabbi Daniel Epstein discusses the potential of artificial intelligence taking over rabbinical roles. Could it? "Unlikely" is the automated response.

As a community rabbi who is asked questions all the time, do I think that my job will be threatened by AI?
As a community rabbi who is asked questions all the time, do I think that my job will be threatened by AI?

Could ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence chatbot, possibly provide a genuine alternative to rabbinical wisdom, is the question that Rabbi Daniel Epstein has sought to answer for Jewish News.

If you have been reading the news in the last three months, I am sure you will have come across a new technology being described as “one of the most powerful language processing models ever created”. ChatGPT, as it is known, has passed law exams, medical exams and the Bar. It has been banned by many universities and high schools because students were presenting its auto-generated responses as their complete essay assignments and some teachers were finding it hard to untangle the student from the machine.

In short, ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence (‘AI’) engine developed by a company called OpenAI that has been ‘fed’ with billions of words from a variety of sources on the internet. Its data set only runs up to September 2021, so it knows nothing about the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, or Russia’s war in Ukraine, or the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister of Israel again, but ask it any general question, and the answers it gives are startling.

Rabbi Daniel Epstein

Think of it as a Google search, but instead of returning a list of reasonably prioritised websites or images, it responds with a natural language answer – a short paragraph, or even an essay.

Like all technology shifts, people always worry about how it will change our lives: the printing press, the weaving loom, the steam engine, the mobile telephone, and so on.

But as a community rabbi who is asked questions all the time, do I think that my job will be threatened by AI?

There is no doubt that the AI’s voracious devouring of information makes it sound authoritative, but sounding intelligent and being accurate are very different animals.

Many Jews will talk about asking ‘Rabbi Google’ for answers to various halachic or ethical questions; leading to the tongue-in-cheek response about not needing a rabbi any more. But the questions are generic in scope and, if people had the textual capabilities, it would be no more than an electronic enquiry for a traditionally book-based response, coupled with the fact that without broader understanding, the responses themselves would not yield a pragmatic answer.

ChatGPT is an order of magnitude smarter in its analysis, speed and sheer access to information than a regular search engine; but beyond sometimes spectacularly missing the point in its responses, it often draws the reader’s attention to its own inherent limitations.

But when intelligence is logic-based, the response may have technical merit, but it severely lacks many things. Ultimately, what makes rabbis worth their salt is their vital combination of empathy, sensitivity and conviction. Without emotional intelligence, answers ring hollow. We all crave human connection. We are biologically, spiritually and emotionally attuned for these aspects of life. They are what is needed to help us with the most important questions that we will ever face: what is the meaning of our life and, ultimately, what is its purpose and ours?

As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks beautifully described, the difference between the seductive ancient Greek culture and our own Jewish culture can be distilled down to fate versus hope, respectively.

In Greek tragedy, there is an inevitability. The hand of fate is set and no possibility exists to change it. In Judaism, there is always hope – the deep-seated belief that everything can be changed for the better. Even the inevitability of death is mitigated through memorials, dedications, legacies, inspiration and the feeling that we are never really left alone; ‘just’ bereaved.

The job of the rabbi, ultimately, is to set a course of fortitude and resilience for a community; to help people to feel supported, loved and guided through life’s challenges, to share in their celebrations and shepherd them through loss and sadness. In my own experience, and those of my esteemed teachers, these capabilities are drawn from a deep knowledge, appreciation and application of Torah values, transmission of heritage and personally acquired experience of guiding teachers who had a love of the responsibility of passing on God’s Torah to current and future generations.

While ChatGPT can provide information and insights, it cannot offer the same level of personalised support and connection that a community rabbi can provide.

Ordination was conferred not because of technical mastery of material, but because of the ordaining rabbi’s belief that the rabbi being ordained is a dedicated student of his master’s mentorship and personal faith. And finally, the ordained rabbi’s assumption and recognition of personal involvement in the lives of the community under their stewardship; to be there for them at all times. A high bar indeed.

In fact, I asked ChatGPT this very question – can it ever replace a rabbi ? – and this was its response:

While ChatGPT is a sophisticated language model that can provide information and insights on a wide range of topics, it is unlikely that it will ever fully replace the need for a community rabbi.”

Community rabbis play a vital role in providing spiritual guidance, pastoral care, and leadership in their communities. They are trained and equipped to provide individualised support to community members, and to serve as a trusted source of wisdom and guidance in matters of faith, tradition, and community.

While ChatGPT can provide information and insights on these topics, it cannot offer the same level of personalised support and connection that a community rabbi can provide.

“Additionally, community rabbis often play important roles in the daily life of their communities, leading services, teaching classes, and providing guidance and support during times of celebration and mourning. In short, while ChatGPT can be a useful resource for information and insights on tradition and practice, it cannot fully replace the vital role that community rabbis play in Jewish life.”

It sounds like the ultimate rabbinic speech to conclude a shul board meeting, or to share with the community from the pulpit, in case they – or I – doubt the rabbi’s value.

But my value must be in the connections I build and the vision I forge of a better world for those in my family and my community. How widely that community is defined is only limited by the extent to which I can envisage a bright and hope-filled future for all. With God’s help, not ChatGPT’s.

  • Rabbi Daniel Epstein is rabbi of The Western Marble Arch synagogue in London’s West End.
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