Sign In Forgot Password

Robots and People

Rabbi Richard Plavin

Technology today is going beyond amazing to places I never dreamed possible. Cars that drive themselves, phones that recognize your fingerprint, apps that do everything but tie your shoes – or is there an app for that? I spoke with a cousin this summer who told me about his start-up venture which has created an app that will negotiate your parking tickets for you, taking a commission on the amount you save on fines. It is a good thing there are people out there thinking about what’s next, because it is surely beyond my imagination.

But I did get thinking about the Jewish perspective on this brave new world when I read a New York Times article with the headline, “Modest Debut of Atlas May Foreshadow Age of Robo-Sapiens.” The article concerned robots being developed by the Pentagon that can perform rescue functions in situations where humans cannot survive. While drones are being used to kill people, isn’t it wonderful that robots are being developed to save people?

So here is what occurred to me:

Let’s say we have 9 Jews in shul on some random weeknight at 7:30 PM and Yankel wants to say Kaddish, for which we need a minyan. But wait, we are in luck. We hear the front door open and in walks, somewhat stiffly, Atlas, the humanoid robot. Can Yankel now go ahead and say Kaddish?

Obviously the advent of the humanoid robot, not just R2D2, but a real, excuse the expression – live, robot, raises many issues.

Can a robot be Jewish? That question leads to others: What does it mean to be Jewish?
Is this a new area for membership recruitment? Can a robot join a Conservative congregation? Can we offer it an honor on the High Holidays? If it can be programmed to participate in the service, and it receives an aliyah to the Torah, can we answer AMEN to its bracha? What would it mean for a robot to say “Asher bachar banu – who has chosen us from among the nations?”

Clearly, to be counted in a minyan a participant must meet several requirements, but number one is that he or she be a human being. And that is exactly what I want to discuss. Why is that a requirement? What is so special about being human?

Years ago, when a computer beat a chess master for the first time, Rabbi Harold Kushner in Natick, MA, was not nearly as pleased as some other people. He said that while that victory may have been a tremendous achievement for the artificial intelligence and computer experts, but he personally felt diminished. Here was yet something else that a machine could do better than a person. But consider this: Could the computer take pride in its victory? Could it rejoice and feel triumph? Can machines experience emotions? Until recently we had a GPS in our car that appeared very frustrated every time I ignored its driving instructions. Our new GPS just rolls with it and gives us new directions. The old one used to get short tempered and make comments about ‘recalculating.’ Of course the glory of machines, be they computers or robots or other mechanical devises, is that they don’t get angry. More importantly they don’t get bored, but neither do they feel joy or sadness, anger or disappointment. They certainly cannot express love.

When a person sits Shiva, there may be an app for ordering in deli platters, but there is no app that can say with conviction, “I know what your going through. I lost my dad just last year.” There is no program that can bring you comfort by telling you what an influence your dad was on their life. People of flesh and blood -community – can do that.

Picture a robot that can recite a list of transgressions and beat its breast. But can you conceive of one that truly regrets its actions and knows the meaning of Teshuva, resolving to do better? Robots don’t have to eat, but can they fast? This holy day is all about Repentance, and to achieve that we subject ourselves to considerable discomfort. We suffer the deprivation of fasting to prove to ourselves that when we put our minds to it, we can control even our strongest instincts. We say Yizkor prayers, bringing to mind painful memories, both because there are loved ones we sorely miss, and loved ones with whom we had unfinished business. We sit here in prayer and repeatedly mention our transgressions because we know we can do better and are disappointed with ourselves.

Some people wonder about the description of God in the Bible as an emotional being. God is jealous and gets angry; God can rejoice and regret; God can be short-tempered or forgiving and long suffering. God can care about us and be offended by disloyalty. That’s not the God of the philosophers. Aristotle referred to the Unmoved Mover. In contrast, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian of the last century, called God “the Most Moved Mover.”

My point is that to be human is to be more like God and less like a robot. Perhaps that is what it means to be fashioned in the image of God. To be truly human, which is very much Godly, is to be capable of feeling joy and pain, love and grief, triumph and failure.

Machines never get angry because they are soul-less. People do get angry, but what angers them can truly be a measure of the man or woman. Small minded people sweat the small stuff. They get angry over little things: the person in front of them who drives too slowly, the waiter who brings the order wrong, the volunteer who inadvertently calls them a second time to donate to a worthy cause. People with a bigger, more developed soul are upset by entirely different kinds of things. They are bothered by the fact that so many people go hungry in this country where we throw out so much surplus food. They get perturbed by politicians who care more about campaign contributions than fixing what’s wrong with this country. They become infuriated when they see Israel making dangerous concessions in order to promote the peace process, while those that are supposed to be their interlocutors celebrate the homecoming of vicious murderers.

Here is another difference between robots and people: Robots never make mistakes. Robots have computer chips programmed to guide their actions. They do exactly what they are programmed to do and if they do make a mistake they cannot be held responsible. “Garbage in, garbage out.” The programmer made the mistake, not the robot. People, and I won’t even say present company excluded, make mistakes. Yom Kippur is on our calendar every year because we can predict with absolute certainty that it will be needed. Each of us will have something to confess come next September because we are not robots, we are human and we are subject to giving in to temptations and making ill advised decisions. But thank God, we do have Yom Kippur each year so that we can clear the slate, regret our misdeeds, learn from our mistakes and become better people.

Only human beings can have an annual holiday devoted to regrets. Computers have an “undo” key. All we have is the opportunity to regret our actions and the opportunity to work at becoming better parents, better spouses, better children and better friends in the year to come. You don’t have to be the same kind of person next year that you were last year.

An infuriating feature of life today is the behavior we see on the part of people who have tremendous public prominence. The only regret they seem to demonstrate when they are caught in their misdeeds is that they were exposed. There is a wonderful Yiddish word for a concept that barely exists today. I am referring to the word ‘Shanda.’ It means embarrassment or scandal. All I have to do is mention the names Anthony Weiner and Elliott Spitzer to make perfectly clear what we mean by Shanda. But it appears that concept is a relict of the past. Gail Collins, the op-ed writer for the New York Times said it in her inimitable style: “Ever since the Clinton impeachment crisis, we’ve been discovering how much personal misbehavior we’re prepared to ignore in elected officials. Hypocrisy, for sure. Adultery, definitely.

Chronic lying, maybe. Financial skullduggery, possibly.” Politicians exposed doing awful things, and in some instances convicted of criminal behavior, return to public life and are apparently totally acceptable to the American public. Weiner actually ran in the mayoral primary in New York City; Elliott Spitzer just narrowly lost in the primary election for New York State comptroller; and Mark Sanford was reelected to his congressional seat in South Carolina. Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington DC went to prison, served his term and returned to politics. The slogan people used in his campaign was “Marion Barry, a man of conviction.” Not to neglect our own state, John Rowland is a prominent voice on the radio every afternoon. Apparently, these people don’t need a day of atonement. They do their misdeeds and move right along.

But the rest of us do crave the judgement that Yom Kippur offers. That is one important reason we are here. Being human, being Jews, and not simply computer-driven robots, we do feel shame and inadequacy. We hear a still-small voice telling us, “You could have done better; you did not have to give in to that temptation.” On this day we can drop our defenses and say “Ashamnu, bagadnu” “We have been selfish, we have been greedy, we have misled others.”

The wonderful thing about Yom Kippur being scheduled each and every year is that it tells us that God is willing to accept us for who we are. God says, “I don’t expect you to be perfect.” A Hasidic dictum says it so well. “Better a sinner who knows that he is a sinner than a saint who knows that he is a saint.” Already back in the time of Noah and the flood, God said, “I have given up looking for perfection. I will settle for improvement.”

When the next great gadget comes out I will be the first in line to play with it. Computers are great and I wish I had some sort of robot to handle the scut work of life. But when it comes to what matters: how I relate to those I love; how I feel knowing I am in God’s presence; regretting my misdeeds and trying to do better; – I revel in my humanity. I rejoice in being a human being and a Jew. Unlike a robot, I can open my soul to joy and say “Ivdu et haShem be’simcha,” “Serve God with gladness.” I can make mistakes, and know that God will still accept me, especially if I feel regret and embarrassment. I know that there is a difference between right and wrong and try to do something about the injustices I see in this world. I can strive for Tikun Olam, for an improvement in this world that will make it more into what I know God expects of us.

As we examine our souls over the course of the next 24 hours may we be acutely aware that God is with us.

In the not too distant future we will have a verse from Psalm 16 inscribed above the ark in the Bayer Chapel.

Shiviti HaShem l’negdi tamid.

“I have set the Lord always before me.”

May God help us feel His presence in the depths of our souls, as we strive to make this a most meaningful anג uplifting Yom Kippur. AMEN.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782