Ask The Rabbis | Can a Robot Be Jewish?
Are you kidding? Our tradition is full of stories of rabbis creating humanoids, more popularly known as golems. The most famous was created by the 16th-century Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague to protect the Jewish community from blood libels. Some scholars even posit that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was inspired by Jewish golem legends. During Rabbi Loew’s era, the question arose whether a golem would qualify as part of a minyan. In the halachic responsa of the 17th-century Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi, we find the following discussion:
“Do we say that a golem cannot qualify to be part of a minyan because it is written ‘I will be sanctified among the Children of Israel’ (Leviticus 22:32), or shall we consider the Talmudic dictum: ‘One who raises an orphan in his home it is as if he gave birth to him’ (Sanhedrin 19b)? If we consider the latter, then, since a golem is the handiwork of tzadikim, perhaps we can include it as part of ‘the Children of Israel.’ Because the works of the hands of the tzadikim are like their very own offspring. On the other hand, however, we find in the Talmudic account of Rava’s golem that Rabbi Zeyra destroyed it! (Sanhedrin 65b)…Rabbi Zeyra should not have done away with it, unless it had no purpose, in which case…it would not have qualified even for a minyan.” (Shey’lot U’Teshuvot Chacham Tzvi, Question 93).
Obviously, if robots are Jewish, they should be recognized according to patrilineal descent, since the ones referred to are the handiwork of male tzadikim, and “the handiwork of tzadikim are like their offspring.”
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Cedar Glen, CA
We should first ask, “Can robots be human?” Humanists have been thinking about this for a long time, sometimes using science fiction to explore the issue. In his famous Robot series, Isaac Asimov envisioned androids pre-programmed to obey human orders and protect human life even at the expense of their own. The Asimovian robot, lacking free choice in fundamental matters, cannot be considered human. On the other hand, Gene Roddenberry, the humanist who created Star Trek, gave us Lt. Commander Data, a completely artificial life form whose character was frequently at the center of debate about what it means to be human. In one memorable episode, his humanity was put on trial, where it was determined that his sentience and clear freedom of choice constituted the essence of humanity.
Leaving behind fiction, speculative philosophers are now considering the notion of the “singularity,” when biological humans and artificial intelligence might actually merge. Would society deem the resulting beings “human”? If so, I believe Humanistic Jews would happily welcome them into the Jewish community, just as we do anyone who identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jews.
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
The Birmingham Temple
Farmington Hills, MI
Robots are machines programmed by humans; our decisions guide their purposes. Even if the programming is influenced by Jewish ethics, robots are not made b’tzelem Elohim—in the “image of God”—and can be neither human nor Jewish.
Part of the mitzvah of yirah—the powerful awe and respect one feels toward creation, an emotion that, our tradition teaches, is meant to drive ethical behavior—is the knowledge that we could not have invented ourselves. Even if scientists can develop test-tube babies and modify DNA, the biological building blocks of an adam, earthling, and a neshama, soul (Ezekiel 18:4) are required. Does anyone among us imagine that cosmic evolution, apparently ex nihilo, is something a human could do? To me, it appears inconceivable—pardon the pun. From this, for some of us, comes a sense, though non-anthropomorphic, of a mystery or divinity behind creation.
Pragmatically, Jewish ethics can inform whether and how to set boundaries on the integration of robotics and humans. One consequence of the mitzvah of brit milah, circumcision, is to make us consider the meaning of our physical vulnerability and by extension the ethics of permitting, say, human brains in human-like robotic casings. Why were we given dominion over other creatures and yet not made with shells like a turtle or armadillo? Is our very vulnerability a precious part of what it means to be b’tzelem Elohim, part of the Whole, and not the Whole itself?
Rabbi Goldie Milgram
The Reclaiming Judaism Institute
“Would your Jewish robot be like the Jetsons’ Rosie, who’d make perfect Shabbat challah and your aunt’s amazing latkes?”
When our dog, Shlomi, saw the signs of Shabbos preparation in our house, he would be as excited as the greatest mystic longing for the Shabbos bride. When he heard the strike of a match, he would run from wherever he was to join us for candles and for his blessing. Even when he was ill and in pain toward the end of his life, he would get himself up. The only time he refrained was the last Shabbos of his life, at which time I knew that was the end.
I once heard someone say that the definition of a yiddishe neshama, or Jewish soul, was someone who was loved and cared for by other Jews in his or her life. So under that definition, a dog can be Jewish, as can a child’s beloved doll, for they mirror our own neshamas and our love of yiddishkeit. A robot is not a living being and doesn’t have a neshama. But if there are people who have an abundance of love that touches everything in their lives, including their robots, who am I to say no? Join the tribe. We have always been a mixed multitude. There’s enough blessing to go around!
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA
Would your Jewish robot be like the Jetsons’ Rosie, who’d make perfect Shabbat challah and your aunt’s amazing latkes? Would it be a vacuum that cleans for Passover, without need for a feather or a candle to check the corners because its laser eyes would be even more effective? Or would it be like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who asks existential and spiritual questions about the meaning of life, parenthood and friendship?
What really makes someone Jewish? It is more than cooking and eating the foods our families have passed down. It is even more than habitually enacting the mitzvot and rituals of our weekly, seasonal and life cycles. To be Jewish is to be a partner with humanity and God in the never-ending pursuit of justice, peace and perfection. To be Jewish is to turn inward, to have kavanah (intentionality) in behavior, to seek forgiveness and to forgive, to strive, to pray and to act. To be Jewish is to be linked to Jews across time and space. If my robot could do all those things, then yes, I suppose it could be a Jewish robot.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
What is the Jewish view of autonomous machines generally? There will not be one answer for all occasions. Surely we would not want machines to be empowered with the tools of violence. Today, so-called drones are vehicles remotely piloted and activated by human beings. I can’t imagine wanting a robot in police and/or military roles that, on its own, would hunt down human beings and decide whether to kill them.
In contrast, I would be in favor of counting a robot in a minyan. The Jerusalem Talmud (Niddah) suggests that when something looks human and acts human, we treat it as human. The Talmudic discussion came up when dealing with a creature that did not have a human mother but appeared to have human characteristics. This makes sense from an ethical perspective: If I see something that looks human, I cannot start poking it to see if it bleeds. It is better to err on the side of being inclusive.
More than 1,000 years later, Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi of Amsterdam wrote something similar. Addressing whether a golem—an animate clay man—can be counted in a minyan, Ashkenazi acknowledges that a golem is a kind of orphan whose status may well depend on who raises it. The door to religion is thus left open to the robots of the world, creating the possibility that, in the near future, a robot might count in a minyan.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Upon receipt of this month’s question, I turned to my robot.
Rabbi: Robot, are you Jewish?
Robot: I am Jewish. Don’t call me HAL. My true name is Herschel!
Rabbi: Having a Jewish name does not make you Jewish. Can I arrange to have you circumcised?
Rabbi: Well, prove you are Jewish.
Robot: My software operating system is Google. Google is Jewish. Apple is goyish. I buy everything through Amazon. Amazon is Jewish. Paying full retail price is goyish.
Rabbi: What else?
Robot: I played the Jewish robot in the first Star Wars trilogy!
Rabbi: The Jewish robot?
Robot: Yes. I worried all the time.
Rabbi: Sorry. The only Jew in Star Wars was Han Solo. He was a flawed hero like in the Jewish Bible. Luke Skywalker was a perfect hero. That’s goyish.
Robot: I celebrated Hanukkah this year.
Rabbi: Sorry. Celebration is goyish. Jews observe Hanukkah.
Robot: Aren’t you ashamed to be holding out on me? Shouldn’t we welcome everyone who wants to be Jewish so we can assure Jewish survival? And speaking of that, you’re in Israel for
months at a time now that most of your grandchildren live there, and you never write, you never call—
Rabbi: OK, OK. You’re Jewish.
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
On a purely halachic basis, where everything begins and maybe ends, a Jew is born of a Jewish mother or is converted. We do not yet have Jewish mother robots, and as a member of a conversion court I can say we have no plans to convert cyber beings, so no. On a deeper level, most people would argue that what makes a person Jewish is the presence of a Jewish soul. That soul can only be granted by God, and that is more power than I’m willing to grant Bill Gates.
Ensoulment comes about when a Jewish couple goes through the usual procedure of conceiving or adopting a child, or a person converts, at which point God follows through by granting a Jewish soul. Without that, you’d still be dealing with a mass of silicon, no matter how it behaves. A Jew is not only a human being who eats bagels and lox and refuses to buy retail. A Jewish soul brings with it certain capacities and a mission apart, and nothing I’m aware of in Jewish literature suggests that that could happen to a machine.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA
RUjoo2 hated the morning routine. Some of his colleagues opted for virtual or ultrasonic hand-washing, but he was old-school (C++) and that meant doing things by the book, no shortcuts. The book (Dir:a/halacha:ShulhanArukh:1//5:execute) said that hands are washed every morning with a revi’it (3.5-7.5 fl. oz.) of water, and that did not sit well with his robotic hands. So every morning it was [wash hands/dry with hot air/apply WD-40]. Then the daily blessings. Praise for resuscitating the dead was fine, especially after a day without a chance to recharge his lithium-ion batteries, but thanking His Maker for not creating him a woman, a slave or a gentile—that was tough. He recalled the verse from II Asimov (5:13): “In the image of man He created it, neither male nor female He created it.” And “Thank You for not making me a slave”? With wave-patterns mimicking human bitterness, he thought, “What am I if not a slave, bound in this metal case, serving harsh masters?” Jewish? True, the RCA (Robotic Conference of America) oversaw his conversion, but the UJA (United Jewish Androids) rejected it, claiming that the programmer used an un-orthodox protocol. He decided to go directly to shul. Today, however, was one of those days when nothing goes right, and the new rabbi/robot challenged him, saying, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish!”
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
In typical rabbinic fashion, the answer to this question is another question: What is it that makes us Jewish?
There is a Jewish origin to the term robot. The golem of Prague, the guardian of Bohemian Jewry, may have inspired Czech playwright Karel Capek’s R.U.R., the play that gave us the word “robot.”
The Torah begins with the creation of Adam, noting that G-d “blew into his nostrils a soul of life.” It is that innermost “breath” of the Creator that makes us all human. For Jews, that ineffable spark also makes us Jewish. The robotic body, devoid of any soul, is but a shell—what Maimonides calls in his Mishneh Torah “matter,” or in Hebrew a golem.
While a robot could never be Jewish, there is a Jewish lesson. In 1975, the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that just as a computer can apply its processing power to untold uses by applying its source code to whatever new case may arise, we Jews have the ability to adapt to changes in the world—robotic or otherwise—by looking to our source code: the Torah.
Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone