Ask the Rabbis | What Impact Will Artificial Intelligence Have On People’s Spiritual Lives?

By | Jul 24, 2023


Artificial intelligence has been around ever since we plucked the fruit off the branch of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and came away with clarity around neither. It is precisely what God warned us about: not to hurry toward intelligence, for it is a gift that will reveal itself in its time, when we’re ready, not when we choose. Otherwise, we end up with knowledge alone, which is the real “artificial intelligence.” As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in Man Is Not Alone, “Knowledge is a pretext for higher ignorance.” It becomes a demigod in its own power, an illusion, the potency of which surpasses the heights of the Tower of Babel and any other artificial attempt to touch the heavens. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, our mystics taught, was intended to be ingested—but not by itself or to the exclusion or dismissal of all else that God planted in our lives (Zohar, 1:35b). When we find ourselves buying kosher-certified aluminum foil, inventing Shabbat light bulbs and kosher cell phones, we are further layering the original beauty of our aboriginal ways and mindset with artificial intelligence. We end up deluding ourselves into thinking we are “spiritual,” when actually we are standing in the way of spiritual life.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Monument, CO


For Humanistic Jews, spirituality is a strictly human affair, whether we are contemplating the wonders of our existence on earth or our modest place in the vast cosmos. Lacking an understanding of the potential impact of artificial intelligence on human spirituality, I went to the source and asked OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

It offered several possibilities. Among them were AI’s capacity to introduce people “to spiritual teachings from various traditions,” to offer virtual experiences of the wider world and to provide tools for practices such as meditation. These seemed pretty positive. Others made me a bit squeamish. The AI noted that it might someday achieve consciousness, or even its own spirituality, challenging the boundaries between humanity and machines. This raises profound questions. An essential element of humanistic spirituality is our capacity to connect with, care for and honor the dignity of others. While we know that actual human beings don’t always show evidence of these capacities, we hold onto the hope that empathy and conscience can prevail, that people can change for the better.

We’ve already seen how “bots” can express hatred. Will sentient AIs be able to experience empathy and form real and meaningful connections? If that ever happens, we will know much more about AI’s impact on our spiritual lives.
Rabbi Jeffrey Falick
Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit
Farmington Hills, MI


When a member of my congregation bought a tallit for the first time, I congratulated her and offered to teach her how to put it on. She said, “Rabbi, I already know how, I watched a YouTube video.” Ouch! Even before ChatGPT came along, Rav Google and Cantor YouTube were providing a lot of answers to people with religious questions. And I get why some people would prefer using a chatbot or a search engine rather than asking a rabbi; who wants to feel ignorant?

But what a rabbi can usually do that even GPT-4 cannot is intuit or uncover why a person is asking a particular question and what they’re looking for in an answer. Tapping into AI can feel egalitarian and empowering, but it also tips people toward isolation and away from relationships. It will be, for example, so much easier to have an AI-generated meditation session designed for you personally than to show up for one in person.

AI empowers individuals, but it will atomize our spiritual lives. Judaism goes in the other direction, continually pushing us toward relationship—into a minyan; into a kahal, or congregation; into Klal Yisrael, the collective Jewish people. It may be true what they say: “Two Jews, three opinions.” But that’s where our strength lies, as long as we’re engaged in the messy business of talking with one another, not just with our computers.
Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
Arlington, VA


As someone who purposefully avoids social media, I am deeply concerned about the impact of AI on our spiritual, communal and moral lives. Social media has already torn at the fabric of our civic life, magnifying the worst of our human inclinations. And that has happened while we, the generators, remain human. AI, however, hands those negative inclinations to computers, and computers do not have a heart or a neshama (soul) to put a check on them. Spirituality relates to connection, including connection with other human (and non-human) beings, with the earth and ultimately with the Source of Life.

Connection requires empathy, compassion, the possibility of teshuvah (change and repentance) and commitment to a morality that transcends our narrow individual “interests.” AI has none of this. It can pursue the worst of human agendas with superhuman capacity and without empathy, compassion or second thoughts. Undoubtedly, AI will be able to do many great things as well. But money, not morality, has tended to drive the trajectory of technology, and AI will be no exception. Recent technology has been, and will be even more, a spiritual crisis that demands all of our attention.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Congregation
Vineyard Haven, MA

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The use of technological tools, apps and online and virtual reality environments for Jews to “do Jewish” is not new. “Ask the Rabbis” discussed it in 2018. The pandemic forced us to become even more savvy and intentional at creating opportunities for Jewish observance and meaningful connection in virtual spaces.

With AI technologies, new and challenging questions arise. Can AI create a transcendent, soul-moving prayer or guided meditation? Can AI piece together a playlist of music that will touch the heart in just the right way? For me as a rabbi, it is impossible to meet at any one moment the spiritual needs of all those gathered for prayer. An individual person may be able to input just the right data that will enable AI to generate exactly what they need in that moment. Worth trying? Perhaps. But will it feel the same?

Much of the AI discussion touts the benefits of the efficiencies it may afford us. We can complete certain tasks more quickly and effectively. I wonder if a greater impact of AI is that it will enable us to open space in our days to actually attend to our spiritual needs—to take a walk outside, listen to music, hold the hand of a loved one, and connect with that which is greater than ourselves.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion
Fresno, CA


While artificial intelligence is getting increasingly good at accurately presenting material, and therefore in a sense teaching, it will always—necessarily and inherently—lack the human touch. AI can write a sermon. In fact, it can write a decent sermon. But AI, unlike me, is unable to think about, know, or respond in real time to the “Jews in the pews” on any given Shabbat. I consider what my congregants need, and I try to teach texts that touch the hearts of the listeners based on the weekly parsha, the events of our week, the season of the year and my own lived experience. While I certainly do not know what is in everyone’s heart, I know a lot that is not searchable online or in books.

Last Shabbat morning, I knew that one woman in our sanctuary was awaiting her younger sister’s death. I knew another couple were anticipating their married child’s first wedding anniversary. Before services, I studied the Torah portion and prepared my sermon. I delivered it with subtle changes to consider the lives and stories of those in shul that Shabbat morning. In so doing, I taught Torah in ways that I hope are increasingly accessible and relevant. AI cannot possibly answer to every moment or need. It can, and I pray it will, do a lot to bring about benefit for humanity. But it will never have the human touch, which we humans need.
Rabbi Amy S. Wallk
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA


I believe that artificial intelligence will have little impact on people’s spiritual lives.

As I understand it, the AI chatbot digests all (or most) existing materials on a topic, organizes them and gives answers in light of questions that people pose. That means AI can give us guidance based on past published treatments, but not creative new insights for hitherto unanswered questions or new spiritual challenges. A new creation requires (so far) human insight and intuition. Most of the great spiritual questions or religious moments that people face—seeking the meaning of life, discerning and connecting to the Divine Presence, trying to respond to a new way of living, joining a community, repenting for past sins or errors—require a new insight from the human mind, an individual choice made through free will, or a decision drawing on an emotional connection to God or Torah. None of these responses can be done for us by an artificial intelligence.

I imagine that AI can help people’s spiritual life if it can digest, review and present to the seeker all halachic precedents or other material that could enrich awareness of past behaviors in similar situations. A halachic authority or an individual facing a decision could then act with a better grasp of history. But the key decision, the key new insight leading to a turn in life, can only come out of a human being’s intelligence and holistic response, out of good will and/or spiritual striving.

Future published reports on great spiritual moments, acts of repentance or new religious vistas will carry a label: CONTAINS NO ARTIFICIAL INGREDIENTS OR ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life/Hadar
Riverdale, NY


The impact is going to be huge, a global epiphany, and will play out in two different directions. The existence of machines that are smarter than we are will be spiritually devastating to people who see their humanity in terms of intelligence. Others who say that being human includes having emotions will be equally distressed as we start to see machines that can pass a Turing test on emotion as well. Even the first releases of ChatGPT featured some weird conversations with the machines that seemed to approach emotional reactions. As we come closer to creating machines that are smarter than us and that emote like us, what’s left to make human beings special?

But the opposite reaction will also take place—a wake-up call to humanity, as COVID was, to reexamine our assumptions as to who we are. And people will rediscover the soul—which is something given by God. I’m reminded of the Hasidic version of Descartes: A person came to his rebbe and said, “Rebbe, how do I know that what I’m going through is real? Tradition speaks of Olam ha-holomos, a world of dreams—maybe I’m just dreaming and there is no reality.” The rebbe did not say “Cogito ergo sum.” He said, “Tell me, do you ever have thoughts of teshuvah?” The man said yes. The rebbe said, “In that case, you’re not living in an imaginary world, because in an imaginary world, people don’t think of doing teshuvah.” The impetus for teshuvah comes from the depths of a person’s soul, which is deep inside us and comes from God. And I think AI will force people to take a closer look at that.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA


Someone once told me that in ancient times the commandment “You shall not kill” was necessary because people had a murderous nature, but that now, with human society so advanced, we should read the words as “You cannot kill,” meaning that the soul is eternal and a person never truly dies. I responded that although we have greatly improved our technology, people are still violent; our advanced society merely provides weapons that facilitate murder on grander scales. Likewise, with AI, we might end up with better technology but not much difference in our spirituality or our social behavior. Those will still need to be addressed by religious leaders and sensitive thinkers.

Our goal should really be AHI—artificial human intelligence. We are not talking of faster computers, but rather of an artificial entity that will be able to think and act like a human, including with emotional intelligence. To achieve that, the AI will have to be born and raised like a human and feel, experience and remember the full gamut of the human condition. When that happens, humans might gain a new understanding of humanity, divinity and the image of God, and this might usher in a new era of peace, inclusion and mutual respect.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Torah VeAhava
Potomac, MD


It depends on us. Technology is neutral. As powerful as it may be, it doesn’t have free will; we use it as an instrument of our will. As long as we humans see ourselves as machines, we can always build a machine that’s stronger. If we are just brains and minds, then we can replicate that.

But if we are souls—not physical beings on a spiritual journey but spiritual beings on a physical journey—then every machine or instrument, whether a hammer or screwdriver or computer or AI, is just a tool to help us fulfill a higher purpose. You could even program a machine to have transcendent values, but at the end of the day, a machine doesn’t have a soul.
Our challenge with AI is not to create checks on its power, though that has to be addressed, but to define what it means to be a human being. The Industrial Revolution gave us more free time, but we didn’t necessarily use it for higher purposes. Likewise, if AI starts doing all our work, writing our programs and even our thank-you notes, what will we do with our time? Will we just play more video games? We’ll be challenged to find why we are here on this earth. So in that way, I think it’s a blessing.
Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Meaningful Life Center
New York, NY

Opening picture: A response to the prompt “A Rabbi Shaking Hands With A Robot” by DALL·E, an AI image generator. 

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