Reviews | Can Robots Be Jewish?

The National Book Review, February 2021


Amy Schwartz is the opinion and book review editor of Moment Magazine, a magazine of Jewish life co-founded in 1975 by Elie Wiesel. Moment was named for the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Moment, founded in Warsaw in 1910. The original Moment “lived until it was murdered together with Polish Jewry,” Wiesel wrote in the first issue of the new magazine. Schwartz was a longtime Washington Post editorial writer and columnist, whose writing has also appeared in The New Republic, Harper’s, and The Wilson Quarterly. She edits Moment magazine’s Ask the Rabbis feature. Her new book, Can Robots be Jewish? and Other Pressing Questions of Modern Life draws from the responses rabbis have given in the Ask the Rabbis feature. Schwartz answered questions about Can Robots be Jewish? from The National.

1. Your book is a series of questions, with answers from a wide range of rabbis. It is derived from a column you edit for Moment magazine, Ask the Rabbis. What is the impulse behind the column – why do we want to know what rabbis think about all of these subjects?

We’re constantly being told that the Ask the Rabbis column is one of Moment‘s most popular features and that readers turn to it first. I love editing it. I think readers find it fascinating that Judaism can encompass such a wide diversity of views and answers on a given subject, and that they are all legitimate. Even religious authorities — that is, rabbis — can disagree on even the most fundamental questions (like whether there is life after death) and can be comfortable with those disagreements.

There’s nothing top-down about Judaism; debate is respected, and argument is actually considered a mode of worship. Judaism’s openness to argument is one of the most striking things about it as a religion — especially right now, when our culture is desperate for models of civil and respectful dispute. It seemed like a great time to turn the column into a book.

In each column, we put a question to ten rabbis from ten different Jewish denominations — most Jews probably don’t even know there ARE that many American Jewish denominations — and make them answer it in just 200 words. The original idea was to come up with a tight framework that would also be a way of capturing the rich diversity and creativity of Jewish religious life and belief. Fascinating discussions are going on all the time within Judaism — many denominations, for instance, have recently grappled with gay marriage, with improving the inclusion of Jews of color, with how to handle intermarried and blended families that consider themselves Jewish — and people are debating these central questions right now, not just somewhere in the far past when the Talmud was being written. And these discussions are happening across all the denominations, both liberal and traditional. It’s very much a living tradition, a living argument.

2. Moment magazine has an interesting history – it was founded, in part, by Elie Wiesel. How does Moment fit into the journalism landscape – and Jewish life in America?

Moment was founded in 1975 by Elie Wiesel and Leonard Fein, who was a journalist and social activist. At the time, it filled a void — no one was covering the complexities of the Jewish community in a sophisticated in-depth way, and there were tremendous changes going on, political, cultural and religious — everything from the rise of feminism within Judaism to the expansion of Modern Orthodoxy, not to mention the politics of the American-Israeli relationship and the fight for Soviet Jewry. The magazine covered all that, and it evolved with the community.

These days, of course, there’s lots of intelligent Jewish journalism, from the revived Forward to online outlets like Tablet, and there’s more to write about than ever. Nadine Epstein, who took over as editor in chief of Moment in 2005, has emphasized really high-quality long-form magazine reporting — we’ve won awards for our profiles of both Sheldon Adelson and George Soros, and our long-running Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism fellowship that funds worldwide reporting on prejudice and discrimination. But we’ve also tried to carve out a role as a place where genuinely deep disagreements can be debated in a civil way. It’s not just the rabbis, though Ask the Rabbis is emblematic of the approach. We also have Moment Debates between left- and right-leaning Jews on policy questions — immigration, surveillance –and “Big Questions” in which we bring together the widest possible assortment of views on questions like “What does it mean to be a community?” “Is democracy broken?” and “Is religion good for women?” We’ve also just finished a year-long Jewish Political Voices Project in which we tracked three politically active Jews from each of ten swing states — in each case, a Republican and two Democrats–interviewing them every month as they moved through the election process.

The idea is to complicate the conversation rather than just have everyone take sides on everything and dig in. This is a problem in the whole society, of course, but it’s also a noticeable phenomenon within the Jewish community, where there are real right-left chasms that greatly increased during the Trump years. Though most Jews still vote Democratic, the Republican Jewish voice is influential as never before, and it’s important to keep up with the whole community.

3. The role of rabbis has varied considerably throughout Jewish history and Jewish communities. At many times and in many places, the rabbi was regarded as a crucial authority, perhaps the crucial authority, on how Jews should live their lives. Except, perhaps, in some very orthodox communities, the rabbi’s status today does not seem to be that. How would you describe the role of rabbis in America in 2021?

Because of the Jewish emphasis on debate, the kind of authority rabbis command is atypical. Unlike priests, they’re not figures who link their congregants directly to God, and they aren’t anointed or vested with special holiness. (Technically, I think, that kind of priestly role became irrelevant after the destruction of the Temple.) Again, very little is top-down about Judaism. Rabbis are considered guides and teachers, well versed in Jewish tradition, qualified (by their various denominations) to make rulings on matters of Jewish law, and also to interpret and apply the sources to modern questions. That’s the creative part of the book, and in my opinion the most enjoyable.

Many people also still need Jewish community at crucial times in their lives, like now when so many are dealing with bereavement and upheaval, even if they’re not part of Jewish communities the way they might have been in the past. Good, creative rabbis can be contact points for that. Ideally people use them as guides to what’s really an extraordinarily rich tradition with a lot of applicable wisdom, but one where it’s sometimes hard to find a way in.

I think of this book full of rabbis as a good on-ramp in this sense as well, and also a handy reference, since it offers a quick and accessible summary of the major approaches to the issues posed by the questions, as well as some of the most-cited sources. Often, more than one rabbi will cite the same source to make a point, but not necessarily the same point. That’s part of the fun.

I’ve heard that up through, say, the mid-twentieth century, most of Orthodox and even Conservative rabbis’ time was taken up by answering congregants’ questions about whether this or that food was kosher. Now, of course, even aside from the falloff in kosher observance in a lot of the less traditional denominations, even Orthodox Jews don’t have to ask rabbis questions like that because of the prevalence of kosher products with kosher packaging! It’s true that all rabbis are empowered by virtue of their smicha, or ordination, to “posk,” or make legal rulings based on Jewish law. But most people probably turn to rabbis either for ongoing study of some kind or for guidance on more personal struggles, at least, if they have a relationship with a rabbi at all. In college settings, too, rabbis provide an anchor — a source of programming, a place to touch base for a Seder or a high holidays service. They’re infrastructure — there when you need them.

4. In the column, you make a point of posing your questions to a wide cross-section of rabbis, from humanist rabbis at one extreme (who may not believe in God) to orthodox rabbis. What is gained by including such a wide range of rabbis?

Part of the point is simply to appreciate the diversity of American Jewish thinking. People might assume some questions have a simple yes or no answer, and that’s almost never the case. Even within a single denomination, the thinking tends to be nuanced. But also, the answers fall into surprising patterns. You might expect them to run along a simple spectrum — for instance, when we asked, “Should Jewish children sing Christmas carols?” the answers formed a perfect progression from “Sure, if they want to” to “Well, it depends” to “Here’s why they might not be comfortable” to “Absolutely not!” A question about tattoos came out that way, too. But sometimes it’s not so predictable. Sometimes the Humanist rabbis on the left agree with the Chabad rabbis on the right and disagree with the ones in the middle. Or sometimes they split a different way — by gender, for instance, or generationally. Sometimes they agree but all give different reasons and cite different texts. Sometimes, as I said above, they draw opposite lessons from the same proof texts.

My favorite example of unexpected convergence: Many of the Orthodox and Chabad rabbis won’t write the name of God, since it’s too holy — they spell it “G-d” instead–and this reflects a very widespread Orthodox practice. But it turns out that some of the Jewish Renewal rabbis, who are very lefty but also tend to be drawn to mysticism, resonate to this practice and have adopted the spelling “G!d”. I think this is fabulous, but I had some trouble getting it past Moment’s proofreaders.

On a different note, one of my favorite reactions to the book came from a Modern Orthodox journalist who was interviewing me about a month ago. She was writing the piece for an American Jewish newspaper but was actually living on Israel’s West Bank (as noted, the Jewish community can be very complicated). She told me that she had been surprised by how much the non-Orthodox rabbis seemed to know about Judaism! She said she knew plenty of non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel and they were all very learned, but she figured that was just because they lived in Israel — it hadn’t occurred to her that the non-Orthodox American denominations were actually based on serious text study and rabbinic scholarship. So that was a blow struck for tolerance within the community. I felt really good about it.

5. Jewish teachings are often more complicated, and surprising, than people would expect. For example, in your introduction, you note that the rabbis of the Talmud going back to the second century C.E. recognized the existence of up to five different genders. What surprises have you encountered in your years of posing questions to rabbis – and hearing their answers?

One surprise — though it shouldn’t be one, really — is how liberal the responses are from even the most Orthodox rabbis on questions like gay rights, contraception and abortion. (Of course, we haven’t captured the most right-wing of Jewish communities — past a certain point it’s hard to find rabbis who are willing to legitimize non-Orthodox rabbis, particularly female rabbis, by appearing with them in this kind of forum). But we do have Modern Orthodox, Orthodox, Sephardic and Chabad/Lubavitch, and sometimes others to the right of that. And on abortion and contraception, particularly, they reflect a tradition that developed very differently from the Christian one.

On abortion, Jewish sources are quite clear that the fetus is not considered a human life in the first 40 days of pregnancy. That doesn’t mean all denominations find abortion desirable, or even acceptable in many circumstances, but it’s a clear distinction from considering it murder. We asked the rabbis in 2008, “When does life begin?” and even the rabbi we identified as “ultra-Orthodox,” Simcha Tolwin of Aish Ha-Torah (we later stopped using the term “ultra-Orthodox” — now we would call him “haredi”) stated this point definitively.

I remember thinking while I was editing the book that the answers might not be as straightforward if we asked today, since haredi communities identify politically with the Christian right much more closely than they used to. But shortly afterward I read that the spokesman for Agudath Israel, the haredi umbrella group, had made exactly the same point. So I have to grant them points for consistency.

Often I get the feeling from a rabbi of a more traditional denomination, such as Chabad, that the overarching priority is to keep Jews included in the community, rather than exclude them, so an outright “no” is to be avoided. My favorite “creatively liberal” answer in this vein comes from Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, then affiliated with Chabad, who, responding to the question “If your child told you he/she was gay, what would you say?” answered, “There are 613 commandments in the Torah. One is to marry a woman and have children. Another is to refrain from same-sex relationships. My consistent position has been that a Jewish gay man or woman is left with 611 commandments, which should keep them plenty busy. . . They should be lovingly encouraged to put on tefillin, have kosher homes, light Shabbos candles, visit the sick, defend and promote Israel and be fully involved in communal life.”

6. Rabbis draw their teachings from ancient texts, but in your column you ask rabbis about the most modern of questions — from how we should use social media to when life begins. How useful do you think Judaism’s ancient teachings are in navigating technology and other issues of modern existence — and the ones that are yet to come?

It’s always amazing to me what a wide range of questions the rabbis of the Talmud actually take up. There’s a proverb about the Talmud, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” As to whether ancient texts speak to modern problems, I guess one answer is that these problems aren’t really so modern. Contraception, abortion, transgenderism, sexual assault—they’ve been around for as long as we’ve been human.

As for questions about technology, they’re really questions about human nature. For instance, we asked one Yom Kippur, “What sins should we atone for in our use of social media?” and the Humanist rabbi, Jeffrey Falick, wrote that “the traditional holiday confessional seems already to have anticipated social media.” It turns out that a huge proportion of the sins in the traditional group confessional, the Vidui, sounded like they were written to apply to social media–gossip, loose talk, wanton words, running to do evil.

Some of the science questions, like “Should we edit our children’s genes?” or “What does Judaism say about organ donation?” are genuinely new. But of course there are always underlying moral questions. In the gene editing case, the rabbis explored fundamental Jewish ideas about when it’s appropriate to work in partnership with nature to improve life, and when those ideas collide with the autonomy of the individual or the limits of parents’ sway over their children.

One of my favorite questions in the book is “What does the Torah teach us about addiction?” Since addiction isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Torah, it’s all about making metaphors and drawing inferences. We got a splendid array of answers, ranging from the Golden Calf to Noah’s drunkenness to the Israelites’ backsliding in the desert to the importance of Shabbat — both the Renewal rabbi, Goldie Milgram, and the Modern Orthodox rabbi, Yitz Greenberg, pointed out that stepping back from the world for Shabbat is a way of demonstrating that there’s nothing in our lives we’re so hooked on that we can’t take a 24-hour break.

7. We can’t end this discussion without asking – Can robots be Jewish?

The answer is “It depends,” of course! It depends on what you think it means to be Jewish, what it means to be human, and how those two things are related. We knew the rabbis would have fun with it because those are classic rabbinic questions, even if this poses them in an unusual form.

And if you think that this, at least, is a question the Talmudic rabbis could never have considered, think again. Many responses mentioned the golem, a figure in Jewish folklore (who, some people even think, was the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.) The golem is a man made of clay and brought to life by certain mystical rabbis, most famously Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague in the 1600s, to protect the Jewish community from attack. In the end, in all the stories, the golem becomes unmanageable and has to be returned to clay (you do this by erasing one letter from the word “emet,” truth, that you’ve engraved on his forehead, leaving the word “met,” or death). In any case, there is a surprising amount of discussion in the Talmud about whether, theoretically, a golem could count in a minyan — which, presumably, would mean he qualified as Jewish.

The rabbis of the Talmud were split on this question, and so were ours. Rabbi Gershon Winkler, the Independent rabbi, suggested that at any rate, we know that a golem could only be a Reform Jew, since his parent (the rabbi) is male, and more traditional denominations recognize only Judaism transmitted through the mother. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, who is Orthodox, concluded that the answer is no, since the only way to become Jewish is either to be born to a Jewish mother or to be converted by a rabbinical court — he himself serves on such a court and doubts a robot could get through it, and he doubts even our current tech titans are equal to the task of creating a “Jewish mother robot.”

Our Reconstructionist rabbi pondered the possibility that her dog was Jewish, offering another idea from the sources that claims anyone loved and cared for by Jews can develop a “yiddishe neshama,” a Jewish soul; she concluded, “We’ve always been a mixed multitude — there’s more than enough blessing to go around!” And both the Modern Orthodox and the Sephardic rabbis, to my delight, answered in the voice of their invented Jewish robots — revealing something else I didn’t know about rabbis, namely, that more of them than you’d guess are also science fiction geeks.

The Reporter Group, February 25, 2021
by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Different opinions and rabbinic debate: those were staples of Jewish religious dialogue as Judaism moved from a sacrificial-based religion to a prayer-based one. As technology changed so did debates on what Judaism thinks about everything from electricity to plant-based meat. In contemporary times, most of these discussions take place within Jewish movements, rather than between them. However, Moment Magazine has a different idea: how about asking rabbis from different movements their opinion on an issue and publish them together? Thus was born the magazine’s “Ask the Rabbis” feature in 2005. A selection of these questions and answers can be found in “Can Robots Be Jewish? And Other Pressing Questions of Modern Life” edited by Amy E. Schwartz (Moment Books/Mandel Vilar Press).

The rabbis who answer the questions come from almost every part of American Jewish life: Independent, Humanist, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Sephardic, Chabad and ultra-Orthodox. Schwartz does note it is difficult to get rabbis from the extreme conservative end of the spectrum to comment on such issues as gay rights and women rabbis, something for which the magazine had been criticized. She suggests that those rabbinic figures feel uncomfortable acknowledging something they think should not exist, while also noting that, for some, there are limits to what they feel should be discussed in a Jewish forum.

For this reader, that’s a minor quibble. What is fun is not only seeing where the rabbis disagree, but when those who are far apart on the religious spectrum make similar points. Some rabbis focus on the question asked, while others use the question as a starting point for a series of related ethical ideas. Some answers are very serious, while others are funny (specifically those offered by Modern Orthodox Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg – just check out the conversation he holds with “his robot” when answering whether a robot can be Jewish).

The 30 questions are broken down into six categories – “Science,” “Sex,” “Modern Life,” “Values,” “Politics” and “The Nature of the Universe” – although some could just as easily be found in a different section. They include practical everyday ones, such as “Should Jewish children sing Christmas carols?,” “Does politics belong on the bima?” and “Are we commanded to vote?” Some readers will be surprised at the psychological-based questions, for example, “Should Jews strive to be happy?” and “What sins should we atone for in our use of social media?” Parents will also be interested in learning “When and how should Jewish parents discuss sex with their children?” For those interested in social actions, relevant questions include “According to Judaism, are there fundamental human rights?” and “Does Jewish law forbid racism?”

The answers to the question “Should we edit our children’s genes?” shows how seriously the writers take the different options science offers. They note the good that comes with preventing diseases like Tay-Sachs, but also mention the problems that could rise from use of the technology, including the creation of “designer babies,” which raises fears of eugenics. What was particularly interesting is that – as Schwartz notes – “the rabbis with special expertise in this topic – those who are physicians or specialize in medical ethics in addition to their rabbinic credentials – were the likeliest to respond that we still don’t know enough about this technology to weigh its risks and benefits.”

Rather than asking whether Judaism allows abortion, the question raised was “When does life begin?” The result is one of the most nuanced and careful discussions of abortion I’ve ever read. It was also interesting to see how each person approached the question. For example, the Independent and Humanist rabbis quote from the Talmud to support their positions, as does the ultra-Orthodox rabbi. All writers allow for some type of abortion, noting that, while the fetus is a human being, it depends on its mother for life. While Schwartz notes that none of their opinions should be taken as official Jewish doctrine, their insights offer interesting ways to view the debate.

The question of “Are tattoos and body piercings taboo” offers a wider spectrum of answers. Some authors believe it’s up to the individual to decide, while more traditional rabbis reject doing either. Schwartz notes that several writers offer “a nice selection of variations on ‘It depends.’” What is interesting is the ways that the rabbis used this question to not just talk about tattoos and piercings, but other aspects of the body – including the idea that our bodies are a gift from God, which should be treated appropriately.

“Can Robots Be Jewish?” serves as a fun learning experience. Its reasoned answers offer a great deal of food for thought and allows readers to ponder opinions they might not have otherwise appreciated. In addition to reading it on one’s own, the work would be great for classes, both for teenagers and adults. It’s also perfect for study groups.