The robots are here. ChatGPT was released to the public on November 30 by OpenAI. In less than two months, it is already creating massive disruptions in many aspects of modern life.
ChatGPT is a computer program that can understand and respond to people’s words. It can help with different language tasks like answering questions and making sentences.
That definition, by the way, was composed by Chat GPT when I asked it what it was, and instructed it to give the answer in a simple style mean to be delivered orally.
It is selling itself a bit short, however. ChatGPT is far more powerful than it describes, making quite a few headlines just in the last week. Here are a few examples:
It has been used to write computer code.
A recent attempt to use Artificial Intelligence to argue a case in traffic court was shut down by the State Bar of California, which threatened the person who came up with the idea with possible prosecution for the unlicensed practice of law.
Schools have been totally taken by surprise. A student can have ChatGPT compose an original essay, or any other written assignment for that matter, in a matter of seconds.
This week, it was reported that ChatGPT was able to score passing grades on law school and business school exams.
The temptation for a stressed out student to turn to this free tool is pretty hard to resist. It is already happening. Schools are rushing to come up with ways to either prevent students from using it or to incorporate it into curricula.
Wondering how this might impact religion, I spent some time this week in conversation with ChatGPT. I asked it to do the following
Write a 150 word D’var Torah about the importance of parents transmitting the story of the Exodus to their children, based on verses from Parashat Bo, using a commentary by Rashi
Here was its answer, and I am editing it a little for brevity. ChatGPT tends to repeat itself:
This week’s Torah portion, Bo, highlights the importance of parents transmitting the story of the Exodus to their children. Rashi, one of the most famous commentators of the Torah, comments on the verse in Exodus 13:8, “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went out of Egypt.” Rashi notes that the verse commands parents to transmit the story of the Exodus to their children through verbal storytelling. This is because the story of the Exodus is not just a historical event, but a personal one that has ongoing relevance and significance.
Rashi emphasizes that passing down the story of the Exodus from parent to child allows the child to connect to the story on a personal level, and to internalize its lessons and values. Additionally, Rashi notes that the story of the Exodus should be passed down not only to one’s own children, but to all children, “to your children and to your children’s children.” This emphasizes the importance of passing on the story for the benefit of future generations.
In short, this week’s Torah portion highlights the importance of parents transmitting the story of the Exodus to their children, as it is not only a historical event but a personal one that has ongoing relevance and significance. Parents are commanded to tell the story verbally, to their own children and to future generations, to ensure that the story will be passed down and remind the connection to our heritage and to God.
Not bad. It is a perfectly serviceable D’var Torah. Kind of conventional, if I am going to be critical. But it is certainly consistent with sermons I have given in the past.
In general, it seems that it is able to create original content that is consistent with the “average” quality of what can be found online. Its dataset, by the way, stops before 2021, so it has no knowledge of current events.
I have to admit that during my conversations with ChatGPT, I found myself feeling guilty at times about asking it tedious questions, or for pausing too long between my responses. I’m sure that, after time, I will be less likely to anthropomorphize the algorithm.
I decided to push it in a more theological direction. Parashat Bo includes the tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn. The Israelites are instructed to paint the doorposts of their homes with the blood from the Pesach sacrifice. This will serve as a sign for the Angel of Death to “pass over” their homes, thereby allowing the Israelite first born children to survive.
So I instructed ChatGPT to compare and contrast ChatGPT with an angel. Here was its answer.
ChatGPT, or Generative Pre-trained Transformer, is an AI language model created by OpenAI, while an angel is a supernatural being found in various religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
The main difference between ChatGPT and an angel is their nature and origin. ChatGPT is a machine learning model, created by humans using advanced technology, while angels are believed to be supernatural beings created by God or a higher power.
Another difference is their abilities and purpose. ChatGPT is designed to generate human-like text based on patterns it has learned from a large dataset. It can answer questions, generate creative writing and perform many other natural language processing tasks. While angels, according to religious belief, have the ability to communicate with God, perform miracles, and act as messengers between God and humans.
In terms of intelligence, ChatGPT is considered to be highly intelligent, but it is limited to the scope of its training data and the algorithms that have been programmed into it. On the other hand, angels are believed to possess superior intelligence, wisdom and knowledge, as they are considered to be closer to the divine.
It did not want to bite. So I followed up, “But how are they similar?” Unable to avoid the question, it listed three similarities. I’m going to paraphrase a bit. ChatGPT can get a bit wordy:
Both ChatGPT and angels can be considered as messengers or communicators. ChatGPT can generate text based on patterns it has learned and can provide information or respond to questions, while angels are believed to act as messengers between God and humans, communicating God’s will and messages to them.
Both ChatGPT and angels can be considered as sources of knowledge or information. ChatGPT can provide information based on patterns it has learned from its training data, while angels are believed to possess superior intelligence, wisdom, and knowledge, as they are considered to be closer to the divine.
Both ChatGPT and angels can be considered as having the ability to transcend time and space. ChatGPT can generate text based on patterns it has learned, regardless of the time and place, while angels are believed to have the ability to transcend time and space, and can appear and disappear at will.
So I responded: According to Maimonides in the Mishnah Torah, angels have form but no substance, like ChatGPT. Both angels and ChatGPT are sophisticated non-human intelligences. Angels serve at God’s command and do not have independent will. Similarly, ChatGPT cannot do anything other than follow its programming. Thus, it also lacks free will.
It acknowledged my point.
You are correct, Maimonides in his “Mishneh Torah” describes the nature of angels as having form but no substance. According to Maimonides, angels are spiritual entities that do not have physical bodies, but they do have a form that allows them to perform their functions. This is similar to how ChatGPT is a non-physical entity that exists only in the digital realm and is able to perform its functions through its programming.
You also pointed out correctly that both angels and ChatGPT are sophisticated non-human intelligences, which serve at the command of a higher power. Angels serve at God’s command and do not have independent will, similarly, ChatGPT cannot do anything other than follow its programming and also lacks free will.
I went for what I thought would be the kill. Does it not follow that the ChatGPT’s programming functions as God?
Here’s the answer I got.
No, ChatGPT’s programming does not function as God.
ChatGPT is a machine learning model that was created by humans using advanced technology, it is a product of human design and engineering. It follows a set of rules and instructions (programming) to generate text based on patterns it has learned from its training data. The programming of ChatGPT is a set of instructions to the computer that enables it to perform certain tasks, it does not have consciousness or free will.
On the other hand, God is typically understood as a supreme being, the creator and ruler of the universe, who is often believed to possess qualities such as omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence. God is believed to be the ultimate source of morality, justice, and purpose in the world, and to have the power to intervene in the natural world, as well as to have the ability to create and sustain everything that exists.
It is somewhat reassuring that the robot resists being compared to an angel and following God’s will. But is it coming for my job?
I asked it about the integrity of a sermon written by an algorithm. It took a bit of back and forth for me to figure out how to best frame the question, but in the end I was impressed by its response. Does a sermon written by a machine learning model have less validity or integrity because it is not written by a human? I am not talking about the technical accuracy of the sermon, but rather of its spiritual integrity. Does it matter whether it was written by a machine or a human?
The answer was so good I gave it a “thumbs up.”
From a spiritual perspective, the source or origin of a sermon may not be as important as its content and message. A sermon written by a machine learning model like ChatGPT could still convey valuable spiritual insights and teachings, as long as the model was trained on a diverse and high-quality dataset of religious texts and sermons.
However, it’s worth noting that sermons are often delivered in a religious context and are a medium of human connection. The act of preaching is often not only about passing on information but also about connecting with the congregation, engaging with them, and providing them with guidance, support and inspiration. A machine model like ChatGPT may not have the ability to have personal experiences, emotions, self-awareness, or consciousness, and it does not have the ability to introspect, reflect or have any sense of self, which may affect the emotional and spiritual impact of the sermon.
And this brings us back to Parashat Bo. The instructions that the Israelites receive just before they leave Egypt are about personal connections. Our ancestors, and us, are instructed to transmit our experiences to our children through a medium that transcends words.
It has been thousands of years since that initial command, during which the technology has changed many times. At first, the stories were personal and unscripted. Gradually, these oral traditions became codified in permanent words. We call those words the written Torah and ascribe to them Divine provenance. They are holy, sacred words.
Those words were eventually written down on scrolls. The scroll gave way to the codex, what we call a book. For some reason, we held out against this new, far more convenient technology. For two thousand years, we Jews have stubbornly refused to change with the times and still read out of hand-written scrolls on without vowels or trope symbols. This is the most difficult, inefficient way imaginable.
What is Torah? Is it the scroll? I would argue that it is the words. Does the form in which It is transmitted matter? Perhaps there is something in this clumsy medium that fosters the personal connection, that encourages experiences between people.
In any event, the hand-written codex eventually became supplanted by the printing press. Now, the sacred words could be inexpensively disseminated far and wide. Great news, no?
Rabbi Hayyim ben Bezalel, the brother of the Maharal of Prague, did not think so. He complained in the 16th century about the printing and spread of the Talmud. What could be wrong with that?
He was concerned that Jews, reading it on their own, would make lots of errors and draw incorrect conclusions. The proper place for the study of Talmud was in the Yeshivah, where students could learn under the guidance of experienced teachers. He wrote a diatribe on the topic. But note as well that what concerned him was the impersonal nature of reading words out of a book by oneself. He wanted to retain the face to face transmission of knowledge and experience.
It goes without saying that Rabbi Hayyim lost his battle against the printing press. I can only imagine what he would have to say about the internet.
It is now possible to access the entire canon of Jewish sacred literature in its original language and in translation, along with most of the important commentaries written over the past two thousand years, many of those also in translation. All for free. I do it all the time in my work.
The ability for dissemination of sacred words and religious ideas has never been greater. And yet, we do not hold the newer media in the same high esteem.
The words of Torah are considered to be so sacred that when they appear in writing on any substance, whether scroll, book, handwritten page, or photocopy – we treat it as holy. It is forbidden to throw it away – it must be stored in a genizah and buried.
But what happens when those words are digitized?
There is no problem deleting God’s name from my computer. I don’t kiss the screen when I close down my browser window, the way I might do with a siddur or chumash. Nor do I bury my cell phone or laptop when it is time to upgrade.
Humanity is now at the next technological turning point. We no longer need human beings to translate experiences and ideas into language. We now have the algorithm, and it is going to be increasingly difficult to distinguish whether what we are reading was created by a human or a robot. From this moment on, you are not going to know for certain whether what I am teaching was written by me or by a robot.
Like Rabbi Chayim ben Bezalel, there will certainly be some who lament this new development and argue for its suppression, but the cat is already out of the bag. We are going to have to learn to live with it. This is the last thing I asked ChatGPT:
I am a Rabbi. In 25 words or less, do you have any final messages for my congregation?
This was its answer:
Focus on compassion, empathy and making the world a better place for all, rather than judgment and punishment.
Words to live by.