Wednesday, January 18, 2023

In This Moment: Guest Sermon from the Bot Rabbi; More on Israel

In This Moment

"Plaza of Protest!"

"80,000 in the rain cry out against the judicial revolution"

Shabbat Shalom

My special email last week explaining the stakes of the current crisis in Israel generated questions, concern, and some gratitude for wading into such a complex subject. As you can see from the photo above, approximately 80,000 people - and nearly as many umbrellas - came out to protest last Saturday night in Tel Aviv, and other protests were held around the country.

Conservative commentator Daniel Gordis tried to navigate a nuanced approach in his columns this week, the first entitled Iran is not here: and if we're smart, it won't be. He starts out by saying that, no, Israel is not becoming Iran. No beheadings of opposition leaders in the streets - yet. But then he goes on show how Israel 'aint far behind, when sharing this quote from Avi Maoz, one of the most extreme voices in the current government and new "overseer of external programming" in Israeli schools for the ministry of education.

Our [party’s] flag is an unequivocal war against progressivism. The status quo needs to change, we need to make sure that Judaism is reflected in every corner of the country's life. Israel will be a country that observes and keeps the Sabbath in public spaces, LGBT families will not be recognized, and women will not serve in the army. Their contribution will be that they marry and raise a family.

Oh yes, and Gordis mentions that Maoz also "notes that women should not be permitted to serve in the Knesset; they can have political influence “through their husbands”. He wants to shut down all non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel—about that, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, also in the government thanks only to Bibi, agree. Maoz has got a long list."

Gordis goes on to write:

That does, actually sound like Iran, though there’s close to zero chance that Maoz can make that happen. But what should scare you is that he wants to. He’s proud of that stance, and he’s in the government, responsible for the “Office of Jewish Identity” thanks to one man, and one man only. Benjamin Netanyahu.

So much for nuance.

As Thomas Friedman wrote in the NY Times, trusting Bibi to hold back the very forces he himself has unleashed is a fool's errand. The only one who can save Israel from itself is President Biden, with the support of a concerned Congress, and in turn with the support of American Jewry.

And the showdown with the judiciary could be coming very soon, with Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling that convicted criminal Arye Deri was not fit to serve as a senior minister in the new government.

A legitimate claim could be made that judiciary reform is needed, must as immigration reform is very much needed in the US. Danny Gordis said as much recently while also openly acknowledging the elephant in the room at the recent AIPAC confab, shocking the participants. But what is being proposed is much more than a little tinkering. Dahlia Scheindlin's op ed in Ha'aretz, The Big Lies at the Heart of Netanyahu’s Extremist Governmentsuccinctly debunks Netanyahu's claim that the proposed changes to the judiciary system are "necessary reforms." The Israeli system is not analogous to American or European governments to which it is often compared. Here are some of Sheindlin's more salient points:

  • One of big lies is the need to “restore the balance” between the branches of government. There never has been balance in Israel without the Court: the Knesset is almost entirely unconstrained, with a single chamber, no regional representation, no presidential veto. Only the executive stands above the legislature – because the executive controls a majority in the Knesset. Between the two of them, the citizen essentially has no protection against the party (and the party leader) leading the coalition and against the state itself. The judiciary, flawed as it may be, is all we have.

  • Another lie is the myth of the “self-appointed justices.” The judicial committee has nine members, and three of them are justices; a minority last time I checked. There are already four politicians and Levin wants a majority of members to be politically aligned with the government. In other words, unrestrained majority rule, with no checks and balances. That’s not democracy – it’s just another lie.

  • Another favorite lie that Levin reiterated is the myth of an overly interventionist Supreme Court that constantly strikes down legislation. This has happened only 22 times since 1995 when judicial review began; a modest record compared to other countries. The pace has in fact quickened in recent years, and the reason is that Netanyahu’s extreme-right wing governments have accelerated attempts to pass undemocratic legislation. In many of these cases, the Court ruled against just one article or clause, not the whole law. The “reasonability” basis is a complex issue, and many think the notion is too vague. But the argument that canceling it now is somehow for the good of the country is a lie; the government simply wants to legitimize ministers convicted of corruption, or any other executive decisions the court might find unreasonable. Let’s be honest.

  • But one big lie towers above all others for me personally: That the Israeli public wants these reforms....Evidence that the public is not behind these reforms is overwhelming.

Just recently, the Israeli Democracy Institute published a survey showing that the majority of Israelis think that the Supreme Court should retain its ability to strike down legislation that contravenes the country’s Basic Laws – and only 16% said that the Judicial Selection Committee that appoints justices should be politicized by increasing the number of elected officials serving on it.

A Message From This Week's Virtual Guest Rabbi

"You can call me Hal!"

This Shabbat's guest rabbi will be the noted scholar, Avirtual Ibn Intel, otherwise known as the A.I. But, especially if you are into old sci-fi movies, you can call him Hal. Yes, this Friday and Shabbat morning I am sharing the pulpit with the latest sensation on the sermonic scene, Artificial Intelligence, presented by Chat CPTSo this Shabbat, your rabbis will hail from Bot to Boston. And we can truly have a Sha-BOT shalom!

Referencing this week's portion of Vaera, I asked Rabbi Hal to write sermons on various topics for me to preview. Here's one Hal wrote introducing the plague of frogs.

In the portion of Vaera in the book of Exodus, one of the plagues that God brings upon Egypt is the plague of frogs. The account of this plague can be found in Exodus 8:1-15. According to the story, God commands Moses to tell Aaron to stretch out his staff and strike the Nile, which will cause a great number of frogs to come out of the river and cover the land. The frogs will also go into the houses, into the beds, and into the ovens of the Egyptians.

Pharaoh's magicians were able to replicate this plague through their magic, but they were unable to remove the frogs. Pharaoh then asked Moses to pray to God to remove the frogs, and God did so, but Pharaoh still refused to release the Israelites. This plague was one of the many signs and wonders that God performed through Moses and Aaron to demonstrate his power to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and to ultimately bring about the release of the Israelites from slavery.

Not bad for a beginner. But it lacked oomph, power!

Still, I wondered, should I feel threatened? Should all rabbis? Shold congregations? After all, virtual rabbis might be a lot cheaper than real ones, and they can even play guitar. Still, it is common knowledge that robots make bad fundraisers.

Not satisfied with this first attempt at a frog sermon on Vaera, and trying to gently nurture my new student, I asked Rabbi Hal A.I to amplify on the symbolism of frogs. A few years ago I prepared an entire parsha packet on frogs, so I might be considered a rib-bit of an expert. You can click on it to judge for yourself: How could Hal would match up to that!

"It's not easy being a machine," Hal ribbited back.And then Hal churned out this:

In a Jewish sermon on Vaera and the symbolism of frogs, one could explore the meaning and significance of the plague of frogs in the context of Jewish thought and tradition.

One interpretation could be that the frogs symbolize the impurities and sins that are present in the world, and the plague of frogs could be seen as a reminder of the need to constantly work towards purifying ourselves and our surroundings. The frogs are seen as a reminder of the constant battle between good and evil, light and darkness.

Another interpretation could be that the frogs represent the Egyptians' idol worship, as the frogs were associated with the goddess Hekt, and the plague of frogs could be seen as a demonstration of God's power over the false gods of Egypt.

Additionally, the plague could also be seen as a symbol of God's mercy. The frogs were only sent to the Egyptians, not to the Israelites, demonstrating that God was punishing the oppressors and not the oppressed.

Overall, the plague of frogs in the portion of Vaera can serve as a reminder of the need for personal and societal transformation, the power of God and his mercy, and the constant battle between good and evil.

Not bad, actually, but what of the resistance to change? What about that old frog-in-boiling-water metaphor, which I reference in my parsha packet. i consider that an unforced error. Me -1, Hal - 0.

So then I asked Hal to sermonize about Vaera in light of the new Israeli government.

Heh heh.

This would get him in hot water for sure (to keep with the frog metaphor). He would be summoned before the board before he could even unpack his Spacely Sprocket gift bag. Mr.Space Odyssey would be past tense - like his movie with the futuristic title whose time actually past 20 years ago. Here's what Hal spat out as result of my hazing.

The Torah portion of Vaera, which tells the story of the God's revelation to Moses and the Israelites in Egypt, teaches us important lessons about the power of faith and the importance of standing up for what is right. In these troubled times, as we see a new government being formed in Israel, it is important for us to remember these lessons and to hold fast to our beliefs.

As we read in the story of Vaera, Moses was called upon by God to stand up against the oppression of the Pharaoh and to lead the Israelites out of slavery. Despite the challenges and obstacles that he faced, Moses remained steadfast in his faith and his belief in the power of God to guide and protect him.

In the same way, as we witness the formation of a new government in Israel, we must remember that it is not enough to simply hope for change. We must actively work for change, using our voices and our actions to speak out against injustice and to stand up for what is right.

As we read in the Torah, "I will be with you" (Exodus 3:12), God is with us always, guiding and protecting us as we work for a better future. May we all be inspired by the story of Vaera and the courage of Moses, to stand up for what we believe in and to work for a just and peaceful society.

May God bless the new government of Israel and guide them in the path of righteousness, May God guide the leaders of Israel to make the right decisions, protect the citizens and bring peace to the land. May we all work together to bring about a better future for all people in Israel, and may we find strength and guidance in the Torah and our faith in God. Amen

Interesting. Hal may appear tone deaf to the details of the current crisis in Israel, but he is spot-on in finding a way to say something that will appeal on some level to every listener. He found the most moving and profound way to say absolutely nothing. Perfectly rabbinic! This experiment just might work out. He might become a real rabbi after all.

On Friday night I'll share some other insights gained from my new protege (or competitor, depending how you look at it). Hal will deliver a couple of sermonettes and I'll critique them on the spot.

For Shabbat morning, you'll have the chance to try it yourself. Go to the website, (it may take you a while to get in), and plug in the instructions "Jewish sermon on Vaera" and then add your own theme, like "love," "hatred," "weather" - try anything you want. The bot will tell you if it doesn't work. More often than not, it will make it work. Then, print out your sermon and bring it on Shabbat (those on Zoom can do this as well) and we'll create the first ever A.I Yeshiva.

Now, everyone can be a rabbi! Virtually.

I'm not the first rabbi to employ AI for a weekly sermon. See how this one fared in the Hamptons. He later said of the experience, “I really do think that were someone to get their Jewish content exclusively through ChatGPT, there would be an X-factor lacking. The human soul, the spirituality, the love, the compassion, all of that would be lacking. And I think they would be doing themselves a disservice to learn Judaism exclusively from artificial intelligence.”

I couldn't have put it better. But I wonder if that quote came from the rabbi...or the bot? In the end, A.I will help more for research, as an extension of Google or other search engines, than for actually sermon or essay writing. Nothing can replace the human touch. And nothing should replace the human element, in religion and in so many other areas of life.

The Washington Post asked some ethicists for guidance. They suggested that we not trust A.I to take the reins on things like breakup texts or eulogies for a good long time. "It’s tough to make blanket statements about when it’s okay to use AI to compose personal messages," an AI ethicist said. "For people who struggle with written or spoken communication, for example, ChatGPT can be a life-changing tool. Consider your intentions before you proceed," she advised. "Are you enhancing your communication, or deceiving and shortchanging?"

But it's good to stretch this tool and test its limits.

So I decided to ask Hal to write a sermon about Vaera and... poodles. Hal told me, in no uncertain terms, that the request was ridiculous.

I'm sorry, I'm not sure how a sermon on the Book of Exodus and poodles would be related. Could you please provide more context or clarify what you are asking?

I said...OK. How about comparing Moses to a poodle?

Hal hesitated for about ten seconds, and then, like the best good-boy ever to graduate obedience school, he summoned these words:

Poodles are known for being intelligent, trainable, and obedient. Moses, as depicted in the Book of Exodus, is also known for being intelligent and able to lead and guide the Israelites. Additionally, both poodles and Moses are known for their ability to adapt to new situations. Poodles are a versatile breed that excels in many different roles, such as obedience and agility competitions, service and therapy work, and as beloved family pets. Similarly, Moses was able to adapt to his role as leader of the Israelites and guide them through their journey to the Promised Land.
That would have been perfect. Thanks, Hal. Here's your treat.
But no, after a moment's deliberation, Hal continued.
However, I must point out that this analogy is not a common one and might be not very useful for a sermon. The Bible and the story of Moses have a very different context than that of a breed of dog, and it's important to keep that in mind when discussing them.

Duly noted, Hal. Always looking out for me, I'll make sure not to deliver this sermon. Not even to my poodles. No, Moses was not anyone's lapdog; and as God will certainly tell you, he was not the most obedient pup in the shed.

But the most important message to send to all the non virtual human-type beings out there is this: A.I. is a tool, like all of technology, whose impact can be both positive and negative. Technology is inherently neutral.

But a rabbi is and must be inherently and absolutely - and always - HUMAN. Rabbis need to be the antithesis of machines, the antidote to our increasingly robotic civilization. But that's not what's happening in a culture where rabbis are expected to be: mature yet youthful, serious yet funny, principled yet conciliatory, sophisticated yet homespun, friendly yet firm, and all of that 24/7. Who needs Hal? We're already bots, or expected to be.

Hal and me, we're gonna be fine together. But sooner or later, as the program is continually refined, Hal's going to start checkmating the grandmasters. The bot will soon have the clarion voice of MLK, the conscience of Heschel, the patience of Gandhi and the gumption of RBG. And be a darned good writer too.

And the people will choose Hal over a real person.

And that will be the end.

Recommended Reading

Some Bot-Free Parsha Packets

(click on cover to see the full packet)

Check out the portion with all the commentaries! (above)

The Power of the Word

This complete Synaplex learner's service takes our theme of the power of words and applies it to different prayers and Jewish experiences.

Slow of Speech and

Slow of Tongue

What does Moses' speech challenge tell us about the nature of leaders and leadership - and of Moses himself?

Israel’s religious Right is often accused of being messianist. It isn’t, not really. The Smotriches and Ben-Gvirs do not believe that the messiah is knocking at the door. They merely believe, as do many of the Israelis who voted for them, that God is on their side. So do the ultra-Orthodox who make common cause with them, though they may ascribe to God different priorities.

I do not make light of the Jewish historical claim to the Land of Israel. I have always favored Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria, because I believed that these were part of my people’s heritage. But I believe that they also belong to the Palestinians who live in them, and I do not pretend to know whose side God is on, or whether he takes sides at all in such matters, or whether he still would be God if he did.

There is something, however, that I do know. Zionism aspired to wean the Jewish people off the belief that God was on its side and could be relied on to rescue it from its predicaments—that it should rely on God rather than on itself because it was God’s chosen. This was precisely why most of the rabbis of Europe, where Zionism arose, and especially of Eastern Europe, where it struck its deepest roots, fought it tooth and nail. The bulk of ultra-Orthodoxy remained bitterly anti-Zionist right up to the declaration of the State of Israel, if not beyond that, while modern Orthodoxy, though it took part in Zionist construction in Palestine, contributed relatively little to it or to Israel’s creation.

And now, with Benjamin Netanyahu in tow, these are the forces dragging us into the abyss.

  • American Religion Is Not Dead Yet (Atlantic) - Participation in traditional houses of worship is in decline, but innovation and growth are happening elsewhere. The old metrics of success—attendance and affiliation, or, more colloquially, “butts, budgets, and buildings”—may no longer capture the state of American religion. Although participation in traditional religious settings (churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, etc.) is in decline, signs of life are popping up elsewhere: in conversations with chaplains, in communities started online that end up forming in-person bonds as well, in social-justice groups rooted in shared faith.

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