Thursday, February 16, 2023

In This Moment: Majority Rules? Are we at an AI inflection point? Repro Shabbat, the first Shabbat-O-Gram


In This Moment

Should the Majority Always Rule?

Exodus 23:2

The passage above, from this week's portion of Mishpatim, states that a prerequisite for a just judicial system, and therefore a just society, is that majority rule must never become absolute. The rights of minorities cannot be trampled upon; there needs to be a check on those who are in power. For the ancient rabbinic courts, the majority did in fact rule - but only if those rulings were just and did not lead to evil. That principle, so ahead of its time, is one that can guide us now. This portion, which contains many of the 613 mitzvot, also reminds us, twice, to love the stranger, "for we were strangers in the land of Egypt." According to the sage Rabbi Eliezer, the Torah “warns against the wronging of a stranger in thirty-six places; others say, in forty-six places.” However many, it's a lot. At a time when the new Israeli government is trying to upend (rather than simply "reform") a carefully balanced judicial check on power, in a move that would bring Israel closer to the ranks of "illiberal democracies" like Hungary, the lessons of our portion warrant close scrutiny.

This week's Hebrew front page presents Israel's agonizing split screen:

Top headline: "Democracy - the Giant Demonstration Opposite the Knesset, more than 100,000 People". Bottom: "Endless TerrorAsil Suaed, a border police officer, was killed by friendly fire in Jerusalem during a terror incident outside the Shuafat refugee camp. Israelis have always lived life in split screen. The external threats have always been there. Now they are matched, and some say exceeded, by the threats from within.

From Ha'aretz:

What happened in Jerusalem on Monday wasn’t just a demonstration. Yes, people stood in front of the Knesset building with signs and posters, party leaders gave speeches, and everyone chanted in favor of democracy and against the government’s plan to crush Israel’s judiciary. But that was just one part of the story.

The Israeli media covered this huge demonstration with very little emphasis on the content of the speeches or the messages of the protesters. In today’s political climate in Israel, there is very little discussion of substance. The demonstration on Monday wasn’t about persuasion. It was meant to be a show of force.

That’s why the media dealt obsessively with only one question throughout the day: How many people attended the demonstration. It may sound silly – does it really matter that much if there were 90,000 or 150,000, when the images clearly show that the streets leading to the Knesset were packed with people and thousands more protested in other parts of the country?

Well, it does, because Israel isn’t experiencing a normal political debate at this critical moment in its history. Instead, it is in the midst of a "cold" civil war, so far without much physical violence (thankfully), but with a very clear emphasis on power.

The government is determined to use its power to crush the liberal elements of Israel, and it views the Supreme Court as one of the most important liberalizing forces in Israeli society. It was often the court, not the Knesset, that delivered equal rights for LGBTQ Israelis, women and minorities. Netanyahu’s far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies now see a golden opportunity to break it.

But the other side has power, too. Economic power, as evident in the decisions of tech companies to pull their funds out of the country; and also the power of numbers and determination, which was clearly on display Monday before the Knesset.

What we saw on Monday wasn’t any kind of climax for the protest movement. It was a warning shot to the other side as we prepare for the next stages of this battle for the soul of Israel.

World Wide Wrap

More Gun Violence

On this fifth anniversary of the Parkland massacre and a week of more heartbreak on campus and elsewhere, we need to turn all our attention to the need to reduce gun violence.

Jewish sources abound regarding this life-and-death issue. We can start our conversation with these passages:

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. 

(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a) 

The opposite of good is not evil; it is indifference (Elie Wiesel) 

Some are guilty, but all are responsible. (Abraham Joshua Heschel) 

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Lev 19:16)

See more resource on this source sheet, as well as this community resource guide prepared by the Religious Action Center, and in particular Rabbi David Saperstein's explanation on why this is a religious issue, which includes this important passage:

Our legislators and the gun lobby want to blame everyone but themselves. The problem, they say, is mental illness. On the one hand, tautologically, mass murderers are emotionally disturbed. On the other, the compelling evidence testifies that the overwhelming percentage of those with mental illness are not violent and those who are violent are far more often a danger to themselves than to others. More compellingly, in Canada and Japan, there are people with the same mental illnesses as here in America but they don't pick up their mother's legally obtained Bushmaster and randomly shoot people.

Recommended Reading

  • 5 Key Takeaways from AJC’s State of Antisemitism in America Report 2022
  • 1.More Jews feel less secure in America.
  • 2. American Jews are proud, but altering behavior out of fear.
  • 3. Antisemitism online and on social media is a continuing threat. But young American Jews experience it differently. 
  • 4. American Jews pursuing higher education are experiencing some lows.
  • 5.Americans know antisemitism is a problem for society, but more can be done. 

The "He Gets Us" Super Bowl ad controversy

  • And finally - The Backstory to That Jesus Ad at the Super Bowl (Slate) As one spokesperson of the campaign told Ad Age, “the ‘He Gets Us’ Super Bowl spots will explore how the teachings and example of Jesus demonstrate that radical love, generosity, and kindness have the power to change the world.” This, ultimately, gets at the real political underpinnings of the campaign: the belief that America will become a much more peaceful, successful, and wholesome place once it has become a more fully Christian nation—a more traditional perspective than the focus on diversity and “radical compassion” and “standing up for the marginalized” implies. On Sunday, $20 million is being placed on that bet.

Meanwhile, our wonderful, seven-part interfaith conversation on "The Bible With and Without Jesus" came to a conclusion last week. Watch it here and see how mutual respect in interfaith dialogue does in fact exist.

Are we at an AI inflection point?

  • Also see Microsoft’s Bing Chatbot Offers Some Puzzling and Inaccurate Responses (NYT). See also Help, Bing Won’t Stop Declaring Its Love for Me - A.I. chatbots are not sentient beings that can think their own thoughts, despite what science fiction fans might imagine. But the similarities between those chatbots and a human brain are already quite disturbing.That’s the central takeaway from NYT’s Kevin Roose’s recent two-hour chat with the artificial intelligence software being built into Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. Over the course of the discussion, the chatbot announced that its name was Sydney, that it was in love with Kevin and that it might want to engineer a deadly virus. Afterward, Kevin — a Times technology columnist who’s hardly a technophobe — pronounced himself frightened by A.I.

  • Also, ChatGPT is the best thing to happen to writers (Boston Globe) - So much writing is lazy and clichéd, and ChatGPT is just the thing to prompt us human writers to improve, to embrace our own individual personalities and voices, and to write with force, drama, and humor in a way no AI program can. Otherwise, we will be dead.

In light of the meteoric rise of Artificial Intelligence and ChatGPT into our consciousness, it is worthwhile to take a look back at when the Web was new and the experience of going online so revolutionary and connecting. We've seen much more of the dark side in recent years, and my own views have shifted. But my optimism, as expressed in this chapter from my book on seeking God in cyberspace, published in 2000, is worth revisiting. And to see my first email communication with the congregation is revelatory, I've posted a key chapter from that book on my website.

The first congregational email, sent on November 25, 1996, is below.

Dear Congregants,

You are part of history: the first e-mail transmission on our Beth El congregants list.  Right now the list is about 20 strong, consisting of those of you who have given me your addresses or e-mailed me over the past few months.  The list will grow dramatically over the coming weeks as congregants hear about it in our mailings (and from you).  The advantages of a "congregants list" are obvious: instant communications, enabling us to let you know about funerals for instance, important meetings and programs, schedule changes and to otherwise answer questions of general interest.  In the not-too-distant future, I hope to be able to set up a "listserv" that will be more interactive so that you can talk to other congregants, but although this format is more one-sided (me talking to you), you are free to e-mail me with your feedback, which I can forward to others on the list.  Let me know if a matter you bring up is something you would want to share with other congregants.

                                                                                   Shalom from Cyberspace,


Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

What is Shabbat Shekalim?

What is Shabbat Shekalim? Why name a Shabbat, of all days, after Israeli currency? As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes in, The Jewish Way, "More than any other holiday, Shabbat reflects the changing moods and concerns of Clal Yisrael (the collectivity of Israel).... In the weeks before Passover, four special Shabbat days prepare the community agenda: Shabbat Shekalim, the occasion to to give the annual gift to the national treasury for Temple sacrifices;  Shabbat Zachor (Remember), a reminder of the Amalekite genocidal assault on Israel and the ongoing dangers of anti-Semitism; Shabbat Parah (Red Heifer), the declaration of the need to purify in preparation for the Paschal lamb sacrifice and the central national feast; and Shabbat Hachodesh (the Month), an announcement of the arrival of the month of Passover, the new year of liberation." 

The fact that Shabbat Shekalim always comes at the time when I need to be reminded to get my own taxes in order is one way that I have tried to imbue even the secular calendar with the rhythms of Jewish sacred time. It also reminds me that the giving of taxes is in itself a sacred activity. Corny as it seems, I actually improvise a bracha when I put my completed tax forms in the mail, realizing that this money is going to help people who are in need, and help this nation maintain its position moral leadership, not to mention the fact that some of this money also helps to preserve Israel's security. 

Classic Parsha Packets for Mishpatim

A Rabbinic Driving Manual

How the portion of Mishpatim might be helpful in a driver's ed class. A handy guide to the highways of life.

Commandment and Choice: How Should Modern Jews Relate to Jewish Law? What is the relationship between Law and Love? A look at Mishpatim and the Ahavah Rabbah prayer. What does it mean for a modern Jew to say "We will do and we will obey (Na'aseh V'Nishma)?"

Coping with stress during hard economic times: Shabbat Shekalim sources for learning and meditation

A special supplement prepared during the 2008-2009 economic meltdown.

Hang in there!

Adar begins this coming Tues. and Wed.!

Blessing for the New Month of Adar (recited this Shabbat), by Ilana Streit

May we be the poppy seeds in each other's hamentaschen

this year

may the world be sweet to the taste

  soft to the touch

    and moonlight to the eyes

      and redemption to the soul

may we design contests in which we all win

may we design beauty contests to which each moment

  is a contender

may we all be blessed with cousins who have our backs

  and who would fast on our account

may we recognize when we are Esther

  when we are Mordecai

and when we are Aḥashverosh

may we keep remembering to forget to remember

may we each and may all of us appear at the party of our lives

  wearing the crown of our royalty

and whatever the hell else we choose

And finally, on this Presidents' Day weekend...

George Washington's Letter to the Jews of Newport, R.I.

(click on the letter to enlarge)

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