Judah Kerbel

And Hashem Spoke to Moshe: Authentic vs Artificial Speech

I promise you this week’s drasha (sermon) was written by me and only me. I did not plagiarize this in any way. If you are wondering why I would make such a disclaimer, given that I almost always write my own drashas except for the rare occasions when I say otherwise, it is not such a given anymore that there would be any reason for me to write my own derasha. And it’s not because I can just steal, or “borrow,” from other colleagues.

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages.” It is a swiftly growing and developing field. Sometimes, when we hear about AI, we begin to worry about an apocalyptic future in which the world is taken over by robots. That concern certainly exists. The fact that there are as many TED talks as there are explaining why AI will not take over the world demonstrates that there is something to be concerned about. It remains to be seen if AI can be managed to perform exactly the functions we need it to in order to advance humanity, or if its superintelligent future will outsmart us. Is it a God-given gift to enhance creation, or is it a snake to try to hinder human potential?

Not all concerns about AI, however, are about a literal usurping of power by machines. There are also concerns about AI in the realm of creativity and the purpose of humanity. Will AI-programmed machines take over our jobs? Will they be able to render our intelligence and creativity useless?

A lot of these kinds of questions have been recently raised with the introduction of a function called ChatGPT, or Generative Pre-trained Transformer. This tool was released just about two months ago. The way it works is that one types a prompt into the system, such as “explain the Pythagorean Theorem to me like I know nothing about math,” or “write me a poem about the satisfying experience of a car wash in the style of Emily Dickinson” and within seconds you will have quite an impressive poem available for your use. It is quite astonishing as well as unsettling what this technology can do. We are left with this question – is there any use anymore in learning how to write? In spending time writing?

The most ubiquitous phrase in the Torah is וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר. It appears nearly 100 times, almost all of them with the same trop. It is the most basic phrase to lein from the Torah and to translate. It is so basic that you would never expect a rabbi to give a derasha on the words וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר. The Gemara in Megillah says that this verse counts for the ten required to read Torah in a synagogue; Rashi says that is despite the fact that we do not learn anything from it! 

However, I do want to talk about it this week. The first time this phrase appears is in Parashat Vaeira, when Hashem gives Moshe instructions to appear before Paroh.

Ramban wonders, what does the word לאמר mean in this context? Hashem spoke to Moshe… to say something to other people? Saying to Moshe? Why could the Torah not just write “Hashem said to Moshe?” Ramban explains that the word לאמר is להורות על בירור הענין בכל מקום. וידבר ה’ אל משה באמירה גמורה, לא אמירה מסופקת ולא ברמז דבר. The word לאמר teaches us that Hashem spoke to Moshe with clarity and precision. There were neither riddles nor hints, nor was there any ambiguity in Hashem’s message. While on some level, this idea would seem to indicate the unique way in which Moshe received crystal clear prophecy, I see another layer here. When Hashem speaks to Moshe, the speech is authentic. There is nothing artificial or filtered about it. It is the genuine voice and message of what Hashem; Hashem is giving of Himself when speaking with Moshe.

L’havdil, in a different vein, Prince Harry recently released his memoir called Spare. Believe me, I have very little interest in reading it. But Rabbi Benjamin Blech, he should live and be well, recently pointed out that Prince Harry is not the true author of this memoir. It was written by a ghostwriter. It is not Prince Harry’s voice. Is it problematic that a ghostwriter composed this work? Would it be problematic if Chat GPT wrote this story? It may not be acceptable in academic settings, but maybe here the conventions allow for ghostwriters to write memoirs. But Rabbi Blech’s final reflection is very profound:

Words create reality. God created the world through words: “and God said… and it was.” We are defined by our words. Our own words.

Whether you are a master stylist or a literary lion, you can only be truly known by others from the words you choose to create your personal identity. No artificial intelligence and no ghostwriter, no matter how great, can fully convey who you really are.

Which, in the final accounting, makes you the true – and only – real author of your life. And which makes the royal memoir sweeping the globe a mere ghost of what it might have been had Prince Harry actually been the author.

In this vein, I am fascinated by a rabbi in the Hamptons, Rabbi Josh Franklin, who gave a drasha on the Shabbat of Parashat Vayigash and told his congregants in advance that he was plagiarizing his sermon, but they would have to figure out whom he was plagiarizing. He gives his sermon, and then the congregants guess who wrote the sermon – other rabbis, his father, and of course, someone guessed Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. But the correct answer was Artificial Intelligence. He put in the prompt, “write me a sermon of 1000 words in the voice of a rabbi, connecting it to vulnerability and intimacy and quote Brene Brown.” His congregants were stunned. So this only begs the question – do rabbis need to write their own Divrei Torah anymore? Rabbi Franklin’s answer was still yes. The AI bots may be able to deliver something more or less intelligent, but what they cannot do is be truly empathetic. They cannot reflect on the feelings of those whom they address; they cannot address their spiritual needs. Rodger Kamenetz compared AI to a golem, fashioned out of mud. They may both have some characteristics of something resembling a human being, but they do not have the human soul. They cannot be empathetic or spiritual.

Ramban teaches us that when we read the phrase וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר, we know that when Hashem speaks to Moshe, and in turn, to us, these words are not the words of a golem or a bot. It is popular nowadays to say that the Torah was also written by ghostwriters, but that is not what we believe. Hashem speaks in the Torah with אמירה גמורה. It is the voice and words of Hashem Himself. We are having a direct encounter with the Divine when we see these words. We should appreciate how profound that is when we see how much in today’s world is filtered, artificial, and full of mimicry.

And in the spirit of והלכת בדרכיו, imitatio Dei, walking in the path of Hashem, we should remind ourselves to endeavor to be authentic ourselves. Of course, it is reasonable to use resources to enhance ourselves and what we present. But as I have said countless times, לא ניתנה התורה למלאכי השרת – the Torah was not given to angels, and if I may add, not given to robots. Hashem created us to be ourselves and created us to be His authentic partners in creation. There is a place in society for artificial intelligence, but when it comes to how we write and speak, how we present and represent ourselves, we must be real. They way we interact with others should come from a place of authentic empathy. When we interact essential workers who aid our lives with their services, we should look for them not just for the service they are providing as if they are robots but to see the humanity in them. Use their names, say thank you to them, and even ask them a question about themselves that shows a genuine interest. Our אמירה should be אמירה גמורה, truly our own words and what we mean, reflecting the totality of our soul, which cannot be represented by any other human nor robot.

And once again, to be very clear, I did not use Chat GPT to write this drasha – if anything, I could not have possibly done so because it is “at capacity” and not operational right now. I guess sometimes, you really have to do the work on your own and not rely on technology, or otherwise, you might get a little stuck! But herein lies the opportunity to give of ourselves to demonstrate our authenticity and to show our humanity.

About the Author
Judah Kerbel is the rabbi of Queens Jewish Center and a development associate for the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He received his rabbinic ordination from RIETS and an MA in medieval Jewish history from the Bernard Revel Graduate School. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.
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