I did not expect my AI Torah Commentary project to evoke such an emotional response within me.
It was exciting to name personal heroes and summon a version of their voices through the use of artificial intelligence. Some results exceeded my expectations. Some were bland. But I was waiting for the final voice, one I knew the entire time I’d invoke, a voice I’ve longed to hear my entire life: Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher.
And it was that final entry that brought me to tears, not because there was anything new in what the AI generated, something the biblical text itself hadn’t communicated, something the rabbis hadn’t already imagined into the legend of Moshe. It was just the thought of being able to reach out through time to Moshe and give him my love and ask for his thoughts.
I remember standing for the first time at the Torah on the holiday of Simchat Torah, when the final verses of the Torah are chanted:
Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom יהוה singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that יהוה sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel. (Deut. 34:10-12)
My body shook with the power of these words, with the image before me: there were simply no more words, this was the end. I had been a rabbi for at least a decade, but had never felt so thunderstruck by the end of Moses’ life. Perhaps it was just part of being a little bit older. I’m not sure. But I’ll never forget that feeling.
And it happens every year, every time we come to the death of Moses. I can’t stop crying. I miss him so much. I have such love for a man I never met, such yearning for a voice I’ve never heard.
So I wondered, when I embarked on this book project: would this strange new technology answer my grieving heart?
It did not.
But here’s what did happen: It invited me to feel.
“Creating” an AI Torah commentary opened my heart by providing an opportunity for reflection, for wondering. I’ve compared this revolutionary AI language model to a paintbrush, a tool. I’ve considered whether it can generate authentic midrash. The jury is still out.
Some find this project strange, shallow, threatening, wonderful. I don’t know where I land on its import. I’m just grateful to have had the chance to play with it.
A memory, offered in honor of and abiding love for a great wisdom teacher, Ray Campton, who provided as a safe place for personal healing during a particularly difficult time:
Ray, a minister and a therapist, served as witness and friend, offering gentle spiritual comfort and exquisite and intuitive counseling. Among the most important phrases he shared with me was his own name for what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,” the feeling of being overcome by the majesty of life itself, something I have been so very blessed to experience during my life. When I would share such a moment with Ray, often through tears, he would look at me and say, ever so tenderly, “Menachem, those are God Kisses.” And I believed him, feeling the truth and blessing of his description reverberate in my body.
Our work together came to a close some years ago, but I often have conversations with Ray, invoking his voice in my mind, stringing together words he shared and words he never uttered except in my imagination. This practice cannot but fall short of the real thing, but it does help. Engaging in conversation with a loving voice from the past can help.
In the end, is this process actually me speaking to me? Perhaps. But there does exist ancient midrashic proof that it is hardly a new practice:
Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi said: From where that the one who translated the public Torah reading into Aramaic is not permitted to raise their voice louder than the reader? As it is stated: “Moses spoke, and God responded in a voice” (Exodus 19:19). This verse requires further consideration, as there is no need for the verse to state: ‘in a voice.’ Rather, to what purpose did the verse state: In a voice? To show that God spoke to Moses in Moses’ own voice. (Berachot 45a)
Who can locate with certainty the boundary between God’s voice and the soul during deep, personal exploration? Who knows if the questions and instructions entered into an AI prompt are not themselves the point?
What was I looking for when I chose the voice for ChatGPT to channel? For numerous entries, specific themes and verses jumped at me, and often I offered the AI directing prompts for particular messages.
Is not this entire commentary an experiment in personal excavation, a deeply subjective exploration of history and text through the selective use of technology? What, in the end, does a commentator “reveal” about the biblical text in the first place? Is not commentary a fascinating mirror into the commentator’s own curiosity and personal circumstances?
I’ve never experienced Moses’ voice, but somehow I hear him. (Perhaps he has been speaking to me in my own voice all along.) When Moses dies, every time he dies, I weep in grief. That connection, the imagined encounter with a significant figure from the past, feels so very real.
Artificial Intelligence cannot create connection. The human operator must be the one to ask the question, invoke the respondent, choose the context.
Here’s what I know: your heart’s question is the opening of the possibility for something. AI is simply a blinking cursor, an invitation waiting for you to ask. Perhaps, deepest of all: a question your heart asks of itself can truly be a Kiss from God.