How about a Robo-Rabbi?

With just a few days until Rosh Hashanah, many Jews are fervently praying- that their rabbi will keep his sermons short. Rabbis themselves have a repertoire of jokes about rabbis who speak longer than their congregants can tolerate.

Well, a 400-year-old Buddhist Temple in Japan may have found the answer to droning High Holiday sermonizers. Temple attendance had been on the decline at that temple, so the priests invested a tidy fortune in tech and produced “Mindar”, the AI monk. He looks like a cyborg, with steel-and-fibre-optic arms and a humanesque silicon face and shoulders. (Clergy are scary enough without the protruding circuitry).

Bot-priest can deliver an animated twenty-five-minute sermon without a single “um”, and he’s pulling in the crowds.

He’s not the only one. Germany’s Protestant Church rolled out BlessU-2, a robotic priest shares blessings on demand. Not to be outdone, the Catholics have SanTO (that’s Sanctified Theomorphic Operator), a robot that dishes out spiritual advice on demand.

Nu, so how about a robo-rabbi?

Everyone I’ve asked immediately responds, “What about Shabbos?”.

What about it? We programme lights and air conditioners to come on and off throughout Shabbos, so why not rabbis? Ah, but it might not be in the “spirit of Shabbos”. Fair enough. But, a guaranteed seven-minute drosha (not to mention a flawless Torah reading) would certainly enhance the Shabbos experience. (I can’t say I love the thought of listening to a sermon that would sound like Waze.)

There are rabbis who can retrieve precise Talmudic references and legal rulings from their neural networks in nanoseconds. Most of us need time to research and consult before we can get back to you. An AI rabbi (would he be called AI-vay-der?) would spit out answers just as quickly as you’d ask them- all with laser-precision.

And he’d never get tired or impatient. Robo-rabbi could clock in half a dozen hospital visits, three shiva calls, a bris, five shiurim and a marriage mediation, without pausing for breath- or coffee.

Sounds fantastic! No faribels. No days off. No bias in favour of big donors (actually, no salary- but that’s standard for many rabbis). He/she/it would never forget Aunt Sally’s half-brother’s yahrtzeit either. Sounds like we have a winner.

Only, there are some serious Halachic roadblocks. An android rabbi cannot blow Shofar for you. Robo-rabbi could entertain at a Chupah, but could not conduct or witness the marriage. To do a mitzvah on another’s behalf, you have to be obligated to perform the mitzvah yourself.

Which brings us to the core issue. Judaism isn’t interested in infallible leaders, who can recite sacred texts or deliver faultless sermons. A rabbi is a model of the human struggle to learn and grow; someone who can oversleep or forget a birthday or accidentally flip a light switch on Shabbos. Jewish leaders must be relatable.

When a rabbi qualifies, he is often reminded that, besides the four volumes of the Code of Jewish Law, there is the all-important fifth volume called “being in touch”, something that can only be learned through personal experience.

It’s like the story of a fellow who couldn’t afford wine for the Pesach Seder. He asked his rabbi if he could replace the four cups with milk. The rabbi replied that he would have to consult the sources, which was a ruse to buy time so that he could collect funds to cover all that family’s Pesach Seder expenses. A guy who considers milk for the Four Cups obviously can’t afford meat at the Seder either.

Robo-Rabbi would have shot out a “no” in less than a millisecond.

Robots can’t empathize.

Rabbis dare not be robots.

Those Japanese monks boast that Mindar will be immortal. Remember “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return”? Not gonna happen for robo-clergy. Android clergy would constantly upgrade their knowledge-banks and improve their ability to respond appropriately to humans. In time, the android priest might even mimic empathy.

Had G-d wanted immortal, perfect creatures, He would have stopped after creating the angels. They live forever, and they stay out of trouble. Their spiritual circuitry has them pumping out exquisite heavenly praises every morning right on schedule. They never press “snooze”.

Instead, He made us.

Rabbis are brushing up their carefully-crafted High Holiday sermons, as their congregants steel themselves to hear them. The Rabbis won’t get it perfect this year. Some will speak for too long, others will meander into political danger zones, and others will overlook issues that their members believe to be important.

We’ll sit in Shul feeling less-than-perfect, as we reflect on how we could have given more attention to our Judaism and to our world.

And G-d will enjoy tremendous nachas.

He didn’t intend for Existence to produce robotic perfectionists. He designed spectacular angels who never falter, but He created Existence with us in mind. Us, the imperfect humans who fluff at least half of the opportunities He sends us. Because, there is something remarkable about a fallible, distracted human getting it right.

You don’t celebrate a computer’s accurate calculations. You beam when your child’s scrawls, “I luv you mum, you are very sweat”.

Annually, on Rosh Hashanah, G-d reminds us that He is not keen on AI. He’d much prefers our clumsy, unreliable overtures.

This is why Torah mandates Rosh Hashanah to coincide with the anniversary- not of Creation, nor of the birth robotic angels- but of the first human, who would start his career with a colossal blunder. Rosh Hashanah reminds us that only us fallible beings will actually see G-d’s plan to fruition.

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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