Moses was given the mission of a lifetime – to free the people from Egyptian slavery. Of all his objections, the following arouses the most sympathy: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Moses repeats his complaint later: “I am tongue-tied (lit. of uncircumcised lips). How then will Pharoh listen to me?” (Exodus 6:30; See also Exodus 6:12).
What afflicted Moses? Rabbeinu Chananel (965-1055 CE) says he had difficulty with consonants (on Exodus 4:10). Others say he stuttered, talked with a lisp, had a cleft pallet, had forgotten his Egyptian, or had not learnt Hebrew properly. But maybe he just couldn’t find the best way to express himself. We know what that feels like. We sometimes know what we want to say, but just can’t find the words. And sometimes we find the words, but they don’t strike a chord. We aren’t heard. And so, we can understand Moses’ reluctance.
But God reassures Moses– “Who gives humans speech? … Is it not I, YHVH… I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say” (Exodus 4:12).
The Midrash adds that God comforted Moses thus: “If I wanted you to be a man of words, I would have made you with that capacity. What you say will be just because I will be your mouth” (Shemoth Rabbah 3:20). The impression is that God chose Moses specifically because he lacked language. That way, God could speak through him without mediation. When Moses spoke, the people heard God, unplugged, without amplification or embellishment. Moses’ mouth was God’s mouth.
Maimonides picks up this theme in his Guide for the Perplexed when discussing prophecy. He writes that, unlike other prophets who met God in visions through the exercise of their imaginative faculty, God engaged with Moses directly “mouth to mouth” (Numbers 12:8) (Guide II, 45). Moses expressed nothing of himself but told it as he heard it from God (or else instructed Aaron to tell it as he heard it (Exodus 7:1)). He was simply a conduit.
In November 2022, ChatGPT, the language model chatbot, burst onto the world stage, and left us all speechless in more ways than one. We were speechless in amazement because, although far from perfect, ChatGPT can generate eloquent and intelligent content covering many areas of knowledge better than we can (and it will only get better).
And we are left speechless because now we can see for sure that machines will render our gift for language, if not worthless, then mundane, replicable, generic. Like Moses, we bemoan our slowness of tongue and lack of words in the face of such powerful AI. As Sean Thomas, the writer, put it recently: “We’re screwed. Writing is over. That’s it. It’s time to pack away your quill, your biro, and your shiny iPad: the computers will soon be here to do it better” (Spectator, 10 January 2023).
And what applies to writing, applies equally to music and art. Not only can we not compete we may even come to forget whatever skills we possessed, or not bother to learn them in the first place. Our writers are like the last stonemasons, holding on to a quaint skill even as the iron and steel skyscrapers rise around them. All of us who use language will be witness to our own supersession.
How should we respond religiously? We need to do the opposite of Moses. Moses, the humblest of all men, made himself as nought before the Divine, so the voice of God could be heard. We need to make ourselves tall, cultivate soul, create character.
These machines are not God, and never will be, however much they impress or predict. They are bred on the words and information we feed them, the output of fallible humankind. They did not create or give humans speech, and do not instruct. We will not therefore flourish by parroting them.
In Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Roxanne is mesmerised by Christian’s poetry recited from under her balcony, but the words belong to Cyrano, who stands in the shadows feeding them to his friend. When Roxanne discovers this, she knows it is Cyrano she loves. It is his soul, not his friend’s, flaming in the words recited to her, that move her.
We must, then, find soul, retain our skills in unaided communication, and trust in the holiness of language. When we use AI to write, which we will no doubt feel compelled to do, we should not just accept the words offered us, but interrogate them, engage with them imaginatively, try them on for size and style so they express our character, adapt them, and make them ours somehow. That way, when we offer them up to others or in their support, we, like Moses, will be heard and seen.