Mordechai Soskil

The Destruction of Humanity in the Style of Dr. Suess

The last couple of weeks the world of education has been all abuzz with discussion about Open AI’s ChatGPT. AI – artificial intelligence – is a type of computer program that can learn and get better. On the one hand, it can be something helpful, like the way Amazon’s website might suggest other items you would like to purchase based on your purchase and browsing history. Whether you like or dislike that suggestion, it gets more information about you to improve its suggestions. On the one hand, what could possibly be the problem with that? On the other hand, there is a whole genre of science fiction based on the premise that someday the computers realize that they are smarter than we are and start to destroy humanity and take over the world and stuff.

ChatGPT is an AI that gives natural sounding text-based responses to essentially any type of query.

Please explain quantum entanglement in the style of Dr. Suess.

Just an excerpt from Chat GPT’s answer –

In a far-off land called Quantumland
Lived two particles, hand in hand
They were connected, never apart
By a bond that was truly smart
This bond was called quantum entanglement
It was a mystery, quite enchanting
No matter where the particles were
They were always connected, it was quite a stir
But a doctor, a scientist bold
Decided to solve this mystery, we’re told
He studied and researched day and night
Until he had a theory that was just right
“You see,” said he, with a twinkle in his eye
“Quantum entanglement is like two peas in a pod, oh my!
No matter where they are, they are always connected
It’s a strange and wondrous thing, and it’s quite respected”

(Full disclosure – I didn’t like the first version of the answer, so I asked it for more rhyming.)

It’s not perfect but it’s not bad.

Do you have a dvar Torah on Parshas Vayechi?

Again, just an excerpt –

Parshat Vayechi, the final Parsha in the book of Genesis, tells the story of Jacob’s final years and his death. In this Parsha, Jacob blesses each of his twelve sons, giving each of them a unique blessing that reflects their individual personalities and characteristics.

One of the most significant blessings in this Parsha is the blessing given to the tribe of Joseph. Jacob blesses Joseph with a double portion, saying “his offspring shall become a multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19). This blessing has been interpreted by many as a prophecy that the tribe of Joseph, through the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, will become two of the most influential and powerful tribes in Israel.

This blessing is also significant because it highlights the importance of inheritance and the passing down of blessings from one generation to the next. In Judaism, the concept of inheritance is not just about material possessions, but also about the transmission of spiritual and moral values from one generation to the next.

Now you might think that this is just a neat party trick. But educators are starting to get nervous. If a computer can generate work for students, then how can you assess what they learned? Is there a value to “The Five Paragraph Essay” if you can ask the computer to create a five paragraph essay on the historical context of The Great Gatsby? (You can. It did a pretty good job. Took less than a minute.)

As educators started to wonder what this means for our craft, my first thought was that we could use this tool for students to generate work, but then have them reverse engineer it, by finding the sources. But it turns out that if you type, “Thanks! Can you give me the sources for that?” then Chat GPT is happy to provide you with an MLA style bibliography ready to go. So, that’s a bummer.

One bright spot is that the computer doesn’t know Hilchos Brachos yet. (Yet.) It said the brachos on an Oreo, a Nature Valley granola bar, and quinoa, were all Hamotzi. I felt compelled to correct it, but now I’m worried I’ve made it more powerful.

This tool will only get better and more powerful. And while I don’t think it’s likely to seek out the destruction of humanity (I asked it and it said it’s not going to) it’s going to take a minute for schools to learn how to 1) make use of this tool, 2) defend our give-in-work-get-a-grade system for assessing students, if that is even still possible, and 3) think about the goals of education in the face of this new wave of technological tools.

(And by the way, one of my talmidot says it works for math homework too. And it even explains how to do the problem. She stressed the word, “explains.” It doesn’t just tell you the answer like a calculator. It helps, like a tutor.)

Just like when you and I were in school, undoubtedly a teacher or parent said, “Because you’re not going to have a calculator with you everywhere you go!” And then 15 years ago, math teachers everywhere had to rethink what math education looks like when literally everyone has a calculator with them everywhere they go.  So too, this is a moment just like that for humanities teachers.

That said, this is not an existential threat to Torah teachers. And not just because ChatGPT doesn’t know quinoa from sour dough in terms of Hilchos Brachos. Because the goal of Torah education has NEVER been solely about the transmission of information. It’s about the process of the transmission of information. It’s not about (only) about knowing Torah it’s about learning Torah.

Probably at some point every yeshiva graduate heard a dvar Torah about how the daily bracha is “La’asok bdivrei Torah” “To be involved in the words of Torah” – which is a clear indication that the mitzvah isn’t even really knowing Torah at all. It’s about trying to learn the Torah. I recall my own Rosh Hayeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg zt”l, say many times that, “we don’t know Torah because we learned it. We work in Torah. And then Hashem gives us a matana [a gift] of knowing the Torah. But a person could put a lot of work into one sugya [topic] only for it to bear fruit in another area all together.” It might be a joke, but my impression is that Daf Yomi learners say that that they get more out of the Yomi than the Daf.

Meaning, I believe, that the avoda of getting up early or staying out late or stopping mitten drinnen in the middle of the day, to learn Torah, is what helps them grow in closeness to Hashem. It might be the occasional vort, the ha’aorah, the great kasha, that makes them smile and get a geshamk, but it’s the planning how to do the daf each day that helps them grow. That’s why the computer doesn’t scare me as a Torah educator, any more than an Artscroll gemorah does.

The reason that we have canonized the story of children playing with dreidels as a ruse to hide their Torah study is not because we are so proud of what they learned. It’s because we are in awe of their mesirus nefesh FOR THE LEARNING. And though it’s for a different rant, the greatest threats to teaching our children about the value of mesirus nefesh for Torah in the 21st century isn’t some computer program, right?

Though the educational world at large will need to think deeply about how to move forward in the brave new world that ChatGPT opens, I don’t foresee this tool striking fear into my colleagues in teaching Torah. Plus if I ever need to tell a dvar Torah in iambic pentameter I have a good place to start.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children. And a blessedly expanding herd of grandchildren.
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