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In ‘Can Robots Be Jewish?’ rabbis weigh in on a Jewish pastime: disagreement

The questions in this collection, part of Moment Magazine’s long-running feature ‘Ask the Rabbis,’ offer a model for what is fundamental to Judaism.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) — It is an axiom of Jewish life that Jews love to disagree.

There’s the famous Jewish joke about a shipwrecked Jewish sailor on a desert island who builds two synagogues — the one where he prays and the one he won’t set foot in.

Or take Hanukkah, the eight-day holiday, which ends Friday (Dec. 18). Some Jews view it as theologically breezy, a “holiday of lights,” full of spinning dreidels and jelly doughnuts. Others view it more seriously, as a ponderous morality tale about the triumph of religious fundamentalism over assimilation.

Just in time for the holiday, a new book now showcases this range of Jewish disagreement on a variety of contemporary issues.

Can Robots Be Jewish And Other Pressing Questions of Modern Life” is a collection of 30 provocative questions, each answered in 200 words or less by 10 different rabbis from different quarters of the Jewish world.

The book is a compendium of some of the previously published “Ask the Rabbis” columns that have appeared in the pages of the Jewish magazine Moment. The magazine, which bills itself as a Jewish take on news, ideas and culture, has been around since the 1970s and continues to publish six print issues a year in addition to its newer web presence.

The “Ask the Rabbis” column, begun in 2005, continues to be one of its popular features.

The questions in the new compendium include: Should we edit our children’s genes? What does the Torah teach us about addiction? What guidance, if any, does Judaism offer transgender people? Is democracy a Jewish idea?

“Can Robots Be Jewish? And Other Pressing Questions of Modern Life” Courtesy image

“As I was editing this collection I realized it was a model of civil disagreement for our time,” said Amy E. Schwartz, Moment Magazine’s book and opinion editor who edited the volume. “There’s more and more distance between views and less and less willingness to argue in an open-hearted way. We like to model that that is fundamental to Judaism. It’s a great value and it’s still possible. “

In the title question, “Can robots be Jewish?” several rabbis begin by delving into Jewish arcana. They point out that the predecessor to the modern robot was created by the 16th-century Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague to protect the Jewish community from blood libels. It was called a golem — a clay creature magically brought to life and later destroyed. One rabbi even posits the golem was the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s novel, “Frankenstein.”

But mostly the rabbis — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist and others — argue about whether robots have souls. A Reconstructionist rabbi argues if the definition of a Jewish soul is someone who is loved and cared for by other Jews, then yes, robots attended to by Jews, may be called Jewish. Other rabbis disagree.

For the past 15 years, Schwartz said, the editorial team formulated the questions in staff meetings and then sent them off to a group of rabbis. A successful question, she said, is one that yields a variety of answers — or disagreements.

“I like to make the rabbis work a little bit,” she said.

Since many of the questions address modern-day issues, one might conclude the Hebrew Bible and subsequent rabbinic commentaries never considered some of the questions in this volume. Yet in many instances the contributing rabbis, steeped in Jewish texts, demonstrate that the ancient sages actually addressed some of them.

Take the question “What guidance, if any, does Judaism offer to transgender people?” Turns out, the Talmud, the extensive written body of interpretation and commentary by ancient rabbis, addressed “androgynos,” people who are both male and female, as well as those whose genitalia are indeterminate. They even allowed people could transition from one sex to the other.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia writes: “Religious leaders should rise to the task and find ways to welcome transgender or nonconforming people, and perhaps the first step will be to let them define themselves.”

And while the ancient Jewish texts preceded modern-day addiction treatment and recovery programs, the rabbis answering the question “What does the Torah teach us about addiction?” reach back to a host of biblical stories that can offer some lessons, including the story of the golden calf in the Book of Exodus, as well as Noah’s drunkenness in the Book of Genesis.

Conservative Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz writes that the entire Book of Exodus and the Israelite path from slavery to freedom can be viewed as a journey from addiction to recovery.

Reading through all the responses to particular questions won’t give anyone a definitive answer. But then, Judaism is not a top-down religion and there is no ultimate authority.

“If you read all 10 rabbis’ (responses) you come away with a starter-set of what the big arguments have been,” said Schwartz. “It’s a great way to get a casual familiarity with the tradition. You come away with entry-level literacy.”

For those curious about a particular issue, the volume offers “a way in.”

“Sometimes,” she said, “you need an entry book.”