The True Owner
Kudos to president emeritus Moishe Bane for his new column and his fine insights into the Jewish take on the illusion of ownership (“The Allure and Illusion of Ownership [summer 2023]). Allow me to add an addendum: Human possession is defined by our finite existence and the result of Divine will. Implicit in our “ownership,” as the laws of shemitah and yovel make so very clear, is the fact that, at most, what we “have” is “yesh li” (there is to me)—a finite relationship with an object whose fate is subject to Divine fiat. Indeed, only G-d is koneh hakol (complete owner)—a fact we stress at the very opening of the Amidah.
That is why Hebrew has no words to express complete human ownership. Temporary possession is the most that is possible for us in a world created and fully owned by G-d. G-d’s ownership is far more than ours can ever be, as it is predicated on His role as Creator. No matter who claims possession, it belongs fully to Hashem—a clarification we are religiously mandated to proclaim in countless ways as we fulfill the charitable mitzvot of “giving back” to the true Owner. All that we imagine is “yesh li” is truly “yesh Lo.”
Rabbi Benjamin Blech
New York, New York
The summer issue of Jewish Action was one of your best yet. As someone who is not shomer Shabbat (but attends an Orthodox shul), I really enjoyed the various articles in the cover story (“Israel Through Their Eyes: Israel at 75”) explaining how Religious Zionists have managed to blend their deep commitment to Torah with a similar commitment to the State of Israel. These articles really help puncture the myth and stereotype (unfortunately subscribed to by many non-religious Jews) that Orthodox Jews live in their own world and have no connection with secular society.
I found the “Israel Through Their Eyes” (summer 2023) section enlightening and informative. I enjoyed reading the biographies of the great rabbis who have left an indelible mark on modern Jewish history and have shaped our hashkafot. However, I was quite disappointed by the absence of rabbis of Middle Eastern and Sephardic origin.
I am sure the readers would be interested in learning about Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai (1798–1878), a student of the Pele Yoetz, Rabbi Eliezer Papo. Rabbi Alkalai published his first Hebrew sefer, Minchat Yehudah, in 1841, where he outlined several practical ideas for the settlement of Jews in Israel, including reviving the Hebrew language to become a national unifying factor among different Jewish communities around the world. He also discussed the need to establish a world Jewish bank or fund to buy land in Israel. Rabbi Alkalai did not only speak of the return to Israel as a solution to the perennial problem of antisemitism but as a way to fulfill the Jewish aspiration for political normalization—Jews living in their original homeland. Rabbi Alkalai understood that Jews do not need to wait passively for Mashiach to achieve this aspiration; on the contrary, he saw the return of the Jewish people to Israel as the way to facilitate (and advance) the arrival of Mashiach. In his book Goral LaHashem, Rabbi Alkalai formulated the religious foundations of his vision and the practical steps to be taken to reestablish the Jewish nation in Israel. The book was published in three different editions and translated into many languages, including English.
Another great example is Rabbi Yaakov Meir (1856–1939) who was blocked from the position of chief rabbi of Jerusalem in 1906 for being “too Zionistic”; he was sent on shelichut to Bukhara and Thessaloniki, where he worked to ingather the exiles by promoting resettlement in Eretz Yisrael. He returned to Israel in 1921, and with the help of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, was elected Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel (Rishon LeTzion) until his passing. Along with Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn, he also founded Safa Berura, an organization that worked to reestablish Hebrew as a spoken language (a notable member of the organization was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda).
It is my hope that future articles in Jewish Action will be a source of pride to all Jews—Ashkenazim and Sephardim—as we continue to work together to build Eretz Yisrael both physically and spiritually.
Brooklyn, New York
The Downsides of AI
The issue dealing with Torah and artificial intelligence (“Torah in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,” spring 2023) presented interesting discussions of technology and its potential use in halachic decision making. The tone was generally positive and optimistic. I was, however, expecting some consideration of the downsides but did not find any.
Let’s consider three examples. We are generally taught to find a halachic authority to follow, whether it be the rebbi who teaches you in school, the rabbi of your shul, or some other figure who inspires you. We are told not to sample multiple sources and find the pesak that we like. But it’s exactly that behavior that AI will indirectly encourage by the ease and speed of querying. Searching for a kula (or a chumra) will be a breeze.
Second, in his article, “AI Meets Halachah,” Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt wrote that the process of giving a pesak is not mechanical. A single posek can give different answers to the same question, based on his knowledge of the person asking. Many AI experts are predicting that approximately two years from now, most internet users will have a personal AI “agent.” Instead of jumping from website to website to order pizza, make an airline reservation, purchase tickets to a play and find tomorrow’s weather forecast, you will simply talk to your agent after logging in, and request the actions or information. More than that, the agent will offer suggestions based on your past requests, likes and dislikes. At the beginning, you will feel surprised that the agent seems to make such good choices, but eventually you will take it for granted, like the ideas of a good friend. It’s not a stretch to say the same will apply to your halachic questions. All of the background information that impinges on the pesak, from your budget to your family situation to your physical and psychological health, will be accessible to AI in offering a decision. This will be a challenge to human posekim.
Third, though it may sound extreme, we have to think about avodah zarah. This concern arises from our unavoidable tendency to humanize robots and AI. A robot technology company created a robot “dog” with metal boxes for its body, neck and face, and four rods for legs. To demonstrate its programming, a person with a baseball bat struck the dog, knocking it over. The dog quickly got up, ready to do its master’s bidding. The dog was struck several more times, each time quickly righting itself. A video of this demonstration on the internet resulted in thousands of responses from horrified viewers, expressing shock and anger at such cruel treatment. An AI taught to interact with people will be humanized at a much higher level. With its amazing knowledge of facts alongside its familiarity with your personality, the AI agent will likely gain the status of an authority figure in your life. The Rambam, in explaining the source of avodah zarah, describes a process starting with the observation of moving stars and ends with the creation of personal idols. This does not differ much from the process of first seeing AI as a general information resource, and finally relating to it as a trusted friend.
Today, the technology world is divided over the future of AI. Is it a threat or the fulfillment of unlimited promise? No matter which side one takes, the best choice is to be prepared for the expected as well as the unexpected.
Dr. Irv Cantor
Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt Responds:
I thank Dr. Cantor for his interest in Jewish Action’s AI issue. The articles addressed specific aspects but could not focus on every eventuality. Much still remains to be learned about the potential benefits and pitfalls of AI.
The examples of concern cited are all problems we have today with any good search engine. Indeed yes, AI might exacerbate these issues further. However, certain intangibles, such as difficult-to-quantify interpersonal relationships and character traits that a posek takes into account, cannot be duplicated by AI—at least not in the near future.
Ibn Ezra and Robert Browning
In his piece “The Best Is Yet to Be” (spring 2023), David Olivestone doesn’t recall the question being raised as to why Robert Browning chose Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, the twelfth-century paytan and author of one of the classic commentaries on Tanach, as the narrator of his poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra.” I, however, vividly recall the question being asked during my doctoral oral examination and dissertation defense. Actually, “Rabbi Ben Ezra” has less to do with Browning’s interest in and fascination with Hebrew, Judaism and rabbinic literature and much more to do with Ibn Ezra’s twelfth-century contemporary Omar Khayyam, a celebrated Persian poet, philosopher and grammarian.
Browning was responding to Edward Fitzgerald’s wildly popular “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam,” which extols the joys of youth, carpe diem hedonism and unbridled sensuality. The “Rubáiyát,” as one critic points out, “captures the imagination of its Victorian audience who had been raised singing pious hymns at church on Sunday.” It rejects the Victorian code’s emphasis on self-control, moderation, social convention, the spiritual life, Christian morality and the wisdom that comes with age. Browning’s “Ibn Ezra,” a venerated scholar of the same period as Khayyam, eschews the cult of Khayyam and posits a more balanced view, arguing that youth is but one phase of the soul’s experience and that it will fade—replaced by wisdom, perspective, and the insights of age; it is not the end of one’s life, but the beginning of something more. Or as Betty White’s mother always used to say, “The older you get, the better you get, unless you’re a banana.”
To appreciate the contrasting messages, I refer readers to Frederick Leroy Sargent’s Omar and the Rabbi (Cambridge, 1911), which combines the translation of the “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam” and Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” and presents them in dramatic form.
Queens, New York
In “Unscrambling the Kashrut of Eggs” (summer 2023), the article erroneously implied that a fertilized egg must be discarded only if a blood spot appears in the yolk. This is incorrect. If a fertilized egg has developed to the point that a blood spot appears in any location, the entire egg becomes forbidden and should be discarded (Rema, YD 66:3).