From the desk of Rabbi Howald

Over the last several months, the tech-savvy sector of the Jewish community has been all atwitter about ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence chatbot developed by OpenAI and launched in November 2022.  The core function of ChatGPT was to engage in conversations with people that mimic the exchanges between human beings. Shortly after it was made available to the public, however, users began asking ChatGPT to prepare computer programs, compose music, and write student essays, even write poetry and song lyrics. It was only a matter of time before members of the Jewish community began asking ChatGPT to help them write sermons or stories.

One rabbi, for instance, asked the chatbot to find a Jewish children’s story about the significance of names in Jewish tradition. ChatGPT quickly mentioned something called, The Name of the Little Prince. According to the chatbot, this is a popular Jewish story about a boy named Eliezer who sets out to find a new name for himself.  In this story, ChatGPT claimed, Eliezer ultimately discovers that his true name is actually “Yehuda,” which means “praised” or “celebrated” in Hebrew, and he returns home with a new sense of self-confidence and pride.  When pressed for the source of this “Jewish “story, however, the chatbot conceded that it had made an error and had mistaken The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry for a Jewish story and had, to boot, completely changed the title, the plot, and the name of the main character. ChatGPT apologized for the confusion.

Another rabbi asked the chatbot to write a 1,000-word sermon about intimacy and vulnerability. The rabbi later read the sermon to his congregation and, after they applauded his remarks, he informed them that an artificial intelligence had written his sermon and that, because of his experiment, he now wondered if computers would one day replace rabbis and cantors. After giving it some thought, however, he conceded that, since computers cannot express compassion or love, nor experience human spirituality, the job security of Jewish clergy might be more secure than he originally allowed.

These two stories, only the first in what promises to be an ongoing experimentation with artificial intelligence in realms beyond simply answering questions and retrieving information, illustrate some of the challenges and benefits of relying on computers to generate content. Sometimes, we may want something to say and a chatbot may write something that supplies the words we cannot otherwise find. At other times, we may be seeking the familiar and a service like ChatGPT might be able produce a speech or sermon that finds the themes we wish to hear by drawing on millions, if not billions, of previous works. As the two stories above illustrate, however, artificial intelligence is still a long way from replacing human beings when it comes to sermon writing and storytelling.

Since humanity could talk, we have been telling stories. The database of those stories in all the languages of the earth must, by now, be truly enormous. Sometimes we crave a retelling of a well-loved story but, even more, we yearn for the new. The mystics of the kabbalah believed that every new interpretation of Torah uttered by a student adorned Shechinah, the indwelling presence of God, with a new crown and they placed a premium on audacious interpretations of familiar verses. ChatGPT may be able to recite traditional stories, or string together different strands from disparate narratives, but can it truly create something entirely new? The experience so far seems to indicate that, at least for now, artificial intelligence remains derivative of what others have already created, even if it sometimes gets the details of those previous narratives completely wrong.

I, for one, am happy to continue writing my own sermons and finding my own stories. I recognize that I often return to the same themes in my written content, but each new encounter with the Torah text or the recurring cycle of the Jewish year, holds out the promise of a new understanding or perspective. When that happens, it makes all my weekly rabbinic struggles with topics, words and themes worthwhile. I couldn’t imagine just relying on a service like ChatGPT to put words in my mouth and, based on what others have found when experimenting with the chatbot, I hope you don’t either!

Rabbi Michael Howald