Will technology make Jewish Law irrelevant?

by Brian on January 29, 2023

in In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture,Science,Technology

Will technology make halacha irrelevant? That was the question Moshe Koppel, emeritus professor of math and computer science at Bar-Ilan University and author of Judaism Straight Up, posed during a recent lecture in Jerusalem to mark 10 years since my friend Jeremy Barkan passed away. 

Prof. Moshe Koppel

“Every generation thinks that they’re at an inflection point,” Koppel began his talk. And while there are very few actual such turning events in history, “I believe we are now at an inflection point, one that has implications for halacha.”

The trigger is “value malleability, where the values that have long been held by societies are changing,” Koppel said, citing religion in decline, lower birth rates and gender fluidity.

This is fueled further by technology, which is also at an inflection point. Koppel outlined four areas where technology could change the way Jews observe the law. 

1. Self-driving cars. No observant Jew is going to knowingly speed off in a car on Shabbat. But what if the car doesn’t have a driver but just arrives at a pre-determined time? The door opens automatically, and the vehicle departs with no action on the passenger’s part. 

Let’s take it one step further, Koppel suggested. What if some futuristic wearable device could read your mind wirelessly, “so all you need to do is think and stuff is going to happen?” If you conjure in your mind the thought, “I need a car at 2 pm on Saturday afternoon,” but you don’t open any app or tap any buttons, are you still breaking halacha?

2. Lab-grown meat. Cultured chicken and beef are better for the planet – no need to dedicate acres of land for farms, no more cow farts contributing to climate change – and better for our bodies (no antibiotics required). 

Some top Israeli rabbinic authorities, including David Stav, Oren Duvdavani, Moshe Bigel and Yuval Cherlow, have even deemed meat grown in a lab to be “parve,” since no living animal need be shechted (slaughtered according to Jewish ritual) and the cultivation process uses embryonic stem cells rather than muscle tissue. (Embryos are considered a separate entity from the mother, according to halacha.)

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau agrees. Last week he issued a ruling that Israeli startup Aleph Farms’ cultured steaks are indeed parve – although they must be marketed as a “meat alternative” to not cause kosher consumers to inadvertently sin by mixing meat and milk.

Still, “if there’s only synthetic meat in the world, then most of kashrut doesn’t matter anymore,” Koppel suggested. You can eat a cheeseburger or some Häagen-Dazs after cholent and you’ll still be within kosher guidelines.

3. Education. The university world has typically “been hostile to haredi (ultra-Orthodox) values,” Koppel said. But now it’s possible to “just go online and watch a recording of the best courses at MIT. You don’t need to be part of university culture. So, the ultra-Orthodox will soon be able to get a university education without paying a price.” 

By price, Koppel is referring to the attacks those in the haredi world might receive if caught studying outside the walls of the yeshiva.

Nor are the benefits of online learning limited to the Orthodox. We have friends whose three children all received degrees from Harvard almost entirely by attending courses on the Internet. 

At some point in the future, we may not even need to attend online classes. Like the “mind-reading” device for self-driving cars but in reverse, a computer-human interface could pump knowledge directly into the brain. 

4. Artificial intelligence. In a phone interview after the talk, I asked Koppel about ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence chatbot that’s taken the Internet by storm. ChatGPT is nearly good enough already to answer the kinds of basic questions about halacha that used to be the exclusive domain of one’s rabbi, Koppel explained.

“There will always be the hard questions requiring someone with human insights and sensitivity,” Koppel added. “But 99% of questions are basically ‘look up’ queries, which someone who knows their way around Jewish texts could answer.” Those are perfect for AI tools like ChatGPT.

Is there a point when things become too easy?

We already see that happening with other aspects of technology. Do you remember your friends’ phone numbers anymore? Or do you simply scroll for their name and tap your phone? 

Ditto for navigation. 

Uri Levine, founder of Waze, writes in his new book, Fall in Love with the Problem Not the Solution, about a time he asked his son to drive him to the airport.

“I can’t, Dad,” he told Levine. “My phone is broken. How will I get there without GPS?”

“I’ll be in the car with you,” Levine responded. “I know the way.”

“But Dad,” the son retorted, “how will I get back home?”

The bottom line is this: If you take away – or at least fundamentally alter – Shabbat, kashrut, education and rabbinic authority, what allure – if any – will a future Orthodoxy “that’s become too thin,” in Koppel’s words, have in the brave new technological world? 

The rabbis will, of course, push back. 

“There are two issues they need to address,” Koppel told me. “The strictly technical – like whether lab-grown meat is kosher and parve – and questions of public policy,” how their congregants should behave. “It’s possible some rabbis will conclude they need to remain strict against certain things,” even where there is a reasonable argument to permit them.

Koppel believes, however, that “the rabbis will need to stretch a little on the technical side in order to get to where they want on the public policy questions.”

How that stretching will evolve in the years to come will be among the most fascinating deliberations in the coming clash between halacha and technology.

The video for Koppel’s talk at Jeremy’s memorial is here.

I first explored how technology and halacha intersect for The Jerusalem Post.

Moshe Koppel headshot is byrebecca2

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