What Makes Us Human?

Posted by Nechama Goldman Barash on May 15, 2024
Topics: Critical Issues, Modernity

The following article was originally published as part of the 5784/2023 Edition of Havruta Magazine.

Surprisingly or not, the idea that people might create entities capable of mimicking their physical and cognitive abilities did not exceed the imagination of our halachic predecessors.

Rava created a person and sent it before Rabbi Ze’era. He [Rabbi Ze’era] spoke to it, but it would not reply. [Rabbi Ze’era] said to him: You are from my colleagues, return to your dust.
—Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 65b

The Talmudic sage, Rava, creates a being that is able to understand and follow directions, yet is unable to respond or interact, leading Rabbi Ze’era to destroy him.

Unlike the being Rava created, today’s AI responds to human questioning. Ask a question of ChatGPT, and it will provide an answer. But the nature of that responsiveness—how AI reaches its conclusions—contrasts dramatically with how humans do so.

In his commentary on Deuteronomy, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes of the uniquely human characteristic of choice:

Moses insists on three things. First, we are free. The choice is ours. Blessing or curse? Good or evil? Faithfulness or faithlessness? You decide, says Moses. Never has freedom been so starkly defined, not just for an individual but for a nation as a whole. We do not find it hard to understand that as individuals we are confronted by moral choices. Adam and Eve were. So was Cain. Choice is written into the human condition.
—Covenant & Conversation: Deuteronomy,
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Because we are human, the choices we make are unpredictable. Despite a constant onslaught of information, ideas, and opinions, we often reach conclusions or make decisions that are counterintuitive, based on emotions rather than facts, or affected by factors beyond the issue at hand. This is certainly a more temperamental, unreliable form of decision-making than that which AI employs, but it is also one that is deep, complex, and, yes, uniquely human.

Deuteronomy also emphasizes the need to pursue social justice. It mandates the appointment of judges, the prevention of corruption, and our responsibility to care for the poor and vulnerable. These are distinctly human responsibilities that require distinctly human empathy. AI may “know” when someone is in need based on its collection and interpretation of data, but only humans can act. Regardless of where technology takes us, we must continue to cultivate human empathy and action.

Unlike unchanging machines, human lives are cyclical. Judaism embraces our cyclical nature by providing daily, weekly, and yearly mitzvot to mark our passages through time, to shape various aspects of our lives, and to foster connections among us. By contrast, the AI-driven robot, with its cool, data-based efficiency, may be constant and “immortal,” but it is forever alone.

Recently, when a friend tragically lost her son, I was reminded of how Judaism particularly recognizes our need to connect with one another at times of loss. Jewish burial and mourning rituals guided the grieving family from the moment they received the terrible news through the funeral and shiva, when they sat low to the ground, cocooned and nurtured by family and friends, before rising up to return to their forever-altered lives. For all their potential, robots will never authentically mitigate the human experiences of pain and loss the way we humans can.

AI holds the potential to open new pathways to sound decision-making and social responsibility. But only human beings can act through the experience of learning Torah as a living text, and inviting the shechina to join them as havruta partners. Only we have the consciousness to pray. Only we can connect to the expression of God in this world that we see in one another.

Explore how the timeless wisdom of our Sages can illuminate our modern lives.

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About Nechama Goldman Barash

Nechama Goldman Barash made aliyah from Philadelphia over 20 years ago after graduating from Stern College. She studied for three years in Matan’s Advanced Talmud Institute and finished a master’s degree in Talmud at Bar-Ilan University. She is a graduate of Nishmat’s Yoetzet Halacha program and has been certified to teach brides before their weddings, as well as qualifying as a sex educator through Yahel and the Eden Center. She also studied for three years in Matan's advanced halakha program, Hilkhata. Nechama is the Director of the Pardes Learning Seminar. She teaches contemporary halakha and Talmud at Matan and Pardes, as well as Talmud and women and halakha in Torah V'Avodah (TVA), a Bnei Akiva gap year program based in Matan. She is an active member of Beit Hillel and participates in interfaith dialogue through Roots, based in Gush Etzion, close to where she lives with her family. She is currently working on a book dealing with matters of gender and halakha.

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