From Golems to Artificial Intelligence

by Yehuda Shurpin

I read recently that AI (artificial intelligence) has advanced so far that some robots can now pass the Turing test, which tests whether a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior is indistinguishable from a human’s. While robots are still not indistinguishable in all ways, that day is not too far off. Does this mean an AI-powered robot might someday be considered a human according to Jewish law? Could it be counted for a minyan?

Reply

As the wise King Solomon put it, “There is nothing new under the sun.”1 The concept of man-made men (golems), and the question of their humanness (or lack thereof) has been discussed since Talmudic times. (Of course, there is a huge difference between a “living” golem and a man-made robot powered by AI, but this would seem to be the best place to start our discussion).

The Talmud relates that Rava once created a “man” through the mystical codes within the Sefer Yetzirah (“Book of Formation”). He then sent this man to Rabbi Zeira, who spoke to it, but the man was incapable of speech and did not reply. Rabbi Zeira then said to it, “You are a creation of one of my colleagues; return to your dust!”2

The Approach of the Chacham Tzvi

Was this “man” created by Rava considered human? Was Rabbi Zeira liable for murder?

The biblical term for “human” is often “[one who was] born from a woman,”3 implying that the definition of a human is one who was born from one. Additionally, Scripture describes murder as “spilling the blood of a human with[in] a human.”4 Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi (known as the Chacham Tzvi, 1656–1718), whose own grandfather Rabbi Eliyahu of Chelm reportedly created a “man,”explains that only one who kills a person that was formed within another human being is liable for murder. Thus, killing a being created from another source does not constitute murder.5

The question of murder aside, would this “man” be Jewish and be counted for a minyan? The Chacham Tzvi cites the rabbinic teaching that “the works of the righteous are their offspring.” Thus, one might consider a creation of a (righteous) Jew to be Jewish. However, he notes that since Rabbi Zeira did not hesitate to destroy Rava’s creation, it is evident that it was not qualified to count for a minyan. For had there been even a minimal use for this “man,” to destroy it would have been wasteful.6

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Shapiro of Munkacs (1850–1913), in his work Darkei Teshuvah, points out that since the Chacham Tzvi (and others7) needed to cite a specific source in Scripture to prove that killing a humanoid did not constitute murder, apparently he held that it may very well have some element of humanness, independent of the question of murder. He therefore entertains the question of whether the shechitah (“kosher slaughter”) performed by such a creation would be valid.8

The notion that a golem may have an element of humanness left some, including the Chacham Tzvi’s two sons, a bit puzzled.

It Has No Soul

Both sons, Rabbi Avraham Meshulam Zalman, in his work Divrei Rabeinu Meshulam,9 and Rabbi Yaakov Emden in Sheilot Yaavetz,10 quote Kabbalists,11 who explain that only G‑d has the power to draw a human soul down from heaven. At best, a person using the power of the Sefer Yetzirah can only animate something on par with an animal. It is for this reason that if one “killed” such a creature (as in the story with Rava), they say, it is not considered murder.

From Golems to Robots

It should be noted that unlike a robot, a golem has some sort of a spiritual spark animating it. It is brought to life through a righteous individual using the secrets of creation hidden within the Sefer Yetzirah. This is clearly not the case for a man-made robot powered by algorithms.

Thus, our robots, powered by computers, are seemingly even less “human” than a golem. Nevertheless, putting that aside for argument’s sake, there is one aspect where a robot may have an advantage over a golem.

Artificial Intelligence and Speech

Everything in the world can be divided into four “kingdoms”: mineral, vegetable, animal, and human. The word for “human” is medaber, which means “speaker.”12 This implies that the ability to speak is integral to who we are as humans. Thus, unlike the Chacham Tzvi, many explain that the reason we can’t count a golem for a minyan is that it lacks the faculty of speech. At first blush, this would imply that if the creature could just talk (as today’s robots certainly can), it would be considered human.

However, as many point out, the key defining characteristic of humanity cannot be speech alone, for there are people who cannot speak—and parrots that can.13 Therefore, they explain that when we refer to humanity as medaber, the actual intent is intelligence.14

Based on this, there are some who have made the surprising claim that if one would somehow make an intelligent and speaking golem (a feat many mystics say is theoretically possible15) it perhaps could be counted for a minyan.16 If this is true for a golem, then perhaps it would be true for a robot powered by AI!

However, many point out that when the rabbis say “intelligence,” they aren’t merely referring to the collection of data and facts, or even the ability to analyze and problem-solve, but to what some would call “moral intelligence,” or as others put it, “free will.”17

It All Comes Together: Speech, Intellect and Soul

The chassidic masters question why humanity is defined as medaber (“speaker”) and not maskil (“understander”).18 After all, as we have pointed out, there are people who are unable to talk and animals that can!

Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch explains that the use of the term medaber is indeed precise; however, it doesn’t just refer to the ability to talk, but rather to the koach hadibur, the potential or power to talk.19 Human speech is different than any other similar type of communication, for it is not merely an external “revelation”; rather, it reveals what is “hidden” inside the person. Certainly, one can parrot words and sounds, but medaber refers to the power that gives shape, letters and words to one’s thoughts, which are then spoken with one’s mouth. The chassidic masters explain that the faculty of speech is in fact rooted in the essence of one’s soul, and it is therefore much higher and deeper than intellect itself. Thus, although two people may have the same exact thought, they express it in their own unique, individual way.

Thus, even when we characterize humans as medaber, “those who talk,” we are essentially also characterizing them as having unique, G‑d-given souls.

And that is something that AI cannot replicate.

FOOTNOTES
1. Ecclesiastes 1:9.
2. Talmud, Sanhedrin 65b.
3. Job 14:1,15:14, 25:4.
4. Genesis 9:7.
5. Responsum Chacham Tzvi 93.
6. Responsum Chacham Tzvi 93.
7. See, for example, Darkei Teshuvah 7:11.
8. See Darkei Teshuvah 7:11.
9. Divrei Rabeinu Meshulam 10.
10. Sheilot Yaavetz 2:82.
11. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Ramak, Pardes Rimonim 24:10; Rabbi Avraham Azulai, Chessed L’Avraham 4:30.
12. See, for example, Kuzari 2:8-24; Eitz Chaim, Shaar Derushai A.B.Y.A. 1. See also Targum Onkelus, Genesis 2:7, which describes man as ruah memalala, i.e. “one who speaks.”
13. See, for example, Igrot Kodesh of Maharash, p. 98.
14. See also Rashi on Genesis 2:7.
15. Igrot Kodesh, Maharash, p. 98.
16. Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner of Radzin in Sidrei Taharot, Ohalot 5a.
17. See, for example, Targum Onkelos on Genesis 2:7 and 3:22 (note that he describes man as being given a “speaking spirit,” but at the same time also explain that the uniqueness of man is that only man has the capacity to know good and bad); Rashi on Genesis 2:7 and 3:22; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 5:1;Rambam on Genesis 2:7.
18. See, for example, the Targum Onkelos on Genesis 2:7, who describes that man was given a ruah memalala, i.e., “a speaking spirit”
19. Torat Shalom, p. 245; see also Rashi on Numbers 27:16, where it is also implied that daat is a reference to a person’s individuality.

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