Can a robot ever replace a rabbi? Can a Watson-style AI know enough halakha to render psakim? One day soon we will be confronted with such a situation. Let’s study a recent man vs machine situation:
The Gemara on amud aleph quotes a pasuk found in Shemos (12:4)
אִם יִמְעַט הַבַּיִת מִהְיוֹת מִשֶּׂה
And if the household be too little for a lamb
There is a fabulous story about Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlit”a, and actually it’s a story within a story.
The Rav Chaim Kanievsky's, Rav Yitschok Ohev Tzion, read a story about his rebbe in a leaflet: Someone approached Rav Chaim and asked him, “How many times is the word 'Moshe’ written in the Torah. On the spot, he replied decisively: 'Six hundred and twelve'. The Jew asked him: 'But Your Honor, I checked the computer and it turned out that there are 614 times?'. Rabbi Chaim said to him: 'The computer was wrong, there are exactly 612 times.' The man wondered, 'How could the computer be wrong?' And Rabbi Chaim explained: 'You asked the computer to find the word Moshe, and you wrote it without vowels. In the Torah the word Moshe is written 612 times, and besides that the letters מ-ש-ה Appear twice more but in a different score. One: אִם יִמְעַט הַבַּיִת מִהְיוֹת מִשּׂה and the other: וְזֶה֮ דְּבַ֣ר הַשְּׁמִטָּה֒ שָׁמ֗וֹט כָּל־בַּ֙עַל֙ מַשֵּׁ֣ה יָד֔וֹ (Devarim 15:12).
After reading this story, Rav Ohev Tzion asked Rav Chaim if this story was in fact true, because he said, I know that the Rav Shlita does not know at all about technology, and simply does not know what a computer is and how it works, etc. Furthermore, when the Rav returned from the Maayan Hayeshua Medical Center many years ago, he told his family that one of the doctors offered him to bring to his room a device (Otzar HaChachma) with which he could browse all the Sefarim available, and Maran Shlita rejected this offer explaining, “Of what benefit is this device? I know where every Sefer I would require is located and I can merely go to the bookcase take out the book.”
[Author’s note: I believe what Rav Chaim Kanievsky was saying is that if you needed to actually look up a book in print he already knew where it was on the shelf. And of course whatever he knew by heart he knew by heart anyway. The upshot being, that he did not really understand the potential of a computer database or how one might cross reference etc.]
After his student told him these two stories, Rav Chaim responded humbly that he does not remember if there was such a story or not, but regarding whether he does not know what a computer is, it is not a problem, because they have already explained to him what a computer is.
Well, this is certainly an interesting story. For one, it’s a new retelling of Man vs. Machine, where man’s initiative and ability to think out-of-the-box transcends the limits of artificial intelligence that so far can still only work robotically. Much like Gary Kasparov’s famed rematch against Deep Blue as well as a much older story of John Henry versus the Steam Drill.
Another interesting point is that though Rav Chaim Kanievsky's memory was unique and formidable, apparently it was only for things of importance. He did not even remember that the story happened to the extent that he could not verify it or disclaim it. All this, despite being as faster than a computer in calculating the number of times it states משה in the Torah
And one final point, no matter what the story implies, it’s fairly clear that Rav Chaim's understanding and relationship with technology is quite limited. It’s important to realize that many of the questions that are being asked of him are utterly dependent upon the mediators to explain current consensus reality to him and context. When we hear rulings from Rav Chaim Kanievsky, they are obviously subject to whatever information consciously or unconsciously is given over or withheld. Think of how you might describe an iPhone to a person from a different century. What do you say? Well, see, it’s a Phone where you can talk to people long distance, you could also have the entire Shas on it, and by the way look up every type of perverse image. it’s certainly one way to describe it., but does it do the subject enough justice than a psak could be rendered? In Man vs. Machine there are more than one incorrect ways to encounter the challenge.
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria