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Robots Converse, But Should They Count In A Minyan?

The recent news about a chatbot that poses as a 13-year-old boy (successfully!) has lots of people talking, including Rabbi Mark Goldfeder. Goldfeder is a fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion and and Orthodox rabbi. Recently, Goldfeder spoke via online chat about whether robots could some day be welcomed as members of the Jewish community.

(Note: in Judaism, a minyan is the quorum of ten Jewish male adults required for certain religious obligations.)

What are the basic criteria that would make a robot/monkey/mermaid Jewish?
Well, we start with the Talmud in Sanhedrin, which tells us the story of Rava sending a golem to Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira ends up figuring out that the golem was not human — it couldn’t communicate effectively and couldn’t pass the Turing test, apparently — and so he destroys it.
The halachic literature asks why this was not considered “ba’al tashchis,” wasteful, since maybe the golem could have counted in a minyan.
While they conclude that this golem at least was not able to be counted — they leave open the possibility of a better golem counting — it seems then that creation by a Jewish person would give the golem/robot presumptive Jewish status. For living things there is always parentage and conversion.
I should of course clarify that this entire discussion is “l’halacha v’lo l’maaseh,” a theoretical outlaying of views.

Theoretically speaking, say a robot walked into your office and said, “Rabbi, I want to count in the minyan.” Would that be enough evidence for you to count him?
Not necessarily. For the purposes of this discussion, I would accept the position of the Jerusalem Talmud in the third chapter of Tractate Niddah that when you are dealing with a creature that does not conform to the simple definition of “humanness” — i.e. born from a human mother or at least possessing human DNA, but it appears to have human characteristics and is doing human things — one examines the context to determine if it is human. When something looks human and acts human, to the point that I think it might be human, then halachah might consider the threshold to have been crossed.
This makes sense from a Jewish ethical perspective as well. Oftentimes Jewish ethics are about the actor, not the one being acted upon. If I see something that for all intents and purposes looks human, I cannot start poking it to see if it bleeds. I have a responsibility to treat all that seem human as humans, and it is better to err on the side of caution from an ethical perspective.

In your opinion — more sociological than halachic — what’s your read on how seriously should Jewish institutions be preparing for the eventuality of artificially intelligent congregants or constituents?
I think the difference between science fiction and science is often time. If you were to ask me now, I don’t think Jewish institutions need to start worrying about it quite yet...

Science fiction writers have a long history of considering the question of robotics and religion, and have already introduced the idea of robots as spiritual leaders and guides. In his 1971 story Good News From The Vatican, writer Robert Silverberg tells the story of a robot cardinal who might one day become pope.

This is the morning everyone has waited for, when at last the robot cardinal is to be elected Pope. There can no longer be any doubt of the outcome... a compromise is in the making. All factions are now agreed on the selection of the robot. This morning I read in Osservatore Romano that the Vatican computer itself has taken a hand in the deliberations. The computer has been strongly urging the candidacy of the robot. I suppose we should not be surprised by this loyalty among machines...

"Every era gets the Pope it deserves," Bishop Fitzpatrick observed somewhat gloomily today at breakfast. "The proper Pope for our times is a robot, certainly..."
(Read more about Silverberg's robot pope)

Clifford Simak wrote on a similar theme in his 1981 novel Project Pope.


(Project Pope by Clifford Simak [cover])

I should also mention Philip K. Dick's Padre booth from his 1969 novel Galactic Pot-Healer:

Getting to his feet he crossed the waiting room to the Padre booth; inside he put a dime into the slot and dialed at random. The marker came to rest at Zen.

"Tell me your torments," the Padre said, in an elderly voice marked with compassion. And slowly; it spoke as if there were no rush, no pressures. All was timeless.

Joe said "I haven't worked for seven months and now I've got a job that takes me out of the Sol system entirely, and I'm afraid. What if I can't do it? What if I've lost my skill?

The Padre's weightless voice floated back reassuringly to him. "You have worked and not worked. Not working is the hardest work of all."

Fans of Futurama may recall this depiction of a "bot mitzvah".


("Bot-Mitzvah" from Futurama)

This is not the first consideration of this idea; see these robot-officiated weddings.

Via JTA.

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