The A.I. Problem

Reading an excellent article about artificial intelligence last week, I began to wonder which force was the greatest danger to Yiddishkeit: radical secularism or artificial intelligence?

But thinking about it on the plane to China the other day, I realized that they are actually two parts of the same problem.

At its worst, radical secularism is mankind’s Oedipus Complex. Kill the Father to supplant Him, to become Him. If we “kill” G-d, we take upon ourselves the power to create sentience without any obligation to pause and question whether we should do it in the first place.

Fear for any individual – or species – who places the power to do something before the wisdom to ask whether it is the right thing to do.

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Facing the Crisis

Last week, on my way to pick up my son at the school bus stop, and just as we were approaching sundown on Friday night, I was again reproaching myself for not being shomer Shabbos. As I mulled that – or even began to – I heard a voice: “what if all of this is a lie?

“What if we, for whatever reasons, have simply been brainwashed,” it continued. “What if this – all religion – is just a big illusion that we have created for ourselves, a super-Disneyesque consensual fantasy that we have just willed into being?”

How seductive, nay, beguiling, a thought it was. I was washed over with the sense that a great burden of guilt, reproach, and angst was being lifted from me.

Then I heard another voice inside as I passed the little school on Pierpoint. “That, surely, is the Yetzer Hara whispering lies again. A crafty one he is.”

Then the first voice spoke again. “What a clever ploy, this while the idea of a ‘yetzer hara.’ With a single idea, we have automatically disqualified any rational challenge to G-d’s existence.

I quieted then. And came the second voice. “But if rationality is a human construct, is it the only framework with which to apprehend the world? Is it even the best? And have there not been a long line of thinkers reaching into antiquity who have addressed that question?”

It was but one brick yanked out of a large wall of doubt, but it was enough to deconstruct – or begin the slow collapse – of the wall. At that moment, my crisis of faith began to pass, just in time for my son to climb into the car, and for us to head home for salmon and Shabbos.

Parting the Blue Pool

As we’re counting the Omeer, one last thought about Passover (till next March, anyway.)

I enjoyed TBS’ spots with the bearded buy parting his swimming pool.

Yes, it was a little irreverent.

But I also thought it was a subtle “Happy Passover” that was consistent with the Channel’s personality, and, frankly, in keeping with the self-deprecating introspection that Pesach invites.

Good Shabbos!

kA Treasury of Hasidic Stories

The importance of Hasidism to modern Judaism is difficult to overstate. The effect upon the entire Ashkenazi community of a movement designed at its heart to popularize observance and study was profound, even as the guardians of the traditional Torah communities responded with dismay.

One part of the great value of Hasidism has been the rich vein of stories and legends. Martin Buber did much bring those to a wider community, and now, thanks to the internet, we have these stories at our fingertips. The Hasidic Stories website offers a rich vein for any Jew, and especially for those of us who look for material to use in teaching.

Have a look, and have fun!

Woody’s Midnight

More so than any other film by Woody Allen in a very long time, I really enjoyed Midnight in Paris. I am a sucker for any movie that delves into the joys and frustrations of writing, and the way Allen explores inspiration, nostalgia, and the way many of us feel like anachronisms all touched a deep chord.

Yet something saddened me about Allen’s selection of Owen Wilson to play the “Woody” role. Wilson himself was not the issue. On the contrary, Owen is likable, sympathetic, and totally believable in the role. It was a bravura performance.

What disturbed me was that Wilson’s role represents the apotheosis of a gradual, film-by-film whitewashing that Allen has conducted on himself since the 1970s. Having his character played by an blonde-maned WASP hints at something disturbing: the possibility that Woody no longer sees himself as Jewish.

If that is the case, it would be sad for two reasons. First, it is always upsetting to see a Jew leave the enfolding wings of the Tribe of his or her own volition. But in Woody’s case specifically, he was in many way a model for an entire generation of Jews who identified themselves as “culturally Jewish.” If he is still that icon, is he aught but a beacon for others into the rocky shore of assimilation?

The sages teach us that it is never too late to begin the path of return. I pray for the day to come when Woody turns about to see what the Rebbe called the “pintela Yid” inside himself, and follows that light.