Speaking about the Jerusalem Attack

WMAR TV in Baltimore came to the Tfillah (prayer) at the Shomrei Emunah Synagogue. I think they asked me to speak on camera because I have a daughter in Jerusalem now.

Elon Musk Can Sleep Easier

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, was quoted yesterday comparing artificial intelligence (AI) to “summoning the demon.” “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I would guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that… With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and… he’s sure he can control the demon? Didn’t work out.” This is not a new sentiment for Musk, who called AI “more dangerous than nukes” earlier this summer.

Could AI truly be an “existential threat” – could computers, intended to help us, instead make us extinct? In theory, yes. Musk referred to HAL 9000, the sentient computer that murdered the crew in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as “a puppy dog” compared to what AI could produce. Colossus: The Forbin Project, the 1970 movie about two supercomputers that took over the world (and nuked a city when not obeyed), enslaving mankind for the “good” of mankind, seems more in line with his concerns.

If Musk has erred, it’s not because he has overestimated the power of consciousness. On the contrary, he sells it short, as the field of computer science has since its inception. If AI isn’t as scary as he imagines, it’s not because of what a sentient computer could do, but because it can only happen with a sentient computer.

Professor Alan Turing of Manchester University is often referred to as the “father of the modern computer” without much exaggeration. He and his peers changed our world – but they believed that the field of computer science would progress in a very different way. Whether or not anyone envisioned a global information network, enabling you to read this article on a handheld wireless device, they certainly believed that by the end of the last century, computers themselves would “awaken,” and add information on their own initiative. While the relevant field is usually called artificial intelligence, artificial consciousness is arguably more accurate; the intent was to produce a computer able to demonstrate creativity and innovation.

Turing needed an impartial way to determine if a computer was actually thinking. He proposed, in a 1950 paper, that if a teletype operator were unable to determine after five minutes that the party at the other end was a computer rather than another human being, then the computer would have passed the test. Turing proposed development of a program that would simulate the mind of a child, which would then be “subjected to an appropriate course of education” in order to produce an “adult” brain.

With all the phenomenal developments in the field of computer science, we are but marginally closer — if, indeed, we are closer at all — to developing a “child brain” than we were then. “Eugene Goostman,” recently declared to have passed the Turing Test during a competition at the University of Reading, was simply a chatbot programmed with evasive answers. It presented itself as a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy (who spoke English as a third language) not because it possessed the faculties of a young teenager, but to cover for its many errors and fool the assessors. Deceptive programming isn’t the intelligence Turing had in mind.

But “Goostman” was also in no way unique. Since 1990, inventor Hugh Loebner has underwritten an annual Turing contest at the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts. And every year, all of the contestants are programs intended to fool the judges, and nothing more; the creativity or passion comes not from the silicon, but only from the programmers behind them.

As it turns out, Turing was preceded by over a millenium in determining his standard of human consciousness. The Rabbis of the Talmud stated the following, in Sanhedrin 65b:

Rava made a man. He sent him before Rebbe Zeira. [R. Zeira] spoke to it, but it did not answer. R. Zeira said, “are you from the scholars? Return to your dust!”

What the teacher Rava created was a Golem, an artificial humanoid that certain righteous individuals were purportedly able to create via spiritual powers. Much like a robot, it could obey commands and perform tasks – but it could not engage in conversation. The Maharsha explains why Rava’s Golem was unable to properly answer R. Zeira:

Because [Rava] could not create the power of the soul, which is speech. Because [the Golem] did not have a neshamah [soul], which is the spirit that ascends above, [but] only the life spirit which is also in animals, which descends below, [R. Zeira] said to it, “return to your dust.”

What this Talmudic passage and commentary tell us, then, is that creating an artificial consciousness isn’t nearly as simple as Turing imagined it to be. The Maharsha essentially tells us that intelligent speech is a manifestation of the soul invested in human beings — not something that programmers can simply drum up with several pages of well-written code. When Turing wrote that “presumably the child brain is something like a notebook … rather little mechanism, and lots of blank sheets” — he was making an assumption that, today, seems positively foolish.

Yet without any true progress towards development of artificial thought, many in the research community remain undeterred even today. Ray Kurzweil, now Director of Engineering at Google – and one of the great innovators and thinkers in computer science – predicts we’ll achieve this goal in 15 years, simply because technology progresses exponentially. An article in Princeton Alumni Weekly recently stated, regarding a prominent professor of psychology, that “if the brain is just a data-processing machine, then [Professor Michael] Graziano sees no reason we cannot create computers that are just as conscious as we are.”

That “if,” of course, is simply a restatement of Turing’s invalid assumption. Today’s supercomputers already process information more rapidly than we do, have larger memory banks, and of course have essentially perfect recall. Computers can see well enough to drive vehicles and hear and transcribe speech. But they cannot find meaning in what they see, nor respond as humans do to what they hear.

On the contrary, the failure to produce a semblance of a thinking computer should be causing a lot of second thoughts about the nature of human consciousness itself. We have proven that the brain is not simply a data-processing machine. When our most dedicated thinkers are unable to produce human thought, or even make substantive progress after decades of effort, are we perhaps not fools to imagine it developed by accident?

“No Haredim Enlisting Anymore”

Just a few days ago, Yair Lapid delivered an eloquent eulogy for Gilad Sha’ar, one of the three boys murdered by terrorists. In his remarks, which were entitled “We Need One Another,” he urged people to set aside rage, hate, and the desire for revenge — he called, instead, for unity and love. And he said that we must “rediscover the paths that connect all of us,” to choose the latter option when pondering “that which divides us, or that which binds us; the suspicion or the trust.”

It is obvious to all of us that Gilad, Eyal and Naftali have brought us together, and Lapid’s remarks aptly caught the spirit of the day. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but be discomforted by the contrast between his unifying words, and his actions as a politician. This would, indeed, be an excellent time for us to turn away from the path of confrontation, and towards a path of building trust. MK Lapid himself, as a member of the Cabinet, can kick-start this process.

Subsumed in the horrid news of the discovery of the three boys was an otherwise important interview published late last week, which, awful though the timing may be, speaks directly to how Lapid’s actions have divided us. Rav Avraham Baron, the former Chairman of the association of Hesder Yeshivot, called for the cancellation of Lapid’s failed Enlistment Law. If the Supreme Court does not invalidate this law, he predicted, “we won’t see even a single Haredi enlist… and there will be a social and financial crisis that will enlarge the schism in the nation.”

In his words, “the rabbis have no faith in the Army today.” In the Haredi community, this is quite an understatement, but it is important coming from the Chairman of the Hesder yeshivot. He recognizes that any effort to change the Haredi community by fiat is going to backfire. He added, for that matter, that the law threatens the Hesder yeshivot as well.

Lapid attempted to dictate the terms of Haredi enlistment, complete with provisions that applied the criminal penalties for draft-dodgers to yeshiva scholars. This, of course, was a red line that the Gedolim, our leading Rabbis, had previously said could not be accepted. They were prepared to deal with financial penalties and other limitations, but not depicting Tzurba MiRabbonon, young Torah scholars, as felons.

To some extent, one can understand Lapid’s failure to foresee the results of forcing his “solution” upon the Haredim — that yeshiva students would view the prospect of incarceration for following the dictates of their Rabbis to be less of a threat than a privilege, and enlistment would plummet. But how anyone educated in the Yeshiva system — such as Yesh Atid’s token Haredi, Dov Lipman — could display the same myopia, is beyond me.

In order to resolve the situation and permit the development of a workable model for working Haredim (pun intended), akin to what already flourishes in America, two things have to happen. The first is, as Rav Baron specified, that there must be a new law which incorporates the idea that “whoever can sit and study Torah should study.” In other words, the law must respect the sincere belief of the Haredi world that Torah study protects our nation. The law must leave the decision of when to leave yeshiva to the students themselves, in consultation with their Roshei Yeshiva.

The second requirement is the development of a model for national service which bypasses the Haredi objection to the Army’s secondary role, as described by Jonathan Ostroff in the [Canadian] National Post: “Ben-Gurion and the other founders of the secular state of Israel wanted the army to be a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world. Haredi Jews did not, and still do not, want to be melted down.”

As also mentioned by Ostroff, we’ve been down this road before. Sixty years ago, the government attempted to force conscription of Haredi women, and buckled in the face of unanimous and absolute opposition from the leaders of the community. The Haredim today are a far larger and more prominent sector of Israeli society — so even more than sixty years ago, the government must work with the Haredim to pursue a mutually-acceptable solution, rather than trying to dictate terms.

Lapid has shown us that he can truly talk the talk. Will he follow it with action?

The PCUSA and the Banality of Evil

The recent action of the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUSA) to divest from American companies doing business with Israel does not merely harm relations between our communities. It demonstrates the veracity of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” Without question, the majority of those who voted for divestment are not anti-Semitic; they just found it easier to follow the crowd, observe current political correctness, and engage in evil in the name of good.

Was it evil? Leading the charge for divestment, Robert Ross explained on June 13 that he targeted Hewlett-Packard because it “furnishes the computer hardware for the Israeli Navy and the biometric scanners for checkpoints, through which all Palestinians (but no Israelis) in the occupied West Bank must pass.” Let us examine this statement.

Among the activities of the Israeli Navy is an ongoing naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. The Gaza Strip is not occupied or controlled by Israel, but by Hamas, an internationally-recognized terrorist organization which repeatedly attempts to import weaponry for terrorist activities. Egypt also limits goods destined for the Gaza Strip, and for the same reason. Food, supplies and humanitarian shipments all reach the territory after inspection. So divestment appears to censure Hewlett-Packard for protecting Israeli civilians against terrorism.

But it is the second of the asserted reasons which makes this explicit. Biometric scanners — now used in the world’s airports to expedite frequent travelers through security — were installed for the sole benefit of residents of the Palestinian Authority who wish to cross into Israel. The problem is similar to that of the US-Mexico border, but far more lethal: the crossings needed by PA residents are exploited by terrorists to attack Israelis, whether in its cities or at the crossing itself.

As HP itself explained: “The Basel System was developed to expedite checkpoint passage in a secure environment, enabling people to get to their place of work or to carry out their business in a faster and safer way.” The PCUSA cannot claim ignorance; it is punishing Hewlett-Packard for helping Israel to avert terrorist attacks while easing the passage of working noncitizens into Israel proper.

Presumably the PCUSA does not want Palestinian families to go hungry – but the sole remaining alternative is to dismantle the checkpoints and return to the situation of 2002, in which 135 terrorist attacks massacred 451 Israelis and injured 2,348 more. The removal of many of these checkpoints has been cited in the kidnapping of three boys merely one week before this vote. The PCUSA has not endorsed any effort to protect Israeli children, and that is exactly the problem.

Neither does this action reflect a consistent policy of not investing “in militarization, human rights abuses, or threats to public health.” Motorola Solutions, for example, maintains offices in Russia, Dubai, and Vietnam, all of whose legal systems limit political and religious freedoms, including the free practice of Presbyterian Christianity. The PCUSA did not divest because Motorola Solutions devices assist in the persecution of Christians in any of these countries; only because they fight terrorism in Israel.

Ross and his allies whitewashed the consistent Palestinian history of choosing terrorism over peace. He states incorrectly that “Zionism led to the forced displacement of most of Palestine’s indigenous population” while ignoring the forced displacement of (and pogroms against) Jewish communities across the Middle East. He even criticizes those Presbyterians who object to “firing rockets into Israeli neighborhoods and in violent attacks on Israeli citizens.” If hatred and incitement are indeed prevalent in Palestinian schools and media, and violence results, he holds Israel to blame – all the while denying that this is biased or anti-Semitic.

Such appalling sentiments, though, are not without precedent in the Presbyterian Church. In 1936, C.M. Kerr, the minister of St. David’s Church in Halifax, wrote the following: “Have you ever considered that the Germans are now treating the Jews exactly as the Jews once treated other peoples whom they thought might contaminate them? That is to say they set out to exterminate them.”

The anti-Semitic fictions of the Nazi Era have been updated but not erased. In this regard, the PCUSA is returning to its roots – but not roots to which one would expect them to wish to return.

Guess Who Came to Dinner?

Did a Frothing Press Help Serve the Truth?

According to those in the know, Mayor Bill de Blasio was to have delivered his greetings and departed with his press entourage before the Novominsker Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Perlow, rose to address the assembled at Agudath Israel’s 92nd annual dinner. Instead, the mayor was running late, Rav Perlow’s speech was moved up, and both hizzoner and his press ended up with front row seats. And in a departure from his norm at the annual dinner, the Novominsker chose to address an urgent Inyana D’Yuma instead of delivering more general remarks.

To judge from the coverage that resulted, one could be forgiven for thinking that Rav Perlow had ascended the podium and called for open warfare.

The press reached into its bag of stereotypes and pulled out a familiar caricature of “angry” charedim, though the antipodal video is available for all to see. The Forward said that Rav Perlow’s “fiery” speech “stunned” the dinner, and quoted an anonymous “Jewish leader” as claiming the comments of the Rosh Agudath Israel were “divisive,” along with other adjectives which would besmirch the Rebbe’s kavod to even repeat. [What sort of “leader” is willing to offer only an anonymous critique of Rav Perlow’s statement was, of course, not outlined by The Forward.] The NY Daily News reported that the Rebbe “blasted” non-Orthodox Judaism. The video posted online was captioned: “Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Perlow Rails against Danger of Reform, Open Orthodoxy Movements.”

Many distorted the comments still further, as if Rav Perlow had spoken not about digressions from normative Judaism, but about the Jews who have been led astray. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis, called Rav Perlow’s remarks “disparaging comments about our people.” Michael Powell of the NY Times claimed that the Rebbe “offered a shower of condemnation for Reform and Conservative Jews” (and, still worse, suggested that Mayor de Blasio should have opined on a Jewish religious matter). Emily Hauser, blogging in – once again – The Forward, said that he “slandered virtually every Jew on the planet.” And there are more in this vein.

In actuality, the listeners were so visibly “stunned” that they kept eating, drinking and listening as if nothing extraordinary had been said – because it hadn’t. The press corps was most exercised by his offhand dismissal of the non-Orthodox movements, but Rav Perlow himself was much more concerned with Open Orthodoxy, which is now ordaining rabbis and sending them to take posts in Orthodox congregations. This makes the foreign ideas and untenable innovations coming from its school and leading alumni much more dangerous to the integrity of Torah Judaism.

With regards to the heterodox movements, the Rebbe commented that they “have no future, they almost have no present, and… will be relegated by the Ribono Shel Olam [Master of the World] to the dustbin of Jewish history.” They were yesterday’s challenge. The leaders of these groups have no bone to pick with Rav Perlow, but with the Pew Report and other surveys showing that “Jews of No Religion” and intermarried families are engendered by abandoning the path of Halacha.

The distortion of the Rebbe’s observation about ideological movements into an attack upon their members is no accident. Most who describe themselves as “Reform” or “Conservative” are at most peripherally affiliated with those movements – they attend synagogue biannually, and give no special credence to the words of their clergy. Unless deceived into taking the Novominsker’s statement as a personal insult, they could instead ponder its accuracy.

When the dust settles, that could yet happen – and the press will have made it possible. These articles made both Rav Perlow’s clear condemnation of “Open Orthodoxy” and his dismissal of heterodoxy a far more public matter than they would have been otherwise. Both Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox have heard that somewhere in New York can be found a Jewish leader who stands for truth and standards.

The [grey] lady doth protest too much, methinks. It would not be the first time that the media’s overwrought reaction to the statements of a Gadol turned out to serve a positive end.

This article first appeared in Ami Magazine.

Learning Torah Is Equal to them All

On Shavuos, many of us will stay awake throughout the night, learning until we daven k’vasikin (pray at dawn). But as we finish our final cup of coffee and pat ourselves on the back, we should acknowledge for a moment that for many this is a weekly practice. And we should ponder, further, how unique this makes our nation.

During my first year in college, a lighthearted op-ed in the town newspaper complained that it was difficult to hire a student babysitter due to frequent breaks and vacations: mid-semester break, Thanksgiving weekend, winter vacation, reading period, post-exam break, and the list goes on. I responded with a letter to the editor, co-signed by my roommates, arguing the importance of independent research and our other efforts outside the classroom.

All of that was true, of course. But as I continued my college career, I slowly learned things covered neither in class nor the student handbook. Rules such as “9 am classes are for freshmen,” “the weekend begins on Thursday evening,” and “you need to be on the field by 4:30” were as important as any published by the school. Our schedules were augmented by sports, theater, music, the school newspaper, debating clubs, and even campus businesses. And, of course, that op-ed had a point: the weeks of classes and exams added up to barely six months of the year.

To say that going from college to yeshiva involved a culture shock is the quintessential understatement. The baseline expectation suddenly became nine to ten hours of learning every day plus 90 minutes of davening – for nine months or more each year. “Extracurricular activities” included eating, sleeping, and doing laundry.

But more than that – even in the best of colleges, the respected students are the top athletes, the editor of the newspaper, the top debater. Genius and innovation are respected, but due to talent more than dedication. In yeshiva, the greatest respect is reserved not for the natural genius, but for the student who commits himself above and beyond the norm.

It is the study of Torah that has produced a nation that excels in intellectual pursuits. Jews constitute just 0.2% of the world’s population, but over one-quarter of the winners of the Nobel and similar prizes in research fields are Jewish. From where did the Jewish people gain its phenomenal dedication to intellectual exploration and inquiry? Without recognizing the role of traditional Jewish learning, it is difficult to find an answer free of racial overtones.

But despite much-deserved admiration for scholarship in medicine and physics, Torah remains unique. Upon completing a Masechta (Tractate of Talmud) or Seder Mishnayos (Order of Mishnah), part of the “Hadran” compares Torah scholars to others. It says, “we toil and receive reward, they toil and do not receive reward.” Is that really true? Is there no compensation for other forms of “toil?”

The answer speaks to the unique nature of Torah: other fields reward not the effort, but the results. Even an hourly employee will be dismissed if the work product is considered deficient. Only in the field of Torah scholarship is the effort an end unto itself.

Nearly 30 years ago, an article in a prominent newspaper lionized yeshiva learning. It compared a yeshiva to an elite music conservatory, and asked readers to imagine the pride that they would feel if the world’s best violinists gathered in their city to practice their art 10 to 12 hours each day.

The newspaper was the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the article, written by a non-Jewish writer, concerned the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. It is a sad truth that such articles are not written by Jewish writers, whether in American Jewish community papers or in Israel. In Jewish circles, these same scholars are described as lazy, or taking too many vacations – and the material they study deemed unnecessary.

Without question, no kollel should harbor a yungerman unwilling to do the work; to do so is both dishonest and gives our detractors the ability to make absurd generalizations. But neither can we fall prey to their slanderous, sweeping judgements. The average yungerman is not merely the best of our nation in our own eyes. By any impartial standard, the intensity of his scholarship deserves admiration, respect, and our support.

This article first appeared in Ami Magazine.

Leading the Blind

The results of recent Jewish community surveys are alternately delightful and dismal, exciting and excruciating. The growth of Torah-observant households is a stunning phenomenon, while Jewish sociologist Steven Cohen observed, “the sky is falling for the rest of the population.”

Given this dichotomy and the urgency of the problem, we might imagine that everyone would want to know what it is that we, the Orthodox, are doing right. But apparently we would be wrong. Despite multiple surveys detailing the divergent trajectories of young traditional versus liberal Jews today, we have seen no studies dedicated to understanding our successful formula. Instead, Federations and well-meaning philanthropic foundations continue to invest great sums of money on projects whose claim to promote Jewish continuity is nothing more than conjecture — with predictable results.

As we all know, the Torah community is thriving. In less than a decade, the number of Orthodox Jews grew by over 100,000 in the New York area alone, according to the UJA/Federation survey — over 20%. In Baltimore, a similar survey showed an increase of 50%. Last year’s Pew Survey reported more modest growth nationally, but noted that while 11% of adults 18-29 are Orthodox, the same is true of 27% of Jewish minor children. 60% of Jewish children in the New York City area live in Orthodox homes.

But a birth rate of over five children for the average charedi family is only one important factor. According to the Pew Survey, only 22% of retirement-aged Jews raised Orthodox remain Orthodox today. By contrast, the retention rate for those now 30-49 is 57% — while fully 83% of young adults (under 30) remain in our community. Again, one would expect that understanding the dramatic improvement in Orthodox retention would be a high priority.

Instead, many Jewish pundits find themselves living in the past. Writing in The Forward, Josh Nathan-Kazis opines that “The picture is of a denominational rockfall sliding from more traditional streams through the Reform movement and out of the denominational structure altogether.” While this image may have been accurate for thousands of families, “Orthodox by default,” who immigrated from Europe prior to the War, today it is as dated as a rotary phone.

Pini Herman, a researcher at the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, went still further, arguing that “it is in the self-interest of the Conservative and Reform movements to encourage the flowering of the Orthodox American Jewish community, for they are the ultimate beneficiaries of the adult choices of Orthodox-raised children.” They have missed the boat on our success, neatly explaining why they cannot chart their own.

For it is not true that the educational efforts of the Orthodox community, which Herman acknowledges as “heroic,” “legendary,” and “to the point of actual impoverishment,” have resulted in the production of yet more heterodox Jews. On the contrary, commitment to Torah education over multiple generations has made the retention of our youth the norm rather than the exception. Today’s Torah community is literally that — a community of Torah, in which parents, rebbeim and teachers all work together to transmit the mesorah.

Why is this so poorly understood by outside observers? Liberal Jews have been trained to believe that their traditional brethren — especially those labeled the “ultra-Orthodox” — comprise a society so alien that their experience is irrelevant. Besides news stories highlighting bizarre tales of (often exaggerated, if not invented) wrongdoing, there is a more basic depiction of traditional Jews as no more modern than the Amish, but more hostile. Further, our brethren regard the Talmud and other traditional texts as practically our exclusive province.

Yet learning is and remains the answer. There is no magic or gimmick, and no alternative that will ever be effective. Their lack of awareness remains their own loss — and it remains our obligation to do all we can to show them the way forward. To study Judaism, to connect yourself to generations past, and to make this the centerpiece of a child’s education, comprise the only effective route to ensuring a Jewish future.

This article first appeared in Ami Magazine.