Rabbi Gabriel Kanter-Webber
The detailed instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle and the garments of the High Priest were intended to ensure that they were built correctly and with the appropriate materials. These items were not ordinary pieces of furniture or clothing, but sacred objects that were intended for use in the service of God. As such, they needed to be constructed with the utmost care and precision to ensure that they were worthy of their holy purpose.
Another reason for the detailed instructions which Parashat Tetzaveh gives us for the Israelite priesthood’s garments is that those instructions served as a means of transmitting the knowledge of these sacred objects from one generation to the next. By recording these instructions in the Torah, the Israelites were able to preserve the knowledge of how to build and use the Tabernacle and the garments of the High Priest for future generations. This ensured that the Israelites could continue to worship God in the way that God intended, even after the original builders and users of these objects had passed away.
If you’ve read this far, you may be surprised to hear (or you may not) that I didn’t write the paragraphs above. A computer did. Specifically, an artificial intelligence tool called “ChatGPT” which has been shocking and alarming the world with its ability to respond to any prompt it is given. In this case, I asked it: “Why does Parashat T’tzavveh give such detailed instructions for the High Priest’s garments?” – and you’ve seen the answer above.
Now, this actually seems to be one of its better answers. Rabbinic colleagues have found that, at times, ChatGPT has written ‘synagogue’ sermons that include references to Jesus, or to made-up passages of Talmud. But to be fair, what it wrote about Parashsat T’tzavveh is both reasonable and, actually, a little interesting. I don’t know if the ideas it expressed are original, or if Rashi or another commentator come up with them first, but it certainly produced a couple of thoughts worth considering in greater depth.
And Parashat T’tzavveh seems like the appropriate time for such an experiment. As much as it’s a portion of detailed instructions – which might make one think that there’s no room for deviation or human input – it’s actually a portion about creativity. As Rabbi Jill Hammer has said: “The Torah tells us that the Tabernacle cannot be built without the wisdom of the heart. The yarn cannot be spun, the jewels cannot be set, the sockets cannot fit together without the inner knowing of individual people. The beauty of the Tabernacle comes from the beauty of the generous-spirited hearts that design and build it. So, too, we can only build sacred community when the wisdom of the individual heart has a recognized place alongside the sacred text.”
If the Torah was absolutely complete in and of itself, there would be no need for Liberal Judaism to publish a Thought for the Week. There would be no need for sermons or interpretation. Rashi would have been redundant. Whereas in fact, as we know, commentators from long before Rashi to long after Rabbi Jill Hammer produce works that beautify the Torah and increase our understanding of it – just as the Israelite artists took some basic instructions and turned them into a real, physical work of exquisite art.
Is ChatGPT going to be the new Rashi? Surely not. Even if we ignore the fact that it sometimes churns out nonsense, what is left consists of idea largely generated at random. Some of them might be interesting; some might be dull or trite or fall down at the first sign of scrutiny. What ChatGPT is, though, is a source of raw material. Raw material is important, and a new supply of it is no doubt of some use. But unless raw material is harnessed and fashioned, intelligently and discerningly, by a wise and creative mind, it will never become anything of substance.
I would never claim to be wise (if I was really wise, I wouldn’t have needed to resort to artificial intelligence to get the first 150 words of my d’rash). But I like to think I’m smart enough not to feel threatened or intimidated by a piece of software that pretends it can do my job. Our real job – a job shared by all of us living in this brave new world where machines can talk – is to be discerning and to create beauty out of raw material.
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