Is an AI Posek Kosher?

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by R. Gil Student

I. AI as a Posek

Everyone is talking about the implications of artificial intelligence (AI). While the current version of AI frequently gives laughably incorrect answers, it offers us a realistic idea of the possibility of a coherent technology that can think and reason independently. For Jews, one question this raises is whether AI can answer halakhic questions. Much has been written and said on the subject, very little of it satisfying. Too many rabbis have not interacted with AI and do not seem to understand its implications. Others seem to be at a lack of relevant sources and precedents. I will offer here a suggested answer based on a paper I presented at the 2010 Orthodox Forum (since published in the book, The Next Generation of Modern Orthodoxy).

Let us consider the possibility of an artificial intelligence that is trained on the entire corpus of rabbinic literature. The AI masters all of the primary texts and their commentaries. From halakhic codes and responsa, it learns how to render decisions. It sees how poskim (halakhic decisors) reason, interpret texts, compare cases, consider the unique circumstances of the question, and arrive at answers. The AI is trained to think like a rabbi with perfect recall. Can any individual Jew looking to fulfill God’s word ask an AI a halakhic question and follow its answer? And once AI is available to do this, would we be obligated to ask an AI rather than a human, with all his frailties?

II. AI and Divine Assistance

One approach to take is to argue that a posek, a halakhic authority, requires divine assistance, siyata di-shmaya. God will help a rabbi reach the appropriate conclusion but will not assist an AI. Therefore, an AI lacks the necessary siyata di-shmaya that a rabbi has. But is this true? If the siyata di-shmaya is for the rabbi’s sake, then an AI has no merit to deserve it. But if the siyata di-shmaya is for the questioner, who wants to fulfill the divine will, why would God not help the questioner via the AI? If the rabbi is a divine vessel, why can’t the AI be a divine vessel also?

Another approach is to compare AI to a gentile. Of course, a gentile is different. He is a child of God, created in the divine image. However, the comparison still has value as a kal va-chomer, an a fortiori logical argument. If a gentile, who is conscious and able to think and reason, is unable to issue a halakhic ruling, then surely an AI is unable to do so. Yet, where do we see that a gentile may not serve as a posek? I am not aware of any text or precedent that says so, although I welcome any suggested texts. Absent a text, we need a strong explanation of if and why a learned gentile may not serve as a posek.

A few years ago, when people were debating whether women can be rabbis, one line of argument was that there is no longer any halakhic requirements for a rabbi. As long as a woman knows halakhah, she can serve as a rabbi. As a response to that argument, I asked whether a gentile who studies Shulchan Arukh can also serve as a rabbi. If he knows the material and can teach it to people, why can’t a gentile serve as a rabbi? Of course, a Jewish woman is part of the Jewish people and the Sinai covenant. She observes the commandments and the Jewish holidays, and is part of the age-long Jewish story. But does any of that matter in terms of issuing a halakhic ruling?

III. Two Types of Pesak?

In order to begin answering these questions, we first need to distinguish between two types of paskening, issuing halakhic rulings. The Gemara (Eruvin 62b) says that a student may not issue a halakhic ruling in the presence of his mentor to the point that it is a capital offense (ibid., 63a). Rav Meir (Maharam) of Rothenburg (13th cen., Germany) is quoted as distinguishing between an original ruling and an existing ruling found in books (Hagahos Maimoniyos, Hilkhos Talmud Torah 5:3). A student may offer in his teacher’s presence a halakhic ruling that he found in a published book because he is not really ruling. He is just serving as a technical reference, offering the knowledge that he has acquired through his study. A halakhic ruling is something new, something that requires evaluation and consideration. A halakhic reference is the regurgitation of information. A halakhic ruling is the creation of new information. Significantly, this distinction is recorded in Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 242:9) and explained by Shakh (ad loc., 16). While many dispute Shakh’s explanation, Rav Shmuel Wosner (21st cen., Israel) argues that this idea applies to post-Talmudic codes and responsa that are intended for practical teachings (Shevet Ha-Levi 2:113).

With this distinction between a halakhic reference and a halakhic ruling, we can understand another law. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 7a) says that when one rabbi rules on a specific case strictly, another rabbi is not allowed to permit it. One approach to this seemingly technical rule is that pesak, halakhic rulings, do not just teach the law. A rabbi’s ruling creates a religious status in the object under question. Is this chicken kosher or non-kosher? When you ask your rabbi, he defines the chicken’s status for you. Even if another rabbi comes along and says that he disagrees and the chicken is kosher, it doesn’t matter. If he can show that the rabbi was mistaken on an explicit law (to’eh bi-dvar Mishnah) then he nullifies the original ruling. Absent that, the first rabbi has changed the chicken’s religious status for you. He has not just taught you the law but determined what the law is for you. A pesak is a religious act, not just a technical reference.

IV. Pesak as a Mitzvah

The Torah says regarding the priests: “that you are to teach the Children of Israel all the statutes” (Lev. 10:11). Rav Yitzchak of Corbeil (13th cen., France; Semak, 101) counts this as a mitzvah on anyone capable of issuing a halakhic ruling (if no one else more capable is available). Issuing a pesak is a mitzvah, a religious obligation. While others include this as part of the mitzvah to study and teach Torah, Rav Yitzchak sees it as an independent mitzvah. Either way, issuing a halakhic ruling is an act of religious devotion. It is a fulfillment of a divine command that allows the respondent to enter the religious life of the questioner and create for him a new halakhic reality.

Is it any wonder, then, that a gentile may not serve as a posek, a halakhic decisor? It is one thing to serve as a halakhic reference, to direct people to existing rulings. Anyone who has studied halakhah can tell people what, for example, Mishnah Berurah says about a specific case. A computer can do this, as well. A person is better than a regular computer at understanding the nuances of a question and offering the appropriate reference source. An AI might be even better at this than a person, with perfect recall of a massive library. However, this is just about referencing past rulings.

Issuing a new halakhic ruling is not just about providing a reference — it is a religious activity. I suggest that only those within the religious community, only those who are part of the covenant and fulfill commandments, can create a halakhic reality by issuing a ruling. A Jewish man, and also a Jewish woman and even a Jewish child, fulfill commandments and take part in the halakhic process as consumers. Therefore, if qualified and in the right circumstances, they may also take part in the other end of the halakhic process as producers. A Jewish man, woman or child can serve as a posek (which is different from serving as a rabbi, as I discuss elsewhere). Someone outside the halakhic covenant cannot create a halakhic reality and therefore cannot serve as a posek. This would prevent someone from asking a gentile and, kal va-chomer, an AI for halakhic rulings.

There is still room for AI in the halakhic process. An AI can serve the broader public as a halakhic reference for questions that have already been answered, directing people to the relevant texts and even providing them source sheets. An AI can also serve as a rabbi’s assistant, gathering relevant sources and proposing different approaches to answering a question. Ultimately, the posek will evaluate all the relevant texts and precedents, think through all the mitigating circumstances and personal considerations, weigh the halakhic and meta-halakhic issues involved, and deliver a halakhic ruling.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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