What’s next for Watson, the IBM computer that easily defeated two champion “Jeopardy!” players on the popular TV quiz show? The press recently reported that developers are planning to send the computer to medical school to help doctors identify diseases and recommend treatments. Wait a minute. How about enrolling the IBM computer at Yeshiva University or JTS to ordain Rabbi Watson and help combat illiteracy and disaffiliation in the Jewish community? The Birthright alums would love it. To simulate how Rabbi W. might advise congregants, JInsider accessed the My Jewish Learning database for the following responses. Please tell Rabbi Watson what you think at email@example.com. Read in your best robot voice.
“God is beyond human comprehension, but that has not stopped Jewish thinkers from attempting to describe God. The Jewish God is referred to with many names and euphemisms, though God’s scriptural names are traditionally only pronounced during religious activities. Belief in one God is one of Judaism’s defining characteristics. Nonetheless, some parts of the Torah seem less monotheistic than others. In addition, there are minor currents of thought within Judaism that play down the importance of belief in God.”
Making Sense of God in the Modern World
“Secularization and the values of the modern world have created challenges for traditional conceptions of the Jewish God. Jewish thinkers adjusted to the rationalistic universalism of early modern philosophy by focusing on the ethical implications of Judaism’s belief in one God. Later, existentialists like Martin Buber focused on the experiential relationship between humans and God. Mordecai Kaplan and Richard Rubenstein took the challenges of scientific naturalism and the Holocaust so seriously that they rejected the traditional Jewish God. Finally, feminism raised serious questions about the problems of a male God.”
Responding to Suffering and Evil
“There are several types of solutions to the problem of suffering and evil. The biblical Book of Job suggests that it is fruitless for humans to try and figure out why God causes some righteous people to suffer. While this approach may subvert the concept of reward and punishment, many rabbinic figures, as well as medieval philosophers and mystics, retained this concept by turning to eschatology; that is, they believed that reward and punishment is meted out in the afterlife, or — for those medieval mystics who believed in reincarnation — in a future lifetime.
Other traditional solutions include the idea that suffering is in some way beneficial (and thus isn’t really bad), and the suffering servant model of the biblical prophet Isaiah, which suggests that the Jewish people suffer in order to redeem the wicked of humanity. Many post-Holocaust theologians have developed responses to the unique problems raised by the suffering of the Jews during the Shoah. From “God is hiding” to “God is dead,” these thinkers have placed modern analyses of God and evil at the center of their thought.”
Postscript: A Digital Rabbi in our Future?
Can a totally digital Rabbi gain traction and build a loyal following? Dry theory may not necessarily create great impact in the real world. A Rabbi Watson may very well be capable of “thinking on its feet” and dispensing knowledge, but could it effectively offer Jewish wisdom from various perspectives? To be a rock star rabbi, Watson would need to go far beyond the text and offer answers relevant to an individual’s stage of life, emotional state and denomination. A truly effective rabbi needs to not only answer questions but also ask the right questions. To do that, a digital rabbi would need not just a processor, but also a Yiddishe kop (head) and Jewish soul.