Yom Kippur Koleinu - 5784/2023 Rabbi Joel Nickerson

  • 5784/2023
  • Rabbi Nickerson
  • Sermon
  • Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur Koleinu - 5784/2023 Rabbi Joel Nickerson

Yom Kippur Koleinu 5784
Rabbi Joel Nickerson
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles

The Transformation of A.I. – From Artificial Intelligence to Authentic Intelligence

Last year, the day before our daughter Kayla’s kid-only bat mitzvah party, my wife crafted an email she sent to all the parents. The following is an excerpt: 

For your advance notice, we intend to bring back the ‘90s and recreate the full 1991 bat mitzvah season vibe that filled our youth. When your children arrive, their cell phones will be placed in a pouch with their name on it and secured from 7:00-9:30pm. The phones will be returned for the last half hour and in time for pickup at 10pm. Please inform them so there are no surprises. Should there be an emergency during these magical hours, we will both have our cell phones on us at all times. We can’t wait for these kids to be fully engaged in the true fun and awkwardness that comes with an internet/5G-free middle school experience. Thanks for your support in making this a good old-fashioned party!
See you on Saturday night! Julia & Joel Nickerson

When these 12 and 13-year-olds arrived, they apprehensively, some begrudgingly, placed their phones in bags, entered the party space, and spent the first 20 minutes in what could only be described as an excruciatingly awkward gathering of 90+ preteens.  But then, something miraculous happened. The room slowly came alive. They started to talk, and then laugh, and since they only had three options – the bathroom, the food or the dance floor, they learned pretty quickly that they preferred fun over sitting in the corner.  By 8pm the dance floor was packed and some were even crowd surfing. They were making memories, making new friends, becoming themselves in a new way.  The transformation was astounding but short-lived.  As the party ended and we returned the phones, eye contact disappeared, laughter ceased, no further memories were created.  

As I watched this unfold, it made me think about how much we rely on technology as a tool to avoid tough situations or uncomfortable decisions.  Just a year ago, when the party occurred, I would have said that this is the biggest challenge we face from modern technology – we rely on our phones to avoid discomfort, dull our emotional states, and support unhealthy habits. But over the past year, something new has emerged; a new form of technology that we've already started relying on in unprecedented ways. 

Since the last time we gathered here for the High Holidays, more specifically, starting November 30, 2022, term papers, college applications, marriage proposals, relationship break-ups, e-mail correspondence, music production, and even sermons, have been crafted by a new force in society – ChatGPT and the ever-growing presence of AI technology.  Throughout the year, prognosticators have written countless articles and waxed poetic about AI’s messianic power or its potential role in fast-tracking a real-life scenario from The Terminator and the Rise of Machines.  

Imagine what our future may hold.  Every child has an AI tutor who is infinitely patient, infinitely compassionate, knowledgeable, and helpful.  Every person will have an AI assistant, coach, mentor, or therapist who is infinitely patient and compassionate.  AI-augmented artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers will gain the ability to realize their visions far faster and at a greater scale than ever before.  Military commanders and political leaders will have AI advisors to help them make better strategic and tactical decisions, minimizing risk, error, and unnecessary bloodshed.  In short, anything that people do with their natural intelligence today will be done with AI, and we will take on new challenges that have been impossible to tackle, from curing diseases to achieving interstellar travel.  At least, that’s the perspective of well-respected venture capital firms and tech leaders who are investing serious money in AI technologies.  

Too often, in our polarized world, we have the tendency to look at things as all good or all bad, and our views about AI are no different.  However, like almost all things of significance, there is nuance and complexity.  Much of this incredible technology is being developed with positive intent and will bring unprecedented positive change in some areas of our lives.  At the same time, it is about to get a lot harder to tell the difference between real and fake, between genuine and counterfeit, between honesty and deception.  The decisions we will have to make about how we spend our time, with whom we spend it, and what we decide to prioritize are about to become even more challenging.  

In a world where A.I., artificial intelligence, is guiding us into new uncharted territory, I believe it is even more critical for us to embrace and uphold a more ancient form of A.I. – AUTHENTIC intelligence.  Authentic Intelligence is our guide to making meaningful, genuine, and lasting decisions.  

The High Holy Days, and Yom Kippur specifically, is a time to reflect on our decision-making process and the ramifications of those decisions.  The Unetaneh Tokef prayer reminds us that we may not be here next year and forces us to reflect on how we will decide to live each day.  With every al cheit, we beat our chest and think about the litany of mistakes that we make year after year – we betray, we are cruel, we ridicule, we abuse, we are corrupt, we are stubborn.  It’s a reminder that we are no stranger to poor decision-making.  Then there is Shema Koleinu - our plea to God for another chance despite the decisions that pushed us further away from our best selves.  By spending these days reflecting on our mishaps, reading these prayers, engaging with the texts of our tradition, and reconnecting with the pieces of ourselves that have laid dormant, we are prompted to return to the wisdom we’ve acquired throughout our lives in the hopes that it will help us make better decisions in the future.  

Now, in our pursuit of wisdom, AI can play a supporting role.  After all, it may be the product of circuitry and algorithms, but it is still the distillation of human thought.  And so, I turned to RebbeIO, the AI-powered online tool where people can ask an AI rabbi any question they want.  In response to my question about acquiring wisdom, it answered, “Remember, cultivating wisdom is a lifelong journey. It requires dedication, humility, and a commitment to continuous learning and growth. May we all strive to become wise individuals who bring light and understanding to the world.”  It’s a helpful beginning, a guidepost to inspire a deeper quest.  But to acquire the wisdom alluded to by RebbeIO, we have to go analog, not digital. 

To help us make better decisions in the future, Jewish tradition urges us to focus on two wellsprings of wisdom, two sources of Authentic Intelligence.  Pirkei Avot teaches us, “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.”  The first source of wisdom stems from our relationships and the knowledge we gain from others.

Whenever I officiate at a b’nei mitzvah ceremony, I love the part when we pass the Torah down through the generations into the student’s arms.  The Torah scroll becomes a conduit, and not just for the values and stories in the Five Books of Moses.  As I watch grandparents and parents grin from ear to ear as they joyously (but cautiously) hold the Torah for a few seconds and then pass it down the generational line, I think about what’s really being passed down.  It’s the family’s trials and tribulations, the successes and the painful losses, their hopes and dreams for the next generation.  It’s the quintessential ritual to showcase the transmission of wisdom.  

Look, I may not be able to recall quotes by famous authors or retell a funny joke by heart, but I can absolutely remember the wisdom that has been passed to me from the people who matter.  It’s the wisdom of my rabbinic mentors - that ongoing learning is essential; that each person’s story is sacred.  It’s the wisdom I gained from my parents, step-parents, and in-laws - that we are meant to explore the world’s beauty and diversity, that love can be rediscovered, and that personal and professional integrity is priceless.  It’s the wisdom I’ve gained from my wife, Julia - that honesty is the fundamental building block of a loving relationship, that partnership does not mean you are attached at the hip, and that being a mother is very different from being a father.  And from my three girls – that each soul comes into this world with its own unique path, that internal beauty can never be diminished, and that adults have much to learn from the resilience of the young.

Then, according to the sages, there is the second source of wisdom – and our tradition places an even greater weight on this source - our own, lived experience.  This is the most authentic of intelligence.  

Interestingly, we don’t gain this second type of wisdom, the wisdom from a lived life, by focusing on our successes.  The greatest source is actually our failures.  Wisdom is a spiritual attribute, and it’s for that reason that Yom Kippur focuses primarily on our faults and flaws.  We learn the fundamental lessons of life through our pain, our losses, and our defeats.  The Kotzker Rebbe famously stated, “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” A midrash teaches that “God prefers broken vessels.”  

Our brokenness is the key.  It is a gift.  It becomes the ultimate source of wisdom by which we can pursue a more meaningful life.  We acquire this experiential wisdom when our parents get divorced and we learn that not all relationships will last forever. We acquire this wisdom when we move to a new place and learn to cope with loneliness and fragility; when someone betrays our trust and we learn how to deal with rejection and disappointment; when we experience that health scare and learn that we’re not indestructible and that our time on this earth is extremely short; it’s when we disappoint or hurt someone else and recognize the potentially destructive impact we can have on the world.  These are our guides on the path to making better decisions.

Here lies the critical difference between cyber intelligence and human intelligence: when computers break, they’re useless.  When humans break, we grow.

When I was in Israel this summer, I was without a phone for 48 hours.  I felt like those preteens who showed up at Kayla’s bat mitzvah party and had to turn in their phones.  It was as if I had lost a limb.  I couldn’t fully function until I had a new one in my hands. I hate how much I rely on the technology, but I have also realized that it’s here to stay.  And the same goes for the future of AI.  We are just scratching the surface of what this technology is going to do to our world, our relationships, our choices, our decisions.  We have only entered the early “flip-phone” phase of this new advance.  Our access to information and to knowledge is going to increase exponentially and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Just as AI, when used properly, can accelerate progress toward curing cancer or traveling to the stars, it can also help us make progress on our path toward wisdom.

But to get to true wisdom, to the type of intelligence that will guide us through the challenging and complex decisions coming our way, both personally and societally, there are certain things that we just can’t delegate to technology.  Making the tough, but invaluable decisions, require something we can’t get from a screen: the wisdom passed to us through the experience of human interaction and the wisdom that comes from our brokenness.  

May we all be sealed in the Book of human, relationship-filled, screentime-enforced Life.  And let us remember, our goal must be Authentic Intelligence…nothing artificial about it.