Friday, March 17, 2023

Can ChatGPT Write A Better Sermon?


The Goldsmith, Old Testament series, gouache on board, 8 3/8 × 4 1/2 in. (21.3 × 11.4 cm), circa

1896–1902 by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French 1836-1902)

When ChatGPT was first unveiled, the public reaction was a mixture of fascination and trepidation. Some authors even wondered whether this was the moment when computers become self-aware; perhaps the science fiction nightmare of Skynet taking over is just around the corner. Other, more mundane worries cropped up; some teachers were concerned that their students would turn to ChatGPT to write academic papers.


These worries turned out to be false alarms. ChatGPT has no native intelligence of its own; it is simply a brilliant mimic. Much like the complete-a-sentence tool on emails and word processors, ChatGPT guesses the answer based on how similar questions were answered elsewhere on the internet. But it can also be wildly inaccurate, and at times will make up answers that have no basis in fact; it can even get basic math wrong. ChatGPT is an exceptional imitator.


But writing sermons is one area in which ChatGPT seems to excel. Several rabbis and ministers have posted ChatGPT sermons; one online headline blared “ChatGPT is coming for religion and lazy pastors might use it to write their sermons.” The article quotes Rabbi Joshua Franklin, who told his congregation, after sharing a sermon written entirely by ChatGPT, “I’m deathly afraid…I thought truck drivers were going to go long before the rabbi, in terms of losing our positions to artificial intelligence.” And the question is: can ChatGPT write a better sermon?


I think we are looking at this the wrong way. If Chat GPT can write a sermon purely based on mimicry, the real question is: Why can't Rabbis write a better sermon than ChatGPT?


ChatGPT knows how to reproduce predictable sermonic platitudes, and is programmed to do so. The real issue is the all too frequent color-by-numbers sermons that are easy to imitate.


Repetition is not a flaw; it is critical to repeat fundamental messages over and over again. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, at the beginning of his classic text The Path of the Just, declares that I have composed this work not to teach people what they do not know, but to remind them of what they already know and which is very familiar to them. Important lessons need to be emphasized. When people tell me that my sermon “is preaching to the choir,” I have a standard response: Sometimes the choir needs a sermon too.


But this should not be an excuse for a lack of creativity. There are profound insights into the most basic of ethical concepts. Superficiality actually betrays a lack of enthusiasm for the very message being conveyed.


Creativity is a foundational Jewish value. In our Torah reading, God calls upon Betzalel to oversee the construction of the Mishkan, the first Sanctuary in the desert. He is presented in a dramatic fashion: “See, I have called by name Betzalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship.” (Exodus 31:2-3)


The appointment, and the phrase “called by name,” pique the interest of many commentaries. One passage in the Midrash wonders why God didn't ask Moses to perform this task. Others seek to understand what these words mean, and in what way Betzalel’s ability is unique.


Most of these interpretations point to the same idea: Creativity is transcendent. The Ramban explains that what made Betzalel unique is that he was raised as a slave in Egypt, where the Jews had been crushed under the work in mortar and in brick, and had acquired no knowledge of how to work with silver and gold, and the cutting of precious stones… It was thus a wonder that there was to be found amongst them such a great wise-hearted man,.. a craftsman, an embroiderer, and a weaver…..And even those who know them and are used to doing them, if their hands are continually engaged in [work with] lime and mud, lose the ability to do with them such artistic and delicate work. A slave should not know how to be a craftsman. Betzalel’s creativity is the product of a soul that refused to be crushed, and his artistry is an expression of inner freedom; and that creativity can belong to anyone who is truly inspired.


Another Midrash explains that Betzalel understood the very secret of God's creation. This understanding hints at how significant creativity is in Judaism.


Science values creativity because it opens new vistas of understanding; but one would imagine that Judaism, which is based on tradition, would be hostile to creativity. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in the second section of Halakhic Man, argues the opposite is true. Echoing the Midrash about Betzalel, he explains that man is meant to emulate God; and if God is a creator, man must be a creator as well. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that much of one’s religious experience, including repentance, prophecy, and a personal relationship with God, depend on a person's creativity. Self-development is a creative act, one which reinterprets the past and reimagines the future, and the willingness to innovate is fundamental to spiritual growth. To Rabbi Soloveitchik, creativity is a fundamental value of Judaism, one which it shares with the scientific world.


Creativity requires independence, insight, and imagination, all abilities that ChatGPT lacks. But ChatGPT is not alone in pushing platitudes and humbug; many humans do so as well. If we find that our own opinions sound a lot like ChatGPT, that is not a flaw in it; rather, it is the product of our own failings. Like a parrot, ChatGPT forces us to hear what we actually sound like.


Parallel to the development of smarter computers is the dumbing of humanity. Ideas have to be crunched into predigested social media slogans; they are then repeated without nuance. The polarization in American politics is not just a sociological phenomenon; it is an intellectual transformation, where people no longer think critically, and no longer care to have independent views. Platitudes rule the day.


In the last two centuries, Jews have had remarkable success in the world of science. Norman Lebrecht, in his book Genius and Anxiety, examines how this happened. In the introduction, he tells a story about the students in an elite Lithuanian Yeshiva that leave every week to go watch the local soccer match. The head of the Yeshiva asks them why they were missing from their studies. The students explain that they are soccer fans, and love watching the game. The rabbi decides to learn what it is that his students are so enthusiastic about, so he accompanies them to a soccer game. After watching intently for the first half, the rabbi turns to the students and says: “I have solved your problem.” “How so”, his students ask. “Just give one ball to each team and they won't have anything left to fight over.”


This might be a joke, but it betrays profound brilliance. Instead of simply following the game, the rabbi was thinking about how he could make it better. Creativity is an obligation on all those created in the image of God; we, too, can improve what is flawed and failed. And that has been part of Jewish culture, going all the way back to Betzalel.

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