Can Robots be Jewish? And other pressing questions of Modern Life: a book review by Jeffrey Cohen

October 6, 2021 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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Amy Schwartz serves as the opinion and book editor at Moment Magazine. Moment is one of the more independent and thought stimulating magazine in the Jewish world started by Leonid/Leibl Fein over fifty years ago and is still being published today as an independent but also inclusive journal.

This book looks at a number of questions which really are twenty-first-century dilemmas. They are divided into general topics like Science, Sex, Modern Life and Politics.

We all know the saying that if you have two Jews you will have (at least) three opinions. Well for each of the posed questions there are a range of religious opinions including Independent, Chabad, Reform, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Orthodox, Renewal, Conservative, Reform and even Sephardic (aren’t they normally viewed as part of the orthodox world?). I got a little confused when Shmuely Boteach was listed as Orthodox for anyone who visits his website would know that he is Chabad.

As I picked up this book my curiosity was engaged by the very title. Are Robots engendered? And if they are male would it require a Bris? Well, after reading the answers to the general question articulated by the book’s title, I am none the wiser. I was reminded that the Maharal [Rabbi Yehuda Loeb] of Prague, in the sixteenth century, created a precursor of a robot in the form of a Golem and that the American novelist and poet, Marge Piercy had written a novel juxtaposing the Maharal’s Golem with one in the twenty-fifth century which was a robot. I loved Yitz Greenberg’s somewhat ironic response to the general question of a Jewish Robot. Other contributors were more considered in their responses.

The question about “Is silence consent?” is definitely prescient today. Other questions which are topical include “when and how should Jewish parents discuss sex with their children” as well as “if your child told you that he/she is gay, what would you say”.

The sections on Values and Politics are interesting. The trouble in the post Trump era is how interconnected they have become. In speaking with others so often one asks oneself which came first! Two questions that are posed asks whether politics actually belong on the bima [Local? National? Israeli?] and also can/should a Rabbi express their (own) political opinions on either the bima or in the congregation.

The Introduction by Amy Schwartz is well crafted and gives an overview of many of the issues over the past couple of centuries and how Judaism evolved and why there are a variety of responses to any one issue. It does remind the reader that Judaism has never been static and as the Talmud stated over 1500 years ago that “this way and that way are the paths of G-d”.

This book is an extension of a column published by Moment Magazine for many years by Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem entitled Modern Responsa for Today [and subsequently published as a monograph some years ago] and as a worthy successor for a book entitled What does Judaism Say about….? By Louis Jacobs published almost half a century ago.

Jeffrey Cohen is associated with the School of Medicine (Sydney), University of Notre Dame Australia as well as on Staff at St. Vincent’s’ Private Hospital, Sydney. He has previously held academic appointments at UNSW Sydney and St Louis University. He also served as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum for 5 years and Senior Consultant to Museum Planning Services. He has served congregations in the United States and in the United Kingdom.

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