Off the Shelf: What does a rabbi think about that?

 by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Different opinions and rabbinic debate: those were staples of Jewish religious dialogue as Judaism moved from a sacrificial-based religion to a prayer-based one. As technology changed so did debates on what Judaism thinks about everything from electricity to plant-based meat. In contemporary times, most of these discussions take place within Jewish movements, rather than between them. However, Moment Magazine has a different idea: how about asking rabbis from different movements their opinion on an issue and publish them together? Thus was born the magazine’s “Ask the Rabbis” feature in 2005. A selection of these questions and answers can be found in “Can Robots Be Jewish? And Other Pressing Questions of Modern Life” edited by Amy E. Schwartz (Moment Books/Mandel Vilar Press). 

The rabbis who answer the questions come from almost every part of American Jewish life: Independent, Humanist, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Sephardic, Chabad and ultra-Orthodox. Schwartz does note it is difficult to get rabbis from the extreme conservative end of the spectrum to comment on such issues as gay rights and women rabbis, something for which the magazine had been criticized. She suggests that those rabbinic figures feel uncomfortable acknowledging something they think should not exist, while also noting that, for some, there are limits to what they feel should be discussed in a Jewish forum. 

For this reader, that’s a minor quibble. What is fun is not only seeing where the rabbis disagree, but when those who are far apart on the religious spectrum make similar points. Some rabbis focus on the question asked, while others use the question as a starting point for a series of related ethical ideas. Some answers are very serious, while others are funny (specifically those offered by Modern Orthodox Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg – just check out the conversation he holds with “his robot” when answering whether a robot can be Jewish).

The 30 questions are broken down into six categories – “Science,” “Sex,” “Modern Life,” “Values,” “Politics” and “The Nature of the Universe” – although some could just as easily be found in a different section. They include practical everyday ones, such as “Should Jewish children sing Christmas carols?,” “Does politics belong on the bima?” and “Are we commanded to vote?” Some readers will be surprised at the psychological-based questions, for example, “Should Jews strive to be happy?” and “What sins should we atone for in our use of social media?” Parents will also be interested in learning “When and how should Jewish parents discuss sex with their children?” For those interested in social actions, relevant questions include “According to Judaism, are there fundamental human rights?” and “Does Jewish law forbid racism?”

The answers to the question “Should we edit our children’s genes?” shows how seriously the writers take the different options science offers. They note the good that comes with preventing diseases like Tay-Sachs, but also mention the problems that could rise from use of the technology, including the creation of “designer babies,” which raises fears of eugenics. What was particularly interesting is that – as Schwartz notes – “the rabbis with special expertise in this topic – those who are physicians or specialize in medical ethics in addition to their rabbinic credentials – were the likeliest to respond that we still don’t know enough about this technology to weigh its risks and benefits.”

Rather than asking whether Judaism allows abortion, the question raised was “When does life begin?” The result is one of the most nuanced and careful discussions of abortion I’ve ever read. It was also interesting to see how each person approached the question. For example, the Independent and Humanist rabbis quote from the Talmud to support their positions, as does the ultra-Orthodox rabbi. All writers allow for some type of abortion, noting that, while the fetus is a human being, it depends on its mother for life. While Schwartz notes that none of their opinions should be taken as official Jewish doctrine, their insights offer interesting ways to view the debate. 

The question of “Are tattoos and body piercings taboo” offers a wider spectrum of answers. Some authors believe it’s up to the individual to decide, while more traditional rabbis reject doing either. Schwartz notes that several writers offer “a nice selection of variations on ‘It depends.’” What is interesting is the ways that the rabbis used this question to not just talk about tattoos and piercings, but other aspects of the body – including the idea that our bodies are a gift from God, which should be treated appropriately.

“Can Robots Be Jewish?” serves as a fun learning experience. Its reasoned answers offer a great deal of food for thought and allows readers to ponder opinions they might not have otherwise appreciated. In addition to reading it on one’s own, the work would be great for classes, both for teenagers and adults. It’s also perfect for study groups.