Sermon: Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778 – The Robot Priest

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 28 September 2017

In 1984 the movie, The Terminator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, predicted that computers and robots would be ruling our world by 2029. In 2017 it seems that this could be a reality as robots seem to be taking over the world. Many of us have them in our houses with the Amazon Alexa and Google Play both being launched over the past few years and robots can now drive our cars and clean our floors. And it seems that now, robots are even taking over in some people’s religious lives. May of this year, saw the launch of the BlessU-2, a robot priest that will challenge the future of the church.


The robot priest can deliver the priestly benediction in five languages, which can be printed upon request, and beams light from its hands. Worshippers can choose whether their robot has a male or female voice using its touchscreen chest. The BlessU-2’s creator, Stephan Krebs, who belongs to a Protestant church said, ‘We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed.’


Japan has picked up on this idea, creating a humanoid robot named Pepper that can perform the job of a Buddhist priest for funerals. The new invention can chant sutras, whilst tapping a drum, allowing Pepper to act as a cheaper alternative to a human priest. The robot can be decked out in the traditional garb and even has the ability to livestream the ceremony to family members unable to be physically present.


The idea of robot priests is almost too good to be true. They are cheaper to run than humans, they often have better language skills, and when it comes to service provision, they are more likely to do as they are told! The manufacturers even have a back up on hand, if your robot priest experiences any technical difficulties.


But to me the problem of the robot priest seems glaringly obvious. Robots, unlike humans, have no ability to form relationships because meaningful relationships are a two way street. In the words of philosopher Martin Buber, with the robot priest one can only form an ‘I – it’ relationship. Here the robot is just a thing to be utilised, an object which we can observe, there is no mutual engagement.


Ron Wolfson, who wrote the book Relational Judaism, writes that the goal of Jewish institutions, like our synagogue, is to engage Jews with Judaism. It is person centred. In a survey of synagogues, ‘social connectedness’ was seen as a large driver of people’s involvement in the institution, meaning relationships are a large part of why people come. Further, meeting and engaging with the rabbi saw a jump in involvement of 25%.

In our synagogue, unlike with the robot priest, we find the ability to form ‘I – thou’ relationships. Here, both sides can participate in the encounter, and the relationship formed can be transformational. This is what I believe makes this community so special. The family of Alyth helps people to feel connected, as though they belong, and can work in partnership with each other and the institution to create meaningful programs.


Entering into a New Year, the power of our relationships feel even more significant. Thinking along the lines of relational Judaism, a synagogue that can offer people the opportunity to be in face-to-face meaningful relationship with Jews and Judaism and offers a path of meaning and purpose could be successful in the competition against the robot priest.


So perhaps, as we enter into the new year, we all need to think about how we measure the successes of our lives. Are we concerned with goals and achievements? Or more so with  creating meaningful relationships? Psychologist and CEO of Good Think Inc., Shawn Achor, spoke in a TED talk about happiness and success. He stated that many of us believe that if we work harder, we will be more successful and that will lead to our happiness.  Rather Achor argues that a brain in positive, functions significantly better than a brain in negative. When you feel positive, you are more productive, more creative and more energetic. If this year we focus on our happiness and our relationships, then our successes will come with this.


May this new year be one of relationships. Whether that is forming new ones, touching base with old ones, or just prioritising the ones we see as most important. May we not measure its success in attaining goals, but rather in our happiness. And by doing that may we find the success we want.