The Rabbis and the Future of Work

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 8 March 2024

Last Shabbat, Rabbi Golan spoke about rest – so this week, I thought I would talk instead about work, since this week’s Torah portion begins with all the work that is required to build the Mishkan – the Tabernacle in which the Israelites will encounter God while they are travelling through the wilderness.

And I want to begin with a story of two rabbis who have a falling out. The falling out is between Rabbi Joshua – who was older, wiser, but very, very poor, so poor he lived in a hovel, the walls of which were completely black with soot from the furnace he kept going because in order to support himself he needed to trade as a blacksmith as well as being a wise sage – and Rabban Gamliel – who was younger, richer, and more powerful; the leader of the Jewish community. The walls of Gamliel’s house were not blackened by soot. But he was not so wise, perhaps, as Rabbi Joshua.

Their falling out is actually over a matter related to what we are doing now – saying our evening prayers, and the question of whether saying them is obligatory or optional. Rabbi Joshua says that it is optional, while Rabban Gamliel insists that it is compulsory. In the course of their debate, Rabban Gamliel (who, remember, the more powerful one) is so disrespectful to Rabbi Joshua that all the other rabbis actually depose him and send him away.

A little while later, Gamliel wants to resolve the conflict and decides to go to apologise to Rabbi Joshua. As he approaches, Gamliel comments on the walls of Joshua’s house, that are blackened by the soot of his blacksmith’s furnace. And in response to this comment, Joshua says, ‘Woe to the generation whose leader you are, for you know nothing of the suffering of Torah scholars, how they support themselves, and how they keep themselves going!’

This kind of comment is perennial – how often do we hear from the generation before us that we have no idea how lucky we are – that they had to work and suffer so much more than we did? Nearly two thousand years after the falling out of Rabbi Joshua and Rabban Gamliel, generations continue to gripe at each other in this way.

And yet many also recognise that it is a good thing that we no longer have to endure the suffering and the toil of those who came before us. My grandfather was a coal miner, although he did not want to be: he had originally wanted to work on a farm, but the death of his father when he was twelve forced him and his brother to go down the mine to support their mother and siblings. He was proud of the fact that he had a job, and felt a great deal of loyalty to his fellow miners during the strikes of the 1980s. But he and my grandmother also recognised that a life down the coal pits was not one they aspired to for their children and grandchildren.

We stand on the verge of a new era in which future generations will struggle to recognise the jobs we currently do.

In his book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the threat that AI and machine learning poses to traditional work. Increasingly, computers are able to ape human occupations, and it is only a matter of time before they improve enough to be able to render us all obsolete and out-dated. Probably even rabbis.

Already Chat GPT is able to write a semi-decent sermon for me to deliver on a Friday night. It hasn’t got the jokes right yet – believe me, I’ve tried. And it can’t do surprise endings – since it would need to know what would be surprising to a particular congregation, in a way that a human rabbi will hopefully know, but a computer is yet to comprehend. But even this, Harari argues, is only a matter of time. It is only a matter of time before AI machines will be able to understand the wants and needs of whole groups – without us even knowing, they will come to know us better than we know ourselves.

So, what are we going to do? I don’t think I can give you an answer to the threat that AI poses to humanity in a 9-minute Dvar Torah. But, reading Harari’s book did give me an idea of what are the things that are going to help us as we transition into the new world that AI will make possible. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the thing that will still be needed, even once the computers have started writing my sermons for me, is community. The support and love of fellow human beings is not something that can be simulated by a machine – by its very nature it could only come from a human. Sitting together and praying, learning together (even if our teachers end up being robots), holding each other up in moments of difficulty and celebrating together in times of joy – these are things that will continue to matter, even if work were to disappear and become the domain of the machines.

What is it that finally allows Joshua and Gamliel to be reconciled and to become friends again? It is not argument; it is not logic. It is not something that an algorithm could ultimately predict. Rabban Gamliel asks Joshua for forgiveness. And he says, ‘If you will not forgive me for my sake, forgive me for the honour of my father’ – and finally, Joshua forgives him. It is this human connection to the generations that our human communities gives us that no machine can replicate. It is this heritage that we reference in our Amidah, when we say that our God is also the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. It is that linking of the generations that will keep us going in the midst of the everchanging world of work and technology.

Shabbat Shalom