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Recent Questions

Singularity Theory

Time Magazine recently ran an article on Singularity Theory, which was new to me and very fascinating, and scary at the same time, that human intelligence is about to be surpassed by machines. Are you familiar with this theory, and what does Judaism have to say about it?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

I am a bit familiar, but far from well-versed in this theory. Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil take the lead among other scientists and mathematicians whom have studied technological progress, especially that of computer intelligence, and have extrapolated that progress into the future with very compelling predictions. They forecast, assuming current rate of technological progress that in some 30 years computers will become “superintelligent,” far bypassing human intelligence.

Since at that time it is impossible to predict how the world, and mankind, will continue to progress, that time spells the end of human intelligence and control as we now know it. At that time we will potentially be replacing our intelligence; and perhaps control of the world itself, with that of computers. Hence it is called “Singularity,” borrowed from the astrophysical term describing a black hole. Much like scientific and mathematical predictability breaks down in a black hole, expectedness becomes illusory after the time of superintelligence.

Much of this theory is predicated on studies which show that technological advancement is not linear but exponential, especially with regards to computer intelligence. This is particularly intriguing to me, as this very fact was prophesied by the renowned sage, the Chofetz Chaim. He predicated his prediction upon Torah sources that the industrial revolution, which was then really “picking up steam,” would move ahead exponentially as we approach pre-messianic times. He also said that the world would have a spiritual downturn which would also advance exponentially, and that the two are related.

My mentor in Jerusalem explained the relationship decades ago that the more machines take over for man, the greater the potential for man’s self-esteem, personal growth and even spiritual greatness to decline. This was not to say we should shun progress, only to recognize its potential pitfalls and take them into account.

One thing which is clear from Singularity Theory is its proponents’ glaring omission of the Human Soul from the equation. From a Jewish perspective, it is not possible for a computer, no matter how intelligent, to truly replicate human thought, despite the adamant insistence of Kurzweil. His insistence that a computer could potentially duplicate all of human emotions and responses is based on his purely physiological and mundane outlook on the human experience. Judaism, however, proclaims that much of what we think and feel is not chemical-based but soul-based. Although with regards to raw intelligence it is possible, the lack of a soul renders obsolete the thought that a computer, even with a full-functioning human brain, could truly operate as a human.

Another prediction made by some Singularists is that Superintelligence could do away with death and dying. From a Jewish perspective this is not only impossible, but counterproductive. Man was initially created to live forever, if not for the sin of eating the forbidden fruit. At that time God decreed that mankind must die for the souls to disconnect from that sin which is now part of the stuff of mankind. There will come a time, according to Judaism, when we will indeed rejoin our souls and live eternally. But in the world we live in presently, only via death can the soul purify itself from any negativity which would taint its eternal nature. Not only could computers not overthrow God’s decree, we wouldn’t want them to!

Jewish Unity

In school I am delivering a speech and the topic I have chosen is "The importance of Israel to North American Jews today." I don't have any family in Israel and have no real connection to the country. As a result, when I hear about the current crisis in Israel, I don't get as emotional as others who have more connection to Israel. I want to provide an answer to the question: Why we should care about Israel today? Perhaps you have some ideas.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The Talmud says: "The Jewish people are called 'person,' but other nations are not called 'person.' What does this mean? Of course non-Jews are also human beings!

The explanation is that the entire Jewish people are a singular unit, all part of the same reality. If you're slicing something and accidentally cut your finger, do you take the knife and cut your other hand in revenge? Of course not. Why? Because your other hand is part of you, too. The Jewish people are one. I love my right hand as much as my left hand.

Indeed, when one group of Jews has a problem, we all share in the problem.

During World War Two, Rabbi Aaron Kotler went to Henry Morgenthau, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, to ask for his help in stopping the slaughter of Jews in Europe. Morgenthau was as assimilated as any Jew could be. But Rabbi Kotler put it into stark terms: “If you cannot help rescue you fellow Jews at this time, then your position is worth nothing, because one Jewish life is worth more than all the positions in Washington!"

Morgenthau looked at Rabbi Kotler's fiery stare, and put his head down on his desk. Minute after minute went by in the silent room. Finally, Morgenthau looked up and looked directly at Rabbi Kotler. "I am a Jew," Morgenthau said with great dignity and emotion. "I am willing to give up my life – not just my position – for my people."

In terms of the singular unit of the Jewish people, even Morgenthau felt it.

This deep connection is seen whenever there is a terror attack in Israel. All Jews feel it as one of their own.

The Talmud says that the Jewish people were able to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai only because they were united as one. Similarly, the final redemption for which we so deeply yearn will only come when all Jews are united.

We pray for the day when all Jews will share a spirit of tolerance and acceptance, and genuine care for one another.

Maaser Sheni (Second Tithe)

What is the second tithe all about? Is the term derived from rabbinic sources, or is it used in the Torah?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Imagine being commanded to take 10% of your profits to Jerusalem, where there you must spend all of it on food that your heart desires – whether lamb chops, pickles, coca cola, or tofu. However, since you need to eat all this in Jerusalem, you need to spend extra time there, soaking up the atmosphere and participating in Jerusalem’s number one activity: studying Torah.

For those living in the times of the Holy Temple, this is the mitzvah of the Second Tithe, Maaser Sheni. (Deuteronomy 14:26)

Maaser Sheni must be taken from all grains, wine and oil (plus fruits and vegetables on a rabbinic level) grown in Israel. The produce needed to be kept in a state of purity and eaten in a state of purity in the holy city of Jerusalem, at any time of the year.

The 10% was calculated after removing the Kohen's portion (Terumah) and the Levite's portion (Maaser Rishon). The main part of the mitzvah, eating Maaser Sheni in Jerusalem, only applies at the time of the Holy Temple. However, the essential obligation of Maaser Sheni still exists. If any of these tithes are not separated, the produce is known as tevel and forbidden for consumption.

Within the seven year cycle, Maaser Sheni is required in years 1, 2, 4 and 5 – with years 3 and 6 designated as tithe for the poor, and the seventh Sabbatical year no tithes were taken at all.

Actually, it was not required to carry the raw produce to Jerusalem. The Torah says that if the distance to Jerusalem was too great, and shlepping the produce was impractical, then one could exchange it for money (Deuteronomy 14:24). This money would then be brought to Jerusalem where it must be used to by food eaten in the Holy City. (In exchanging the food for money, one must add a "redemption fee" of an extra 25% – Leviticus 27:30.)

Today we redeem our Maaser Sheni onto a small coin. The money becomes sacred, i.e. earmarked for holy purposes, while the produce becomes desanctified and available for any use. When the value of the coin is "filled," the coin can be redeemed on a coin of higher value or discarded in a way that prevents its future use. The actual procedure for removing the tithe is complicated, and you should seek rabbinic guidance in doing so.

What is the reason for Maaser Sheni? The Sefer HaChinuch explains that in the times of the Temple, the average person would have little time to learn Torah, due to the long hours he would spend tending to his crops and business. The obligation to go to Jerusalem, would allow him to spend time in a center of Torah learning, a place where the great Sanhedrin presided, and since he had so much Maaser Sheni money to spend on food, he was well-supplied. Since at least one member from each household made this pilgrimage each year, this ensured that every Jewish home would have at least one Torah scholar.

The Talmudic tractate of Maaser Sheni explains what items may or may not be purchased with the second tithe money; the legal procedures for the exchange; whether the sanctity of the tithe extends to containers and waste products; what qualifies as "eating"; under what circumstances may the coins be exchanged for other coins; defining the exact city limits of Jerusalem in which the second tithe food must be eaten; what counts as a coin for which the tithe may be redeemed.

Due to limited resources, the Ask the Rabbi service is intended for Jews of little background with nowhere else to turn. People with questions in Jewish law should consult their local rabbi. Note that this is not a homework service!

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