Skver bans followers from using artificial intelligence

Rabbis worry that AI tools could expose followers to unfiltered content

New Square's main synagogue. Credit: Mo Gleber/Shtetl

May 5, 2023 12:55 PM


More than a dozen rabbis of the Skver Hasidic sect released an edict banning the use of artificial intelligence last Thursday. The news was first reported by Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Yeshiva World News, and then verified by Shtetl.

The proclamation, signed by the 16 members of the New Square Beth Din, was circulated in both Hebrew and Yiddish. In it, the rabbis warn that using artificial intelligence could expose people to heresy. AI refers to software that can learn, reason, adapt and communicate, much like humans.

“The scale and severity of the danger may not be known and apparent to all at present, but it has become clear to us that the matter is of great importance to us, it’s a hunters’ snare to all of us, young and old.” the rabbis’ letter says, according to a translation from Hebrew by Uri Steiff. “Therefore, the use of AI is prohibited in all cases, in every way and form, even via phone.”

Yiddish version of edict on AI

Artificial intelligence recently became a focus of public discussion when the AI-powered language processing model ChatGPT was released for public use in November. There are many different instances of AI and it is being incorporated into many web services, but the rabbis’ letter specifically mentioned OpenAI, the technology firm behind ChatGPT.

ChatGPT uses information from the internet such as databases, books, and news articles – and a type of technology called natural language processing – in order to conduct human-like conversations with users. The OpenAI program, like other AI programs, has flaws and doesn’t always respond accurately. 

Many Hasidic rabbis discourage using the internet as a whole, making exceptions only when users install filtering software programmed according to their moral standards. In 2015, the Journal News, a newspaper serving the Lower Hudson Valley, reported that Skver yeshivas made students’ parents agree to a certain set of rules or else risk their children’s expulsion. One of the rules was that no one may use cell phones without web filters.

The Skver rabbis’ letter doesn’t mention ChatGPT, but in it, the rabbis seem to be concerned that the chatbot could share unfiltered content with them. “This thing is an ‘open internet without any filter,’ open to all abominations, unlimited heresy and apostasy,” it says.

The chatbot represents a major innovation, but AI goes beyond this individual program. The technology is also used in search engines such as Google, virtual assistant technology such as Amazon Alexa, self-driving cars, and more.

The Skver rabbis’ edict comes after April reports in the Jewish Press and VINnews about an declaration by Ger Hasidic rabbis banning followers from purchasing or using Tesla cars, which have driver-assistance technology that uses AI.

“It has become clear that in many vehicles the multimedia systems are open and exposed to the internet,” the Jewish Press quotes the Ger letter as saying. “Even in cases where the company claimed that it was filtered or the users believe that it has nothing untoward, in most cases the unfiltered internet can easily be reached with a number of damaging incidents occurring.”

Shtetl has not independently verified the Ger letter.

Skver rabbis aren’t the only ones concerned about AI and ChatGPT. Social commentators and technology experts fear widespread job losses and disinformation resulting from unregulated use of AI. 

In the long term, technology experts fear that AI could pose a risk to humanity. Dr. Geoffrey Hinton, a computer scientist known as the “godfather of AI,” expressed this fear to the New York Times. “It is hard to see how you can prevent the bad actors from using it for bad things,” he said. In March, more than 1,000 technology leaders and researchers signed an open letter calling for a six-month moratorium on developing new AI technology. The letter’s signatories include Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla.

The Skver community is one of the largest Hasidic sects in New York, and is based in the Rockland County village of New Square.

A secretary for a rabbi in the Skver community confirmed the veracity of the letter to Shtetl, but declined to comment further, saying it was a private issue affecting only the New Square community.

Shtetl asked ChatGPT for its response on the story.

Shtetl: Why would Skver rabbis ban their followers from using artificial intelligence?

ChatGPT: I'm not aware of any specific ban by Skver rabbis on the use of artificial intelligence, and it's important to note that opinions and rulings can vary among different rabbis and communities. However, some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities may have concerns about the use of technology and may discourage or limit its use for religious and cultural reasons.

Some rabbis may view the use of artificial intelligence as a potential threat to traditional religious practices, such as the study of sacred texts, prayer, and observance of religious laws and customs. They may also be concerned about the impact of technology on social and familial relationships and the potential for moral and ethical issues that may arise from its use.

It's also possible that some Skver rabbis may have specific concerns about certain types of artificial intelligence, such as those that involve machine learning algorithms that may make decisions without human oversight or control. They may view such technology as potentially dangerous or inappropriate for use within their community.

Overall, it's important to approach this issue with sensitivity and respect for the beliefs and practices of different religious communities.

Shtetl also called Skverer Rabbi David Twersky, the New Square beth din, and multiple signatories to the letter, but they either didn’t answer the phone or didn’t comment on the issue.