‘Torah and Technology’: It isn’t straightforward

‘Torah and Technology’: It isn’t straightforward

Rabbi Daniel Nevins of Golda Och Academy will examine the complexities as scholar in residence in Woodcliff Lake

Rabbi Daniel Nevins
Rabbi Daniel Nevins

Rabbi Andre Ungar, who died in 2020, had a storied career.

That’s a bit of cliché, right? That’s because it can be used loosely, to describe someone who had a mildly interesting life.

But Rabbi Ungar, who was born in Hungary, lived through the Holocaust hiding in plain sight with his family, although they were Jewish, and his father later became a high-level official at the American Joint Distribution Committee; lived in England (which affected both his lovely Hungarian accent and his sense of style); became an Orthodox rabbi; went to South Africa; was booted out for his politics; came to North America and worked first in Canada and then here; was active in the civil rights movement; considered all the Jewish streams as they existed in this country and joined the Conservative movement, although not without misgivings; and founded and became the rabbi at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, which he led with panache, elan, great intellect, and great love, for decades.

Please note that this is a too-brief résumé of Rabbi Ungar’s life.

Another one of his great gifts was his ability to influence the children and teenagers in his community.

So when Rabbi Daniel Nevins, whose own career and life choices were influenced greatly by his family rabbi, Andre Ungar, speaks as Temple Emanuel’s Andre Ungar scholar in residence next weekend, it will be with a huge sense of belonging and circle-closing. (See below.)

Rabbi Nevins is now the head of the Golda Och Academy, the pre-K to 12th grade Conservative Jewish day school in West Orange; he came to that job after having been the dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary for 13 years and a pulpit rabbi in suburban Detroit for the 13 years before that. As a result, he’s had an unusually deep look into different aspects of a very specific Jewish world.

He also is a writer and philosopher. He’s a longtime member of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, and he’s written teshuvot on such contentious issues as homosexuality and halacha, where we see his understanding that human dignity and the importance of intimacy and love must be honored. (Yes, this is an emotionally true but still serious oversimplification. Rabbi Nevins is a complex thinker.)

Now, Rabbi Nevins has written a book about the relationship between halacha and the technological advances that surprise us constantly; that book, “Torah and Technology: Circuits, Cells, and the Sacred Path,” is due out next month.

“The book also has an afterword about my mother,” he said; Rabbi Nevins’ mother, Phyllis Nevins, died in 2005. The entire Nevins family was and still is close, and Ms. Nevins was pivotal to her son’s exploration of Judaism.

He’ll talk about the book during the weekend.

“The book is mostly responsa,” answers to halachic questions, in this case posed to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Rabbi Nevins said. “The first half looks at emerging technologies” — specifically artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, the relationship between lab-grown meat and kashrut, and the use of various electronic devices on Shabbat. The second part is about medical issues, including end-of-life issues and the questions posed by virtual minyanim when pandemics make physical ones impossible.

Rabbi Andre Ungar, sitting, talks to Rabbi Nevin’s father, Dr. Michael Nevins, and his brother, Ted Nevins.

“I will be speaking about automated weapons systems and military ethics at the first talk,” Rabbi Nevins said; that talk, on Friday night, poses the question “Are Killer Robots Ever Kosher?” He will explore “what we think about equipping machines to make decisions. There has been a lot of development of such systems by the United States, Israel, and many other countries. I’ll talk about the extent to which we might want to empower machines to make decisions that can have lethal impacts.

“I will speak about some of the systems Israel is using. Some of them are less controversial, like an automated tank defense system that tries to deflect incoming missiles. That one is defensive. And then there is something called the Guardian, an armed robot that’s supposed to defend an area.” That’s the “killer robot” in the talk’s title.

On Shabbat morning, in “From Goring Oxen to Careening Cars: Applying the Laws of Mishpatim,” Rabbi Nevins will talk about the laws of damages, many of which are found in the week’s Torah parasha, Mishpatim. “The timing was fortuitous,” Rabbi Nevins said about the confluence between a chapter in his book and the week’s Torah reading. “If it had been a different parasha, I would have found something else to connect to it.”

“Mishpatim has the laws of damages,” he continued. “That’s the source for a lot of what I wrote about in that chapter.” It poses such questions as “Are we responsible for damages caused by machines? What about when an autonomous vehicle gets into an accident? We’re responsible for something that’s not human that causes harm.” The Torah discusses an ox that gores, but what about dogs? Are we responsible for a dog that bites a person when we know it’s bitten before? Yes, but what about a dog who hasn’t? What about that first bite?

“The third talk, over lunch on Shabbat, is not related to the book,” Rabbi Nevins said. It’s sadly topical. “It’s about pidyon shvuyim. The redemption of captives.

“We have a long history of it,” he continued; so long, in fact, that the request to have hostages freed is part of the Amidah, the prayer at the heart of every minyan. Jews have been held hostage since our story began.

But the question of freeing hostages demands that we consider the tension and the needs of the individual against those of the community, and that is what Rabbi Nevins will discuss. “What does our tradition teach us about this balance?” he asked. “If you can pay to redeem a captive, that’s great, but it creates motivation.” The hostage-taker can feel incentivized to take more hostages.

Rabbi Nevins talked about Gilad Shalit, the young IDF soldier whom Hamas captured in 2006, held hostage for five years, and released in a deal that saw 1,027 Palestinian prisoners released. Some of them were murderers. “I don’t think anyone was happy about releasing all those prisoners,” although they were ecstatic to have Mr. Shalit back home. “But now we know that some of those people were directly involved in October 7.” One of those was Yahya Sinwar, who is considered to be the attack’s mastermind. “Even some of the 300 or so prisoners who were exchanged for hostages in November have been involved in violence,” Rabbi Nevins said.

The Jewish story of hostages “begins with the story of Lot, in Genesis 14,” he said, and continues “with the narrative in Exodus.” He’ll explore some of that history, and connect it to the dilemmas facing Israel now, in his talk.

“This weekend is very moving for me,” Rabbi Nevins said. “Rabbi Ungar was my mentor.” He sees himself as part of a chain; he shares his link with two slightly older contemporaries, Dr. Benjamin Sommer of Teaneck, a highly credentialed and even more highly respected professor of Bible and ancient Semitic languages at JTS, and the equally credentialed and respected Dr. Alyssa Gray, who holds the Emily S. and Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman chair in rabbinics at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, and is a professor of codes and responsa literature there. “We all went on to Jewish leadership and scholarship from there,” Rabbi Nevins said.

The next link of that includes “my former students at JTS, who are leaders at the synagogue.” That’s Rabbi Loren Monosov, the senior rabbi, and Rabbi Micah Liben, the director of congregational learning and the religious school. “It will be very meaningful for me to see them doing their work. I’m very excited about that.

“And members of my family will be there; it will be a bit of a reunion for us. My father and my siblings belong to different Conservative synagogues in the area, but we all think of Emanuel of the Pascack Valley as our home shul.

“We have a lot of good memories of that place.”

Who: Rabbi Daniel Nevins, head of school at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange

What: Will be the Andre Ungar scholar in residence

When: On Shabbat, February 9-10

Where: At Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake

What else: The talks are free; it is necessary to register in advance for Shabbat dinner

For more information: Go to the synagogue’s website, tepv.org, and scroll down

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