For 2,000 years, since Passover seders first became a tradition, Jewish people have searched for innovative ways to make the ancient story of the Exodus relevant for each generation anew.
But now, people are barely necessary to the storytelling process. Artificial intelligence programs are allowing machine learning to produce entirely new — though not always accurate — artwork and commentary for the holiday, with just a few human prompts.
This is the first Passover holiday since the release of ChatGPT, a text-based AI tool, and Midjourney, which uses AI to create fantastical visuals.
Both mediums require humans to write prompts, such as “write a commentary on the search for unleavened bread” or “create a picture in the Impressionist style of the plague of locusts.”
Early adopters argue that the use of AI is making an ancient tradition relevant for 2023, using new tools to inspire discussion and foster a deeper sense of relatability, which is one of the central tenets of Passover.
But some worry that while the opportunities offered by AI are astounding, there should be a red line drawn when it comes to using machines to interpret sacred texts and rituals.
The most robust AI-inspired Passover offering comes in an old format: a printed book. Haggad.AI, created by two friends from Jerusalem interested in design, is a traditional haggadah with supplements written by ChatGPT and illustrations by Midjourney.
A chunky icon of a rabbi, called Rabb.AI, narrates the seder. From the beginning, Rabb.AI warns readers that the book is meant to inspire discussion rather than be taken as a trustworthy source.
“As an AI language model, I lack the depth of human experience and emotion that can enrich traditional interpretations of the text, as it is written in Tehillim (Psalms) 51:17, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise,’” Rabb.AI states in the introduction.
“The haggadah has always traditionally been the pinnacle art form for Jewish ritual,” said Yitz Woolf, a graphic designer originally from Canada who has lived in Jerusalem for 17 years. “It’s the most common Jewish ritual object that’s been invested with commentary and artwork.”
Some megillahs — the scrolls read on the Purim holiday — are illustrated, but Passover haggadahs are much more likely to contain illustrations — and more of them. One of the earliest printed haggadahs, the Birds’ Head Haggadah, was created in Germany around the year 1300 and contains the typical illustrations of the Passover story with a twist — the humans have bird heads. The manuscript is on display in the Israel Museum, though the birds’ heads remain unexplained to this day.
“With the haggadah, you’re sitting there for hours, and there are so many classic haggadahs that were art-infused, it’s a perfect platform to explore,” said Woolf.
“We were really interested in how Judaism meets this new technology,” added Royi Shamir, an architect born in Jerusalem who is the other half of the Haggad.AI duo. “AI is very zeitgeist, very current, and we wanted to bring that to Jewish conversation.”
The idea started a few years ago when both Shamir and Woolf independently decided to create personalized haggadahs for their families. Woolf is the co-founder and creative director for Let’s Bench, which creates customized benchers, or books with the blessings after meals, and siddurim, or prayerbooks, for milestone events such as weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. He created a template for a haggadah for his own family which was later used by some of his clients at Let’s Bench.
Both Woolf and Shamir started playing with AI soon after ChatGPT and Midjourney were released. Since Woolf already had a haggadah template, they thought they could quickly make a haggadah supplemented with AI tools.
But the project took much longer than either anticipated, with the two of them spending multiple evenings a week together for months tweaking prompts and trying to perfect the visuals for the book. They wanted to print their haggadah as a book because observant Jews do not use computers or electricity on holidays.
Both Midjourney and ChatGPT can comb vast Jewish resources for information and material, but the results can be wacky, Shamir and Woolf said. When prompted with the word “Afikomen,” Midjourney returned visuals of an “A” styled like the Superman icon. Over and over, prompts for matzah returned visuals that looked suspiciously like pizza. Rabbis once became rabbits. Prompts related to religion often returned pictures of Jesus, and the word “Exodus” usually produced a visual of a boat, based on the Paul Newman movie.
“Each word you put in changed the whole thing, and we needed to find the things we liked,” said Shamir. They used different styles for each of the visuals, including cubism, photorealism, or 1950s advertisement, among others.
“These programs have so much information accessible to them,” said Woolf. “If you ask a rabbi or scholar something, they only know the limitation of what’s in their brain. The AI has unlimited information, with so much text, maybe it can bring something new to the table.”
In Haggad.AI, all of the text generated with ChatGPT is in blue and clearly marked by the Rabb.AI icon. At the end of the book, Woolf and Shamir included an index with all of the prompts they used to create both the texts and the visuals.
“A lot of texts were quite liberal, we were quite surprised, about things like helping other nations with the struggle for freedom,” said Shamir. The texts were much easier to create than the visuals, he added.
The haggadah is available for purchase internationally on Amazon and in Israel at pickup points in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Pardes Hana.
In other instances, the chatbot invented entirely new interpretations of the text. In one, ChatGPT offers a rumination on the order of the seder, concluding with Rabbi Akiva convincing the other sages to start the seder with the telling of the Exodus story because it is the most important part of the evening.
In reality, Rabbi Akiva did not make this comment, and the seder starts with the blessing of the first cup of wine. Although the interpretation is factually incorrect, Woolf and Shamir decided to include it because they thought it could provoke interesting discussion about why the seder, which means “order,” follows the order that it does.
“It’s kind of like someone raising their hand in class and saying, ‘Why do we do it this way?’ It’s new eyes,” said Woolf. “We’re just in the beginning of AI, we don’t know where it will be in a few months, and maybe it will learn from its mistakes.”
But some scholars are worried that AI, while a powerful and fascinating tool, should not be mixed with sacred rituals and texts. Rabbis are worried that ChatGPT will write sermons indistinguishable from sermons written by humans, making them irrelevant.
“Torah study and deep analysis is a core piece of Jewish tradition,” explained Dr. David Zvi Kalman, a scholar in residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute who researches religion and technology, specifically AI.
“It’s great that [Haggad.AI] is indicating and demonstrating that a computer can do this easily, but I think that at this point everyone knows that. What it does instead is that the experience of similar texts is kind of cheapened. That thing you spent hours on, writing and researching, it’s an arbitrary manifestation of something a computer can make a dozen of in 10 seconds,” said Kalman.
“If you can make any kind of haggadah you want as a moment’s notice, because these haggadahs are not being written by humans, it suggests a kind of cynicism about the haggadah as an object and Torah study as a project,” he added.
Kalman isn’t opposed to technology, and is in awe by the ways that artists are using AI tools to create new kinds of art with Midjourney. Artists have always used and manipulated technology in their creations, and AI is a new tool ripe for exploration, he said. But as AI develops and becomes more enmeshed in daily life, it will inevitably raise questions about how and when it should be used.
“There’s a huge field of things they can do, but what they ought to do is up to us,” Kalman said. “As a society, we’re trying to determine what are the appropriate norms around these new technologies.”
“Creating red lines… helps people find their way towards moral intuitions about where AI should be used in society, where it’s beneficial, and where it should be avoided,” he added.
Kalman says there are lots of ways technology can enhance Judaism. He celebrated “pious coders,” who have taken on projects like making the Jewish calendar searchable and widely available, so everyone knows with a quick Google search when Shabbat starts or what day of the week Passover will be in 2029. AI translation tools, while not perfect, make texts more accessible to people who don’t speak Hebrew or English, so they can locate the text they want and dive deeper into a specific section.
But his red line is using AI for interpretation of spiritual texts.
“There’s a sense of disappointment, that I’m not being valued,” Kalman said. It’s like getting a customer service representative that you know is a chatbot, when you really need help with an issue, he said.
“I think the core piece is that in a religious context, I ultimately want to be interacting with other human beings,” he said. “I want to make sure we don’t end up in the place where I’m not sure if I’m interacting with AI or a human being when it comes to a religious matter.”
He finds it especially strange to be using AI, which is considered a tool to maximize efficiency, for the Passover seder, which by definition is supposed to take all night.
“If you say, we can shorten the seder because AI can interpret it, that’s a loss,” he said. “You don’t get a prize for the most interpretations.”
The tradition of Passover calls for people to find ways to make the Exodus story relatable to their own lives, and many people experimenting with AI have shared projects using AI for innovative storytelling experiences. Haggadot.com offers an online supplement written by ChatGPT with visuals by DALL-E, an earlier AI visual tool created by the same team as ChatGPT. The supplement includes things like a Haiku for hand-washing, the blessing over wine in Shakespearean English, or the Dayenu song in the style of a Peloton instructor giving an inspirational speech.
Artist and software developer Dana Green created a series of “Exodus Selfies” using Midjourney, imagining what people would have uploaded to their Instagram stories during the Passover events.
“I manage the Midjourney Israel community on Facebook, and I saw a lot of people making very impressive artworks for Passover, so I wanted to also create something, but lighter and more humorous,” Green said. “I thought people, and especially young people, would connect to the idea of selfies.”
She has shared the series with many teachers to use in their classes ahead of the holiday, and who told her that students felt it brought the story of Exodus to life.
For her, the series is a personal fulfillment of the commandment to tell the story of the Exodus to your children so they can understand it as if they themselves had left Egypt.
Green is a software developer at Amdocs and the mother of two who has drawn and painted since she was a child. She understands the fear some artists have that Midjourney could take away their livelihoods, but believes it can be a tool to push the boundaries of art even further.
“When I discovered the possibility to create with Midjourney, I fell in love,” she said. “The possibility to imagine things and then bring them to life relatively quickly and easily is simply amazing in my eyes, and it opens my mind to new ideas every day.”
In her work managing the Midjourney Israel Facebook community, Green is also able to see artists who are learning to manipulate the program with more style and grace.
“Real artists know how to take something one step further; you can already see that even within the world of AI there are artists who stand out more,” she said.
Shamir, of Haggad.AI, has a day job as an architect, where he helps design schools for kids with severe disabilities, mostly cerebral palsy. Some of the kids are not able to fully control their hands and have struggled to find ways to make art. When they see the possibilities of creating artwork with Midjourney, they’re amazed because it opens up creative worlds for them that had previously been inaccessible, he said.
Shamir and Woolf are diving deep into AI interpretations of Jewish texts, and will soon launch Parsh.AI, which will share text and visual interpretations of the weekly Torah portion. They’re also interested to see how their printed haggadah will age, and if they will laugh at the primitivity of early AI in a few years.
“We are looking in all directions, trying to figure out what are the potentials and limitations of AI,” said Shamir. “This is one of the trials. I don’t think we have a definite answer. But that’s the purpose of [Passover], to raise questions, and contribute more to the discussion.”
Perhaps the best summary of the dangers and possibilities of AI was written by ChatGPT itself, in the introduction to Haggad.AI: “Ultimately, readers should approach my commentary with an open mind and a critical eye, using their own judgment and consulting with authoritative sources, as it is written in Mishlei (Proverbs) 14:15, ‘The naïve believes everything, but the prudent man looks where he is going.’”
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