Sefaria to integrate AI into its text library by mid-2024

As the technology becomes yet more ubiquitous, it will surely enter Jewish religious study, bringing with it clear benefits and murkier potential challenges

The high-tech Jewish text repository Sefaria hopes to integrated artificial intelligence into its system by the middle of this year to allow users to have a trustworthy source to answer their textual questions, Lev Israel, the organization’s chief product officer told eJewishPhilanthropy.

The inclusion of AI into religious text study is a potentially fraught issue, yet Sefaria understood that as the technology bounds forward in all facets of our lives, Torah study will undoubtedly be part of it as well.

“There’s no world where forcing people to use a book is the right decision for the future of Torah,” Israel said. “People’s brains shift as media shifts, and people who are now 20 years old are much more likely to be learning on their phones, learning with an audio device, learning from video, learning from TikTok, just a different wash of media. And it’s important to me that Torah make that turn.”

Still, many in the Jewish community are unsettled as technology becomes the go-to for many Jews seeking answers on Jewish practices. If people can ask AI-powered pseudo-rabbinic chatbots questions about halacha, what does that mean for flesh-and-blood rabbis? (Sefaria’s AI won’t answer halachic questions, just textual ones.)

“We’ve never had technology that could threaten knowledge workers in this way before,” Israel said. “That would upset the balance of power so that white-collar workers are feeling the kind of stress that blue-collar workers [have been] feeling for years. The growth curve on this stuff is not linear. It’s accelerating.”

As the inclusion of AI in Jewish textual study is both a surety and a great unknown, Sefaria is looking to navigate this process with the hopes of allowing users to have a trustworthy source and a “safe space to learn” amid the vastness of the internet and the torrent of dubious information that’s out there.

AI is democratizing religious knowledge for a wide audience, which can be a great thing, Elad Caplan, director at Menomadin Center for Jewish and Democratic Law in Israel’s Bar Ilan University, told eJP. “AI can significantly enhance access to religious sources and texts. It can help efficiently navigate through vast amounts of religious sources, commentaries, interpretations. [It] can help people gain a deeper understanding of Torah. It can also help bridge the language gap between Hebrew, Aramaic and other languages. It can… help rabbis, scholars, students, identify different patterns, themes and connections within religious sources, which can help lead to a deeper insight and possibly a more profound understanding of the Torah,” he said.

But one of the main dangers of people depending on AI to educate themselves is that it depends on the knowledge base that it sources from: often the entire internet, which has a lot that is inaccurate and antisemitic, Yehuda Hausman, a Los Angeles-based rabbi who has taught at the Academy of Jewish Religion California, American Jewish University and the Melton School of Jewish Learning, told eJP.

“One thing that Judaism stands for is truth,” Hausman said. “As much as [AI]’s a tool for learning… It’s also a tool for learning the wrong things, learning things that aren’t true, learning things which are hateful.”

Sefaria aims to negate these concerns by fencing in users’ searches within related documents in its trusted database, offering users a safe space to learn. “We want the citations that it gives you to be real citations,” Israel says. “We want it to be based on facts.”

Unlike Google or Open AI, the tone of Sefaria’s AI answers will not be authoritative: “God said do X.” Instead, the library will often offer differing views on how commentators wrestled with a particular question, pushing users to dive deeper into the texts.

There are still concerns that even if the knowledge an AI engine feeds a user is correct, it can stifle the growth of Torah, Caplan said, because the AI depends on existing interpretations of religious texts. Sefaria’s Israel acknowledged that challenge.

“The study of Torah often lies at the intersection between religious texts, tradition and the lived human experience,” Caplan said. “While AI can give us vast amounts of information, it will struggle with the creativity and innovation [that] the human minds and the human experience bring to the interpretation of these different religious teachings.”

AI should be seen as a partner to learning with others, Harris Bor, a research fellow and lecturer at the London School of Jewish Studies and the author of Staying Human: A Jewish Theology for the Age of Artificial Intelligence, told eJP. 

Sefaria can help create that community by inspiring users to organize learning groups, Bor offered. Users and developers need to remember that studying Torah, he said, “is a form of devotion,” with the goal to heal the world, bring us closer to the sacred and make us better people. “We’re gonna still have to do the actions,” he said.

Luckily, Bor said, Shabbat safeguards us — especially religious Jew — from becoming too dependent on technology. “You’re always going to have that one day where you may want to reach for your hard copy… and we’re back to the old days again.”