Laying Tefillin on a Cybernetic Arm: A Brave New World of Jewish Halakha

New technologies are turning science fiction into fact and Jewish law is scurrying to keep up. Is it okay to light fire on Shabbat by thought alone?

Almost 15 years after she was fully paralyzed by a brain-stem stroke, the 58-year-old American woman picked up a bottle filled with coffee, drew it to her mouth, and took a sip. Ecstatic at her success, she broke into a huge grin.

She had managed to drink the coffee without moving a single limb and without any help. Any human help, that is. She had literally harnessed the power of her mind to operate a robotic arm developed by researchers at Brown University.

In what has become known as Brain-Computer Interface technologies, scientists are pushing the fantasy of telekinesis further and further into the realm of possible. The whole world, by and large, is agog at the implications of this cutting-edge technology. But is it appropriate to use on Shabbat?

I think, therefore I drink

When a person thinks, neurons in the brain fire. BCI is based on recording these neural reactions. The system then translates the cerebral activity into commands that control an external device, in this case a cybernetic arm.

More specifically, electrodes placed on the user's skull or implanted directly in the cerebral cortex transmit the brain's recorded electrical signals to a computer. When the patient wills a certain act to happen, it creates specific patterns of neural firing, which the computer identifies and construes into a physical action.

BCI technology has been grabbing headlines for a while now. The promise it holds for paralyzed individuals is incredible, and its sci-fi quality, which no technical explanation seems to demystify, offers an inexhaustible source of amazement.

And now these devices have received attention from what might seem an unlikely source: Israel's Modern Orthodox community.

A moment of casuistry

Israel Belfer, a young doctoratal student at Bar-Ilan University, has written a paper discussing the implications of BCI on Jewish religious law. Combining a survey of cutting-edge laboratory work with religious casuistry, Belfer raises questions that might be startling to the uninitiated.

Does kindling a fire by thought alone – an existing technological possibility - constitute a violation of the Sabbath? On the day of rest, halakha (Jewish law) strictly prohibits lighting a fire the old-fashioned way. But what if you ignite flames simply by exercising your mind?

Modern-day Orthodox Judaism has a longstanding tradition of finding technological solutions for halakhic problems. A classic example is the development of the Sabbath elevator. It helps the elderly and immobile by automatically stopping at every floor in high-rise buildings and eliminating the need to press buttons, which is also prohibited on the Sabbath.

Game theory in halakha

Several organizations are devoted to similar projects. Belfer's essay was published by the Schlesinger Institutefor Medical-Halakhic Research, which offers a halakhic approach to medical ethics as well as technical solutions to halakhic conundrums.

Belfer developed the discussion of BCIs in halakha within another project, known as the Sparks (“Nitzotzot”) Forum at Bar-Ilan University.

Compared to the other organizations devoted to halakhic pragmatics, Nitzotzot views the confluence of science, technology and halakha through a more philosophical prism. Since its establishment in 2009 by Rabbi Shabtai Rappaport, it has been holding conferences on various topics such as Game Theory, Synthetic Biology and BCI, dealing with all from both a scientific and a halakhic perspective.

“The idea is to take a cutting-edge topic in science and technology, and see how it challenges the way we think when we study Jewish law," Belfer says. “We aren't interested in designing another wheelchair that can be used to reach the synagogue on the Sabbath, but rather in developing new ways of thought.”

So how do we use age-old Jewish laws to deal with ultra-modern questions, such as BCI usage on the Sabbath? Belfer says it's all about finding the right precedent.

Manna as a precedent for thought-control

He found his precedent among the desert-wandering Israelites who, according to the biblical story, fed on manna, a food sent by God straight from of the sky. The biblical description notes that the Israelites were ordered to collect the manna every morning, except the Sabbath, when it was prohibited. So on Friday they collected a double portion, which supplied them with enough food for the upcoming day of rest.

The rabbinic literature adds that the manna, being magical, would take on any taste that you imagined. And so, if manna preparation is a thought-controlled activity, Belfer surmises that it can be used as a precedent for BCI usage on the Sabbath.

"Judaism absorbs science unlike any other religion," Belfer says.

The Schlesinger Institute offers projects at the intersection of science and Jewish law, all operating within strictly Orthodox boundaries. There are essays the halakhic aspects of organ transplant and the question of choosing a child's gender; it also has generically "frum" pieces such as an essay offering "spiritual advice for the young religious man with homosexual desires."

That essay begins by noting that “it is self-evident that the counselor must operate within the halakhic framework, in which homosexual activity is strictly forbidden.”

Even in this brave new world of Jewish halakha, some things, it appears, are to remain science fiction after all.

REUTERS/Morris Mac Matzen