In Memory of Rabbi Dr. Azriel Rosenfeld
by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
On Sunday morning, Rabbi Dr. Azriel Rosenfeld z"l, teacher of several of
our classes -- and my father-in-law -- passed away after a short illness.
The following is edited from the comments I delivered at the levayah, the
funeral, on Monday.
Because it was Rosh Chodesh [the New Month, one of the times when one is
not supposed to give eulogies that evoke tears], these were intellectual
rather than emotional reflections -- and given such a person as my
father-in-law, this hardly made it difficult to find something to say.
We stand now between Parshas Mishpatim, which we read last Shabbos, and
Parshas Terumah which we will read this coming Shabbos. The Torah portion
called Mishpatim deals largely with laws necessary to create a moral and a
just society -- in our business dealings and interpersonal interactions --
while the next part of the Book of Exodus, called Terumah, deals with
construction of the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle.
What is the connection between these two portions? Rabbi Shamshon Rephael
Hirsh explains that the building of Jewish society on the basis of justice
and humaneness is a prerequisite before the building of the Tabernacle.
Rabbi Hirsch was the proponent of Torah Im Derech Eretz, the idea that
Torah was to permeate secular endeavors, that a person could be -- and
should be -- involved in the ways of the world, while still focusing upon
My father in law was, simply put, a brilliant man. His father recalls that
even in kindergarten they determined he possessed an extraordinary
intellect. And there are few people who have so distinguished themselves
in Torah and secular fields at the same time.
I would like to give you some examples. In my father-in-law's small study,
crowded with bookshelves of primarily sifrei kodesh, Torah books, but
secular ones as well, one entire wall is devoted to reprints of most of
the papers he has written -- over 500 in all -- in addition to copies of
most of his 25 books.
Number 288: Boundary Localization in an Image Pyramid, is one of many
papers on computer vision, making computers better able to see, as it
were. Similarly, Paper Number 427 is titled "Evaluating digital angles by
a parallel diffusion process." This is the sort of writing for which he
will receive -- posthumously -- an honorary doctorate from the Technion
this spring. [This will be his fourth honorary doctorate, in addition to
his two PhDs, and of course his Rabbinic ordination.]
Paper Number B9 (so called, I believe, because it was printed as part of a
book), on the other hand, reads "Ketaim MiPirush 'Talmid HaRamban' al
masechtos Yuma and Sukkah" -- sections of commentary by a student of
Nachmanides on the Talmudic tractates of Yuma and Sukkah. It is written
entirely in Hebrew.
Similarly, Paper number 473: Shehiah v'hatmana b'hilchos Shabbos,
discusses the Sabbath laws pertaining to leaving food on the fire and the
insulation of hot foods. This paper is part of a series produced in
conjunction with his long-time chavrusa, or study partner, Rabbi Hirsch
Mendlowitz. Rabbi Mendlowitz took samples of their writings on the laws of
Shabbos to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l, one of the world's
pre-eminent Torah authorities, before his passing several years ago, and
Rav Auerbach encouraged their publication as a sefer.
All of this, of course, is in addition to what he contributed to Torah.org
-- two books' worth of classes, Halacha-Overview and Shulchan-Aruch, plus
the beginning of a third in Midrash. And above all, he was our Ask the
Rabbi expert especially when it came to locating the most obscure comment
of our Sages. If he didn't know where it was, he knew where to find it,
and this alone reflects tremendous knowledge and willingness to help.
So this is my father-in-law: someone able to write sifrei Kodesh, holy
books worthy of the endorsement of the greatest of Torah scholars on the
one hand, and to perform leading work in computer vision on the other.
Now, what happens when one has all of this knowledge of Torah, and
knowledge of the latest computer technologies, wrapped up in one brilliant
mind? You end up with papers that combine the two in ways often far ahead
of their time.
For example, paper #160 -- Observance in Orbit, in which he discusses not
only how the Sabbath might be observed and when one should pray the
morning services, but private and public domains as applied to a space
Or #21 -- from 1966: Religion and the Robot. Some people here will
recognize the Turing Test, devised by AM Turing in 1950. He said that a
computer will be deemed "intelligent" when a person in conversation with
it via teletype will be unable to discern whether it is man or machine.
Others will recognize the concept of a golem, an artificial man-like
creature. In discussing one that was created by the Talmudic sage Rava,
and dispatched back to dust by his colleague R. Zeira. The Chacham Tzvi
asks whether such a creature could be counted to a minyan, a quorum of 10
men. The consensus is that the reason why not is that the golem was not
intelligent, and could not communicate intelligently.
My father-in-law compares these tests and notes that they are eerily
similar, and terms the search for artificial intelligence and synthetic
life "building golems." He further calls our attention to certain Jewish
sources that seem to question whether humanity can indeed produce an
Two years after this article appeared, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey
suggested that a fully intelligent, thinking computer would be available
for real-world use by 1999. Not only are we already five years behind
schedule, but AI, as it is called, is one of the few areas of computer
science where the field hasn't been overturned a dozen times since the
film's debut in 1968.
I don't mean to mislead anyone -- my father-in-law devoted his career to
computer knowledge and robotics, and even in a recent lecture, to a shul
in Silver Spring, still entertained the possibility that one day we'll get
there. But despite this he freely acknowledged that the only thing capable
of passing the Turing test may well be the neshamah, the soul G-d places
within each of us.
In a later paper, #105, Human Identity: Halachic Issues, my father-in-law
related the issue of intelligence to other things that might confuse
parentage and essential humanness -- such as, in what part of the body
does human identity reside? If a Jewish human brain is planted in a
robotic body, is the resulting being Jewish? And, lest that be too far off
into the land of science fiction, he similarly asks about the parenthood
of a fetus conceived by one woman and carried to term by another -- a
question similar to that of in-vitro fertilization, but years before it
ever became a realistic option.
Finding my wife was, in so many ways, a great shidduch (match) not only
because of my Eishes Chayil (woman of valor), but the in-laws that came
with the package. It was truly a zechus (merit) to be his son in law, and
I don't think the discussion of his ideas -- in computer science, in the
ohel (tent) of Torah, and exploring the intersection of the two -- will
cease any time soon. May he be a meylitz yosher, a good advocate for all
of us, ad biyas goel bimheyra biyameinu (until the coming of the Messiah,
speedily in our days).
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Text Copyright © 2004 Torah.org.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis - Torah.org.