The GNU Testament

If you were following Protocols a while ago, you might be familiar with Douglass Rushkoff and his recent book Nothing Sacred. I know I’m a little late with this, but there is one point of Rushkoff’s thought which I would like to address.1 Specifically, Rushkoff suggests a Judaism modeled after a popular software movement which he calls, “Open Source Judaism.” (OSJ)

According to Rushkoff:

An open source religion would work the same way as open source software development: it is not kept secret or mysterious at all. Everyone contributes to the codes we use to comprehend our place in the universe. We allow our religion to evolve based on the active participation of its people. We internalize and engineer Jewish laws and ideas as adults, rather than following them by rote, as children. We come to realize that the writings and ideas of Judaism are not set in stone, but invitations to inquire, challenge, and evolve. Together, as a community, we define Judaism as the ongoing resolution of our individual sensibilities.2

Superficially, OSJ is nothing more than a restatement of Reconstructionism. However, through his analogy to open source software, (OSS) Rushkoff actually offers a different model, one which requires its own analysis.

To understand OSJ, we must first understand the culture it’s supposed to emulate. As its name states, OSS programs’ code is “openly” published and is freely available to the public. This allows users to modify programs to suit their specific needs, add functions to the program, and find bugs or security holes.
However, OSS is more than a just a programming model, but it is a culture unto itself. According to the GNU Foundation, OSS is about free software. By “free,” GNU primarily means autonomy. Licenses may not restrict the implementations of a program – a user may run a program in any way s/he sees fit. Users are free to study and modify the code to suit their needs. Although they advocate the ability to redistribute software, GNU insists, “‘Free software’ is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer.'”

With these freedoms, developers have created stable and secure operating systems, advanced web browsers, powerful graphic manipulators, and absurdly powerful text editors. Developers create projects and publish code on sites like Sourceforge where other programmers may download, test, and debug their programs. Developers therefore share their code with an entire community, the totality of which in turn promotes creativity and innovation.3

Since the strength of OSS is its dependence on the community’s voluntary contributions, its anti-model would be Microsoft. All of MS’s software is proprietary and available only through purchase. Normally, we would simply call this “capitalism.” But companies who choose themselves to MS software also commit to MS’s fickle licencing policies and costly forced upgrades.
Furthermore, MS refuses to release its code to the public and is constantly responding to several various security holes. That MS uses their ubiquity to create their own programming standards and blackmail other companies does not endear them to the public. Unlike the communal nature of OSS, MS’s culture dictates that MS is the supreme software vendor, and clients must only go through them.

As Eric S. Raymond writes, the differences between MS and OSS are comparable to a cathedral and a bazaar. The cathedral is hierarchical and monolithic whereas the bazaar is democratic and diverse. This distinction echos various denominations of Judaism which promote individual autonomy over institutional authority.
“Classic” Reconstructionism tries to preserve Jewish culture through evolution, and it operates on a macro-social level. Rushkoff claims that the only constant throughout Jewish history was evolution. Generation after generation modified Jewish theology and practice to better adapt with their world. In order to know the needs of the community, the religion depends on the members to participate and contribute. Furthermore, we allow the individual the freedom to “debug” someone else’s “code” or “hack” it such that it best suits himself. For example, Rushkoff created an Open Source Haggadah where people may contribute their own liturgy or rituals to the community. Individuals may use the exact submissions or further alter them as they deem necessary.

My critiques of Ruskfoff’s model come two different perspectives. As a (former) programmer, I find Rushkoff’s OSS analogy flawed. Although OSS is an open community, it succeeds through extensive quality control and programs are held to some objective standard. A program either works or it doesn’t. Once a program is functional, it may then be optimized for superior speed or resource management, or enhanced security as the case may be. Before a program can be useful to a community, it first must meet certain requirements of functionality and efficiency, and to some extent serve as an improvement over its predecessors. Even an “average” programmer will find it difficult to have his/her project “accepted” by the community. The programs which are assimilated into mainstream usage are most often written by superior developers.
OSJ has no such quality control, nor can it. Religion is not an objective science. But if there are no standards or rules of submissions, then the community has no mechanism of policing itself. If anyone can submit anything, and all submissions are legitimate, then OSJ runs the risk of intellectual hijackings. There is neither a system nor criteria for weeding out garbage. Furthermore, if in fact everything is acceptable for OSJ, then it becomes tautological and subject to the Pluralism Equation.

As a Rabbi, I partially agree with Rushkoff’s model. Torah is “open source” in that the texts are accessible to everyone; it is neither in heaven nor across the sea (Deut. 30:12-13) and there is no hidden law. Torah is democratic in the sense that kings and water gatherers are all equally bound by the same laws. However, Rushkoff confuses the technical definition of “open source” with “modification.” In the computer world, OSS implies that the users have rights of modification. However, if one were to rewrite Apache web server such that it becomes a word processor, i.e. the primary function changes, s/he could no longer call it “Apache” – or if he did it would not have the same meaning.
Judaism may also change and evolve, but it must stay within certain parameters. Sages may have the authority of interpretation (Deut. 17:11), but even they are subject to its rules.(B. Horayot 2a-b). The Torah is complete (Ps. 19:8) and although we have the free will modify some rituals in Judaism, once any commandment is removed, the system is no longer Torah.(Deut. 13:1)

Orthodox Jews might be able to salvage something from Rushkoff’s model by reaffirming some objective standards. Following the OSS analogy, God should be the “project owner” who opens the project to the community. People may contribute, but must follow certain rules of submission and modifications. Or to put it succinctly, the Torah’s source is open, but God retains the copyrights.

1. In all honesty, I didn’t finish the book, although I really tried. Rarely has any piece of literature evoked such levels of frustration. Not that I thought the ideas were heretical, but it was just riddled with fallacious assumptions, poor textual analysis, and faulty logic. The lack of footnotes didn’t help. Naiomi Chana reviewed the book much better than I can. Also see his interview with the Protocols people. Neither Protocols nor Naiomi Chana dealt with the Open Source Judaism part, so this post will not be redundant.
2. On OSJ’s front page, Rushkoff quotes his book. I don’t have my copy with me, so I cannot cite the page number.
3. Though OSS movement is subject to its own myths.

Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Religion, Science and Technology, Society.

Return of the Intern

A heads up to the Loyal Readers:
I’m spending this shabbat in Washington Heights and I’m giving the derasha at the Bridge Shul where I interened last year.
The plan is to tie in Mikeitz, Hannukah, and contemporary Sociology of Religion. I have the ideas, just need to work on the ending.
It should be a fun derasha, so if you’re in town, davening starts at 8:30.

Posted in Personal.

Structuralism and Brisk

Although the MAPPS program offers unparalleled academic freedom, the directors of my program require one particular survey class, “Perspectives in Social Science Analysis.” Over the 10 week quarter, Dr. John MacAloon and various other professors present 9 different perspectives with Dr. MacAloon presenting an overview and another scholar discussing contemporary applications of that perspective.

In week 8, we covered “Structuralism,”1 and I was surprised to see the similarities between this perspective and ” lomdus” – specifically the Brisker Derekh. There are several decent summaries of Structuralism on the web and some more on one of its main advocates Claude Levi-Strauss.2

For those too lazy to click the links or God forbid do your own research, I’ll give you the short attention span summary.4 Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist, utilized aspects of linguistic theory to interpret social phenomenon beyond language.3 Linguists, like Saussure, distinguished between the words used in language and the effect, the symbol and the meaning, the langue and the parol’. How did they do this? After analyzing how speech works throughout all cultures, they realized that some phenomenon repeated themselves and they explained the different phenomenon through polar binary opposites.

Levi-Strauss applied this methodology to social phenomenon like myths. In his work The Structural Study of Myth, Levi-Strauss demonstrates that the Oedipus myth contains elements found in myths from other cultures. He identifies the patterns by breaking down the myth into atomic elements, and “re-structures” these elements into classifications. Once Levi-Strauss classifies these elements into categories, he then uses his categorization to compare the Oedipus myth with similar myths. Although the categories are arbitrary, Structuralists like to formulate categories in binary opposites. E.g. symbol and meaning, personal and communal, etc.

How is this like the Brisker Derekh? Unfortunately, there isn’t much directly written on the methodology of how to do “Brisk.”5 However, I picked up a few things from my numerous years in yeshiva, and I can say that the analytical methodology is similar – though perhaps not identical.

Like structuralists, Briskers tend to explain several sources and rulings though binary comparisons. Some popular ones are heftza (object) and gavra (person), shem (name) and halos (legal status), mitzvah hiyuvi (obligatory commandment) and mitzvah kiyyumi (fulfilling a commandment), or simply “qualitative” and “quantitative” differences. Although this might apply to other areas of “lomdus” I’ve noticed that Briskers tend toward the binary opposites more than others. Just about every shiur I can remember from Gush involved a two-way mahloket and tannaim, amoraim, rishonim, and achronim neatly fitting into one of two arbitrary abstract categories.

Some Briskers also apply this perspective to areas of Jewish Thought. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, perhaps the most famous descendant of the “Brisker Rav” and his tradition. In “The Lonely Man of Faith, R. Soloveitchik contrasts the personalities and religious attitudres of “Adam One” and “Adam Two” from the creation narratives. Elsewhere, R. Soloveitchik’s rational “Halakhic Man” stands in opposition to the more emotional “Homo-Religiosus.” Again, his thought leads him to present theological and religious ideas through manufactured binary oppositions.

Methodologically, Briskers construct and categorize the concepts in ways similar to the structuralists. Specifically, they first remove the sugya from the original context of the gemara. The sugya becomes the unit of analysis as opposed to a chapter, or even a page of talmud. Consequently, Briskers will not concern themselves with literary analysis or even finding the correct version of the talmud,6 because the details are not as important as the structure or the concepts. Like structuralism, these concepts are arbitrary and subject to the whim of the scholar. Unlike structuralism, yeshivas have canonized the scholars i.e. the rabbis, and therefore artificial structures become sacred and part of the “tradition.”7

I am not surprised that the Brisker Derekh attracts so many followers, nor am I surprised at the criticisms. Structuralism can be useful, and often it may be the best method for explaining a particular data set. Critics, however, will note that as a standalone system – as an “ism” if you will – structuralism assumes and imposes too much on the data. Furthermore, in the social sciences critics will complain that structuralists remove the human participants from the analysis. Social interaction becomes a bloodless game of abstract categories with no attention to human emotions. Similarly, critics of the Brisker Derekh deride the lack of attention to detail of the sugya in its original context. Literary approaches and historical evidence may often contradict the structures imposed on the text of the talmud.

I am not going to speculate on who got what from whom. Levi-Strauss was born and raised Jewish, and it’s likely his background influenced his scholarship. I also don’t think I’m saying anything radical or new here, it’s just an interesting similarity I noticed in class. Take it as you will.

1. Unfortunately, the laptop was in limbo then, so I don’t have typed notes from the lectures.
2. Not to be confused with the guy who made jeans.
3. See Structural Analysis in Linguistics and in Anthropology
4. I.e. don’t cite this description for anything useful.
5. When I was in Gush, a small book called “The Brisker Derekh” came out and it was pretty close to a “How To Brisk.” As I recall, most of the ramim and students dismissed the book as too simplistic, which was probably as good of an endorsement as it could get. At any rate, I can’t find a link to it on the web.
6. The standard “Vilna” edition is loaded with errors. See Dikdukei Soferim or the Lieberman Project for other versions of the Talmud Bavli – and manuscript work is ongoing. If this sounds too heretical for you, consider that a passage may appear in several places throughout rabbinic literature (Bavli, Yerushalmi, Tosefta, Mishna, Midrash Halakha…), but there will be significant changes in their presentation. See for example, Dr. Elman’s Authority and Tradition and many, many, other works.
7. For some ramifications in education, see Hakirah or Mehkar: The Religious Implications of an Historical Approach to Limmudei Kodesh by Rachel Furst and Mosheh Lichtenstein, “What Hath Brisk Wrought: The Brisker Derekh Revisited” Torah U-Madda Journal, volume 9, 1-18, 2000.

Posted in Academia, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Random Acts of Scholarship.

Talent Show?

Those wacky UC’ers are at it again.

    Do you have a talent you’d like to show off? Can you sing, dance, recite
    poetry, juggle, eat fire, etc., etc.? If so, come be in the MAPSS Winter
    Talent Show sponsored by your MAPSS social committee!!

One would think that people wouldn’t have that much time on their hands to plan or participate in this thing. I barely knew we even had a social committee. But I do have to admit, I am intrigued.
Poll Closed
Of course if this thing is on a Friday night or Shabbat, all bets are off.

Posted in Personal.

Theorizing Judaism

I’ve made some veiled references to “Theorizing Judaism.” I’ve recently completed Dr. Martin Risebrodt’s class, Theorizing Religion. Unlike typical survey classes, Dr. Riesebrodt used this class as feedback for his currently unpublished book on religion. Dr. Riesebrodt would present his ideas and one class a week would be a discussion. After he presented the main points of his thesis, the students presented examples from specific religions which may or may not have supported his thesis. In addition, we were to submit two written essays discussing the merits and flaws of his thesis. The following post will explain his thesis, and my applications of the thesis to Judaism.

Continue reading

Posted in Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Random Acts of Scholarship.

Top 10 Dating Questions

About a week ago, someone sent me an e-mail of a “shidduch meeting” form. For those who don’t know, a shidduch meeting is when a group of (usually) women get together and see who knows whom and if there could be any possible set ups from that group.1 Since everyone knows different people from their various circles, it’s reasonable that two compatible people would never have met nor would they even have people in common who could get them together.

The organizer wrote up a form with “basic” information. I don’t know how seriously the participants used the forms – it’s possible they just used the names had the “sponsors” describe the singles – but disliked several of the questions asked. Independently, each question provides some information about a person and perhaps indicate if X would be shayachet for Y. As a unit, many of these questions are insufficient or inappropriate to describe the entirety of a person.
For example, here are the 10 questions from the form (in addition to personal background info like occupation, school, etc) with my comments. I copied the questions as they appeared on the form and as you will see, many are horribly phrased. Also, the questions are presented in the order in which they were received, but order should not be confused with importance.

1. Do you/are you looking for someone who intends to cover her hair?
Some may consider hair covering as merely a religious barometer, like a guy wearing a black hat (see below). The major difference is that there are actual halakhot of married women covering their hair. Consequently, if a woman does not plan to cover her hair, or she plans to cover her hair not in accordance with Jewish law,2 then she would not be appropriate for a significant population of the Orthodox dating pool.

2. Do you/are you comfortable with (a girl) wearing pants?
Awkwardly phrased. The gist is if you’re a girl, do you wear pants, if you’re a guy, do you care? This infers from the culture religious issues of modesty, but the halakha is not as clear cut as the hair covering. As phrased, this promotes stereotypes of what modesty is halakhic or socially acceptable. Some context would help, as there are many times when pants would actually be more modest than a skirt. At any rate, whether or not one agrees with the implications of women wearing pants, it’s a practical question for determining if two people from the vast modern orthodox community would be appropriate.

3. Do you/are you comfortable with (a boy) wearing jeans?
I don’t understand this one at all. Maybe on some level wearing jeans has some religious implications and indicate where someone is “holding” religiously. It might be a factor for some people, but in my opinion, not enough to make a top 10.

4. Do you/are you looking for (a boy) who intends to wear a hat?
Like #3 this one is directed to the right end of modern orthodoxy. Depending on the people involved, this may or may not make a top 10.

5. Do you plan on having a television in your home?
Interesting idea, but horrible presentation. It’s a religious indicator, but I don’t think television should be reduced to a simple yes/no, good/bad dichotomy. Instead, I suggest the following scale (work in progress):

  1. I tape the weather channel to see what I missed.
  2. I talk about Rachel, Ross, and Joey like they’re real people.
  3. Just give me Law and Order and the Simpson’s.
  4. Nothing but PBS and the History Channel.
  5. I need it for the VCR…and the news.
  6. Box of Satan.

This way you find out not only religious beliefs, but some degree of personality (or lack thereof)

6. Do you plan on attending movies with your spouse?
This one is even more vague than the TV question. What type of movies are we talking about? Finding Nemo? Yentl? Sallah? School of Rock? Blazing Saddles? Lord of the Rings? The Big Lebowski? Dogma? Sound of Music? Rocky Horror Picture Show?3 Furthermore, you could plan on sneaking out to see the movies by yourself without your spouse, or even rent them.

7. Do you/are you looking for someone who will be learning or engaged in a profession?
Is this a choice? My spouse can either be learning or engaged in a profession? Do I want a stay at home wife? Kollel husband? Applicable to a small percentage of modern orthodoxy, this question might be more of a personality indicator than a religious one.

8. Do you/are you looking for someone who will learn on a regular basis?
Regularly setting aside for learning establishes Torah as an important part of Jewish life. Children who see their parents learning may come to value Torah more themselves, or minimally not get as cynical at a society which asserts the importance of Torah and then promptly neglects it.
I just wonder if this applies to women learning too.

9. Do you/are you looking for someone who will attend minyan on a daily basis?
Yet another religious indicator (noticing a pattern?), but practically useless for a marriage, especially once kids come.

10. Are you a Kohen?
According to halakha, a Kohen cannot marry a divorce or a convert and the convention is not to set up kohanim with people who have questionable Jewish lineage. Very important question.
Most of these questions attempted get a religious sense of a person. While society is obviously important in a modern orthodox society, many of the questions are irrelevant to having a successful marriage. Several questions merely reinforce harmful stereotypes of what is and what isn’t religious. On the other hand, if people think in these stereotypes then these questions may be useful. So my question is, for men and women, what are the top 10 questions you think would be most applicable to the most people in the modern orthodox community? What questions would best define you as a man or woman?

The goal here is not to tell everything about a person, but to have a sense if two people would be compatible. Also, the questions have to be phrased in such a way that they will be useful. People don’t always like thinking about themselves, or would just lose patience with a long survey. More questions would help, and so would asking how important an issue is to someone. For example, I may not want a TV, but I won’t care if my spouse does.

Grayson Levy does a great job of this with Frumster. He asks a nice mix of religious and personal questions, and he forces members to express themselves beyond simple multiple choice questions.

I also acknowledge that most of the forms tell more about the person who constructs them than it does about the singles.
Anyone else have suggestions?

1. Not to be confused with kiddush or shabbat lunch. This at least has no pretense of being anything else but a shmooze fest.
2. Or at least the “Jewish law” as understood by the guy, or more realistically the guy’s rabbi. I’m not going to discuss here the laws of hair covering and what is “real” halakha and what is custom. My point is that if a guy thinks that what a woman plans to do is forbidden, don’t set up those two people.
3. My personal opinion is that some of these movies are assur to see, others are mehuyav on everyone. No, I will not say which is which. My father likes to tell following story from R. Faur’s shiur. One day R. Faur said the only movies which are mutar are cartoons and westerns. After naively seeing Fritz the Cat (or part of it at least), he then told his shiur that cartoons are also assur.

Posted in Jewish Dating, Personal.

New York State Of Mind

Ok technically New Jersey, but close enough. Flights were delayed several hours bec of the weather. Long story short, I got on an “earlier” flight which landed 1 hour after I was planning on landing. At any rate, final essays are all done, loads on my mind, and now I actually have time to blog (for 2.5 weeks at least).
Loyal readers, this should be a fun week.
Now…must collapse

Posted in Personal.

Dear God

I’ve been working on two final essays for the quarter, so I’ve been slacking in blogging.
Really funny article on yahoo news. The Israeli Post office has been opening letters addressed to God and publishing excerpts of them on their website, sparking outrage from rights groups as a “violation of basic privacy laws.”
No mention if these rights would apply to the prayers people put in the Western Wall (“direct to the source”) or if herem D’R. Gershom applies to God’s mail.
Ok, back to work…

Posted in Personal.

Shabbat Shalom: Parashat Vayeitzei

I said I’d try to post some of my weekly divrei torah, so we’ll see how this goes. For now, just realize that this is part of the weekly Hillel announcements, and is hardly edited for mass publication. I usually have time for just a quick spell check, and sometimes not even that. Just try to enjoy what will probably be a unique interpretation of selected passages from the Torah reading or relevant midrashim.

The following was the most controversial derasha I gave last year as an intern (not typed verbatim – I’m in the middle of theorizing Judaism right now). If you feel you might be offended or otherwise upset, know that you have been warned.
It’s bothered me for some time that Leah tends to get shafted in Jewish thought. She is considered a secondary wife, and usually is viewed as inferior to her younger sister Rachel. As is my typical iconoclastic tradition (how’s that for a paradox) I suggest that Leah might deserve more admiration than we normally give her.

Bereishit 29:17 gives us the first descriptions of Rachel and Leah: Leah has “weak eyes” while Rachel was beautiful. However, these descriptions are not exactly parallel. Leah is described by how she views the world, and Rachel is defined by how she is viewed by others. While The Torah does not describe Leah’s appearance, it’s descriptions of their actions allows us to compare the utlook of the two sisters.

Although Leah’s having “weak eyes” is usually interpreted to be a physical deficiency, it is an adequate description for her “hashkafa” (outlook) on the world. Admittedly, Leah did get a raw deal. She gets forced into a marriage with someone who didn’t want to marry her, which probably created some resentment. We are told she was hated in 29:31 (although we are not told by whom in particular – perhaps by everyone). In naming her first three sons, Leah revealed more about her situation. 29:32 – Reuven is named because “God looked at my pain, for now my husband will love me.” However, things didn’t get much better, as Leah was still feeling pain and isolation from her husband and this was reflected in naming her next two sons Shimon and Levi (29:33-34).

For her fourth son, Leah doesn’t recall her situation. She simply calls him Yehuda as a thanks to God.(29:35) We are not told if anything changed between Leah and Ya’akov in the interim. It is clear, however, that she was going through a difficult time, and not surprisingly her faith was tested. Note her perception of Hashem’s involvement in her situation. First Hashem sees the pain (29:32), then he only hears the pain (29:33). In 29:34, Hashem isn’t even mentioned. However, when Leah names Yehuda she only mentions Hashem and nothing of her troubles. While it is possible that her marriage to Ya’akov improved during this time, the Torah gives no indication that it did. Rather, it seems that Leah was able to come to terms with her situation the best that she could.

Rachel, by contrast, is portrayed by the Torah as impatient if not impulsive. Out of jealousy, she demands Ya’akov give her children, to which Ya’akov responds that it’s in Hashem’s control, not his own (30:1-2). Rachel later demands the “dudaim” from Leah (30:14). When she finally has her first son, Rachel is hardly satisfied. She calls him Yosef – as if to say Hashem should give her another son (30:24). While Ya’akov prepares to flee from Lavan, Rachel steals her fathers idols and is less than forthcoming about admitting it. (31:19, 34-35) When she has her final son, she calls him “Ben Oni” – interpreted as “son of my pain.” (35:19)

Midrashically, many of these events are reinterpreted portraying Rachel more positively. Also in context, we cannot possibly know what Rachel was thinking at the time of each event. What we do know is that both Leah and Rachel faced different types of adversity (whose adversity was greater will also be subjective). Rachel, the beautiful one, never really matured. She handles her pain the same way up until the end, ruing her current situation. Leah, the one with the “weak eyes” developed her outlook, and gradually was able to accept if not enjoy her life. She might have had weak eyes, but they became stronger over time.

It’s just a matter of perspective.

Posted in Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah.

Random Revelations

The laptop arrived at the repair center before Thanksgiving. What this means practically, I do not know. However, there are a few things I did learn this week:

  • I have a new favorite place to work. (Thanks Miriam!)
  • I really hate macs.
  • AOL’s beta of IM looks much nicer, but it’s still buggy. (Random disconnects).
  • I need to do some editing on the blog design to account for smaller resolutions and variant color settings.
  • Structuralism ~= The Brisker Method (and not in terms of crispiness) – maybe more on this later.

Oh, and a hearty mazal tov to 2x former roommate Yossi Mandlebaum on his engagement to Carolyn Koch. (No onlysimchas link, God bless ’em).

Posted in Odds & Ends.