Monday, August 31, 2009

A Kingdom of Priests and an Open Source Nation

Guest post by Leon Adato

I met Aaron through his blog - Open Source Judaism - and was intrigued by his focus on ideas about ideas. I also appreciated his direct style of writing, his interest in showing Torah in an amusing, if not pop-culturally-accessible, light (such as the lolcat bible:), and the fact that we read a lot of the same web comics (xkcd, Order of the Stick, and more).

When I first spoke with him, I commented on how whole idea of Judaism as an Open Source initiative intrigued me because in my day job, I'm a computer geek. So anything that combines technology and Judaism immediately gets my attention.

For the uninitiated, "Open Source" is a term which applies to any product (software, music or even ideas) where the final product AND its source material are made available to the public. Effectively you can have the stuff and also the stuff that created the stuff.

When you look at the way open source software is developed, the process sounds (to my ears anyway) distinctly Jewish:

Open Source starts when someone has an idea for a program that does something useful and interesting. They set the goals for the project and usually do the majority of the initial work. Then more people become interested and offer to help. There's a "Hey, let's put on a show" moment, where everyone brings their talents to the table to help make the software idea reality. As people join, they bring new ideas and skills which can even make the software better than the original designer imagined.

Through this whole process the original vision is maintained because the first code owner is still in charge, or because that persons' vision was clear and compelling enough that everyone on the project supports it.

So God opens the project "Torah 1.0". Depending on your view, either God or Moses served as the lead technical writer. Moses is the "software evangelist", leading the 12 tribes of alpha testers out of the closed-source culture of Egypt (clearly the predecessor of Microsoft). Soon after that, the source code (i.e.: 10 commandments) are given to everyone - not just Moses - which is a very open source thing to do. Later, when regular people begin to prophesy, Joshua wants to stop them (a closed-source response). Moses rebukes him, saying "Are you wrought
up on my account? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!" (Numbers 11:29). Moses wants everyone to understand the kernel - the core of the software - as well as he does.

One of the hallmarks of the open source community is it's willingness to consider outside ideas, opinions, and contributions. Granted, that willingness is not always cheerful or without skepticism. There are always healthy debates about how to accomplish something. The point of
those debates, however, is to always find the best way to accomplish the goal. "Best" is usually defined as the way that is the most elegant, flexible and support-able method.

Judaism (in my opinion) shares that value. In Talmud you will find famous debates between the schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shamai (among others). These discussions, even as you read them on the page, are passionate, direct and assertive. They are always understood to be
"machloket l'shem shamayim" - "arguments for the sake of heaven". Nobody in Talmud was out to make a point for their own aggrandizement or at someone else's expense. Every word was written with the desire to achieve the "best" solution - the one that was the most elegant, flexible and truest to the goal of the Torah 1.0 project.

Later commentators - Rashi, Maimonides, Nachmanides and others - were equally passionate in their efforts to clarify the ideas found in Torah and Talmud. Like an email thread that takes on a life of its own as it bounces from discussion forum to listserver to blog post to Twitter
feed, the Rabbi's discussions ranged across time and geography, with later Rabbis debating points made years or decades earlier as if the original speaker were in the room with them.

Sometimes, in open source development, a new set of features is suggested but would require such a massive change to the original program that it would change the original vision or scope. And sometimes a group of contributors feels so strongly about that new set of features
that they are willing to take the original program code and own all those new changes and everything else about this similar, but new, program. At this point, the project is said to have "forked" and the offshoot application gets its own name and that project resembles a new
application more than extensions or enhancements to the original.

Under the open source metaphor Christianity and Islam represent "forks" to Project Judaism. Both groups have shown a heroic and admirable willingness to take full ownership of the source material and build on it. Like open source software, the independent forks can never be merged back together again - their various features sets and programming assumptions too incompatible at this point. But even so their common roots can still be appreciated. Kind of like how I can appreciate Mac's OS X operating system, based as it is on BSD, even though I've committed to running Linux on my computer for the last 3 years.

The various Jewish movements (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Secular, Humanist and Jewish Renewal, just to name a few) represent the equivalent of different user interfaces to the same system. They emphasize some functions while de-emphasizing or even obscuring others, but the core application (Torah) remains unchanged. This underscores my personal view that the movements are extremely cross-compatible and therefore all still part of one big development effort. Some people want a bare-bones, no-nonsense implementation,
whereas others prefer a more user-friendly user interface. It's important to keep in mind that not all users are the same in their level of expertise, involvement, or personal situation. Meeting them where they live is often the only way they will become engaged.

Which all the Jewish movements might do well to remember, from time to time.

So what's NOT open source about Judaism? Well, I started to hint at it a few paragraphs back. In Judaism, God is the chief architect, designer and visionary, and he's not likely to drop of the project. Also, unlike open source software, there is absolutely no messing with
the kernel - the core of the program (that would be Torah, in our metaphor). Nobody's going to come out with a Torah that features 9 commandments on the tablets instead of 10.

So what do Open Source Judaism developers actually *do* these days?

As a group, we can commit to continued improvements on the interface - the way our community experiences Judaism in all its forms. We can make sure that even our simplified "versions" allow the curious users to access the deep richness of the entire application. As a development team, we can strive to use the solid API (application programming interface) of Torah, Talmud, commentary and midrash to extend and enhance the usability of the system.

As individuals, we ought to work on our personal understanding of the kernel. Like any good programmer, we have to recognize that our fluency with the core code will allow us greater facility with any development we do at the edges of the application.

As Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said, "GOTO 1 and GOTO 1 and GOTO 1 again".

Or something like that.

Leon Adato writes The Edible Torah - a blog dedicated to helping people set up their own pot luck Shabbat experience with family and friends. It's also liberally sprinkled with anecdotes, and stories about his Jewish journey.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

HaAri HaKnesset

Sen. Ted Kennedy passed away today. Despite his sometime controversial personal life, he consistently fought for justice, fairness, and equality throughout his political career. His voice shall be missed in our national debates. May his memory be a blessing.

(With apologies for the bad Hebrew)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Where The Treasure Is"

Short but insightful post at Never an Original Thought: Where The Treasure Is

Is Depression Good For Thinking?

From the Scientific American blog, Depression's Evolutionary Roots:
Depressed people often think intensely about their problems. These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerous studies have also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.

The author suggests that a depressive mindstate is one that is also useful for solving complex problems. In fact, the loss of interest in sex, eating, and social activities could be a method of reducing distractions, further promoting analysis. It got me wondering, could the same thing be true of the "religious mindset"?

Now hear me out.

Religion encourages the removal of many distractions, the awfully named "Sins of the Flesh" (always thought that should refer to cannibalism). It provides structure to the day, reducing the need for thought about daily schedules, what to wear, etc. There's a popular story (probably an urban legend) that Einstein did a similar thing, buying many sets of the identical wardrobe so he didn't have to waste time deciding what to wear.

Religion encourages temperance and moderation, meaning adherents would tend to (hypothetically) avoid issue like alcoholism, obesity, and anorexia, while having mandatory rest & relaxation breaks built into the schedule.

It also encourages a quiet, contemplative, introspective state for prayer and study. This "prayer state", like depression, could potentially be advantageous for analysis of complex problems.

I'm not being entirely serious with this, but it's a fun parallel, and it would be interesting to see someone do research on this.

The God Asymptote

Excellent debate tonight with one of my friends. He was getting upset because I kept agreeing with him. :) A thought came up that I wanted to share here.

Human knowledge is continually expanding. The realm of the unknown is likewise shrinking. But the unknown will never be continually eliminated; we will never fully unlock the secrets of creation. There is always that line we are approaching but will never reach.

In other words, an asymptote.

To me, this asymptote represents God. As our knowledge and understanding increases, it brings us closer, but we will never fully reach God.

By the way, the term "supernatural" means literally above or outside of nature. Combining this with my above definition, God is supernatural because the asymptote is outside of the curve representing nature.

Continuing this line of thought, it has been suggested that magic shrinks as science expands. In other words, what used to be considered "magic" is now "explained by" science. In scientific research, failures are often more useful than successes because they allow us to define by exclusion. If we eliminate all the wrong answers, eventually we find the right one. In this vein, science has now defined so many things as "not magic" that we know more about magic now than at any other time in human existence!

Just saying.

There were some other points I liked that I have already forgotten because it's late and I am tired. I'll expand on these later. Good night!

[Update] Remembered the other "deep thought" just before turning off my computer. Scientific theory requires doubt. Doubt is the flip side of the coin from faith; without one there is not the other. Therefore, scientific theory requires faith.

Monday, August 24, 2009

"I Respect Faith..."

"I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education."
- Wilson Mizner

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Left or Right

Doing research today on a post for The Edible Torah on and found this interesting verse:
Deuteronomy 28:14 "And do not deviate to the right or to the left from any of the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day..."
In context it seems to be a reminder not to worship other gods (sidenote: another place that seems to confirm that there are other gods, even if they are not as mighty as HaShem), but tonight it reminded me of a saying from President Eisenhower:
"The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters."
Eisenhower was, obviously, talking about US politics, but I find the teaching applicable to many areas. In medicine, for example, overly conservative treatments can be just as lethal as overly radical ones; in relationships, being too emotional can be as harmful as showing no emotion at all.

In the face of the struggle between fanaticism and secularism, this seems to be an injunction not to be too stringent in following the commandments as much as to avoid being too lax.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Animated Torah! presents animated commentaries on the weekly Torah portions. From the website:
G-dcast: a weekly cartoon about the story Jews are reading in the Torah right now. A different writer tells the parsha in 4 minutes: some are stories, others are country songs or hip hop! Then we animate it. Whether you already know the story, or this is totally new stuff, you'll meet 54 new voices this year.
This is a great idea; the animation is clear and simple - and entertaining! - and the variety of speakers present many interesting perspectives.

I got a lot out of this week's parsha, Shoftim, which reminds us "Justice, Justice you shall pursue!" I've been reading a lot of anti-religion books lately, and after a barrage of accusations against Judaism about child abuse, fear mongering, racism, war, and hatred it becomes hard to remember the bright and beautiful parts of our religion. In his video Rabbi Saperstein discusses the five types of justice:
  • Establish judges
  • Rules for rulers
  • Cities of refuge
  • Rules for witnesses
  • Rules for war

In the last section he reminds us that when it was time for war, any man who had built a house, planted a vineyard, or gotten engaged but had not lived in, harvested, or married (as appropriate) was sent home. This is one of the beautiful parts of Judaism; beyond the rituals and debate about trivialities they engender, there is a truly wonderful commitment to justice at the core of our religion. We must take care to never lose sight of it.