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.

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