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Friday, September 22, 2006

Rosh HaShanah First Evening Sermon: Toward an Open Source Judaism

A Less-than-Open Judaism

Have you ever been so frustrated with a situation that you were compelled to tell everyone how you felt? Was there ever an issue in your life so important that you bought bumper stickers to express yourself? “Bush Lied?” “Drum Machines have no Soul?” “My other car is a Porsche?” When I was a first-year Rabbinical Student in Jerusalem, my girlfriend at the time was obsessed with the injustice she felt as a woman, disenabled from certain rituals in the largely Orthodox Jewish capital of Israel. Everywhere we went, hitchhiking across the land with “Let’s Go Israel” in one hand and a bible in the other, I could don Tefillin and enter the inner sanctum of every holy synagogue and burial shrine, while she could only watch. She mentioned her turmoil to one of my advisors, a knowledgeable liberal Jew, who told her that sources explain that many prominent women historically were said to have worn Tefillin, including King Saul’s daughter and Rashi’s three daughters. Before long, Renee wanted to print little bumperstickers to accompany the thousands littering the Israeli landscape. Hers would say, “בנות רש"י הניחו תפילין,” “Rashi’s Daughters wore t’fillin. Recalling these experiences, I am amazed that traditional Judaism once had a place for Jewish feminism; now such thought is practically impossible!

Later in Rabbinical School, when I reached New York, I dated Shifra Penzias, now a rabbi in Aptos, California. Ya know? It just didn’t work out. After a month, it was clear that we were not right for one another. Only days after the breakup, however, I met Zoë, my wife of nine years now and counting. Nevertheless, Shifra and I have remained friends.

Shifra’s father is a Nobel Prize winner. He stumbled upon a “noise” with his radiowave experiments for Bell Labs and theorized that it was echoes of the Big Bang. He had found proof that the universe is much older than this Jewish new year, 5767, suggests. As fascinating as Arno Penzias’ work is, what amazes me even more about Shifra’s family is that her grandfather, an Orthodox Rabbi, was a “posek,” or a Jewish law decisor, who wrote t’shuvot, legal responses to questions posed to him. Amazingly, in one situation, he argued that women are halakhically entitled to wear a tallis. Unheard of now. Like wearing tefillin, this seems impossible in today’s Orthodox world. And yet, it was quite reasonable a generation or two ago.

What has happened? Jewish tradition was far more open in the past than it is now. While finishing up my rabbinical studies, I found myself intrigued with Chassidic Judaism. Attending Simchat Torah services in the upper Westside of Manhattan at the Carlebach Shul, it was wildly unlike anything I had ever experienced before or since then in the Jewish world. Hippie Jews, leftovers from the sixties, bedecked in overly large knit kippot and sometimes quite shabby clothes, wildeyed spiritualists, inspired by the great Shlomo Carlebach, who singlehandedly rebuilt Jewish music in the shadow of the Shoah’s six million dead, integrating the most open of ideas into his neo-Chassidic community. It inspired me to explore Chassidic thought, culminating in my rabbinical thesis on a Chassidic rebbe. However, along the way, I came to realize that the Carlebach Shul, which was observant of Orthodox tradition, nevertheless departed from the Chassidic Judaism found elsewhere. I learned that Chassidic creativity today is limited, despite the talents of earlier generations of teachers and rebbes. One such radical rebbe, Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitz known as the Ishbitzer, adapted the Jewish law that says one should die before committing idolatry, adultery, or murder, to say that everyone has a fourth mitzvah they should die for, specific to each individual. An amazing thought that forces us to consider what it is that we believe most deeply. This type of creative adaptation of Jewish law could never be accepted today as authentic.

Over the years, there have been different models for defining what makes a Jew a good Jew. Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Simlai believed that there are 613 Mitzvot, Commandments, to be performed by Members of the Tribe. Others like Hillel and Akiba knew that this burden could mask the meaning of Judaism. Hillel the Elder was approached by a potential convert to Judaism, challenged to explain the Torah while standing on one leg. Hillel offered the Golden Rule and added more: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

Maimonides years later offered thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith. These are listed in the backs of your books, sung as Yigdal:

A God with no bodily form, incorporeal, whose holiness is beyond compare, who preceded all creation, the Beginning who has no beginning.

You are Eternal Might, who teach every creature Your greatness and sovereignty, with the gift of propehcy inspiring those whom You chose to make Your glory known.

Never has there been a prophet like Moses, whose closeness to You is unmatched. A Torah of truth You gave Your people through Your prophet, Your faithful servant.

A changeless God, ever the same, who teaching will stand, who watches us and knows our inmost thoughts, who knows all outcomes before events begin.

You give us each what we deserve, the good and bad alike. At the end of time You will send our Messiah to save all who wait for his redemptive final help.
You, in great mercy, will revive the dead; praised be Your glory to all eternity!

Despite Maimonides’ assertion that one had to believe in these principles, scholars generally think that he himself didn’t necessarily accept them. During his lifetime, some questioned his sincerity to the point that he wrote a special letter advocating resurrection of the dead, which seems to contradict much of his other thinking. Nearly a millennium later, another attack came to Maimonides’ list. As a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative Movement’s rabbinical seminary, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan asked his students to close their eyes and listen to the list of Maimonides’ Principles. He then told them to raise their hands if they believed in all thirteen principles. Not a single hand went up, so he responded, “This is why we need a reconstruction of Judaism.” Hence the birth of Reconstructionist Judaism. Despite his very traditional ritual lifestyle, including donning tallit and t’fillin daily and observing the mitzvot, Kaplan privately rejected traditional theology.

Over time, so much of the creativity of Jewish expression and the courage of progressive thinkers has given way to rigid thinking. What today is called Orthodoxy is perhaps more accurately called Orthopraxy: It is less about a “straight or upright view,” as the etymology of Orthodox suggests, but more about a specific approach to practice. Chassidic thought, once revolutionarily challenging the rigidity of specific prayer times, even specific prayers, now has given way to so-called ultra-Orthodoxy, which has become synonymous with extremism and fundamentalism. We suffer from a dearth of non-legalistic thinking. The Reform Movement has offered hope, but unfortunately it is perceived as outside the Jewish norm by traditionalists because it does not say that halakhah, or Jewish law, is binding. Conservative Judaism has had the benefits of some incredible thinkers over the years, but it suffers for being between two other Movements. Even in Los Angeles, some prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis refuse to join the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, lest they affirm Reform and Conservative Judaism. We are in an era where Movements simply do not speak to Americans, yet alone American Jews. “Reform is lazy, Conservative is hazy, and Orthodox is crazy.”

It is time for us to consider a new paradigm. As college students raised without the sacred cows of religious, political and parental authority, you are uniquely prepared for this new kind of thinking.

“Open-source Judaism” and making Judaism our own.
I’m intrigued by the notion of Open Source programming. With open source, computers and other things offer programmers full access to their inner-workings, enabling improvements and personalization of the programs. Those who promote Open Source hope to eliminate the exploitative use of intellectual property and to remove greed as a motivating force behind technological advancement.
My interest began when I bought my first palm pilot. Palm offered its users the secret codes used in its operating system, which got computer programmers to think creatively. I downloaded “Hacks” that allowed me to do all sorts of peculiar tricks not built into the system. I even made my palm pilot into a remote for my TV. Computer nerds among us have heard of the Linux operating system, which unlike Windows or Mac, is both free and quite modifiable. Mozilla Firefox is an Open Source web browser. There’s an entire movement for making software resources free. I’m even a subscriber to the listserv. is a free wordprocessor, database, spreadsheet, powerpoint, publishing software and even mathematical equation program for everyone. It is being continuously developed by hundreds of computer users like you and me, who either program it directly or offer feedback to those with the skills to modify the programs. 40 million people have already downloaded the free program, in 60 languages.
The Open Source approach suggests that people are trustworthy custodians of technology. It also presumes that all those who take part are responsible for what happens.
Another example of this approach is the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.. I’ve become the biggest Wikipedia junkie ever. Every day, I run home thinking of things to look up. As an old Dodger fan who just went to a game this past week, I asked myself whatever happened to Burt Hooton, the pitcher who had a mean knuckle-curveball? Wikipedia gave me the answer. And what about Charlie Hough, Doug Rau, or the old sportscaster Ross Porter who used to call the games? It’s all there in Wikipedia. It is the largest encyclopedia ever. Yes, there are errors along the way, and sometimes there are very partisan entries on politics and aesthetics, but overall it works. When people put bad information in, there are ways to correct it, and a study published less than a year ago indicates that Wikipedia is only slightly less accurate on a whole than Encyclopedia Britannica. And it’s free Open Source works.

In essence, Open Source allows adaptation to the needs and realities of the world within which we live. It is inherently democratic, exploratory, and draws from many people’s needs, not commercial goals. It implies that what is most relevant is the community that it serves, and its authority comes from the free exchange of ideas. Open Source thinking also suggests that people’s needs are complex, and that technologies should allow for this complexity. One person looking up a particular performer on Wikipedia might be more interested in his choice of equipment than his religious background, while someone else might want to know about his lyrical qualities. An encyclopedia entry utilizing Open Source thinking allows contributors to ensure all these options, with cross-references to the instruments themselves, lyrical stylings, or the history of the performer’s home town. G-d made every person unique, with individualized interests and fascinations. We are, at our best, a celebration of diversity. By employing Open Source thinking to software development, to the internet, and by extension, to life, we celebrate human ingenuity and promote partnership. To an extent, we can even create community.

Open Source thinking endows the community with power to determine what is meaningful, not an outside force or voice of authority. This is part of its appeal for us, we who have been raised with democratic ideals and humanistic thought. Ours is a generation which automatically questions authority, which empowers the individual to self-publish on the web, to ignore earlier rules of plane etiquette and instead dress in whatever we wish on airplanes, to value non-Western literature equally or even more than the poetry of dead white men. We are committed to the personal exploration of meaning, sidestepping or even denying the earlier prioritization of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic as the canon of acceptable learning.

Open Source and Judaism
Our belief in Gd has also been enriched with principles of openness. Divine authority often originates within us rather than from some external Source, although old hierarchical thinking makes it hard to think of G-d in this way.

Finding G-d: Selected Responses is a fantastic, albeit simple book. It changed the course of my life and enabled me to choose the rabbinate. In high school, when I was trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life, my parents bought it as a birthday or Chanukah present. A collection of roughly 15 different views of G-d, all found within Jewish history, I discovered that my agnosticism at the time was totally acceptable, even for a rabbinical student. Finding G-d helped me realize that ours is a religion of nearly unbridled possibilities for understanding G. The biblical view of G-d, the book shows, is understood even by traditional Jews as metaphorical. Maimonides, whose theology is described in Finding G-d, reminds us that when it says “G-d spoke” or “G-d is a Man of War” in the book of Exodus, the bible is speaking in metaphor. “Dibra Torah ki’lshon b’nei adam,” “The Torah speaks in human language.” It is idolatry to understand G-d as having human form, Maimonides argues. Yigdal tells us this in the second stanza. Others, including Abraham Joshua Heschel and the mystic Isaac Luria, draw their G-d concepts from accepting that the universe is far greater than our mortal existence can know.

In some ways, these views are polar opposites, one positing that G is found remotely and the other suggesting that G-d is found in our own experiences.

This is an ongoing tension in Judaism. Kaplan saw the source of authority coming from deep within us. He believed in several ideas (thank you
Judaism is an evolving religious civilization, based on our common history. It evolves as our history evolves.
G-d is not supernatural, but rather as he put it, “the sum of all the animating organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos.” G-d is not outside of natural law; G-d is natural law.
Prayer helps us to recognize what we believe; it puts us in touch with our conscience. It is performed communally because it connects us to the community. We do not pray, Kaplan argues, to reach some sort of supernatural G-d; rather, we pray to connect to the G-dliness that is within us.

While Kaplan believed that the authority for what we do is found within us, other progressive thinkers, including my personal favorite, Abraham Joshua Heschel, affirmed the wonder that is the universe.

So if we embrace a twenty-first century secular culture and simultaneously as Jews have notions of G found within us and emanating from us, rather than an unpredictable, neutral, cold G that either dictated or even currently dictates right and wrong, a more traditional view, perhaps it is also time that we explore an Open Source Judaism.

What would an Open Source Judaism entail? Let’s reflect on some of the central tenets of Open Source thinking, which derive from what the computer industry calls the Open Source Initiative:

First, Open Source software is free for all who want it. No one can make a profit off the software. As Jews, we already affirm this religiously. Anyone who wishes to join the Jewish Community is welcome to do so, and ours is a non-profit community, organized around synagogues and institutions that raise money only to keep the lights on and provide professional guidance. Moreover, once someone is a part of our community, they are no less Jewish than anyone else. It is even against Jewish law to remind a convert of his or her former background unless they bring it up, which is to say that ours is a tradition open to absolutely all. Thus, in this regard, Open Source Judaism is no different than the Judaism we have today.
The second tenet of Open Source software is that its source code must be completely available. The Jewish parallel suggests that Open Source Judaism would allow any adherent to explore the richness that is the Jewish story, our culture, our beliefs, our incredible history. No realm of Jewish teachings could be off limits. Unlike some secret religions, such as the Druze of Israel, or perhaps the secret rites of fraternities or sororities, Open Source Judaism would need to grant intellectual access to all. In most ways, this is already true as well. While more traditional Jews still affirm the presence of a Priestly class, the Cohanim, in almost every way they are treated the same as people who are not priests. However, Open Source Judaism pushes us to completely eradicate the difference between these classes, which has already taken place in the most liberal branches of Judaism.
The third principle is that Open Source software encourages the distribution of modifications created along the way. When someone makes an improvement, why shouldn’t others have access to such improvements? When new information is added to a Wikipedia article, should not everyone be able to retrieve it? Jewishly, this would mean that creative ritual, such as adding prayers for healing to our liturgy or celebrating the first haircut of a little girl should be encouraged. Open Source Judaism encourages our ingenuity as Jews. Perhaps this is the greatest gain that our community would have if we adopted Open Source thinking. The greatest steps forward in Jewish history have involved chidushim, new ideas that have made their way into our tradition. Hillel, for instance, created the prosbul, a procedure permitting loans, which allows for banks to operate contrary to the Torah’s apparent prohibition of such things. My friend Shifra Penzias’ grandfather, who believed that to fight the tide of assimilation, women should feel included in religious settings and therefore permitted women to wear a tallit, was making a courageous chidush in an era when women barely received the right to vote. Open Source Judaism would give us permission to make the changes that sometimes get lost in the politics of communal power. Our community would be well served if we encourage this principle far more than we have.
A fourth principle of Open Source thinking is that people deserve credit for improvements they make. If someone makes a contribution, their gift should be acknowledged and their improvements should be kept intact and distributed as such. Open Source Judaism, along these lines, would preserve the Talmudic teaching that one who sites the author of a work, b’shem omro, literally “in the name of its sayer,” is meritorious. Any other approach leads to a lack of k’vod habriyot, respect for all people.
The fifth and final principle of Open Source software is that it is non-discriminatory. No one can be excluded from changing and, hopefully, improving the design. An Open Source Judaism would apply this principle to mean that all Jews, whether Ashkenazic or Sephardic, whether Orthodox or Refom, whether Jewish by liberal or ultra-orthodox standards, whether male or female….all Jews have an authentic voice. It also means that whether professionally Jewish, like me, or not, if one engages in the history, culture, and doctrines of Judaism, one is empowered to impact the Jewish community, even changing it. Judaism is not to be a religion of the rabbis; one Rabbi I know tells his congregants that if they want a new prayerbook, they should write it themselves. It is THEIR prayerbook; he is simply a servant to their needs.

Open Source Judaism would allow our faith to blossom, to live up to our prophetic potential of being an “or l’goyim,” a light to the nations. Gone would be the rigidity and exclusiveness that we are often accused of fostering. Its democratic principles would provide a new prophecy to arise, that the Liberal Jew will lie down with the Lubavitcher, and none will be afraid (thank you Isaiah).

Though not included in the Open Source initiative’s list of principles, Open Source Judaism would allow people, free to explore the vast treasure chest that is our tradition, to realize that our heritage is tremendous. As one rabbi put it two thousand years ago (Ben Bag Bag, Pirkei Avot, Hafoch ba hafoch ba), “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” Open Source Judaism would allow the passionate sports fans among us to celebrate Sandy Koufax’s four back to back perfect games and his strong stance as a Jew, and let the feminists among us rejoice in the power of Deborah or Hulda the Prophetesses, or Lilith, the prototypical Feminist. The science geeks would read Einstein’s and Oppenheimer’s deep concerns for the dangers of the nuclear science they created as expressions of their Jewishness, and the Psychologists, Sociologists, and Anthropologists would begin to discover why Jews disproportionately started their disciplines. We can be so proud as a people for what we not only have accomplished but also for what we believe, and Open Source Judaism would celebrate every bit of it.

A Judaism that encourages creativity, diversity, and responsiveness to the times? This is what is sorely needed, as this is what you have in every other aspect of your lives.

Certainly the nay-sayers will remind us that some branches of Judaism are unwilling to compromise. I would argue that such lack of compromise is in itself a rewriting of our history that has witnessed thousands of years of change to bring Judaism to its present state. The rejection of “Eye for an Eye” as a literal notion, the addition of liturgical poems such as Unetane Tokef and Lecha Dodi in our prayerbook, the deletion of part of the Aleinu, the advent of the Bar Mitzvah and the Holiday of Simchat Torah, the birth of the Chassidic Movement in Podolia and the Ukraine in the 1700s, Hillel’s prosbul… these are all changes, that challenge the notion of an immutable Judaism. It is time we challenge those opposed to change to think audaciously in order to avoid the pitfalls of xenophobia, elitism, and even homophobia.

I can imagine a day when as many women will wear tallitot and tephilin as men, when the revolutionary inspiration that Chassidism offered the Jewish world is reborn in a new generation, when we will observe one another as reflections of the same divine spark that we find within ourselves. Our text demands, “Chai bahem,” “Live with the laws;” may it come to pass that all of us will experience an ever-growing, infinitely meaningful cornerstone of human thought, an Open Source Judaism committed to perfecting our world, our relationships with one another, and ourselves. Then we will truly experience Moshiach, the Messianic ideal, of peace on earth and meaning in our lives.

May this come speedily, and in our days. Ken Y’hi ratzon.


Anonymous eric said...

Rabbi Klein,

Once I got past the necessary leftist dig at Dubya, I honestly do not think your article really justifies a brouhaha, kerfuffle, hullabaloo, or other multisyllabic pattern of behavior.

Provocative thought is provocative, but it is also thought!

Having said that, while my reaction to your article was neutral, there is one thing that you and others fighting for your beliefs can do to enhance your credibility...speak up loudly and clearly against political Mcarthyism, also known as political correctness.

Political correctness is when Larry Summers gets run out of Harvard for theorizing that men might be predisposed to superior mathematical ability.

Political correctness is when anyone questioning anything from affirmative action to Larry Bird being better than Magic Johnson is automatically deemed a racist.

Political correctness states that George W. Bush was purposely slow to respond to Hurricane Katrina because he hates black people.

Political correctness preaches tolerance but only if the person fits into a politically correct group. Gays, blacks and Arabs must be understood, while demonizing conservatives is acceptable.

I know that you have never personally demonized anyone, but are you willing to loudly stand up and confront ideological bigtory as fiercely as racial or religious bigotry?

I fully support your right to express provocative ideas, and find zero malice in your words or in your heart.

All I ask is that the left in this country tone down their "Bush lied," rhetoric and instead say "here is where I disagree with him, and here is why, and here is what I would do differently." It certainly beats comparing Bush to Adolf Hitler, which many "enlightened" people on the left continue to do.

In the spirit of Yom Kippur, I am prepared to state that liberals like you are patriotic Americans who love their country and truly believe America is headed in the wrong direction.

I ask that liberals loudly speak up and state that conservatives like me are patriotic Americans who love this country and believe our prescriptions are best for this nation. It is easy to stand up and defend those we agree with. It is tougher to defend those we disagree with.

I hope as you advocate passionate ideas that are controversial, that you have an equal enthusiasm for defending those offering contra viewpoints.

As Yom Kippur approaches, I hope liberal Jews that have said vile things about the President...and conservatives in general...realize that for society to function, and ideas to thrive, that all ideas until proven otherwise are noble, pure, and meant with the best of intentions.

All hate speech should end, and all provocative thoughts rooted in sincere intellectual analysis should be stated loudly and proudly.

People who attack the President had their mind made up long before he was ever elected. People who would object to your Rosh Hashanah thoughts made up their mind beforehand as well.

PC = Myopia. Anti-PC = tolerance.

I shall continue to defend liberals I respect, wondering if they would do the same.

A peaceful Yom Kippur to ALL.

Especially people I admire, including but not limited to Rabbi Klein and President Bush.

eric, aka Mr. 3 sentences :)

9/30/2006 3:22 AM  
Blogger Rabbi Klein said...

Much appreciation for your general, albeit indirect, support of my thoughts. I hope that no simplistic "PC thought" is what people get out of my words.

I believe in a pluralism that allows those with whom I disagree to have influence on my thinking, that entitles my opposition to be wrong, in my opinion, without malice. I don't think my drash has much to do with the issues you raise surrounding political correctness, but regardless I agree with your sense that we should be inspired by intellectual discourse, not simplistic answers based on cultural mores.

It is also possible, if I might add, that Political Correctness is correct. Maybe not always, but most of the time. In other words, one would be foolish to simply reject a position because some feel it is a politically correct position. Just food for thought...

9/30/2006 8:40 PM  
Blogger Lewis H said...

Rabbi Klein:

A fascinating sermon. I agree fundaementally that Judaism needs to move in a more "open source" direction. The insularity within contemporary Judaism is beyond depressing.

An examination of the challenges the "open source" movement faces in the tech world shows us just how hard such a journey will be. For example, the open source software is now being used by corps. like HP, Intel, etc. for private applications and there will be intense battles re: this.

My seminar blog with Cory Doctorow touches on these issues:


10/19/2006 11:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nebach! That's all I have to say. Baruch Hashem we won't have to worry about people like you. In 2 generations the only Jews will be the orthodox. You "open minded" liberals are so open minded that your brains have fallen out. Continue to water down and your left with something else-another religion. May Hashem bless you so that you open your eyes and actually learn what is in the Torah form those who lived a Torah life not from PC leftist "professors" who go home and watch TV.

11/17/2007 8:13 PM  
Blogger Samual said...

On each of the four corners of the silk tallit are special knots called Tassels (Tzitzit) in fulfillment of the biblical commandment.The word Tallit originally meant "gown" or "cloak.

9/07/2010 4:59 AM  

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