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.

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