Hacking Jewish Tradition


The timing was pretty good, as the Sony hacking scandal continued to be front-page news; Britain and the U.S. had just announced new cyber war games; and The New York Times had just profiled a new website offering “hackers for hire,” available for everything from breaking into your ex-boyfriend’s Facebook page to changing the rent on your apartment’s website.

But this was not the “hacking” I had in mind when I convened a recent panel UC Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. I wanted to evoke the way hacking has become, especially for younger people, a positive shorthand for the qualities of curiosity, freedom, agency and transparency inspired by, and in part made possible by, our accelerating digital lifestyle. As The New Yorker put it in a recent article, “Clearly, ‘hack’ is the word of the moment.” Although still mostly associated with nefarious activity, often described as “black-hat” hacking, the article noted that “neutral or positive applications of the word are increasingly prominent.”

Even more specifically, I wanted to understand how Jewish thinkers and educators are integrating the language and toolkit of “hacking” into the age-old practice of transmitting Jewish knowledge and creating strong communities.

Rabbi James Brandt, director of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, set the stage by suggesting that “hacking” is this generation’s equivalent of “do-it-yourself Judaism,” represented by the groundbreaking 1973 publication of the “Jewish Catalog,” which offered a model of creating Jewish life “outside the official system.”

“Hacking has the connotation of co-opting authority, of doing things for yourself, of taking back the tradition,” he said. “The reality is, this is what most people want today. They want to find their own way into the texts and the tradition, and aren’t as much interested in the system, or authority.”

UC Berkeley professor Ken Goldberg, who studies robots as well as new media, described how “hacking” as a computer-related term began at MIT in the 1950s, when members of the train model club used it to describe creative ways of solving technical problems. In his estimation, this kind of acute, creative questioning of authority parallels the Jewish critical imagination, giving us such things as the Talmud and the “chevruta” style of classical study, characterized by a cutting style of argumentation.

Sarah Lefton, who founded the wildly popular G-dcast website featuring animated Torah commentaries (with two million views in 2014), described her work as offering a quick path to further textual engagement. In this sense her entertaining videos evoke the literal meaning of hacking — cutting into an open space. But Lefton was quick to point out that the videos, designed to be fun and educational, are meant to be the beginning of a journey, not the end. She agreed with a questioner who asked whether her approach parallels the famous lesson of Rabbi Hillel, who told a visitor the basis of Judaism in only a few words, then told him to go and study. “I guess watching a two minute video is like getting a lesson in Judaism while standing on one foot,” she quipped.

Sara Bamberger, who founded the organization Kevah five years ago to make classical Jewish texts available to small study groups, noted the hunger people demonstrate for Jewish learning when they feel empowered to study the texts they want to study. Hacking, for her, means creating “radical access” to the texts that might otherwise seem forbidding.

In short, the audience’s reaction to the conversation seemed split between those who saw “hacking” as a bit too provocative a term to describe the Jewish communal enterprise, and those — mostly professional Jewish educators — who were eager for any tool that could help them reach young people who might at best have only one afternoon a week of Jewish instruction.

The future of Jewish education might very well follow experiments like that of Rabbi Charlie Schwartz, who runs the design lab for Brandeis University’s high school program, a project of the university, Boston’s Jewish federation and the national Reform movement. In the essay “Hacking Hanukkah to Design the Jewish Future,” in the journal eJewish Philanthropy, Rabbi Schwartz described the evolution of Chanukah over the centuries as an example of proto-hacking. At moments of crisis, Jews hacked to the essence of the holiday’s meaning, bypassing authorized interpretations, and emerging with the tools and ideas to inspire the next generation. What the students learned from this, as they designed an extravagant new Chanukah food (a flaming milkshake), was “a new approach to listening to each other, to themselves, and to Jewish tradition,” as they engaged in “the age-old process of building, transforming, and hacking Jewish life.”

Far from being a Silicon Valley obsession, hacking — as an idea and a strategy — is making its way to a Jewish classroom near you.

Daniel Schifrin is curator and producer of the Ideas of Late conversation series in Berkeley, Calif.