The Commandments and their Reasons as Hardware and Software: Toward a Materialist Understanding of Mitsvot

In this post I want to continue exploring new metaphors for talking about aspects of Judaism (an exploration I started here). Specifically, I want to look at what it might mean if we think of the commandments and their reasons (traditionally referred to as “ta’amei hamitsvot”) as analogous to hardware and software, respectively. This analogy will enable us to draw out and discuss various aspects of the commandments and their reasons, and the relationship between the two.

To clarify a little what I mean by the terms “hardware” and “software,” hardware is the physical devices we interact with in order to access software, while software, the thing we actually want to access, can only be accessed via hardware. I use my computer to access Microsoft Word; using Word is a goal that is only accessible via my computer. Similarly, once we say that the commandments have reasons (not uncontroversial in the history of Jewish thought), it makes sense to articulate reasons that can only be achieved via the commandments. If giving charity makes you a more generous person, “becoming a more generous person” is something that is only accessible via the generous act of giving charity. I therefore use charity to access “becoming a more generous person.”

However, while giving charity is one way of becoming a more generous person, it is certainly not the only way; similarly, my computer is not the only device with which I can access Word. We might therefore ask why we should use these specific pieces of hardware rather than any other. On one level, it’s worth noting that the question is not so fair. Sure you could use any device, but you have to use one, no matter which one it is. So you might justify the one that you use based on simply having to pick one, rather than any specific traits about it. Charity is as good a way as any to become a more generous person.

You also might justify your choice of hardware based on the fact that it is the one you have. Maybe you got it as a present, maybe it’s the one that all of your friends had, maybe you just found it lying on the curb and took it home; however it came to you, now you have it and it is yours. Barring significant issues with the device that interfere with its functioning, this alone is enough to justify using it, as opposed to switching to some other device. I have my phone, I like it, I identify with it, it’s mine. Sure the screen is cracked and the battery-life is stress-inducing, but I identify with its flaws as much as its functions. Moreover, having to pick out and purchase a new phone would be a difficult process.

This leads us toward Maimonides’s historicist conception of the commandments, and their relationship with the idolatrous rituals of ancient Israel’s neighbors. Maimonides argues that human nature cannot change rapidly, that it must be shifted gradually, and that God therefore gave the Israelites commandments that were the same or incredibly similar to the idolatrous forms of worship they were already familiar with. If the ancient Israelites wanted to “access” worship, they would inevitably turn to the “device” animal sacrifice, simply because it’s the one with which they were most familiar and comfortable, and so God accommodated this fact of human nature (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32). This, Maimonides argued, despite the fact that animal sacrifice has noticeable drawbacks, and prayer or silent meditation would work much better. Sacrifice worked, however, and it was the hardware they already had.

If Maimonides conception assumes the difficulty of changing “hardware,” it assumes  some more ease in changing software. Animal sacrifice used to run “worship pagan pantheon X” and was now being used to run “worship YHWH, the one god.” This holds true to our analogy to software, which was always replaced more easily than hardware, particularly now that even major upgrades and shifts in operating systems can be achieved via the internet.

This brings us to an important point: software is not self-justifying. I use my phone to access WhatsApp, but I don’t use WhatsApp just for the sake of using WhatsApp, I use it for communicating with other people. If a certain piece of software isn’t getting the job done, I am likely to replace it. Moreover, because software is replaced so easily, it is not as easy to hold onto it simply“because it’s mine,” as in the case of hardware.

The analogy to reasons for commandments here is a bit tricky, but I think also important. Commandments are, as I have said, intended for the sake of the reasons for the commandments. But are those reasons for anything outside themselves? I think they are. I think we should understand reasons for the individual commandments as pivoting around larger ideals, such as holiness, morality, covenant, etc. The reasons for individual commandments serve to give us “access” to the larger ideals, much the same way as the commandments themselves give us “access” to the reasons for the commandments.

This is important for the way it enables us to view the historic assertions of reasons for the commandments, some of which we have moved well away from today (for a good example of this regarding the laws of Niddah, see Jonah Steinberg’s “From a Pot of Filth to a Hedge of Roses”). If there is one reason to which a given commandment is meant to provide access, then debates and differences of opinion in regard to the reason for that commandment require deciding who is right and who is wrong. However, if we conceptualize the reasons for the commandments as tools for accessing the larger ideals, then different reasons can coexist without one needing to be “the right one.” Moreover, in changing historical circumstances, with the people already used to certain actions and thought processes, different reasons might be just what is necessary to access the same larger ideal. Whether the details of commandments are based on the ritual worship of the Israelites’ neighbors (Maimonides) or on strict symbolism (Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch), both reasons are part of shaping the life of the nation in relation to God (cf. Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Shemoneh Kevatsim, 2:54-57). Because the reasons are not ends in and of themselves, they can be replaced when they are not serving their function and we can change between them as necessary. Moreover, different people use their phones and computers for different things, and different people can perform the commandments for different reasons. People even generally use their hardware to access a variety of softwares, and there’s no reason that the commandments and their reasons could not work similarly.

By way of conclusion, I would like to take note of how this analogy structures the relationship between the commandments and their reasons. In a sense, it makes the reasons more primary. The commandments exist and are performed for the sake of the reasons. However, the reasons themselves serve larger ideals and are easily replaceable. The commandments themselves, on the other hand, have a significant presence in the life and laws of the people, and thus are not easily replaceable. This very real presence, and the difficulty it would create in trying to change the commandments, make the commandments more primary. Barring gradual change, the physical commandments are sticking around, while their reasons may shift. This emphasis on the primacy of the physical actions that make up the commandments in the historical life of the nation leads me to call this a materialist understanding of mitsvot. This approach also puts an emphasis on the shifting historical situation of the nation and the way it shapes the reasons for the commandments. The Jewish people have carried these actions with us through various contexts over the millennia, and we have been different in these various contexts. The commandments therefore have served, and continue to serve, different reasons at different times and for different people, just as different people use their hardware for different softwares.



Destruction and Centralization – Monopolizing the Worship Market


I want to take a moment to explore Deuteronomy 12:1-7. In doing so, however, I want to make an analogy to the economics of contemporary technology. This is part of a larger goal of “hitting refresh” on the metaphors and analogies we use to talk about God and Judaism. Most of our analogies stretch back aeons and now lack the everyday sensibility that makes metaphors and analogies helpful. The best example of this is traditional comparison of God to a king, when few, if any, people living today have experienced living under a real king. Finding new ways of talking about God and Judaism enables us to better understand God and Judaism, as well as integrating them more into our everyday lived experience. However, analogies and metaphors don’t just convey information, they also shape it. Changing the way we speak about God and Judaism also changes how we think about them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact it offers up exciting possibilities, but it is something we should do with our eyes open. I want to explore some of these possibilities in this post on Deuteronomy 12:1-7, and at least one more on a different topic.

Deuteronomy 12 discusses the laws of centralization and sacrifice that the Israelites must observe after they enter the land of Canaan. These laws open not with Israelite cultic worship, however, but with how they should destroy the physical sites of worship that they find in the land, only thereafter going on to the topic of centralization

These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that the Lord, God of your fathers, is giving you to possess, as long as you live on earth. You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.

Do not worship the Lord your God in like manner, but look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices, your tithes and contributions, your votive and freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Lord your God, happy in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:1-7)

These two paragraphs are generally understood as two contrasting ideas; “here’s how you treat bad worship, here’s how you treat good worship.” The religions of the natives are bad and must be destroyed, while the good religion of the Israelites is meant to be performed at a single location. In what follows I would like to propose that these two paragraphs are not meant to be contrasting ideas but complementary ones, both part of securing the Israelites involvement in the proper form of religious activity.

To get to that idea, I want to look at a two instances from the recent history of the technology market. The first is the role the iPhone played in the competition between Verizon and AT&T in the United States cell phone market.

Back in 2006 Apple sought to release the original iPhone on Verizon; the leading carrier in the U.S., though, was wary of Apple’s demands that there be no Verizon branding, no Verizon control of the user experience, and no Verizon relationship with iPhone users beyond managing their data plan. Therefore, Apple launched the iPhone on the second-place carrier (AT&T née Cingular); AT&T accepted Apple’s demands in full with the hope that Apple’s famously loyal customers would see the iPhone as a reason to switch.

That, of course, is exactly what happened: in the five years following the iPhone launch, AT&T went from trailing Verizon by $400 million in wireless revenue to leading by $700 million; that’s a $1.1 billion switch thanks in large part to Apple loyalists’ willingness to switch carriers to get an iPhone. The effect was even greater on smaller carriers, which had no choice but to accede to Apple’s increasingly demanding terms: not only would Apple own the customers, but carriers had to agree to significant marketing outlays and guaranteed sales to carry the iPhone(Ben Thompson, “Apple Should Buy Netflix”)

Before the iPhone was released, Verizon was the unquestioned leader in the United States, seemingly because of their better service and plans, and they felt very secure in that position. What they did not count on was the power and influence of the physical devices that customers used to access their services. It turned out that the physical devices had the power to be a determining factor. Once the iPhone was introduced, people flocked to it, and that meant flocking to the only cell phone service to which iPhones gave access.

Something similar happened with the introduction of the Windows operation system on IBM computers, before the OS market was really even getting off the ground.

IBM spun up a separate team in Florida to put together something they could sell IT departments. Pressed for time, the Florida team put together a minicomputer using mostly off-the shelf components; IBM’s RISC processors and the OS they had under development were technically superior, but Intel had a CISC processor for sale immediately, and a new company called Microsoft said their OS – DOS – could be ready in six months. For the sake of expediency, IBM decided to go with Intel and Microsoft.

The rest, as they say, is history. The demand from corporations for IBM PCs was overwhelming, and DOS – and applications written for it – became entrenched. By the time the Mac appeared in 1984, the die had long since been cast. Ultimately, it would take Microsoft a decade to approach the Mac’s ease-of-use, but Windows’ DOS underpinnings and associated application library meant the Microsoft position was secure regardless. (Ben Thompson, “The Truth about Windows versus the Mac”)

Demand for the IBM personal computer was high, and it came preloaded with Windows. By virtue of that connection between the physical device and the operating system, Microsoft dominated the market for years, without Apple ever really having a chance. This is exactly the same as what happened with the iPhone, except that the iPhone was being introduced into  preexisting market while the IBM personal computer was basically creating a new one. In this new market, one physical device dominated, and therefore the operating system connected to this device also dominated.

The common idea in both of these examples is that physical objects, like iPhones or personal computers, determine the market, and that when these physical devices are connected to other things, like cell phone plans or operating systems, they give the market to those things. Returning to Deuteronomy 12:1-7, I would like to propose that we should see the laws recorded there as working off this idea in an attempt to shape the Israelites’ religious practice. Instead of iPhones and personal computers, the physical objects here are the places and paraphernalia of worship. When the Israelites destroy any place where the Canaanites worshipped, when they destroy the altars and pillars and trees that the Canaanites used in their worship, they are limiting the physical objects available to them in their worship. If the Canaanite objects are available, the Israelites may flock to them, and thus to the deities connected to those objects. Getting rid of those objects means that the Israelites have no choice but to worship with objects connected to God. Similarly, when God says they have to worship only at one central location, this means that the nature of worship in this one, easily controlled, environment, shapes the Israelites’ religious experience. These are not contrasting laws about how to treat good and bad religion but complementary laws ensuring God’s monopoly in the worship market.

As I said above, however, this new analogy requires some new understandings. This is all based on the idea that there is such a thing as a worship market, that the Israelites will necessarily participate in worship and religion, with the only question being with what physical objects and to which god(s). This assumptions is, I think, fairly well born out by the existence of religion throughout human societies across history. Moreover, it seems fairly evident from Tanakh. The book of Judges is full of the Israelites straying after foreign gods, seemingly for no other reason than the fact that they were there. Once we take that reality as a given, it makes sense that God would attempt to limit the available objects and sites of foreign worship, so as to manage and direct that basic religious impulse.

Perhaps more dramatically, this analogy allows us to move away from seeing Deuteronomy 12:1-7 as being about “bad” religion versus “good” religion. The reason that the Canaanite sites of worship must be destroyed is not because they are “bad” but simply because they are competition. This isn’t to say that they’re “good,” but simply to reevaluate the way we think about issues of idolatry and foreign worship. It is possible that the problem with worshipping gods other than God is less that they don’t exist and that the worship is false and more that we are supposed to be dedicated to God specifically. What other nations do is their own business (which, again, doesn’t make them “right” or “good,” just not our concern). In fact, something like this seems to be expressed in the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, where it is said that the heavenly bodies were given to the nations to worship (4:19) (see my piece on this understanding of idolatry here).

In conclusion, reimagining the laws of destruction and centralization in Deuteronomy 12 as attempts to shape and control a worship market highlights the idea that there is a “demand” for religion and the importance of “customer loyalty.” More importantly, I hope that it makes this passage more understandable to the average reader, and that it makes the ideas therein make more sense and more familiar to them. In another post, I want to look at another new analogy, exploring the connection between the commandments and the reasons for the commandments in light of the connection between hardware and software.

Rav Shagar on Being Religious as Being Weird and Avant Garde, with a Note about Academic Bible Scholarship

So apparently men wearing skirts is getting more and more popular (hold onto your hats, because this essay is going to end up talking about academic Bible scholarship). Just a few years ago, however, it was considered avant garde, meaning that the men doing it were breaking cultural norms, but they were doing so with confidence. That confidence is the key factor in whether breaking cultural norms makes you a weirdo, a loser, or makes you avant garde. If you can pull it off, this confidence often wins the respect of the culture whose norms you are breaking; often, however, the avant garde remain something of a marginalized group.

Any person who defines herself as both modern and religious invariably finds herself in this position. The cultural norms of contemporary western cultures are, to a great degree, secular, and so being religious means breaking those cultural norms. Being religious can therefore require being “weird,” or having the confidence to be avant garde.

Writing in the religious Zionist community in Israel at the turn of the millennium, Rav Shagar strived to create Jews who saw themselves as avant garde. Concluding an essay on love and marriage in the postmodern era, he writes:

I would love to see marriage as the true avant garde of today’s society, marriage as a covenant, in the rite of Moshe and Israel. The true rebellion is the Orthodox rebellion to be a “loser” (freier) in a world where not a single person is willing to be a loser, to commit in a place where everybody runs from commitment. This is intimately bound-up with self-sacrifice, but self-sacrifice in this sense is the very essence of the covenantal relationship. (“Love, Romance, and Covenant,” Nehalekh Beragesh, p. 286)

Finding postmodern sensibilities about romance to be decidedly more “frum” than modern ones, Shagar argued that religious Zionists should take up this postmodern yet very traditional view of marriage, even if it means breaking with the non-committal values of mainstream Israeli society. Notably, Shagar invokes the idea of being a freier, a “loser,” something Israelis are constantly attempting to avoid, and asserts that religious Zionists should embrace that role, being willing to sacrifice for the betterment of others, which is the foundation of a covenantal relationship.

At the very end of an essay on the interplay of education and ideology, Shagar looks to the future of religious Zionist education in Israel and argues that we have to be educating for avant garde-hood.

For what, then, shall we educate? How will we want to see the next generation of religious Zionism? I would prefer to strive to make it an avant garde generation. What do I mean by this? – the stubbornness to hold on to ethics in a world without ethics; to faith in a nihilistic world; to be the “loser” of the world out of a sense that “This is how I am and this is how I want to be.” This is a holy rebellion: the rebellion against the rebellion, a postmodern rebellion against the modern rebellion. Education needs to create complex people, with many aspects and no need to construct ideological unity that will resolve them, by creating a deep and rooted Jewish identity that can connect with and absorb the different direction and oppositions. (“Education and Ideology,” Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, pp. 206-207)

Shagar is pushing for a broad embrace of values in the face of a culture that rejects them. Mainstream Israeli culture, he says, is unethical and nihilistic; we must therefore break with it in being ethical and full of faith. Religious values necessarily set us apart from the broader culture, and we must embrace that gap.

It is critical to note that Rav Shagar is not arguing for the approach taken by Haredi society, which in that same essay about education he calls a “heterotopia” (a term he adopts from Michel Foucault), a society that is so disconnected from all other societies that its boundaries are determined not by where it butts up against other societies but by its own nature. It’s so separate that it doesn’t really even know other societies exist. Shagar admits that this depiction is idealized, not necessarily fitting the reality of contemporary Haredi society, and he therefore calls it “rectified” or “authentic” Haredism (for the latter, see the essay “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” also published in English in the book “Faith Shattered and Restored”). However, real Haredi society is still very separate from mainstream Israeli society, particularly when contrasted with the religious Zionists who, as Shagar says, “live in multiple worlds” (Education and Ideology,” pp. 183-185). This means that Haredim cannot be avant garde; in a sense, you have to be part of the culture in order to be a counter-culture, while Haredim are simply a different culture altogether. Religious Zionists, as well as Modern Orthodox Jews in the US and anyone who finds herself in a similar situation, are fully a part of mainstream, modern, society. This is what makes it significant when we break away from it. Breaking with the norms of our own culture, or perhaps more accurately the norms of the larger culture, marks us as weird and often draws scorn. The trick, however, is to embrace that difference and wear it confidently, thus shifting from “weird” to “avant garde.” We must realize that we’re different, and not expect to fit in perfectly, which means accepting that we will not be embraced by our larger culture one hundred percent of the way.


By way of conclusion, and to keep my parenthetical promise from the beginning of this post, I want to apply this model to recent discussions about academic Bible scholarship. This most recent debate was inspired by R. Dr. Joshua Berman’s essay “The Corruption of Biblical Studies” on, which argued that “conservative” scholars and scholarship are consistently marginalized in the world of academic Bible scholarship. This inspired 4 responses on the site from other scholars, followed by Berman’s rejoinder, as well as other pieces around the internet such as a piece by Prof. Marc Brettler on and one on by Dr. Michah Gottlieb. This last piece concludes, based on R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, that “an Orthodox Jew engaged in biblical criticism is knotted in impossible self-contradiction.” This piece, as well as Berman’s first piece, fall prey to some of the problems I mentioned above. R. Hirsch, as portrayed by Gottlieb, seems to fit into the heterotopic-Haredi model, seemingly pushing for Orthodox or conservative scholars to withdraw from biblical scholarship entirely, not recognizing that there are models of Orthodoxy that can embrace some form of historicism (for some of Shagar’s approach to historicism, see “Religious Life in the Modern Age”). Berman, on the other hand, seems to not be accepting that Orthodox and “conservative” scholars are in some ways breaking from the mainstream culture of academic Bible scholarship (I make this point somewhat more tentatively than the previous one). Such scholars will therefore almost unavoidably be marginal figures, and that uncomfortable status ought to be proudly embraced. This doesn’t mean that it is a good thing or that it shouldn’t be pointed out, but it does mean that it’s probably here to stay.

Where We Start and How We Continue: Tsidkat HaTsadik #1-2

The first chapter of Tsidkat Hatsadik, by Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin, discusses passages from the first chapter of the talmudic tractate Berakhot from a Hasidic perspective. The first two paragraphs of the book, however, diverge from this commentary-esque character, with the first discussing the Pesaḥ sacrifice and the second discussing Berakhot only in the most abstract sense.

The two paragraphs meditate on the same issues: where do we start and how do we continue (serving God and studying Torah/making blessings, respectively), touching on fundamental issues regarding the respective roles of God and man in the service of God and in life more generally. Below are the passages and their translations, followed by an exploration of the ideas contained therein.

Continue reading “Where We Start and How We Continue: Tsidkat HaTsadik #1-2”