Thursday, July 11, 2013

Reprogramming Tisha b’Av: The Rabbi and the Hacker

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts (1850)
In the still of night, two students carry the body of their beloved Teacher through the streets. The city – besieged, burned, starved, crazed – has turned in against itself, and seems to be on an unstoppable downwards spiral to destruction. Zealots guard the gates, preventing anyone from leaving – exit is betrayal. Feigning death is the key to redemption. Once outside the walls, the Teacher brushes aside the ruse of his demise and goes off to establish a new city, in which he will teach his students how to take things apart and put them together again. Old rituals will receive new meaning. Tradition will be deconstructed and rebuilt in an unrecognizable way.
The Bronfman Fellowships summer – which started this week for the 27th time – is an experience in storytelling: a few basic stories that aspire to infuse the Fellows with fresh metaphors, new horizons and novel pathways through which to understand themselves and their surroundings. Elisha ben Avuyah’s heretical escape; Rabbi Yehoshua crying out “It’s not in Heaven!”; Hillel and Shammai’s students marrying eachother despite their disagreements (or perhaps killing eachother to gain a majority before the next vote?).
One of my favorite stories is the tale of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai leaving Jerusalem in the heat of the revolt against the Romans. We will be studying this story with the fellows next Tuesday, as the long fast of Tisha b’Av descends on modern-day Jerusalem:

When Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai saw the rebellion against the Romans, he sent for the men of Jerusalem and said to them: “My sons, why are you destroying this city, and why do you want to burn down the Temple?”
They said to him: “Just as we fought against the two before him and killed them, so, too, we will fight and kill Vespasian!”Vespasian had men stationed near the walls of Jerusalem who reported everything they heard. They reported back to him: “Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai is an admirer of Caesar, and he says so to the people of Jerusalem.”After Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai rebuked the Jerusalemites one day, and a second, and a third, and they did not accept his rebuke, he asked of his students Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua: “My sons, rise up and take me out of here. Make me a coffin and I will sleep in it.”
Rabbi Eliezer held him at the feet and Rabbi Yehoshua held him at the head and they walked around with him until sundown, until they got to the gates of Jerusalem.
The gatekeepers asked them: “Who is this?” They said: “It is a corpse, and don’t you know that it is forbidden to leave a corpse in Jerusalem overnight?”They said to them: “If he is dead, take him out.”
They took him out and carried him until they got to Vespasian. They opened the coffin and Rabbi Yohanan stood before the Roman commander.
Vespasian said: “You are Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai. What can I give you?”
Rabbi Yohanan responded: “I request nothing but Yavneh. I will go there and teach my students, and set prayers there, and find a way to fulfill all the commandments of the Torah.”Vespasian said to him: “Go, and all that you want to do, do.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4)

As always on Bronfman, this is not a history lesson, rather an exploration of human responses to life, an investigation into the ways people and communities create and innovate in the face of crisis. On Tisha b’Av we remember and lament the destructions, those at the hands of our enemies and those at our own hands. But it is also a time to revisit the moment when a leader stepped out and stepped up, the “Ben Zakkai moment” of Tisha b’Av.
A “Ben Zakkai moment” is the moment in which one realizes that the new reality is not a mere obstacle to overcome, but rather an opportunity to re-think the categories around which our lives have been organized. Ben Zakkai uses the crises to catalyze a paradigm shift. In his case it required a break and a betrayal of old institutions and allegiances, and even collaboration with enemy forces. Ben Zakkai’s about-face panned out, earning him a place of honor in the pantheon of Jewish leadership.
We’re living in a time in which old institutions – corporate, communal and professional institutions - are crumbling and losing their relevance, while new technologies and fields of knowledge are retaking the stage, establishing a world of fluidity. “Yavnehs” are springing up all around us. It’s a time of Ben Zakkais. But specifically as this time we need not only those with the courage to step out, but also the ones with the resources to reconstruct.
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai is often considered the founder of Talmudic thinking, raising the generation of students that created the “Torah of the Mouth” needed to keep the “Written Torah” vibrant and relevant in a post-Temple world. In Yavneh  he worked to redefine the most basic categories of Judaism in a post-Temple reality.
As we seek to inspire today’s Ben Zakkais, the problematic image of computer programmers and hackers come to mind. Though the term “Hackers” often elicits images of anarchists, as is the case with recent news coverage, the “Hacker ethic” seems to me a great definition of what Talmudic thinkers also strove to be about. Steven Levy in his book describes it as follows:
“Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems – about the world – from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things. This is especially true when a hacker wants to fix something that (from his point of view) is broken and needs improvement.”

Hackers who are only about destroying and disrupting betray this ethic. But students who are taught only to succeed at tests and miss out on the joy of taking things apart for its own sake – will lack the skills to create the new and interesting things that we are in need of today.
As for Bronfman Fellows – it’s the spark in their eye they get when taking something apart and creating something new – which often sets them apart. For me, that’s the spark of a Talmudic frame of mind, the spark which Yohanan Ben Zakkai lit in his students so many centuries ago.

כשבא אספסיינוס להחריב את ירושלים - 
אמר להם: שוטים, מפני מה אתם מבקשים להחריב את העיר הזאת, ואתם מבקשים לשרוף את בית המקדש, וכי מה אני מבקש מכם אלא שתשגרו לי קשת אחת או חץ אחת ואלך לי מכם.
אמרו לו: כשם שיצאנו על שנים ראשונים שהם לפניך והרגנום, כך נצא לפניך ונהרגך. 
כיון ששמע רבן יוחנן בן זכאי, שלח וקרא לאנשי ירושלים. 
ואמר להם: בני, מפני מה אתם מחריבין את העיר הזאת, ואתם מבקשים לשרוף את בהמ"ק? וכי מהו מבקש מכם? הא אינו ומבקש מכם אלא קשת אחת או חץ אחת, וילך לו מכם. 
אמרו לו: כשם שיצאנו על שנים שלפניו והרגנום, כך נצא עליו ונהרגהו. 
היו לאספסיינוס אנשים שרויין כנגד חומותיה של ירושלים, וכל דבר ודבר שהיו שומעין היו כותבין על החצי וזורקין חוץ לחומה. לומר שרבן יוחנן בן זכאי מאוהבי קיסר הוא. 
וכיון שאמר להם רבי יוחנן בן זכאי יום אחד ושנים ושלשה ולא קבלו ממנו, שלח וקרא לתלמידיו: לר' אליעזר ורבי יהושע. 
אמר להם: בני, עמדו והוציאוני מכאן. עשו לי ארון ואישן בתוכו. ר' אליעזר אחז בראשו, ר' יהושע אחז ברגליו, והיו מוליכין אותו עד שקיעת החמה, עד שהגיעו אצל שערי ירושלים. אמרו להם השוערים: מי הוא זה? 
אמרו להן: מת הוא, וכי אין אתם יודעים שאין מלינים את המת בירושלים? 
אמרו להן: אם מת הוא, הוציאוהו. והוציאוהו. והיו מוליכין אותו עד שקיעת החמה, עד שהגיעו אצל אספסיינוס. 
פתחו הארון ועמד לפניו. 
אמר לו: אתה הוא רבי יוחנן בן זכאי? שאל מה אתן לך. 
אמר לו: איני מבקש ממך אלא יבנה. אלך ואשנה בה לתלמידי, ואקבע בה תפלה, ואעשה בה כל מצות האמורות בתורה. 
אמר לו: לך, וכל מה שאתה רוצה לעשות עשה.