Talmudic sages may have been original hackers

Were talmudic scholars the earliest hackers, questioning and decoding ancient text? If so, the Silicon Valley buzzword, which has come to mean creative problem-solving and openness of information, may be finding its way back into Jewish life.

Sarah Lefton (top), Sara Bamberger and Ken Goldberg are on panel titled “Hacking Jewish Tradition.”

Next week, experts in the worlds of technology, media and Jewish education will come together at the Magnes in Berkeley to discuss the role of hacking in the future of Jewish collaboration and engagement. The event is part of the “Ideas of Late” conversation series, a program of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay co-sponsored by the Magnes Museum Foundation and presented in partnership with J.

In modern parlance, “hacking” is no longer associated with nefarious online activity but instead with innovative designing, engineering and problem-solving.

Facebook famously holds regular hackathons to encourage its employees to develop creative new products. The popular website Lifehacker offers tips that apply the hacking mentality to everyday life, on everything from how to snag cheaper college textbooks to how to save money on your home heating bill.In the Jewish community, a recent series of “Hanukkah Hackathons” presented by Brandeis University’s Design Lab invited teenagers to invent new ways to commemorate the holiday. In 2013, in a simultaneous hackathon in the Bay Area and Tel Aviv organized by the Charles and Lynn Shusterman Family Found-ation, coders worked on apps to increase transparency in Israeli municipal budgets and help connect Jewish college students in North America. “There’s something about hacking, which is this acute questioning and attempt to decode or decipher, and I think Judaism has been about that also,” said Dan Schifrin, the former director of public programs at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and moderator of the series.

“Certainly with Talmud study and chevruta [studying Talmud with a partner], it’s asking the sharpest questions, it’s looking at the Torah as a code, where we’re looking deeper and deeper and deeper. We have a right to delve into the code until we understand the deepest meaning the Torah has to offer.”


Making information and texts public, accessible and clear is at the heart of hacking, according to Ken Goldberg, a robotics professor at U.C. Berkeley who will sit on the panel. He says the term “hacking” dates back to the 1960s at MIT, when students would explore (or hack) the system of tunnels underneath the university in an effort to map and decode them. That same ethos of discovery and play was applied to understanding computer systems, Goldberg said.


“It’s what talmudic scholars have been doing for thousands of years,” he said. “They want to stay up late, study their texts, obsess over these details, memorize arcane facts. Their goal is always to understand. It’s this infinite labyrinth that they’re going to spend their life exploring.”

At Tel Aviv hackathon, coders develop apps to increase transparency in municipal budgets. photo/courtesy hasadna

If the talmudic sages were proto-hackers, the question becomes how to translate that tradition into contemporary life. Though 21st century Jews may be willing to embrace the hacker mindset, many don’t have a firm enough foundation in Jewish tradition, education and ancient languages to be able to attempt the molecular deep dive into Jewish study modeled by the Talmud, said panelist Sara Bamberger. She’s the founder and executive director of Kevah, a nonprofit that organizes small Jewish text study groups.

“For me, the compelling part of the language of hacking and the Jewish experience is really about how do you create a culture of empowerment and a radical democratization of access,” Bamberger said. “I think that’s a really important question for the Jewish community to be asking itself if it wants to endure in future generations.”

Creating nontraditional paths for Jewish learning might be just the hack that revitalizes the tradition, according to panelist Sarah Lefton, the founder and director of G-dcast, a Jewish media production company.

“I think there’s a lot of resistance to sitting in class and having things presented,” Lefton said. Using everything from primary sources to YouTube videos, “the way into anything is being presented with a problem and creating your own meaning out of it.”


“Ideas of Late: Hacking Jewish Tradition,” 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 15 at the Magnes, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Free. www.jfed.org/ideasoflate

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.