This normal life: Is Judaism more like an operating system or an app?

The answer could go a long way to helping us understand how to solve seemingly intractable problems such as the recent Western Wall and conversion crises in Israel.

A man using mobile smartphone (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
A man using mobile smartphone
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Is Judaism more like an operating system or an app? The podcast “Judaism Unbound” has been exploring that question over the last year. The answer could go a long way to helping us understand how to solve seemingly intractable problems such as the recent Western Wall and conversion crises in Israel.
Judaism Unbound’s hosts, Daniel Libenson, the founder and president of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, and rabbinical student Lex Rofes, describe the operating system versus app metaphor like this: Consider your smartphone – the operating system is the software that runs in the background. Apps are the individual programs you use – Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, your browser and your calendar.
Your phone comes with an operating system – you can’t get rid of it; the device won’t run without it. Usually, it comes with a few key apps installed.
The rest you download, depending on your personal preferences.
For most of its existence, Judaism has functioned as an operating system – a legal system undergirding everything Jews do. In the last 200 years, though, as new ways of being Jewish have emerged, the operating system began to break down. It got bloated and bogged down by “feature creep” – too many rules, too many prayers, too many expectations. It became outdated – like running DOS in a Windows world – losing relevance with the majority of its users.
Some “patches” to the operating system have been attempted, such as more participation by women and greater integration into modern life. And a few Jewish streams have done the equivalent of “upgrading” the operating system as a whole.
But the real change is that Judaism has gone from being perceived as an all-encompassing operating system with required functionality to a set of optional apps which one “opens” – regularly, once in a while... or not at all.
If, in the past, the Jewish operating system implied keeping Shabbat, kashrut and family purity, now those are individual apps that must compete for our attention in a marketplace of other apps.
Apps don’t have to be stand-alone; the best way to think of Jewish apps is like the Jewish version of Google’s G-Suite, which includes Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and more. So while you can use just the mikve app or the High Holy Days apps, as an interconnected collection Jewish apps have more power and meaning. They share features, interfaces and data more effectively.
Now, to be sure, Judaism as an operating system is alive and well in the ultra-Orthodox world, where the very idea that elements of Jewish law could be conceived of as optional is laughable.
But for most Jews around the world, Judaism has long since stopped functioning as an operating system – the apps have taken over.
Libenson and Rofes ask on the Judaism Unbound podcast: Is this good or bad for the Jews? Does an app-oriented Judaism dilute Jewish tradition so much that users will eventually delete their apps? Or is this the only way for Judaism to survive in the 21st century? I’d like to ask a parallel question: How is the app analogy impacted when the operating system is not Judaism but the Jewish state? Let’s call it IOS – the Israel Operating System.
Much of the intra-Jewish conflict in Israel today is really about whether our operating system here is religion or the state. If the operating system is run by Halacha, there’s no need to think in terms of individual apps; everything’s included and mandatory.
But if the operating system is the state, there’s opportunity for different apps to compete. Will you download the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal, Secular Humanist or Orthodox version of the huppa app? Can all the Jewish conversion apps exchange “files” seamlessly? Are there benefits to downloading more than one version of an app, the way that I sometimes use Gmail and sometimes Microsoft Outlook? Is Zionism its own app or an integral part of IOS? Are cultural activities – Israeli theater, music, museums – apps, too? In a Jewish app world, the Western Wall egalitarian plaza dispute would vanish because there would be no single app for how to pray in Jerusalem.
There would be separate apps for kosher supervision from the Israeli rabbinate, the Hashgacha Pratit organization and others. Users would choose the ones they prefer and trust.
Jewish apps would be cross-platform, able to run on multiple operating systems, but I would argue that apps running on the Israeli Operating System would be the most efficient, able to take advantage of a common set of tools, APIs, and ready-made code.
Apps are democratic. If no one uses a particular app, you write a new one.
The development environment for Jewish apps must be more “open source” than proprietary. Jewish apps of the future should be crowdsourced as well as crowdfunded.
The goal then shifts from legislating Judaism to making our Jewish apps attractive enough so that people will want to keep them open all the time, on the front page of their virtual Jewish community smartphones.
Unbundling Jewish apps from the operating system won’t be easy – particularly in Israel, where religion and state have become hopelessly intertwined.
We may need the release of a substantially “new version” of the Israel Operating System, one that can run both old and new apps smoothly.
Crashes will be inevitable, although rebooting regularly should optimize performance.
But it can be done. We have no choice. We live in an app, app, app, app world.
The author is a freelance writer who specializes in technology, start-ups and the entrepreneurs behind them.