Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Two Free Software Releases!

Mozilla Firefox 1.5 and KDE 3.5 have been released! The Mozilla website for Firefox and Thunderbird distribution has moved from mozilla.org to mozilla.com. It looks like the .org site will be dedicated to development.

If you use the old Adblock extension, now would also be a good time to upgrade to Adblock Plus, which seems to have fewer reported compatibility issues with Firefox 1.5, and is also under more active development.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Conservative driving teshuvot: Fifty-five years later

I finally got my hands on a (paper) copy of the “Responsum on the Sabbath”, more commonly known as the “driving teshuva”, one of the most (in)famous, controversial, and misunderstood responsa of the American Conservative movement.

Before I analyze the answer, we should review the question, asked by an anonymous congregational rabbi, and answered in 1950:

One cannot serve a congregation for any time without being depressed and disheartened by the widespread disintegration of Sabbath observance among our people. This breakdown of one of the major institutions in Jewish life is too deep and too prevalent to be countered by preachment and exhortations. . . . They [the congregants, second- or higher- generation American Jews] are Jews who not only have been born into the modern, industrial world, but have also been educated in its institutions and have been mentally and psychologically shaped and moulded by its approaches, attitudes and activities. . . . On the other hand to overlook the spiritual alertness and interest as well as the healthy Jewish pride and desire for Jewish identification which motivate them, is to doom to atrophy those characteristics which hold forth greatest promise for the future of American Jewish life. . . . I therefore turn to you to ask for guidance in instructing my people as to our view as a movement on the Sabbath disciplines, our best thought as to its proper observance and a practical program by which its meaning may be better understood, its spirit more widely shared, its sanctities more greatly respected by our congregations that look to us as Conservative rabbis, for guidance and instruction.

The rabbi faced congregants who wanted to identify with Judaism, otherwise they would not have been in his synagogue in the first place. But still, they were unreceptive to exhortations to be more traditionally observant. He feared that pushing the matter would cause congregants to leave instead of bringing them closer to observance.

In fact, two answers were given to the same question (how unusual :-) ). The first by Rabbis Morris Adler, Jacob Agus and Theodore Friedman, and the second by Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser.

The Adler-Agus-Friedman teshuva is the one referred to as the “driving teshuva”. They identify these issues:

The Sabbath is central to Judaism (“A Sabbath-less Judaism is no Judaism”), and is just as or more important an institution now as it was to our ancestors. It serves the individual as a spiritually necessary “sanctuary in time” from the “drives for posession and dominion” that control modern life. The Sabbath serves to join families and the community together.

They diagnose the problems leading to the decline in Sabbath observance.
  1. Jews cannot operate economically only by interacting with other Jews. Therefore, they are forced into the six day work week (Monday-Saturday) to maintain a decent standard of living. An economic infrastructure making Sabbath-observance feasible was simply not in place.
  2. Previous immigrant generations had already started working on Shabbat, without any negative social consequences within the Jewish community.
  3. American Jews accepted the American ideal of economic advancement above strict observance to Jewish law. Therefore, a simple education campaign, preaching, or quoting halacha would do no good.
  4. The second generation of American Jews never even knew of proper Shabbat observance.1 If the trend continues, it can be expected that the Shabbat will disappear from American Judaism entirely.

While writing that halacha must be responsive to changing times and attitudes, they state without equivocation that

The preservation of the Sabbath spirit and of Sabbath practices is an indispensible element in any program for the Jewish future.

Therefore, the teshuva presents itself only as an emergency measure:

Emphasis on this immediate program should in no wise militate against the ultimate objective — the cessation of all gainful employment on the Sabbath. It is in the convinction that only the immediate can lead to the ultimate that the following program is proposed.

The “program” calls for the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue to encourage Conservative Jews to acknowledge the sanctity of the Sabbath with certain changes to their regular behavior. They encourage cleaning the house before Shabbat,.lighting candles, saying kiddush, blessing children, and singing zemirot. In addition, they encourage synagogue attendance at least once on Shabbat and studying Torah. And, they should discourage “all activities that are not made absolutely necessary by the unavoidable pressures of life and that are not in keeping with the Sabbath spirit, such as shopping, household work, sewing, strenuous physical exercise, etc.”
And, finally, they arrive at the issue of driving:

Refraining from the use of a motor vehicle is an important aid in the maintenance of the Sabbath spirit of repose. Such restraint aids, moreover, in keeping the members of the family together on the Sabbath. However where a family resides beyond reasonable walking distance from the synagogue, the use of a motor vehicle for the purpose of synagogue attendance shall in no wise be construed as a violation of the Sabbath but, on the contrary, such attendance shall be deemed an expression of loyalty to our faith. (emphasis added)

The commonly-heard Orthodox response, that synagogue attendance is not mandatory, is then answered. Previously, the teshuva had compared the average contemporary American Conservative Jew to the Talmudic תינוק שנשבה בין העכו"ם ושכח עיקר שבת - A child kidnapped and lost among the non-Jews, who had forgotten the practices of the Sabbath.2 By their logic, synagogue attendance is the bare thread hanging these Jews to their Jewish identity. Without it, they may lose that connection and they would certainly not pray on their own at home.

They go on to make a halachic argument about why use of electric lighting and cars may not be considered to be direct m'lachot (prohibited creative work), using some technical features to have their prohibitions covered under the category of shevut, rabbinic enactments meant to guard from actual performance of m'lachot.3. They base their heter (allowance) on three basic principles: (1) אין שבות במקדש, that these prohibitions do not apply to the work of the Temple (note the capital letter there). (2) That certain public obligations override the Sabbath. (3) And, finally, they claim the right to negate those rabbinic prohibitions in a specific time and place. The arguments themselves seemed to me like relatively weak grasps at straws, but, it is pretty clear that, unlike the popular perception, the teshuva's prime purpose was not to permit driving and use of electricity. It was, instead, to provide a little wiggle room for rabbis to feel comfortable “allowing” their congregants to come to shul, while the massive reeducation plan takes place.

Perhaps the most interesting point of the Adler-Agus-Friedman driving teshuva is that its ultimate target audience was the congregational rabbis, not their congregants. In my reading, in order to take advantage of the heter, one must be too ignorant to understand the heter!

The Bokser teshuva empahasizes that the purpose of the Sabbath prohibitions is to force increased spirituality by negating mundane activities. He picks out the prohibition on travel, in particular, as a way to keep people near their homes, where the Sabbath spirit can be fulfilled to its fullest extent. He acknowledges that the travel prohibitions were set aside, even for practical purposes, citing the varying Talmudic understandings of long ocean-going voyages. He then asks whether the modern circumstances warrant overturning the prohibitions. He advises the congregational rabbis:

Jewish tradition knows many periods in our history when widespread violation of law was followed by a new-won respect for it. One thinks of the tribute paid Rab that prior to his coming Sura was “an unfenced area, but that he fenced it in,” making it a community of Torah observant people. . . . We owe it in any case to those who desire to observe the Sabbath and find in it its sanctifying influence, to advise them as to what is sound.

Bokser adds something interesting and relevant:

It is fair to add that in many cases the dilemma [of being unable to walk to synagogue] is not altogether real. People who feel they must travel could and do often walk greater distances on an occasional stroll. Our problem has become acute because, with the prevalence of the automobile, the art of walking has simply disappeared from many people and they use their cars for the shortest distances.4

Bokser's answer, though, is not totally prohibitive. He advises rabbis not to turn away congregants who feel they have no choice but to drive to shul. His ultimate answer, in fact, calls on a principle of “individual autonomy” for this particular Sabbath violation. Rabbis should recognize that an individual Jew will make decisions that are not always in accordance with halacha, and the rabbis should have a “sympathetic understanding of the facts which have led him to his decision”. But, they should not attempt to alleviate the guilt that Bokser presumed prompted the original question. According to Bokser, the guilt is there because the demands of observance are incompatible with their practice. He suggests that the good 'ol Jewish guilt (ok, not in those words) could encourage an individual to return to traditional practice. Removing it might move him further away.5

It's been 55 years since the driving teshuvot, and, since then, the place of American Jews has changed dramatically. The suburbanization (an exurbanization) of America has continued and the Jews have followed the general trend. While Orthodox Jews have made for themselves suburban enclaves, and built the institutions near their populations, Conservative Jews tend to live in all the far-flung corners of suburbia. The pressures working against Shabbat observance have changed. For most Americans, the direct economic disincentive to Shabbat observance is no longer applicable. Americans are used to the five-day, 40 hour work-week. In the retail sector, stores are now open on Sunday, so, Jews on six-day work-weeks can frequently work then instead of on Saturday. The pressures have become the suburban pressures of keeping up with the proverbial Joneses, little league, and so on. As it appears to me, the incentive is now mostly the Jews' social place among non-Jews, instead of the previous major economic and social causes of the emergency that prompted the enactment. Bokser warned:

If [travelling were] allowed, it would become regular, continuous. It would then be difficult to distinguish between one kind of travel and another.

A classical slippery-slope argument. Friedman had an opportunity to respond to it when the teshuva was reevaluated in 1961. Then, the question was asked whether the 1950 teshuva permitted driving to another synagogue on Shabbat for the celebration of a boy becoming bar mitzvah. The answer, given by Friedman, was emphatically negative. He stressed that no exceptions should be made to the ruling that one may only drive to one's own regular synagogue, envisioning a slippery slope where once the CJLS would budge on this restriction, permitted driving would become a regular occurrence. Has the USCJ upheld its part of the bargain? I don't know what happened in the 1950's. But, now, there is no major campaign to restore Sabbath observance, and, sure enough, most Conservative Jews are not observant. Many even think that certain levels of Shabbat observance are uniquely “Orthodox,” and shy away from them on the grounds of identity politics.6 Sadly, Bokser's slope began to slip with the first permissive teshuva. How many Conservative Jews today know that the movement allows driving on Shabbat? (I will bet the answer will be a great majority) How many know that they may only drive to their own synagogue and back? (Probably a small minority) How many know that they may only take advantage of the permission if they do not live in “reasonable walking distance” from the synagogue? (Even smaller?)

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1 An interesting point is made that Jews may be unwilling to begin Shabbat observance because they would feel like hypocrites if they started some observing some aspects, but not the whole thing. Strangely enough, I have heard this kind of twisted logic more from Orthodox Jews than Conservative Jews.

2 It is pretty clear that this categorization also includes the ones who go to shul.

3 The logic used permit starting and running engine, an act that involves starting a fire, was that the prohibited act is in the use of fire for cooking, heating, lighting, or production of ash. In a car, the fire is used to locomote, which was not envisioned by the Torah/rabbis when the prohibition was enacted. Incidentally, this logic prohibits the use of a the car's heating system on Shabbat.

4 Standard suburban construction of predictably winding roads with rows of houses (and no sidewalks!) well separated from the nearest commercial district certainly contributed to this one. And the obesity epidemic?

5 Note that the question asked here was referring to normal, healthy people. I am not sure if Bokser would have granted a heter of a different sort to the elderly, sick or infirm.

6 Sometimes, the easiest way to convince a Jew not to do something is to tell him that those other Jews do it, and vice versa.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Windows easy to use?

Lots of people refuse to try GNU/Linux because their Windows is so easy to use. Justin at The Mighty Linux Blog shows just how easy it is. Is it possible that people have just gotten so used to one set of quirks and irritations that they can't handle a system with fewer?

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Thoughts on the Sony rootkit

If you purchased a Sony/BMG music CD in the past 8 months and played it on a Windows computer, your computer may be infected with malware. It turns out that the CDs were installing copy protection software1 on users computers. The software would prevent the music on the CDs from being copied by adding noise to attempts to copy them. It would also interfere with other uses of the CD drive. The software would integrate itself into the system and remain on users' computers after the CD was removed. From then on, it would hide its existence. This type of software is known as a rootkit, with origins in the Unix world, where the administrator is known as “root”. Attempts to uninstall the software (once found) could result in the CD drive becoming inoperable. To determine if your computer might be infected, you can read this article from the Electronic Frontier Foundation here. If you are infected, do not use Sony's own removal tool. Firstly, it asks for personally identifiable information (which they really need in order to fix the computer that they broke), including the right to spam you. Secondly, it introduces another security vulnerability that can leave your computer vulnerable to attack from the Internet.

Here are a few things we learn from this incident:

The Windows autorun feature is a security threat. Back in the days of DOS, one of the primary vectors for computer virus infection was the boot sector virus. They kept themselves on the boot sectors of hard disks and floppy disks. Whenever an infected computer was booted with the disk in the drive, the virus would activate and put itself into memory. It would then write itself to the boot sectors of every other disk that was put into the machine. It should come as a surprise that CD-autorun viruses haven't been all that common. The primary reason is that CD's are once-writable media (so, they're not good vectors for infection), and most CD's are burned “at the factory.” But, now that every new computer comes with a CD or DVD writer, why shouldn't malware writers start taking advantage of it?2

But, now, it should be apparent that even corporations with well-known names can't be trusted. They have their own agendas, and protecting their own intellectual property is more important to them than your privacy or security. Computer security (read: data, identity, and personal information) are entirely in your own hands. Incidentally, this kind of thing is not a new practice. Some of the 4.0 versions AOL Instant Messenger had borderline spyware (and still have annoying adware) bundled with them. When I first signed up for Comcast High Speed Internet service, it came with a CD that (1) registered your MAC address on the Comcast network [that's the necessary step], and (2) installed software called “BroadJump Client Foundation”, that was certainly not required to use the service. There is still debate on the Internet as to whether it's spyware.

Many Windows users rely on antivirus software to keep them safe from this type of malware. The Sony rootkit shows that antivirus software is not as good as it claims to be.
Symantec makes the claim that Norton Antivirus contains “Bloodhound technology” that “detects new and unknown viruses by analyzing an executable file’s structure, behavior, and other attributes such as programming logic, computer instructions, and any data that is contained in the file.”
Similar claims are made by other antivirus providers. And, yet, it took eight months for a live computer professional (Mark Russinovich) and the antivirus company F-Secure to find and characterize the Sony rootkit.

A more malicious possibility was strongly suggested (but unproven) on Groklaw:

The creator of the copy-protection software, a British company called First 4 Internet, said the cloaking mechanism was not a risk, and that its team worked closely with big antivirus companies such as Symantec to ensure that was the case. The cloaking function was aimed at making it difficult, though not impossible, to hack the content protection in ways that have been simple in similar products, the company said.

If this is true, then the big antivirus companies may have been complicit in allowing the infection of their customers' computers. It makes me wonder if there is any code in the rootkit or in the versions of the antivirus software from before the backlash that specifically makes the rootkit invisible to antivirus software.

By the way, other Sony-BMG CD's that don't have the XCP rootkit have other DRM spyware known as SunnComm MediaMax. MediaMax does tell you it's going to be installed (it presents you with a EULA), but it installs itself before the EULA is accepted! It includes an incomplete uninstaller that leaves its DRM driver intact and active. And, this one runs on Macs too (but, because Macs don't have the autorun feature, you have to be trusting enough to install it yourself in order for it to infect you).

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1 aka, DRM, Alternately known as “Digital Rights Managment” or “Digital Restrictions Management”, depending on whether the idea appeals to the speaker. (back)
2 Another factor is that the Internet happens to be a much more effective vector for malware transmission. (back)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Because Conservative Jews can't read Hebrew?

From Gil Student's blog:

R. Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer writes about why he thinks it is inappropriate for a Conservative Jew to be ordained as a rabbi. I am assuming that he left it in Hebrew intentionally so I will not translate it.

The gist seems to be that Orthodox Jews are strict constructionists of "Torah" as a "national Constitution," and Conservative Jews aren't. Additionally, they may believe (gasp!) that both the oral and written Torahs weren't literally given directly to the hand of Moshe. Therefore, Conservative Judaism is a "religion," it just isn't Judaism, and thus, Conservative Jews can't be [Orthodox] rabbis.

I feel a huge wave of loss going through the Conservative Jewish community now. Really... :-D

UPDATE: The original author (R. Bechhofer) replied in a comment that he didn't translate it himself because it was written for a Hebrew journal, and he didn't have a chance to translate it. I still think this is funny.

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

And they just get crazier

Via (GrokLaw)

The first ever storyline patent has been applied for by Knight and Associates. You can read it for yourself at patent application number 20050244804.
If this patent application gets approved, we are surely on the way towards owned thoughts, Maybe that's what it's like to live in an “ownership society”.

And, now, here's the clincher. What technological precedent does Knight use to back up the patentability of a storyline? You guessed it... software patents!

[0011] The fact that each particular expression (e.g., a movie) of a broad artistic invention (e.g., an original plot) is subject to copyright protection is not unique to artistic inventions. For example, the software code on a patented software-containing disk may be copyrighted. The defining criterion separating the subject matter of patents from copyrights is not whether the subject matter is related to art--see the amusing counterexample of U.S. Pat. No. 6,213,778 to Cohen. Rather, the defining criterion is whether the subject matter is a broad concept practically applied or used (patent), or a particular instance, embodiment, expression, or performance of the broad concept (copyright).

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