The Jewish Talmud is a remarkable object. It is the product of hundreds of years of intense, rigorous, and highly formal debate and scholarship. It has served as the backbone of the Jewish people. The trunk of the tree.
The Talmud has a very interesting property, the inspection of which will prove illuminating.
First, one of the fundamental rules of Talmudic scholarship is that a recent scholar cannot contradict, reject, or overrule an older scholar. If a recent scholar takes issue with an historical analysis, the only avenue available to them is to reinterpret the intention of the older scholar. This chain of interpretation goes back, in an unbroken chain, to the first commentaries and ultimately to the old testament and the ten commandments.
As such, one can in theory always trace a current value, decision, or opinion back through history. Further, a concept or idea cannot be introduced arbitrarily, but must be rooted and stem from an existing concept or idea. Similarly, once an idea has been accepted, it can never be fully rejected, only reinterpreted.
The quality of the interpretations, as well as the intention of the interpreters, is a subject of ongoing debate and, well, interpretation. But this property in general holds.
This has several important implications.
First, there is no possibility of complete revolution. A “revolution” in Judaism, defined as a complete rejection of what has come before and the attempt to institute a new faith on entirely new foundations, could never occur. If such a thing were attempted, those individuals would be seen as a new sect, ultimately disconnected from primary Judaism. The core of Judaism, defined as those who adhere to the teachings of the Talmud and associated texts, is fundamentally connected to this canon. Jews hold the Talmud as the primary authority. No one is forcing the Jews to respect the Talmud; it is simply that the study of the Talmud and its instruction is the common denominator for the Jewish identity. Any individual Jew is, at any time, free to completely reject the entirety of the Talmud. Such a person, however, would cease to be accepted by their community. In this way, the Talmud coordinates the self-identifying community of Jews.
Second, the faith is capable of substantial dynamism. Interpretations can be fanciful and radical. Although new work must be based on historical scholarship, it is often the case that scholars will not agree with their contemporaries. In this way, the faith subdivides into movements, each respecting a particular strand of interpretation.
Third, there is no need for a central authority. The extent to which any individual person holds themselves accountable to these laws and interpretations is, of course, a personal decision. Orthodox Jews take these laws very literally, and yet various schools of the orthodoxy have varying interpretations of some of the more ambiguous implementations of the faith. The Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and other more progressive flavors permit more liberal general interpretations – interpretations which are, of course, rejected by the orthodoxy. The key here is that this is a single canon, to which all Jews can be seen as being in relation. Particularly relevant is that while inter-movement relationships are undefined and may be nonexistent or even hostile, the overall coordination of the movements is implicitly achieved.
Fourth, the faith as a whole can never be destroyed, as the Talmud functions also as a memory. Regardless of what may occur to some or even a majority of the adherents of the faith, the survivors will be able to rebuild the community to within an arbitrary precision. This implication is well-documented by historical experience.
Fifth, the Talmud is “bigger” and “wiser” than any individual. Considering Plato’s “Philosopher King”, we observe that individual humans are insufficient for the task. A shared, dynamic history of thought, however, might be. As the product of a history of reason and debate, the Talmud represents a cultural history orders of magnitude larger than any individual person. It has a fundamentally different, unique, and very functionally-relevant ontology.
Sixth and relatedly, the Talmud then exhibits “maximal intelligence”, in the sense that the unbroken chain of interpretation represents more overall experience than any record which allowed for erasure and editing.
Let us briefly consider the similarities and differences between Talmud-based governance and the kind of Democratic governance exemplified by the United States.
In both cases, we have the principle that decisions must occur within set boundaries. In the case of the Talmud, those boundaries are historical scholarship and foundational texts. In the case of the United States, those boundaries are the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
In both cases, there are established mechanisms for making changes. In the case of the Talmud, changes are made via extrapolation and interpretation of past work. In the case of the United States, changes are made via a legislative process.
A salient difference is that in the case of the United States, future changes are disconnected from past changes; if the basic boundaries are respected, then anything goes. It is technically possible to “reinterpret” the basic boundaries by amending the constitution, but this seems highly unlikely.
As such, we see the Talmudic process as having more gradual changes, while the US process sways more easily in changing political winds.
Of course, much of this difference can be rooted in the fact that the United States must secure territory, and relies on the use of force to enforce rules. As a faith, the Jews permit less well-defined borders. The United States and the Jewish people, like all states and religious communities, are entities of a fundamentally different nature. As such, they seem to necessitate fundamentally different approaches to change and control. Religion is currently (although not historically) an opt-in experience; citizenship typically is not.
Yet, we see some shared principles in both forms of governance. The differences appear to be in large part necessary differences coming from the fundamentally different natures of these entities, in particular with regards to group membership. As such, we should not necessarily feel obligated to reconcile them.
The Talmud, its properties, and role in Jewish life provides a crucial case study for those interested in effective means of coordinating large groups of people absent a central authority. The fundamental mechanic is the strict requirement that future change emerges from past work, prohibiting both the introduction of the completely novel and the rejection of any history. The historical experience of the Jews has shown that, if put in motion upon adequate foundations, such a mechanic is sufficient for the decentralized coordination of the activity of millions of people across time and space.
Recently, we have seen the emergence of technology which shares this property. The Blockchain, first described in the 2008 paper “Bitcon: A Peer to Peer Electronic Cash System”, is in essence a decentralized public ledger, in which anything can be recorded and made publically available. The principal mechanic of the Blockchain is that future entries must build upon past entries, and that any entry in the chain, once accepted, can never be deleted. In the words of the author, Satoshi Nakamoto:
The only way to confirm the absence of a transaction is to be aware of all transactions. In the mint based model, the mint was aware of all transactions and decided which arrived first. To accomplish this without a trusted party, transactions must be publicly announced, and we need a system for participants to agree on a single history of the order in which they were received.
The Blockchain is thus a decentralized authority in which all new changes must be a continuation of past work. As such, the example of the Talmud suggests that such a tool could be used for the effective decentralized coordination of large groups of people across time and space, without the need for a central authority or any force.
In order for the Blockhain to be used in this way, it will be necessary for a large group of people to regard the Blockchain as an authority on a wide variety of issues. As in the case of Jews and the Talmud, the Talmud is an authority because Jews see it as an authority. In an important sense, this is arbitrary. Fortunately, this sense suggests that there is no fundamental shortcoming which prevents a Blockchain from serving a similar purpose.
This leads us to some interesting questions:
What kind of information should this Blockchain contain?
How should this Blockchain be updated?
What content, if any, should be placed at the base of the Blockchain?
As a first pass, it would seem as though this Blockchain should function as a repository of social values. As the community defined by the Blockchain adapts, and external circumstances change, these values would be updated. At any point, any member of the community could inspect the history of these values and the reasoning for their changes. As time passed, this record would become a deep and strong foundation for that community, and a trusted authority on the values and purpose of that community. Coordination without an authority. Updates to this Blockchain would occur on a rough consensus basis, allowing for the possibility of a split of the Blockchain at some point if there emerged a major disagreement over the direction of the community.
Given the earlier discussion of Democracy, it does not seem at this time that the Blockchain can be used effectively to govern a state; issues of control and security seem to preclude the rational, gradual, consensus-based change process we are discussing. However, it does seem as though the Blockchain could serve as an effective authority and memory for a self-selected community with shared values and without borders.
One could point to other self-selecting communities with rough consensus-based decision-making processes, and observe that they succeed while employing very different decision-making systems. The Python community, with BDFL and a PEP-based system of improvement, has been pretty effective. Yet a series of disconnected proposals is ontologically dissimilar to an unbroken chain of decisions. The importance of this dissimilarity is to be determined.
It would be very exciting to be a part of such a community.
Update (Feb 1)
I shared this post with a few friends of mine with relevant domain knowledge. They gave valuable feedback and raised additional questions. Their responses are replicated below.
From a Professor of Political Economy:
Interesting read–but I wonder about practicality. The beauty of many societies is being able to effect rapid change. The way you lay this out, suggests that this may be a lot more difficult. It may be a way to insure calmer legislation, etc. But it doesn’t move really seem to me to lead to faster movement of anything.
From a Rabbi:
This was fascinating. Thanks for sharing. You know, I think the question I’m sitting with is, given decentralized systems of law or commerce, what role does the organizer or covener have, and how much authority is in that role. The Talmud, for example, is a collection of many voices, but someone did the collecting. The work of that someone, the editor (or likely, editors) is what academics are particularly fascinated with these days. So, too, with any wiki. There is someone who hosts it. How much control do they have? And I imagine that there are also decisionmakers with a Blockchain. What does it mean, then, to be at the center of a decentralizes system?