Mar 30, 2009

New Features on ShefaNetwork.org: The Conservative Movement Dreaming from Within

New Features on ShefaNetwork.org: The Conservative Movement Dreaming from Within

Shalom Chevreh,

Just in time for Pesach, the ShefaNetwork site has some great new features!  In addition to the newer Jewish Holidays page, the older Shefa Pesach Page is also available (note: not all links on this page are current)!  The new Magan Tzedek Hagadah insert is also available at Shefanetwork.org

I'm very happy to share that Hayom: The Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism has chosen, for now, to have certain messages hosted on the Shefa website - see www.shefanetwork.org/hayom!  This group began with 25 lay leaders and rabbis from large Conservative shuls, largely to make sure the message had the attention of USCJ leadership - now the invitation is open to all shuls in the Movement to add their voice to making sure our next strategic step is inclusive and transparent, truly a synergistic message for the ShefaNetwork chevreh!  Many have noted that all the rabbis in the original coalition are male - that is not the message.  Nor is the hope that "big" shuls will have the dominant voice at the table.  The coalition is growing every day, and is meant to include everyone.  Please make sure that all our leaders are included, and encourage your rabbis and presidents to talk about joining HaYom!  To join HaYom, please be in touch with Antoinette Nuňez at anunez@ansheemet.org

You might also download ShefaJournal 5769, which focuses on USCJ and the Future of Conservative Judaism (available on the ShefaNetwork homepage).  It was distributed to all members of the HaYom coalition as a demonstration that good ideas and passionate advocates are already here in the Conservative Movement, just waiting to be invited to share their dreams!

This year in Israel!  The ShefaNetwork trip to Israel this August, cosponsored by Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, CA already has 30 participantsThere is only room for 10 more participants, and all the documents (itinerary, registration, pricing) are available on the Shefa Israel Page.  Welcome aboard!  This should be a wonderful educational trip, full of new experiences and friendships!

There have been general updates to the GLBT Inclusion Page and the Torah Resources Page - and Shefaniks are always adding content and sharpening the way it's communicated!

May this Pesach be one of liberation, and of peace,
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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Mar 29, 2009

haaretz: Palestinian youth orchestra disbanded over concert for Holocaust survivors


w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m

Last update - 18:00 29/03/2009

Palestinian youth orchestra disbanded over concert for Holocaust survivors

By The Associated Press

Palestinian authorities disbanded a youth orchestra from a West Bank refugee camp after it played for a group of Holocaust survivors in Israel, a local official said on Sunday.

Adnan Hindi of the Jenin camp called the Holocaust a political issue and accused conductor Wafa Younis of unknowingly dragging the children into a political dispute.

He added that Younis has been barred from the camp and the apartment where she taught the 13-member Strings of Freedom orchestra has been boarded up.

"She exploited the children," said Hindi, the head of the camp's popular committee, which takes on municipal duties. "She will be forbidden from doing any activities.... We have to protect our children and our community."

The move highlights the sensitivity of many Palestinians over acknowledging Jewish suffering, fearing it would weaken their own historical grievances against Israel.

"The Holocaust happened, but we are facing a similar massacre by the Jews themselves," Hindi said. "We lost our land, and we were forced to flee and we've lived in refugee camps for the past 50 years."

Six million Jews were killed in the Nazi Holocaust of World War II, and hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors emigrated to Israel after the war.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were expelled from their homes in the war that followed Israel's creation - an event known by Palestinians as their Naqba, or catastrophe.

Kaynan Rabino, director of Ruach Tova, or Good Spirit, the charity that organized the event, said he was disappointed to hear about the reaction in Jenin.

"They approached us and volunteered to play. Wafa knew the orchestra would play before Holocaust survivors," he said. "We wanted to bring people's hearts closer together and if they are against that then that's a real shame."

Hindi said Palestinians - especially in his hardscrabble cinder block refugee camp - had suffered at the hands of Israel and demanded their grievances be acknowledged first.

The refugee camp in the northern West Bank was the scene of a deadly April 2002 battle where 23 Israeli soldiers were killed, alongside 53 Palestinian militants and civilians, in several days of battle. The clash destroyed swathes of the refugee camp.

The camp's residents are descendants of Palestinians who were displaced during Israel's war of independence.

The youths, aged 11 to 18, of the modest orchestra performed a goodwill concert for elderly survivors in the Israeli town of Holon Wednesday.

The event, held at the Holocaust Survivors Center in the central Israeli town, was part of Good Deeds Day, an annual event run by an organization connected to billionaire Shari Arison, Israel's richest woman.

Hindi said the children's parents were not aware that the orchestra would play for Holocaust survivors.

Younis was not immediately available for comment Sunday. But as the controversy erupted over the weekend, she said Saturday that her intention was purely to perform music. "We didn't do anything wrong," she said.

At last Wednesday's performance, most of the Holocaust survivors did not know the youths were Palestinians from the West Bank, a rare sight in Israel these days. And the youths had no idea they were performing for people who lived through Nazi genocide - or even what the Holocaust was.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

CNN: "Top Jewish groups denounce cartoon about Gaza"

CNN.comTop Jewish groups denounce cartoon about Gaza

Find this article at: http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/03/26/controversial.cartoon/index.html
and here is a link to the cartoon itself: http://www.gocomics.com/patoliphant/2009/03/25/

(CNN) -- Two leading Jewish watchdog groups are denouncing a prominent cartoonist's illustration about Israel's offensive in Gaza, saying it uses anti-Semitic imagery.

The Anti-Defamation League, which has been fighting anti-Semitism since it was founded in 1913, called the syndicated cartoon by Pulitzer Prize-winning Pat Oliphant "hideously anti-Semitic."

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which, among other things, fights anti-Semitism and educates people about the Holocaust, said "the cartoon mimics the venomous anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazi and Soviet eras."

Published Wednesday in newspapers and on the Internet, the cartoon shows the small figure of a woman, labeled Gaza, carrying a child. She is being pursued by a headless, jackbooted figure wielding a sword, marching in an apparent goose-step and pushing a fanged Jewish star on a wheel.

The Anti-Defamation League said the cartoon used "Nazi-like imagery" and a "hateful evocation of the Star of David."

Abraham H. Foxman, the ADL's national director, said the cartoon's "outlandish and offensive use of the Star of David in combination with Nazi-like imagery is hideously anti-Semitic."

"It employs Nazi imagery by portraying Israel as a jack-booted, goose-stepping headless apparition," Foxman said. "The implication is of an Israeli policy without a head or a heart. Israel's defensive military operation to protect the lives of its men, women and children who are being continuously bombarded by Hamas rocket attacks has been turned on its head to show the victims as heartless, headless aggressors."

The Wiesenthal Center, which also issued its statement Wednesday, said it urged The New York Times Web site and other Web sites to remove the cartoon.

"There is nothing about Oliphant's cartoon not meant to denigrate and demonize the Jewish state, from the headless goose-stepping soldier to the horrific depiction of the Star of David about to devour a cowering innocent Gazan woman holding a baby," Rabbi Marvin Hier, the group's dean, and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the group's associate dean, said in a joint statement.

"The imagery in this cartoon mimics the venomous anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazi and Soviet eras. It is cartoons like this that inspired millions of people to hate in the 1930's and help set the stage for the Nazi genocide," the statement said.

A spokeswoman for Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes Oliphant's work, issued a statement defending him, saying he, "like all editorial cartoonists, uses his art to comment on important issues of the day widely reported in the worldwide media -- in this case, the conflict over Gaza. That his cartoons sometimes spark intense debate is a testament to his talent."

Universal said no media outlet had informed the syndicate that it removed the cartoon, but "Oliphant's clients are not contractually bound to inform us."

A New York Times spokeswoman said, "We did not run the cartoon in the newspaper, nor do we plan to do so."

She said NYTimes.com has, by contract with uclick.com, an "Oliphant" button on the cartoons page. "Yesterday, those who clicked on it saw the cartoon you mentioned, which is now relegated to the Oliphant archive," she said.

Imagery and rhetoric comparing Israel to Nazis have been deployed by Israel's persistent critics, who decry the Jewish state's treatment of Palestinians as oppressive and brutal. Israel and its supporters defend the state as humane and say it has properly defended itself against attacks.

There has been sharp criticism of Israel's offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza who launched rockets into southern Israeli towns.

Human Rights Watch said Wednesday the Israeli military's firing of white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas during the offensive "was indiscriminate and is evidence of war crimes," a claim denied by Israel.

Israel has said that Hamas militants situated themselves among civilians during the offensive.

Oliphant, who won the Pulitzer in 1967, has been a dominant figure in the editorial cartoon world.

His work has been distributed since 1980 by Universal Press Syndicate, which calls the Australian native one of the "sharpest, most daring practitioners" among editorial cartoonists. He has received many honors, and his cartoons have been exhibited across the world.

"In 1998, the Library of Congress commemorated the acquisition of 60 of his works with a special exhibition at the Library's Great Hall," according to an Oliphant biography on the Universal Web site.

This isn't the first time Oliphant's cartoons have drawn criticism.

The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in 2005 "wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle and Universal Press Syndicate to communicate concern over racist depictions of Arabs," according to the group's Web site, and the Asian American Journalists Association criticized offensive stereotypes in cartoons in 1999, 2001 and 2007.

Debates over offensive editorial cartoons are not uncommon.

Keith Woods, dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida, was asked to comment on the reaction to the cartoon, whether the cartoon was improper, and at what point in the editorial process an editor can say a product has gone too far.

He said he understands the positions the Jewish groups and Israeli policy critics bring to the table.

He said he believes Oliphant is saying that "Israel is behaving toward the Palestinians the way the Nazis behaved toward the Jews" and that he is stating an opinion shared by many in the Middle East and the world.

"I believe that like the caricatures they are, editorial cartoons by their nature exaggerate their messages, so I don't think Oliphant is suggesting a one-to-one comparison. So I get the message, instead, that Israel is acting brutally toward the Palestinians."

He also believes the ADL and the Wiesenthal Center "are saying that the cartoon is at least doing unintentional harm (if not more calculated harm)."

"I see their point. There are symbols -- and the Nazi extermination of the Jews is surely one of them -- that can only truly be analogized to their equals. Unadulterated evil compared with unadulterated evil. Israel's ongoing battles with its Arab neighbors may be many things, but it is not The Final Solution."

As for the question of how news organizations should handle and discuss such a cartoon, Woods said that "Oliphant clearly has the right to provoke or offend. The question for him is: Do you truly wish to conflate a complex, historic conflict with one of the most evil acts in history? And for the newspapers that carry the cartoon -- and their behavior here is equally open to critique -- do you wish to perpetuate such a comparison?"

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Mar 27, 2009

an invitation to join HaYom: The Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism (inline and attached)

HaYom: The Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism


Dear Hevre:

The Hayom Coalition is made up of the leadership of congregations across the United States and Canada for the purpose of transforming the United Synagogue and ultimately the Conservative Movement.   While there are large numbers of creative and well functioning congregations of all sizes that exemplify the very best of our approach to Jewish life, there is also a sense that we are failing as a movement.  We launched the Hayom Coalition (see full list of names below) out of a true sense of urgency:  the time to act is now.  Our name was chosen to convey the notion that the work that we undertake cannot wait until tomorrow!   We are certain that synagogues and their leadership have the power to not only challenge the institutional structure of the Conservative Movement, but to bring our considerable resources, creativity and expertise to bear in order to effect real and lasting change.  As a first step, 25 large congregations were chosen based upon the size of their dues obligation in order to create a climate in which the leaders of the USCJ would come to the table quickly and begin a dialogue.   Now that our initial meeting has taken place, we invite all congregations that affiliate with the Conservative Movement to join in this effort. A serious conversation about the future of our movement is taking place and we want all of the constituencies of our movement to be represented.

 At this challenging moment, we need to have a synagogue organization that truly speaks to the needs of our congregations and community on every level, both here and in Israel.  What should the synagogue look like?  How can it best be supported and promoted?  How do we seed new congregations?  How do we reach the many people who could be part of our movement but do not find their way in? How can we re-engineer ourselves based upon new approaches that are emerging in the Jewish world?  The members of the Hayom Coalition believe that the answers to these questions and many others will be found in a dynamic partnership between the heads of our institutions and the leadership of our synagogues. I am pleased that Rabbi Menachem Creditor has volunteered to help further develop the Hayom Coalition.  

On Thursday March 19th, the initial members of the Hayom Coalition met with the leadership of the USCJ in New York.  The meeting was serious, candid and positive.  Our group made it clear that we see ourselves as stake holders in the USCJ and that we feel a true sense of urgency.   More importantly we intend to partner with the leadership of the USCJ on every level.  We are asking that:

·        A strategic planning committee be put together immediately and have one year to complete its work.

·        the process be transparent in every way and  seek input from leadership and grassroots

·         a professional be hired to manage the process

·        clear benchmarks and timelines be established

·        the USCJ give us an answer within 30 days of the meeting

Finally, the congregations involved have committed $25,000.00 to begin this vital effort.   It is imperative that this national conversation have a good cross section of synagogues, and the benefit of their leadership and perspectives. We envision an inclusive process of gathering ideas, data, and feedback, not only for the benefit of our strategic plan, but also to bring us closer together for the ultimate renewal of our movement.    

If you and your congregation are interested in joining us we ask that you include the President of your congregation.     In addition, we ask that a monetary contribution be made to Hayom in order to help in this effort.  The initial larger congregations are each committing 1000.00; depending on the size of your congregation and its means, we would suggest a contribution anywhere between $250.00 and $1000.00.  We will use these monies to fund, in conjunction with the USCJ the type of long range plan that our movement so richly deserves.  Please send your name, email, as well as the name of your appointed lay person, and that of your congregation to Antoinette Nuňez, my Administrative Assistant, at anunez@ansheemet.org 

Friends, this is an urgent moment in our history, together we can seize the day!   



Michael Siegel             




Rabbi Richard Camras

Barry Wolfe


Rabbi Mark Cooper

Barry Bearg

Peter Drucker

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove

Steven M. Friedman


Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Jeff Rosenbloom


Rabbi Alexander Davis

Marshall Lehman


Rabbi Ed Feinstein

Andrew Hyman


Rabbi Wayne Franklin

Nathan Beraha


Rabbi Baruch Frydman Kohl



Rabbi Bill Gershon

Hylton Jonas


Rabbi Felipe Goodman

David Steinberg


Rabbi Bill Hamilton

Noah Roffman


Rabbi David Kalender

Edward Weiss


Rabbi Joseph Krakoff

Brian Hermelin


Rabbi Harold Kravitz

Judy Cook


Rabbi Alan Lucas

Susan Zelman


Rabbi Jack Moline

Evelina Moulder


Rabbi Joel Rembaum

Diane Shapiro


Rabbi David Rosen

Stuart Wilson


Rabbi Phil Scheim

Carrie Orfus Gelkopf


Rabbi Michael Siegel

Jay Goodgold


Rabbi Alan Silverstein

Bill Lipsey


Rabbi Barry Starr

Arthur Spar


Rabbi David Steinhardt

Roger Leavy

Fred Weiss

Rabbi Gordon Tucker

Mark Zeichner


Rabbi Steve Weiss

Dick Myers


Rabbi Irvin Wise

Nina Paul


Rabbi David Wolpe

Kurt Smalberg


Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin

Fred Wolfson


Hazzan Jacob Ben Zion Mendelson



Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi



Hazzan David Propis




Mar 26, 2009

Time for a merger?: East Bay Jewish leaders push for ‘new relationship’ between federations

Time for a merger?: East Bay Jewish leaders push for 'new relationship' between federations

Thursday, March 26, 2009 | by dan pine

Twenty-nine rabbis and Jewish community leaders from across the Bay Area have signed a letter urging closer ties between the East Bay and S.F.-based Jewish Community Federations. They even threw in the "m" word: merger.

The March 18 letter was sent to Rabbi James Brandt, interim executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, and to that federation's board of directors.

BA merger creditor, menachem
Menachem Creditor
The letter calls for "a new relationship between the East Bay Federation and the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation, including the possibility of a merger. We are writing in strong support of engaging in this urgently needed trans-bay discussion."

The letter goes on to cite the sagging economy, as well as unnecessary duplication of fundraising campaigns and community services as reasons to explore a new federation structure.

"The impetus was the economic situation and the limited funding available for any federation system," said one of the letter's signatories, Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom. "We're trying to push forward the conversation with a lot of determination."

Brandt says that conversation is already in full swing. He has been speaking regularly with S.F.-based Federation CEO Daniel Sokatch and with Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley CEO Jyl Jurman, seeking ways to cooperate more closely.

BA merger Rose, Avi
Avi Rose
"This is a challenging time for federations and, for us regionally, a time of great promise," Brandt said. "I'm feeling in my conversations with [Sokatch] a great willingness to work together. While the dialogue is not focused on a wholesale merger, it is focused on what we want federations to do."

For his part, Sokatch welcomes the discussions, and encourages finding points of congruence and common ground.

"There is a certain artifice to having two [federations]  for what is essentially one big Jewish community up here," Sokatch said. "We would all like to see a community structure that reflects that and serves most effectively the greatest number of people in the community."

Among recent collaborative ventures, Brandt cites the LGBT Alliance, a S.F.-launched initiative that now has an East Bay branch. He says the two federations are also working together on early childhood and interfaith initiatives.

"Our federation has just established a strategic planning task force," Brandt added, "and we're going to be convening our top lay leaders and professionals to see how we can work better together in concert with our agencies and synagogues, as well as develop a relationship with federation partners in Silicon Valley and San Francisco."

BA merger Biale, Rachel
Rachel Biale
He is not prepared to advocate a merger at this time. "Let's start with vision," he said, "and not with structure."

Added Sokatch: "I don't think there is a ready-made prescription. How to make the Bay Area Jewish community more effective has to go hand-in-hand with the process of clarifying and honing what the missions are. It doesn't make sense to merge just for the sake of merging. Let's take a good hard look at the needs out there not being met, and what's the best way to meet those needs. Let's make the structures meet those needs."

Creditor thinks the parties need to talk about it, nonetheless. "Institutions prize stability over all," he said, "but ultimately status-quo leadership in a moment of crisis is not the healthiest of responses. It's important not to close the conversation just because it's scary."

Talk of a merger between federations has largely been conducted in the pages of j., with this newspaper editorializing on Feb. 6 in favor of a merger, and a spate of letters to the editor endorsing the concept.

East Bay rabbis who signed the March 18 letter are: David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue (Piedmont), Michelle Fisher of Congregation B'nai Shalom (Walnut Creek), Dan Goldblatt of Beth Chaim Congregation (Danville), Stuart Kelman, Dorothy Richman (Berkeley Hillel), SaraLeya Schley of Chochmat HaLev (Berkeley), Judy Shanks of Temple Isaiah (Lafayette), Bridget Wynne of Jewish Gateways, and Creditor.

Agency directors included Avi Rose, Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay executive director; Jehon Grist, Lehrhaus Judaica executive director; Sally Flinchbaugh, JCC of the East Bay acting executive director; and Rachel Biale, Progressive Jewish Alliance regional director.

Absent from the list of signers are representatives of the Orthodox community, as well as rabbis from several leading East Bay congregations, among them Berkeley's Congregation Beth El, Alameda's Temple Israel and Oakland's Temple Sinai.

Creditor denies any hidden meaning to these absences.

"It wasn't a comprehensive e-mail that went out to every community leader," Creditor says of the effort to round up signers. "Some rabbis were out of the country. The truth is I wouldn't know the rationale for those who didn't sign."

Meanwhile, Brandt and his board have the letter in hand, and must now consider how to respond.

"Before we push two federations together," he said, "let's see what we would want a federation to do to serve our community. We have every intention of engaging the community with this conversation."

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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Jewcy.com: Living Out Our Values in Cyberspace

Are We Trapped in God's Video Game?

Are We Trapped in God's Video Game?


Probably not. And no, he's not looking at your underwear.

by Jaron Lanier

There are certain questions about virtual reality (VR) that I've been asked a few times a day, every day, for over a quarter century. The e-mails still come in, from a kid in Korea or a grandmother in Australia: Will VR ever get so good that we will no longer be able to tell it's VR? Is it possible we are already living in VR? Recently even The New York Times got into the act, interpreting an argument from philosopher Nick Bostrom to mean that "it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else's computer simulation."

When these questions come up, I usually try to redirect the inquirer's attention to the world of actual VR research, because that topic is richer than most people realize. But readers of this column know I am as friendly as can be to weird speculations, and it is interesting to think about the metaphysical side of virtual reality.

The concept of "VR so good you can't tell" can mean different things. It might mean that a person who started off in natural reality can be fooled by a simulation, or it might mean that a being who was created as part of a simulation can become conscious.

Let's consider the second possibility. Can consciousness arise inside a computer simulation? As it happens, I'm that rare creature, a cybernetic daredevil who is usually a dualist: I get thrills from figuring out how to make computer programs reproduce tricks the brain can do, and yet I often believe consciousness is something special that cannot be simulated like other phenomena. Suppose I'm wrong, though, and a simulated character can become conscious. Could it know it is living in a simulation?

Robotics researcher Hans Moravec originated the argument that we are probably already living in VR: If it is possible to build virtual realities sophisticated enough to give rise to sentient residents, it's likely there would be many such VRs. After all, once we built the first car or the first laptop computer, millions upon millions more followed. (And even if humanity never builds superlative VR machines, some alien civilization somewhere will do it, if it is possible.) If you are a self-aware creature, then, there are two possibilities: You live in natural reality, or you live in one of these super-VRs. Since there is only one of the former and a lot of the latter, the chances are quite strong that you, and indeed all of us, are living in a simulated world.

Although this pseudostatistical style of reasoning doesn't prove anything, it does say something about the relative likelihood of a particular metaphysical truth. That may seem like a strange way to think, but an even stranger development, to my mind, is that recent results may give us empirical evidence about whether we are living in a simulation. If you believe that thinking about metaphysics in a pseudostatistical way is sensible, then these results make it seem much less likely that we're living in a VR than it did back when people first started asking me those questions.

When Moravec first made his case back in the 1980s, the popular way of thinking was that there is one and only one natural reality. These days, that answer is becoming less popular all the time, because of a seemingly unrelated field: quantum computation.

Experiments over the past decade show that quantum computers (which process information using the quantum states of particles rather than transistors) really can work. And as it happens, one interpretation of quantum mechanics that used to be somewhat obscure has suddenly become popular because it's better adapted for explaining quantum computation, at least to human brains.

I'm speaking, of course, of the many worlds interpretation. In this view, each world has a copy of your quantum computer, and they all run at once; that's why they outperform regular computers that can function in only one reality. When you get an answer out, it's the same thing as discovering which of the many worlds you are in.

The rising fortunes of the many worlds interpretation seem to have emboldened champions of other ideas about multiple realities. Some string theorists now talk about a "landscape" of realities in which physics is different in each reality. Cosmologist Max Tegmark and the late philosopher David Lewis have offered yet other ways of thinking about many realities instead of one.

You might object that even if there are a large number of realities, there still ought to be many more VRs, because each reality could have many VRs inside it. But that's not so. Many of the multiple-realities theories suggest an unbounded number of worlds, and if the number of realities can be infinite, then there can't be more VRs than realities; infinity is as many as there can be. Even if there are only a finite number of realities, there is no guarantee that each reality would host VRs. Virtual realities take up time, energy, and space—and a given reality has limited supplies of those things. All of this suggests that VRs are unlikely to be more common than natural realities.


Of course, this whole discussion begs the question of what we mean when we distinguish a VR from a natural reality. If a simulation is perfect in every way, it is by definition indistinguishable from the thing it simulates. So there must be some difference between a natural reality and a virtual one, or else there's nothing virtual about it. Maybe the VR is self-evidently low resolution. The ones we can build today certainly are! But that's not the only possible difference.

The usual sort of difference that people are interested in is the existence of an entity that can look into the lives of players in the VR, a powerful player who is usually but not necessarily hidden. It's similar to believing in a god. The rhetoric of VR thought experiments often plays up this angle. Some people imagine this creature as a pimply nerd in the sky who is running a cosmic copy of The Sims, who are us. Perhaps with that image in mind, one woman commented to me that she worried that this being might be able to see whether her underwear was clean on a given day.

A pimply video-game-playing kid is an especially unlikely "god" ruling over our reality.

Strangely enough, there are some recent empirical results that may influence whether we should believe in this underwear-­obsessed dude. Before I describe them, though, I need to introduce the idea of a spectrum of possible gods, running from wimpy to omnipotent. All the supernatural beings of religion and science fiction fit somewhere on the spectrum.

The very wimpiest god can hypothetically see into our world but can't do anything at all to interact with us in any way, in any world—including hypothetical afterlives. As far as we're concerned, it's meaningless to think of this god as one who exists. The second-wimpiest god might be able to perform just a trick or two that seem supernatural to us, but underwear spying is just one trick of many, and therefore unlikely.

Paradoxically, pseudostatistical reasoning suggests that the most omnipotent god won't notice your underwear, either. Such a god can see and manipulate all possible versions of you and your world (including your wearing clean, filthy, or no underwear at all). If there is something special enough about your underwear to merit notice, there's another version of you in another reality wearing even more special underwear. The Top God is infinitely less likely to focus on the particular pair of underwear you are wearing today than you are likely to focus on a particular grain of sand on a beach. He is just as moot as the weakest god.

So as far as underwear spying goes, it's only those gods in the middle of the spectrum who should concern us. A god who spies would do so, presumably, only if he (or she for that matter) experiences surprise at the unveiling of the future and is able to see into only a narrow range of realities. The Greek gods were like this.

The empirical results that influence how we might think about God-as-video-game-player are the successful demonstrations of quantum cryptography, in which a sender and receiver can be assured that no natural observer has eavesdropped on a message. This system works because a component of the message is ruined by quantum effects as soon as it is read. For a god to eavesdrop on a quantum cryptography session and then cover his tracks, would, as it happens, require near omnipotence. When the first quantum cryptography experiments were done, I felt a little relieved and sad at the same time, because we then knew that one kind of potential exotic or supernatural form of life that might have been watching us either did not exist or wasn't paying attention.

Continuing the pseudostatistical arguments, a god that can exist only within a narrow portion of the spectrum of possible gods is less likely than a god that can exist over a larger portion of the spectrum. The game-playing kid feels the squeeze from both ends. He has to be both weak enough to be able to focus on a particular pair of underwear and strong enough to be able to cover his tracks after eavesdropping on a quantum cryptography session—or else be willing not to peek at any messages we decide to keep secret.

That probably—no guarantees—places him within a razor-thin niche on a wide spectrum of possible gods. So I can't swear that we're not living in a simulation, but I can offer some assurance: A pimply virtual reality operator is an especially unlikely god.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

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