Tomorrow night begins the eight-day holiday of Passover, which commemorates the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. Rabbi Michael Caras of Albany, N.Y., has a special message prepared for the festival, but he won’t be delivering it front of a crowded synagogue. (He’s not a pulpit rabbi.) Rather, Caras will share his words online, where he’s known as the Bitcoin Rabbi. “Twitter is my quote-unquote congregation,” he says.
Caras, who teaches both Judaic subjects and digital media at the Maimonides Hebrew Day School, recently released the illustrated book Bitcoin Money: A Tale of Bitville Discovering Good Money. We spoke to him earlier this week about the book and what bitcoin and Judaism have in common.
What prompted you to write a kids’ book about bitcoin?
I have five kids, and my oldest is 7. But the truth is, it’s not exclusively a kids’ book. It’s more like an introductory bitcoin book than a kids’ book. I’ve been reading and enjoying The Bitcoin Standard by Saifedean Ammous, and it’s a 250-page book, give or take. It’s not something that you can hand to somebody and say, “Read this in 10 minutes and you’ll understand what bitcoin is and why.” That’s what my book is trying to answer: Why bitcoin and not dollars? Why bitcoin and not anything else?
How did you personally get into bitcoin?
My older brother had heard about bitcoin many years before. I think he mined it on his laptop in maybe 2012, and then didn’t really pay attention to it for a few years. When the 2017 price spikes started happening, he invested more into it and told me that he was doing well on his investment. So I looked into it. I watched a lot of Andreas Antonopoulos videos and learned about it. And once I understood how it worked and why it worked, I fell in love with it. I’ve been learning and listening and reading about bitcoin basically every day since then.
There’s nothing overtly religious in your book. Were you trying to make it as universal as possible?
Absolutely, yeah. There are no religious themes in there. I guess you could say there’s some moral themes. I allude to the idea of charity and helping other people out, but it’s not a religious book in any sense.
Although some people compare bitcoin to religion.
People are very passionate about it. And I get that people are passionate about it in a similar way to their religion. But I don’t really see it that way. My religion is who I am and the core of my belief. And bitcoin is a fun hobby.
You’ve said that “Judaism insists that all members become full nodes” and compared rabbis to miners. Can you expand on this analogy?
It’s more of a funny perspective; it’s not a serious religious concept. But the Jewish history is called a chain. The Torah came from Mt. Sinai, when God gave it to the Jewish people, and every generation it’s passed on from the rabbis and the teachers. It goes generation to generation, so we call that the chain, or the tradition chain. And so it does kind of parallel the blockchain.
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I just kind of built on that, and made the comparison of everyone running a full node. Judaism doesn’t want each person to just rely on the rabbis and [be] a blind-faith participant, but rather, every person is required to individually study Torah themselves and know how they’re supposed to observe. So the rabbis are the ones who make big decisions of how to apply the law, and the community follows that, but every community member verifies it as well. So that is kind of how every person is like their own full node. They know their history, and they know the rules, and they know what the Torah commands.
"In general, technology is kosher. It's about how you use it."
One of the questions you bring up on your website is whether bitcoin is kosher. I assume it is because you’re into it.
The word “kosher” means “acceptable,” “permissible.” “Is bitcoin kosher?” is kind of a clickbait statement. In general, technology is kosher. It’s about how you use it. So I mean, a cellphone is inherently kosher—a cellphone can be used for good things, or it can be used for negative things, from a Jewish perspective. In my talks, or when I talk to Jewish people who don’t know about bitcoin, I debunk the common refrains about bitcoin being used for drugs and terrible things.
I watched an interview with you where the host described Christianity as a hard fork of Judaism. That’s pretty accurate, right?
Yes. I talked about how in Judaism there are various soft forks, which are the different types of communities, particularly within Orthodox Judaism. Since the Jewish people were exiled from Israel about 2,000 years ago, we’ve scattered all around the world. The communities have diverged not in their core tenets and core practices, but in their customs and styles of doing things—but there’s still backwards compatibility. So a Eastern European Jew has a lot in common with an Iraqi Jew. At their core, they’re still on the same team, they’re still part of the same tradition. So that’s like a soft fork. Whereas from Judaism came Christianity, which is a different religion. It’s not compatible, and that’s what I mean by hard fork. It’s not a derogatory term though.
Incidents of antisemitism have surged in the last couple years. How much, if any, antisemitism do you experience in the crypto world?
I really have not experienced very much at all. If you dig deep enough into a comments section, you’ll probably get one down at the bottom, which is auto-hidden by Twitter or YouTube. But the actual people that show their faces and you can talk to have been very pleasant and nice. I’ve had overwhelmingly positive interactions with bitcoiners and with the crypto world in general.
Do you like any other cryptocurrencies or are you strictly a bitcoin rabbi?
I am a very strict bitcoin rabbi. I’m a big bitcoin maximalist.
To the best of your knowledge, is there a Bitcoin Priest or a Bitcoin Imam out there?
There probably are some some Twitter accounts that are named something like that, but I don’t know if they are real people that actually have that position. So I’m not aware of anybody.
Are there any other bitcoin rabbis?
Crypto is a big industry in Israel. So there are certainly other rabbis and other Jews that are into bitcoin and the cryptocurrency arena in general. But I’m the only one that’s coming at it from this angle.
Passover is coming up. Is there anything that you’ll be doing differently at the seder this year?
Just to reiterate, I’m pretty serious about my religion, and bitcoin doesn’t really change anything. But the general idea of Passover is about freedom. So the idea of people having freedom over their own money is kind of a fit.
The main part of my Passover message that I’ll be sending out [on Twitter] is that the Jewish people were enslaved, and then they were freed. But the point of their freedom wasn’t just to be free, just for the sake of freedom. They went to Mt. Sinai, they got the Torah, they went to Israel, and they served God. The point is, if you’re into bitcoin and freedom, you have to be thoughtful about not just being against oppression, but for freedom toward something—having a positive goal to work toward.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Images courtesy of Michael Caras.