November 8, 2017
Photo by Deena Navon

Consider this thought experiment: What if your self-driving car has to make a split-second decision to avoid a seven-car pileup in your lane by veering into another lane, thus causing a three-car pileup? If there are casualties, who’s culpable? The driver, the car manufacturer or the programmer behind the car’s decision-making?

In the eyes of Jewish law, the dilemma presents a veritable minefield. It’s one that Mois Navon, a chip engineer at automotive-vision-systems giant Mobileye, attempts to navigate in his weekly Jewish ethics class. “This is classic Torah u’madda,” said Navon, using a Hebrew phrase for the juncture between Jewish thought and secular knowledge. “Autonomous vehicles can’t be programmed without ethical thinking.”

In the early 2000s, Navon, like many in his profession, found himself out of a job following the dot-com crash. “That was a very, very bad time to be on the street, because everybody was on the street,” he recalled.

A former colleague told him about Mobileye, a fledgling, 15-person startup operating out of a house in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood. The Los Angeles native found work there as an engineer.

Soon, Navon began teaching a lunchtime Torah class for a handful of secular colleagues. Nearly 17 years — and an Intel acquisition — later, his class routinely attracts a couple of dozen employees, both religious and secular.

Navon is also responsible for the company’s Jewish-related needs, from organizing afternoon prayers to affixing mezuzot in the firm’s headquarters to officiating at employees’ weddings (four and counting). All of that has earned Navon the nickname Rabbi of Mobileye.

It’s a long way from his upbringing in a secular Jewish family in Los Angeles’ Westwood neighborhood. Decades later, he’s swapped the surfing of his youth for road biking — and he still exudes a sense of fun. As his wife, Deena, puts it, “He’s not your typical computer geek and he’s also not your typical rabbi.”

The two met in the 1980s at UCLA, where Navon was studying computer engineering. On the side, Navon was becoming increasingly drawn to Jewish philosophy.

“I didn’t become religious because I was looking for something,” Navon said with a smile, “apart from an answer to the obvious question of ‘What are we doing here?’ ”

He recalled first asking that question around age 6 after learning that people die. It wasn’t until years later, under the tutelage of his boss at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), that Navon began finding answers through Jewish wisdom.

Still a UCLA undergrad, Navon was accepted as a part-time employee at the NASA company’s image-processing department. His boss, Ray Eskenazi, was an observant Jew and soon began spending extended lunchbreaks teaching his young protégé engineering and Jewish thought.

“He’s not your typical computer geek and he’s also not your typical rabbi.” – Deen Navon

That initial learning eventually inspired Navon to become observant himself and delve into Jewish learning. After marrying in 1987 and making aliyah in 1992, he spent a year in yeshiva, later earning rabbinic ordination at Jerusalem’s Mercaz Harav Kook in 2009.

His lunchtime Torah tradition spanned continents and multinational corporations, with Navon rehashing Rashi while working for IBM in Haifa and tearing into Talmud and tuna sandwiches at a Herzliya-based video-on-demand company before he landed at Mobileye

Today, more than 400 of his Mobileye lunchtime classes can be found online. But the father of five hopes teaching Judaism will eventually be more than just a lunchtime pastime.

“I’m shifting more time and effort into teaching and learning,” said Navon, who now teaches at the Jerusalem College of Technology, which combines Torah study with vocational training. He’s also enrolled in a Jewish philosophy master’s program at Bar-Ilan University.

Although he firmly claims Israel as his home, Navon is unequivocal about his feelings toward Los Angeles.

“I’ll always look fondly back on my time there, he said. “It’s my hometown — I know every stone from Malibu to Huntington Beach.”

Does he miss it?

“Well, I miss the parking lots,” he answered before quipping, “Though now with autonomous vehicles, we’ll no longer have to worry about that.”

Rabbi  Mois Navon’s Torah classes are at divreinavon.com.

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