Daniel Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 6—Leviticus.
Daniel Libenson: Welcome back, everyone, to Judaism Unbound. I'm Dan Libenson . . .
Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.
Daniel Libenson: And we're here again in the Book of Leviticus, thinking about innovation and what happens after we have left behind the thing that we've left behind and are wandering in the wilderness and, essentially, starting to ask the question: What are we? What are we becoming? What might we become?
Last week, we talked to Professor Vanessa Ochs from the University of Virginia, who started to give us a sense of where innovation comes from in an entity like Judaism—in a religion, or whatever we want to think of Judaism as being. She, specifically, has written about and talks about ritual innovation . . . ritual invention—she really focused us on the idea of the mindset of invention, the idea that our rituals—everything that Judaism is—was once invented and that it can be invented again.
Lex, any thoughts about last week's episode that you think we should focus on?
Lex Rofes: Yeah, I'm thinking about her remarks and the extent to which they relate to some of the conversations we had in previous episodes about Clayton Christensen's work and his big theory of disruptive and sustaining innovation. So, Dan, I'd be curious to hear what you think about how Vanessa Ochs's thoughts relate to his.
Daniel Libenson: Clayton Christensen is famous for the idea of disruptive innovation, but I think that language is a bit of a red herring for us right now because it raises in the minds of people this notion that the innovation is disrupting the old thing—that the innovation is somehow bringing down the old thing.
But that's not what we're talking about in this case because what we're talking about in terms of Judaism—this is the hypothesis that Benay Lappe put out and that I think we are putting out as a podcast—is that the old thing has already been disrupted. Not for everyone—there are certainly plenty of folks who are happy with Judaism as it has been. But there are a lot of folks . . . and Benay helped us look at the demographic studies as a way of interpreting that it's the number of people that essentially have gone Option Two, have sort of left it behind, that gives you an indication of how significant the crash of the old thing was, and that in our case it's pretty significant.
That has nothing to do with—that wasn't caused by—any Jewish innovation. That was caused by . . . America, by the Enlightenment, etc. What we're talking about now is whether a new way of being Jewish, or new ways of being Jewish, could come into being in a space where the old way has already been disrupted and has already ended for many, many people.
A professor at Stanford, named Lee Shulman, once suggested to me that maybe we should call that "eruptive innovation" because it erupts out of the world of those who have already left the old thing behind.
But, essentially, Christensen lays out for us two different versions of innovation that I think are important for us to wrap our minds around at this stage.
One is what he calls “sustaining innovation,” which I think can still be a word that makes sense for us to use. Sustaining innovations are, basically, innovations that happen within the old system that say, "Hey, with this innovation, we can prevent some of the people who might otherwise leave from leaving. We can enrich the experience of the people who aren't going to be leaving, but they're a little bit unsatisfied or they would be even more happy if we did something new."
I think . . . in my opinion, a lot of what Vanessa Ochs was talking about last week were things that we might classify as sustaining innovations—they are the question of . . . for example, we want to see women have a greater role in traditional Jewish practice, but we don't want to create a new synagogue only for women, or we don't want to necessarily create a whole new entity that's not even a synagogue but something brand new for women—that's not what's going on there. The idea there is to say, "The innovation is the full inclusion of women, but if we could achieve the full inclusion of women, then we would be very happy with the rest of the system, more-or-less as it is,” understanding, of course, that a full inclusion of women would also bring with it various other innovations within the system because women have a different perspective, potentially, and would change different things too.
But fundamentally, the basic system would stay as it is—that's essentially a sustaining innovation. I think that when we look around the Jewish community today and we see various initiatives, whether they're for the inclusion of LGBT people in the Jewish community, or the greater inclusion of people with disabilities, or even the greater inclusion of intermarried families or children of interfaith marriages, when we see these initiatives of "Hey, let's do X, Y, and Z so that those folks can feel more included in the Jewish community," what we're really looking at is what Christensen calls sustaining innovation.
On the other side is what Christensen talks about when he's talking about disruptive innovation—we might talk about “eruptive innovation”—we’re really looking at innovations that take place outside of the system, either by and for people that are completely outside the system, such as the people that Benay Lappe would say have gone Option Two, have really left, or by and for the people who are peripherally involved in the system—they are going to synagogue, maybe on the High Holidays, but they are members of synagogues, they are involved in the Jewish community in some sense, but they're not really happily involved. And the innovation that takes place is not one that's going to get them more involved—it's actually one that's going to get them less involved in existing institutions, but more involved in some new way of being Jewish.
And there’s, I think, a third possibility, which is the innovation is put together by people who are involved in the system as it is, but for people who have gone Option Two—who are not involved in the system as it is. The difference is that the goal of that innovation is not to attract the people who have gone Option Two back into the old system; the goal of the innovation is to bring something out to where the people are living that will create something entirely new.
Lex Rofes: As you spoke about Christensen I was thinking about one of our other theorists, and that's Thomas Kuhn. He talks about, in different language, a similar idea to what Christensen is referring to with sustaining and disruptive innovation. He talks about scientific revolutions. It might feel funny to look to the realm of science as we are talking about lessons for the Jewish community . . . but that's what we're going to do.
What he does is he describes two different ways of carrying out science. One is what he calls “normal science.” In normal science, you're working with a particular paradigm that's existed for a while. Every once in a while, though, normal science hits a bump in the road that occasionally grows bigger than a bump and becomes a major question—you find some anomaly in the system, and it doesn't seem that the old paradigm even works to figure out this anomaly.
So, you enter into a new framework. You're not trying to more precisely measure and answer the questions that you've been asking. You're actually asking the question of whether this old paradigm is even accurate anymore. You back out and you start to look at broader questions. How does this really work? Might the way Isaac Newton have been looking at this not really capture the full truth, and maybe someone comes along like Albert Einstein, who more precisely understands that scientific landscape.
That's what we're talking about with the Jewish community. We're talking about the hypothesis that we are not in a period of “normal science.” We were for a while, for a few hundred years, maybe. The paradigms that we've been working with in the Jewish community were pretty good, and we were content to innovate better kinds of organizations that might achieve the kinds of goals we were looking for.
What we're arguing is that that period is either already over for a large percentage of American Jews or it's moving towards being over for a large percentage of Jews. I would say that, as you argued, it's already not working for a huge percentage of the Jewish community. We don't necessarily hear from those people because we don't actually think of them as the “Capital-J Capital-C Jewish Community.”
We think of the Jewish Community as the federation system, the JCCs, the synagogues, all of the Jewish non-profits that are institutionalized. That is the Jewish Community that we talk about, but, really, for the most part, the Jewish community is not individuals or groups that have institutionalized forms of Judaism, but rather all Jews. And if that's the group that we're talking about, I think the idea of a crisis—of a crash—is a real point to be made. That's something we talked about with Vanessa Ochs.
I think it has crashed. The reason we're not as aware of it as we might be otherwise is that we're not talking to those people all the time. We're immersed in Jewish communities that feel pretty successful and that are reaching critical mass of people, but when you break down the 6,000,000/7,000,000—however many it is—American Jews, the numbers who are satisfied with what you might call our paradigm of normal science, to get into Kuhn's language, or with the manifestations of Judaism that we have, is small and maybe still shrinking.
Daniel Libenson: Yeah. It's interesting. One of the questions that I'm thinking about in listening to you describe that is: where is Judaism “located?” Right? I think that we have a notion that Judaism is located in the institutions of the Jewish community, and those who are not participating in those institutions are not participating in Judaism.
Another way to look at it is that Judaism is located where Jews are. Right? And that if you want to look at Judaism today, look at what all Jews are doing, and you'll actually find that a lot of Jews are practicing a different form of Judaism than the institutions practice. Right?
Lex Rofes: Right.
Dan Libenson: And does that mean that they're not good Jews—that they're not participating in the right Judaism?
By the way, this is an issue throughout Jewish history. I mean, the Bible is full of it. For example . . . one of the interesting perspectives that somebody once suggested to me about the Bible, is that all of the things that are talked about as prohibitions—and especially the things that in the later books of the Bible, like the Books of Samuel and Kings and Chronicles and all that—there are these religious reforms where Josiah or Hezekiah does all these things and gets rid of all the altars that are all over the place and centralizes worship in Jerusalem, what that means is that for a long time, Jews were practicing Judaism in ways that the writers of the Bible, the kings, didn't like. Every once in a while, they took control and stopped that. But that means that it's an old problem, that Jews are practicing Judaism in ways that the folks in charge of the large organizations don't like.
Again, if we accept the Bible as the definitive description of the right way to be Jewish, then you have to look at that in the way the Bible does and say, "Those people were practicing it the wrong way." They were “doing evil in the sight of the Lord,” or whatever. But if we don't accept the Bible as necessarily the definitive description of the right way to be Jewish—and obviously, some people do, and maybe our listeners do, but not necessarily, and many people don't—then you have to look at it and say, "Look, there were a number of alternative ways of being Jewish." And here and there, somebody would gain enough control—political control—where they could enforce their way for a while, but the people would always drift in different ways.
Now, were they're drifting towards other religions? I mean, the Bible puts it that way, but I think that scholars and others also, potentially, look at it as they were practicing different versions of Judaism, different forms of Judaism.
You can even imagine it like today—we have all these different denominations, and what if one of them, at some point, got political control? Actually, we see this happening in Israel, where one denomination gets political control and paints the other denominations as not good Jews, not doing it right, not legitimate types of Jews. If we look at the Bible that way, as a version of what's playing out in Israel today with the ultra-Orthodox political parties having control of religious institutions in Israel, then you can easily see how the Bible then paints that as following after other gods and other religions, rather than as a different legitimate form of Judaism that's simply not the one that's being practiced by the central authority.
Lex Rofes: So, Dan, given what you're saying—that a lot of the exciting innovations, changes, in the Jewish world come from outside of the institutions—I think it'd be helpful to break down who exactly is doing it outside the institutions because many people might rightly ask, "Well, how are they doing it? They haven't set up institutions for themselves. Who are these people?"
Let's break it down, both the kinds of people who already might be doing some of these innovations, and who might not be yet but could be if we were to hone that segment of the Jewish community together.
As I thought about this, I thought of a curve that we've drawn up to relate this to a mathematical formula, though it really isn't one. It's our “knowledge versus chutzpah curve.” What it argues is that there are two fundamental ingredients for those individuals who are looking to be Jewish innovators and to create the kinds of Jewish inventions, Jewish changes, that could be exciting and that could eventually lead to that next paradigm that we enter into, to steal Thomas Kuhn's terminology.
The two pieces are knowledge and chutzpah.
What do we mean by that? Knowledge is our general term for familiarity with Jewish history, Jewish text, Jewish culture, Jewish holidays—the ability to access what Vanessa Ochs would call the “Jewish ritual toolbox” that already exists, that are pieces of Jewishness, Judaism, that are not particularly new, pieces that might date back ten years, might date back 100 years, might date back a few thousand years. But the ability to access that toolbox—that's “Jewish knowledge,” and that's a key ingredient.
The other ingredient, chutzpah, is what we're, basically, using to refer to excitement, enthusiasm, self-confidence. It's not enough just to have knowledge of past manifestations of Judaism if you're going to create really compelling versions of contemporary Judaism; you actually have to believe deep in your soul—deep in your kishkes [Yiddish word for guts]—that you actually have something to add to that tradition. It's chutzpah. It's a level of audacity to think, "Yeah, there is a few thousand years of compelling stuff, but that I myself can add to that."
That's a big claim. And some would have a real problem with that claim—that it's on individuals today to mess with this tradition. But we think that it's really important, and what we've noticed is that those in the Jewish community—both through institutions and otherwise, that are doing a lot of great work—tend to combine those two elements. They tend to take knowledge and combine it with chutzpah in a way that leads to really compelling new ideas, the kinds that Vanessa Ochs is talking about.
Dan, I was wondering if you could break down that group into, maybe, two other sub-groups—of those that might have a little more knowledge and a little more chutzpah.
Daniel Libenson: If somebody has no knowledge whatsoever, or very, very, very little knowledge of anything Jewish, but they do have a lot of chutzpah, they may well start to create Jewish innovations—Jewish inventions—of one kind or another.
The concern would be that, because they don't have a lot of knowledge, there are two issues: One is that it's not going to be very much using whatever wisdom or other values or other elements Judaism might have collected over the last 2,000 years. And we, I think, very strongly believe that some of that stuff isn't working anymore and doesn't need to be used, but some of it is really working and could really work. And if you really have no knowledge, then it's going to be hard to sift through that stuff and find the stuff that really does work.
As a person collects more knowledge—and it doesn't have to be a lot more knowledge, it could just be a little bit of knowledge, and they run into some Jewish ritual or some Jewish element that really moves them, and they become knowledgeable about that one thing, even if they aren't necessarily knowledgeable about the vastness of the rest of the Jewish heritage, but they have enough chutzpah to say, "Hey, I really believe that this is something significant and this is something that we could build something out of"—you could imagine that person starting to innovate and take that idea in a new way.
For example, somebody might actually take an interest in the Passover seder, let's say, for example, and really just know a lot about the Passover seder. But if that person is, for example, a performance artist or something, they actually know a lot about how to have an experience where you're really re-creating a historical experience, you could really imagine that person putting together a very, very powerful Seder, and that thing could catch on, and lots of people could start having Passover seders. We know that people who are not participating in the institutions of Jewish life, nevertheless, a very, very high percentage of them attend Passover Seders, and you could really imagine something catching on that really only bore a certain resemblance to the traditional Passover seder, but really captured the essence of it in a deep way and resonated in a powerful way with the experience of the people for whom sitting around and reading the Hebrew, or even in English text of the seder, isn't really working to get them in touch with the deep goals of Passover.
That's an example of innovation that I think sometimes is more powerful when it comes from somebody with less knowledge. So then, you can imagine that person then saying, "Wow! My seder has really caught on. I want to learn more." That person then says, "Wow! I really love this. I want to go to rabbinical school. I'm really good at this. I want to become a rabbi." And then, they go to rabbinical school, and they start to learn about some of the strong commandments in the Torah to not innovative, to do this exactly this way . . .
Lex Rofes: Not to add and subtract.
Daniel Libenson: Not to add and subtract, and the Talmud . . . although you can definitely have a very liberal understanding of what the Talmud is talking about, but you can also teach it in a very conservative way that says we have to be very rigid. And that person starts to get in their mind some notion that, "Hey, the authentic way . . . Judaism is a very legalistic, a very regimented, religion. Everything that I did before—it was too much, I went too far." And that person, in a way, starts to lose their nerve, starts to say, "Wow! I really am still the same creative, artistic person as before, but I don't know—I went too far," and starts to become very limited.
That makes me sad. I've seen this. A lot of people who start to acquire a lot of Jewish knowledge start to lose their nerve a little bit in terms of their chutzpah. I think that at a certain point, you get too much knowledge to be a successful innovator.
And then, I think you can go further than that and then get even more knowledge, where you start to realize, "Oh! I was misreading the Torah. I was misreading the Talmud. And, actually, not only are they not opposed to innovation, but they actually are capturing a pathway to innovation in a deep way.”
So, for example, and this is what we're exploring here, I really think that one of the major stories that the Torah tells us is that it gives us a mythology of innovation. It gives us a mythology about how you move from a situation that isn't working for you and that you want to leave, and you get, ultimately, to a destination that's where you want to be, which are mythologically represented by Egypt, on the one hand, and Canaan, on the other hand.
And the way to get there is you wander around for a long time, and you try out different things. Mythically, that Torah is actually giving us a structure by which we can re-enact that process. And I think in other dimensions of Jewish history, we've seen that process re-enacted.
My point is that, I think, at a certain point, you get enough knowledge where you pass that level where you're worried that innovation is inauthentic, and you start to realize that innovation is the most authentic thing.
As a result, I think you end up with two types of innovators—again, we're talking grossly, and there's definitely a spectrum: You see the people who have a relatively small amount of knowledge and a large degree of chutzpah because that's built into them, that's their personality. And then, you have the other group, which has a vast amount of knowledge and also enough chutzpah to start innovating, because either that's their personality and/or they have gotten to a point where they've really started to realize, "Oh, our tradition is innovation."
And I think that we should see Jewish innovation as a form of art, where the medium of art is Judaism itself. The idea is, essentially . . . what artists do is to take a piece of material and reshape it into something new, which is a new form and yet is built out of the old material.
I think in art, too, we see that there are essentially two kinds of artists. There's the highly trained, highly schooled artist who gets so knowledgeable that eventually they get to a point where they really become a master of this material, and you can imagine . . . think of that as like a great Jazz musician, who's gone to music school for a long time, is really doing this in a fully knowledgeable way. Then, there's also the person who is just a really amazingly talented artist or musician who has some innate ability and enough knowledge to be able to do it well, but their creativity is coming, in large part, just from their immense store of creativity and not necessarily from their immense knowledge.
The two kinds of innovators that we're talking about are . . . the ones who have less knowledge are potentially the ones who, really . . . they're like second generation Option Two people—their parents were the ones who drifted away. They really don't have a tremendous amount of Jewish knowledge, but they may be actual artists, right? They may be all kinds of the most creative people, and if we could inspire them to want to innovate Jewishly, they would be able to do really amazing things that would probably be focused in particular areas (because they don't have this vastness of knowledge). We want to try to figure out how to, hopefully, help them find enough knowledge that they need to be really innovative. Their innovations are really just coming from this place of enormous creativity, and also being plugged in very much to the experience of the people who are very distant from Jewish institutions.
And the other type of innovator that, I think, you can imagine is the person who actually probably grew up in the old system and, either left it on their own because they were unhappy with it—here, there's a lot of examples of this, but something that sometimes gets in the news is the ultra-Orthodox people who leave ultra-Orthodoxy, for example,and there was just a book that came out relatively recently by Shulem Deen, which is called All Who Go Do Not Return—and you could really imagine those people who are leaving ultra-Orthodoxy, but after years-and-years-and-years of study, if they would come to see, "Hey! I really do see there's real value here, I really want to create something new," well, they certainly have the knowledge of the material to remix. The question is really how to get them enough chutzpah to feel it's authentic to remix it, and also to inspire them to want to remix it as opposed to leaving it altogether.
And then there's also the people who have not left the old system—here we might be talking about somebody who grew up in a Conservative day school and is still a member of a Conservative synagogue or a Reform synagogue, and is still involved, but really is pretty unhappy—isn't going to go Option Two altogether because it seems unconceivable to them, they feel a sense of loyalty, they want to be part of the system, but they're really not happy there. Now, those people could become sustaining innovators—they could try to make the old system, the synagogue, better by bringing their creativity there—that's probably the more likely route. But you could also imagine those people being persuaded, maybe by this podcast, to think that the future of Judaism really is going to be out in the world of the people who are not participating in the institutions as it is, and so, I think, are really going to go out there and create some new ideas that can really resonate in that space.
Lex Rofes: I think that you bring up a great point connecting it to art and artists. I was thinking, as you spoke, about a vacation I took to Paris, actually. I went to a few different art museums—that's what you do when you're in Paris. You're in one of the most incredible centers of art in the universe.
I remember I went to the Louvre first, because it's the Louvre—I mean, it's the most well-known and incredible art museum, in many ways, in the entire world. So, I went there, loved it—there was all of these classic paintings that I remember growing up with and was familiar with. I saw them. It was great.
And then, I went across town to the Pompidou Center. For those who don't know, the Pompidou Center is also a very well-known museum, but it is certainly very different from the Louvre. It is modern art. It takes on genres that are very different from the kinds of Impressionism and beautiful sculptures that you find in the Louvre.
And I'll be honest. When I walked out of the Pompidou Center . . . I went in very skeptical because I'm one of these people that is like, "Is that really art? Is this modern art really art? Can we define art in any way that we want to?" Sometimes, I look at things, and I'm like, "How is that really a manifestation of art?" But I went there, and half the pieces didn't work for me—I didn't really connect with them much—but there were some really, really fascinating bits and pieces along the way. And I walked out, and I realized I kind of enjoyed it more than the Louvre. I felt like, "Am I allowed to feel that way? Is that okay? I'm supposed to connect to the classic stuff, and this is a much different style."
But I think it relates to what we're talking about in the Jewish community because we have this visceral feeling inside of us. In the same way that I look at something and say, "Oh, is that really art?" we ask, "Is that really Judaism?" You know, and when you back out and think about it, why not? And if it's good, if it's compelling, we've got a history proving that we find a way to connect it to Judaism anyway.
So, that's why when you talk about the two different kinds of innovators, when you mentioned people that have less knowledge but a whole lot of chutzpah, I think that might manifest in a place like the Pompidou Center as well. I think there's people that have immense schooling in art, that could if they wanted to, produce the kinds of work that's in the Louvre or in the Musee d'Orsay, etc., but they, for whatever reason, have chosen to go a different path.
That's one group that you talked about—people who are connected to the Jewish community, have that familiarity, maybe grew up ultra-Orthodox, as you described, and left, and maybe radically left, and are living an entirely different kind of Judaism.
And then, you've got people who don't, who wouldn't necessarily have connected at all to older forms of art and just have this creativity inside them and came up with an idea that whoever run the Pompidou Center thought was worthwhile and interesting and fit with their exhibits, etc. And both of those are there, and I think that we would be ill-advised to ignore the latter category just because they don't have that knowledge base.
Daniel Libenson: There's a few things that in your description—I mean, I think it's totally right—that what you're talking about raised in my head. One is that one of the issues with modern art, as opposed to classical art, especially when it first started, was that it was something new that didn't really have a system to plug into.
When you look at a more classical piece of art, you can relate it to hundreds and thousands of years of classical art and say, "We've been working on figure drawing or statutes for a long time. They're getting better-and-better and more-and-more realistic." And you see it as part of this long system. Whereas modern art, you see as this thing that doesn't really connect very well to that old system.
That's actually true, right? You have to admit that there's a loss in modern art, right? There's that loss of . . .
Lex Rofes: Absolutely.
Daniel Libenson: . . . history. Now, in 100 years, in a 1,000 years, it won't—you'll look at those same pieces of art and you'll say, "That was the beginning of this system that we have," if it hasn't been disrupted by then. But when it's first coming about, it feels inauthentic, for sure, but it also feels thin because it's not part of this system, and it's harder to feel like you're secure inside of this whole system.
And Benay Lappe talked about that, I think, as one of the downsides of going Option Three. I mean, if you're going Option One, you're bolstering the system that you have, and you have that feeling of security, at least, that comes from being part of something that's been around for a long time and that has all of the different elements put there already.
If you jump out of Option One into some other Option Two, like you convert to another religion or something like that, you also . . . you're getting all of the stability of the system that's been around for a long time.
If you go Option Three, and you say, "No, I'm going to be part of this creation of something new," then you're really giving up that stability, probably for your lifetime and maybe for a few generations. And eventually, that stability comes, becomes other people are working on other experiments, and eventually they fuse together, and you end up with a new system. But it takes a long time, and you're really giving that up. That's one thing that I think is important to put out there—that that's a reality.
The other thing that, as you were talking about, it occurred to me, was this whole question of retelling our story. I think one of the things that we, as Jews, particularly have been good at, is retelling our story after the big changes happen in such a way that it appears that it was always that way, or the seed of that new thing was always there. And the problem with that is, when you are in a situation where it's pretty clear that you do need something new, it feels inauthentic and illegitimate because you look back at our story, and it seems like nothing ever really changed that much. So, for us to change something a lot right now would seem so discontinuous and so inauthentic that it's problematic.
It reminds me of those pictures that—I think it's probably from a New Yorker cartoon originally—but when you see the New York view of the world and you see a picture, a map, of New York, with all the boroughs and all the streets and everything, and then you see New Jersey, and then the rest of the country. It's just, when you're in something, everything else is compressed. When you're in the present, the past is all compressed, and you see the past as this short period of time in which everything was the same forever. And the reality is that it wasn't.
One of the things that Vanessa Ochs talked about that was really useful for me is what she called the “embodied sense” that something is wrong—the sense that . . . people can't really tell you why they are resisting some innovation or other, but their body tells them that it's the wrong thing. And I think that you could say, “That gut feeling should be trusted, gut feelings are important.” But you could also say that gut feeling is coming from having taken in and taken seriously a story that might not actually be true.
Lex Rofes: I'm thinking about what you discussed with respect to elements of the Jewish past that may have existed but we haven't preserved. There's actually a middle ground between those pieces of Jewish history and those that are set in stone in the Jewish calendar or otherwise. I think that's important.
This middle ground group are Jewish rituals, Jewish moments in history, Jewish people in history, that we know about, but don't have established rituals around them. The reason I bring these up is because I think, as Jewish innovators, these are really crucial because these are things that we can tap into that don't have the baggage of established rituals with 500 years of, "This is how we do it." We can then hop aboard and create really compelling 21st century forms for.
One example I think of is shmittah. Shmittah is the sabbatical year, that happens every seven years for the land in the Torah. It's an idea that, basically, the land, just like human beings and animals, gets its own Shabbat—gets its own rest. And as far as we can tell, since the destruction of the Temple, certainly for the last many hundreds of years, shmittah hasn't been particularly widely observed, even among Orthodox people, and especially outside of the land of Israel because that's where it's traditionally supposed to happen. But this past year was the first time in a very long time where a lot of American Jewish organizations and individuals—I would call them innovators—decided that they were really going to own shmittah.
Hazon, which is this great environmental group, started to raise awareness and put together a packet, and all sorts of people jumped onboard. And nobody was working with rituals that have existed for centuries. Everybody was making stuff up, basically. And the loose theme was, okay, we want to do Jewish stuff that connects us to land, connects us to the environment, etc.
And people created really fascinating things. I was in a Facebook group of all sorts of folks that were relating to shmittah in interesting ways, And that's what happens when we tap into these Jewish aspects of our past that aren't held back by this sense of authenticity, obligation, in terms of how we have to relate to them.
It's an exciting thing, and I think if we can start to find more of those—other bits and pieces of the past that we haven't yet fully empowered into our Jewish lives today, but that have potential—that's where we can really succeed at the Jewish innovations that we're talking about.
Daniel Libenson: Interesting. I want to introduce two other thoughts of Christensen before we close that I think relate to what you're talking about, and also that help us put together the pieces of how an innovation process goes that is “eruptive.”
One is that he introduces the idea of the “job to be done,” where he, basically, says that when you're thinking about a need that people have, you should really look at what is the thing that . . . he, actually, gives the metaphor of hiring someone for a job, or hiring a product for a job, or hiring an organization for a job, or hiring a ritual for a job.
He says these things are there to do a job in people's lives, and it's important to understand what the job is, because if you don't understand what the job is, then you'll be working on the wrong thing.
He says, take for example—I think this was his example—a hammer. He says, we have a hammer, it might not be designed in the best way because it hits you on the thumb or whatever, so you're like, okay, let's redesign the hammer so that . . . I don't know how you would do it exactly, but so it would be less likely to hit you on the thumb. Bu at the end of the day, people don't want a redesigned hammer, right? People are trying to put a nail in the wall. The job that they're trying to do is to put a nail in the wall. So, the place to start should really be saying, "Do I have a better way of getting a nail into the wall than a hammer?" Not, "How should I redesign the hammer?"
So, I think that's a place to start. I think it would be interesting to look at Judaism—or the ways that Judaism works in people's lives—and to look at the things that people are doing who are not participating in Jewish institutions, or who are participating unhappily. What are the Jewish things that they are doing? Can we look at that and say that's showing us a certain need that they have, and we should actually amplify on that need. Or, looking at the things that they're not doing, can we look at that and say that's actually like a hammer—it actually could do something that they need in their lives, but it's so not working to do that thing that it's actually not just a matter of redesigning that thing, but it's coming up with a new thing.
And in that sense—and maybe this connects to what you're talking about with shmittah—is that it might not have to be an evolution of the old way, right? It might take the concept and say, "We're not going to necessarily be too focused on what the traditional way of observing this practice was. We think the concept is powerful—the idea of letting land rest, or whatever aspect of it we're looking at—but we really want to look at the need that people seem to be having in their lives, and then, we'll put together a new set of ritual practices that actually meet the need that they have."
The other idea that I want to introduce from Christensen, and this might really rub some people the wrong way, is what Christensen talks about as the “good enough” idea. He says that when you are involved in the system the way it has been, a lot of times the innovations that start to take off among the people that are not participating—you look at those and you say, "Those are not a good quality. Those are nowhere near as good as what I have in the system." And I've heard this a million times from people that are involved in Jewish life and that look . . . somebody who might be a member of a synagogue and looks at what some start-up minyan [prayer group] or start-up Jewish community is doing and says, "That's just so low-quality compared to what we have in the synagogue—we have a cantor that sings beautifully, we have a rabbi that's a scholar . . . these people are just doing their own thing, it's just so thin." And they disdain it, but for the people who are participating in that new thing, it's “good enough,” right? Meaning, it's all that they're looking for—they don't want the cantor with the beautiful voice, they don't necessarily want a Bar Mitzvah program because they don't have kids yet, they’re young people.
And you say, "Ah, but they'll want a Bar Mitzvah one day, and then they'll join a synagogue." Well, no. Actually, what's more likely to happen is that that new thing that they're doing will grow up with them. And as they grow up, yeah, they will, maybe, want to have Bar Mitzvahs for their kids, but then they'll start their own Bar Mitzvah program in their thing.
So, the thing about the “good enough” idea is that when an innovation begins, it only has to meet the current needs of the people it's trying to serve. It doesn't have to meet their future needs. It doesn't have to meet the needs that people far away from there might have. Actually, it's interesting, there's a new product that just launched on Kickstarter as we're recording this, called Hello Mazel. It's a program where a box of Jewish stuff—it remains to be seen what's in it—is sent to people's houses every three months or so. Included in this program is food; there's going to be food in these boxes that are being sent, and the Kickstarter description says . . . has a Frequently Asked Questions, and says, "Is the food going to be kosher?" And they say, well, the food is kosher in the sense that it's not going to be bacon or things that are clearly not kosher, but it's not going to have rabbinic supervision. And there have been a few responses online that say, well, why couldn't you make it kosher? More people would be interested if it was certified kosher. And I think that the answer that these folks are giving is, look, the people that we're trying to serve most with this don't care if it's kosher or not, in terms of rabbinical certification. What they care about is that it's cool and funky-tasting and whatever. And we can't find habanero pickles that are certified kosher, but our people really want habanero pickles; so we're going to give them the habanero pickles, and if it turns out that the people who are already involved in the system and keep kosher can't participate in our box, that's okay, because they're not actually the group that we're most trying to serve."
So, one of the really important points here is the idea that it's okay for an innovation to be good enough for the population that it's trying to serve when it begins. And the idea is that it will get better-and-better over time. It will get bigger and bigger over time, but it'll grow along with the population that it's most focused on. And it's that focus that really is the capacity for an innovation to be able to take root outside of the existing institutions and to really serve a new population.
Lex Rofes: And with that, I think we're going to wrap up our thoughts on Leviticus. We're really excited, for our next episode, to be welcoming Barak Richman to talk about his expertise on institutional change. He's a law professor at Duke and has some really great thoughts to bring to the table about the Jewish community. And so, we're excited about that and hope that you will join us.
As always, please, please, please feel free to be in touch with us with any thoughts you have about how our podcasts have been going. You can reach us at our Judaism Unbound Facebook page, or you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
So, thanks to everybody, and this has been Judaism Unbound.