Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 53—Death and Rebirth.
Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Dan Libenson . . .
Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.
Dan Libenson: And we're here in Episode 53—which, together with next week’s Episode 54, is going to be our first two-parter—with Rabbi Irwin Kula. We're really excited to have these two episodes as the bookend on the other side of our first year of episodes—we launched with episodes 1, 2, and 3 in our first week, so, really, Episode 54 is our last episode of our first year, and we're really thrilled that it's going to be with Rabbi Irwin Kula. He is the president of CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a think tank, leadership training institute, and resource center in New York City. We'll talk a lot more about what it does throughout the episode. Rabbi Kula is the author of the book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, and also the co-founder and executive editor of The Wisdom Daily, which you can find at www.thewisdomdaily.com. He's been listed for many years as one of America's most influential rabbis by Newsweek magazine, and he certainly has been one of the most influential people on us and the ideas that we explore on this show. So it's really great to be able to wrap up our first year by going to the source—Rabbi Irwin Kula, thank you so much for joining us. We're really excited to have you.
Irwin Kula: Great to be here. I've listened to a whole year, and now I finally get on. I'm very, very excited.
Dan Libenson: And you really are one of the sources of this. I haven't really told this story on the air before, but I had Clayton Christensen's book, The Innovator's Dilemma, on my shelf for a number of years and hadn't read it. And then I was at an event where you were speaking and got into a conversation with Craig Hatkoff, who was there with you, and you'd been working with him and Clayton Christensen on various things that I'm sure we'll discuss later. And he started talking about it, and I said, "I finally have to read this book," and it just transformed my thinking, so I definitely put you at the very source of my entrance into this thinking.
Irwin Kula: Thank you very much. Craig Hatkoff, who was the co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, actually gave me the book in 2007, and it's a funny story, because on the inside cover, he goes, "Dear Irwin, I have absolutely no idea why I'm giving you this book, but I know it's going to transform your life. Love, Craig." And it turned out that . . so that night I start reading it, and I read the first chapter, and I had this revelation of finally knowing, "Oh, this is who I am—I'm a disruptive spiritual innovator. That's what I do. And all the resistances that emerge from innovation, and specifically disruptive innovations, this is exactly why I've been . . . ." I now understood both my calling and why I'm situated where I am in so-called American Jewish life and the American religious landscape. So, it was actually a critical book in my own formation. From like two days after that, I stopped fighting with the existing reality . . .
Dan Libenson: Right.
Irwin Kula: . . . and recognized—no, no, that fight with the existing reality actually is a way to undermine the capacity to innovate, and that what I really had to decide was: what was the anxiousness . . . and what was the tension and anxiety that I wanted to experience in my life? Because, there are different sorts of anxieties. There really is an anxiety of, let's say, being a head of a legacy institution. If you're the head of a legacy institution, there are going to be real, significant types of anxieties regarding innovation and regarding making things move in a bureaucracy, etc., and is that the anxiety . . . and bosses who are telling you what to do, and tons of stakeholders, and that's one kind of anxiety. And then there's the anxiety of the startup, or the anxiety of a genuine disruptive innovation, which is a different anxiety. No one's telling me what to do, right? I actually have to invent it. I have to put modules together in new ways. I have to fail a lot. I have to have the anxiety of experimentation, the anxiety of uncertainty. And, which anxiety do I want? Because there's no such thing as no agmas nefesh—there's no such thing as no anxiousness. And that helped me a lot—“Oh, this is the anxiety I like to have, making things up and seeing if they work.”
Dan Libenson: Right. So, just to sort of back up a little bit, could you tell us a little bit about CLAL, the organization that you run, and what its history has been, and where has it gone . . . ? I know there have been a number of key points along the way—your encounter with Christensen, and I know that you've talked about September 11th as things that have, in some ways, changed CLAL's course. So I was wondering if you could give us just a bit of a background for our listeners who aren't familiar with it.
Irwin Kula: Yeah, so CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, was founded in 1974 by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, probably one of the leading theologians and conceptualizers of the latter half of the 20th century global Jewry, American Jewry, and Elie Wiesel, a blessed memory. And, essentially, they founded CLAL with this idea in mind: Something had happened having to do with the Shoah—the Holocaust—on the one hand, and the establishment of the state of Israel, on the other, and the explosion of freedom and power and affluence of the American Jewish community: that those conditions, political, economic, and social conditions, had launched a new era in Jewish life, what Yitz called The Third Era. David Hartman was calling it the Third Commonwealth. Alvin Toffler was calling it the Third Way. It wasn't yet the Information Age, but something was happening. Other philosophers might have called it the Postmodern Era. That kind of epic change was sensed by Yitz and Elie Wiesel, and they founded the organization as The Center for Learning—it was actually first The National Jewish Resource Center—and it was about providing resources for the political and philanthropic secular leadership of American Jewish life.
The idea was actually both quite brilliant and quite elegant: that Torah, or Jewish wisdom and practice—Jewish study—had to move, couldn't simply be owned by the traditional institutional complex that owned Torah. Call that the synagogue, the beit midrash (the house of study, the school). But actually a new form of leadership was emerging in American Jewish life that was quite secular—it was political and philanthropic—and whose fundamental challenge was to use power and affluence to help create first the Jewish people, but ultimately the world, in which every human being—now, this is Yitz's language—every human being could experience themselves as the image of God. That was the teleology, that was the trajectory and the vector of what Jewish wisdom and practice had to do. And Jews assuming more power and affluence—unprecedented power and affluence by the mid 70's, late 70's—had a new vocation, or a new calling, in which Jewish wisdom and practice had to help Jews exercise power and affluence in a way that actually genuinely repaired the world.
So, most of the work from, let's say, 1974, when it was founded, through the late 80's, early 90' . . . almost all of it was in either the federation community, federation leadership, other organizations . . . the so-called “secular institutions” where no rabbis ever went, and where no Torah was every studied. So, the first Shabbatons in the federation community, the first study sessions in the AIPAC community—those were all led by Yitz and the early founders of CLAL. I came to CLAL in 1987 on a grant from the Wexner Heritage Foundation, which began then—’86, actually. And they were trying to also upgrade this kind of leadership work, this Third Era. And there were three big insights that Yitz had, that are still the core messages of CLAL.
One was this idea of “voluntary Covenant,” that something changed because of the Holocaust, the modern experience, that "theologically God could no longer command us anymore”—lost the credibility to command us to be part of the Covenant. But the Jews took on—voluntarily—the Covenant in their building out the Jewish body politic again, establishing the State of Israel, building out the institutional complexes of American Jewish life. And that so, we voluntarily assumed the Covenant, again.
Second was an idea called, or a conception, called “holy secularity”—that holiness, or kedusha (sacred activity) was moving from a kind of very, very sensual religious place to more and more secular domains. This was the Rabbinic insight that, once the Temple gets destroyed in the First Century, in a sense we could play out our Jewishness wherever somebody visits the sick, wherever a husband and wife make love, wherever justice happens. These new areas become the place where the Covenant, or the place where Jewish wisdom, can get played out. So, holy secularity, which then inevitably moved CLAL and its teachers to the secular domain far more than the conventionally religious domain.
And third, the implication of all that was a deep and radical pluralism—that in an era of unprecedented freedom, in an era of voluntary Covenant, an era in which the covenant is being played out way beyond the conventional sacred spaces, there needed to be almost . . . it was compelling to have a deep and radical pluralism in which there was no one way to be Jewish, but we needed massive ways of being Jewish. But, of course, how did one hold that together? And, of course, that was Yitz's idea at the time of: "Will there be one Jewish people in the year 2000?" Turns out, there is, right? Fractured, but there is. And that was really CLAL's bread and butter—working in that political, philanthropic, secular community well into the early and mid 90's.
And then CLAL . . . the big shift for us . . . there's a lot of ways to tell the story, but I became president, I think, in ‘99, or 2000—somewhere around there. And two things happened. One is, I was beginning to sense that, as interesting as the federation community was, it wasn't where the action was anymore because the jobs that needed to be done, to use a Clay [Clayton Christensen] term, were not so much anymore rescue and relief and building out the political and philanthropic infrastructure of American Jewish life. That job had really been done. The job, actually, was a very, very, very, very substantive re-imagining of Jewish wisdom and practice for an age of unprecedented power, freedom, affluence, accessibility. And that was a really, really different job. It was, in many ways, post-all-institutions that way, and it was going to require tremendous amount of what I called "spiritual entrepreneurship," or people who were willing to create new things and experiment.
And that happened right at the same time, within a year or two, as I was seeing that the federation community . . . you can’t build culture in a centralized way. New ideas don't happen because committees get together and say, "Poof! I have a new idea." That actually it was going to have to be much more customized, much more personalized, much more democratized . . . and just beginning to have the internet become a more important feature in our lives, and then 9/11 happened.
And for me, 9/11 changed everything. I had two friends who died in the towers—and one of whom I had just recently officiated at their marriage—and I had what might be called the spiritual breakdown. And for three months I did not teach, I barely left my apartment, and what really became clear to me—and this is the radical way of saying it, I don't mean to offend anybody—I had a realization that I would never, ever teach Judaism again to make better Jews, that I would never, ever teach Judaism again to create more affiliated Jews, I would never, ever teach Judaism again to strengthen the tribe. There was enough groupiness in this world, there was enough tribalism in this world, and that had been a fundamental cause of religion rearing its ugly head in 9/11. And either Judaism in the next iteration—for me—was going to be a wisdom and practice that could help all human beings flourish, and therefore had to be taught that way and offered that way, in accessible and usable ways, or I was out of this game. This is not what I was going to do. I was never going to teach Judaism just to raise money for Jews. I was never going to teach Judaism again to just make Jews better Jews so that Steve Cohen could measure them with his core, periphery, and moderately affiliated categories. This was either a genuine wisdom and practice that could help anyone flourish, or it was a great run, and it's time to put this tribal fetish out of business.
Now that created some turmoil at CLAL, because that was a big shift. Over the next three-four years, we kind of downsized the organization relative to some of our work in the more philanthropic, political infrastructure/organizational world, and we began doing R & D and working with rabbis who were more interested in spiritual entrepreneurship. And then I read Clay Christensen's book in 2007, and then I recognized, "Okay, here's where we're going to be. We're always going to be respectful of the existing institutional structures. We're not going to fight with them. But fundamentally we're going to be a hub, or an emerging network, for disruptive spiritual innovation using Jewish as proof-of-concept."
Dan Libenson: That's a fascinating story. I don't think I've heard it all put together that way before, so thank you. Before we get into the forward looking . . . the jobs to done and the rebuilding of something new that meets the functions that you talked about, I thought it might be interesting and helpful to get your perspective on the backward looking piece, which came to my mind when I watched a speech that you gave, I think, about 20 years ago at the national meeting of the federation system
You used a phrase in that talk that I've never used—and I've used pretty radical phrases. You said—past tense—“Rabbinic Judaism died.” And I wanted to talk about that in two ways. One is that I want to understand what you meant when you said Rabbinic Judaism died. Why did it die? What does it mean that it died? And also, maybe to think a little bit with you about something that we haven't, I think, talked about with anyone else yet, which is just the idea of death as not necessarily a tragedy—especially the death of someone very old, and maybe someone who's been suffering for a long time in certain ways. And to understand that just as we don't see that as terrible tragedy when it happens to a human being,= because we understand that that's the course of life, we seem to not have that point of view when we talk about institutions like Rabbinic Judaism. So, when we hear a phrase like, "Rabbinic Judaism died," that strikes us as this tragedy that's almost unspeakable because it would be so terrible if it were the case, and yet maybe our history is clearly one of seeing a number of our institutions having died over time. And what's great about Judaism is the capacity that when that happens, that doesn't mean that Judaism has died.
Irwin Kula: I actually see it the same way. I remember saying that. It was 1993 in Indianapolis, and here I was speaking to people, for whom . . . there were about 3,000 people in the room, and it was the General Assembly, the GA, and that was a time when the GA was still a very exciting place. And it was clear when I looked around the room, these were post-Rabbinic Jews. And all that means, in a very simple way, is that the fundamental authority structure of Rabbinic Judaism, where rabbis really have authority over people—now they never had much authority as we imagined, but still nevertheless, the rabbis have the fundamental authority—in that room, rabbis had no authority.
I was one of few rabbis that ever spoke in that role. Yitz Greenberg spoke, David Harten spoke, but rabbis didn't speak to those people because rabbis had nothing to say to them, and rabbis were not their authorities. And I don't care if it was Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, which are all forms of Rabbinic Judaism, just protestant forms because they are 1800’s forms of—iterations of Rabbinic Judaism. So one is, Rabbinic authority just isn't alive in the communal organizations, or in people’s lives.
Two, the metaphysics that underlie Rabbinic Judaism—let's call that the world-views and beliefs—people may still go on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to a liturgical experience, but very, very few postmodern psychologically-aware Jews, which is the predominant number of Jews relative to any other ethnic and religious group in the United States—they simply don't believe in a literal God in the sky, anthropomorphic who's judging, who's thumbs up/thumbs down. They're post-that. And they've been post-that for a long time. That's already a modern experience. It takes a long time for people’s institutions to catch up with their beliefs. It's pretty clear that most Jews don't . . . so that's on the theological level.
Third, on the institutional level, the major mediators of Jewish values and beliefs, or Jewish perspectives and wisdom, and let's call that the synagogue, simply is less important to increasing numbers of people. I've nothing against the synagogue, and I hope it gets re-imagined in interesting ways, and we've even been doing some of that re-imagining, but it's not central in people’s consciousnesses. It struck me that it feels radical right now, but that's like saying a hundred years after the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in the Second Century—the Temple is destroyed in 70—by the year 160, 170, 180, it's pretty clear that Temple Judaism has died. If you're a leadership class, priests, you have no power anymore unless you're going to become a part of the new leadership class, like a Rabbi Ishmael who's a priest-rabbi, and he winds up having as much authority as a Rabbi Akiva, who grew up with nothing, an assimilated Palestinian Jew who happened to wind up studying very seriously, and becoming Rabbi Akiva. So, you have a leadership class, you have an institution that is no longer available to mediate the stories, the wisdom, the practices. The Temple is gone. And then the God of that Temple, the God who insinuates himself into history, who you offer sacrifices to—that is no longer a God that people will believe in. The Rabbis are already saying, "Who is like the silent God?"—mi chamocha—the lame and the mute gods. So we're watching a theological shift, and it's not difficult to say a hundred years after the Temple is destroyed, biblical Judaism is over, its authority structures, its institutional structures, its metaphysics and theology, and its central practice—sacrifices—is over.
So, I was looking out, in 1993, at that group of people, and it was . . . look, it was a heady time, and we were rescuing Soviet Jews and Ethiopian Jews—it was very, very heady—and I looked out and said, "Gosh, Rabbinic Judaism has died. It's okay, it's not the end of the world.” It's only the end of the world if we don't take responsibility and permission to play again in the re-imagining period. And we were pre-Mishnah, we were . . . pre-anything that could be written down about the next iterations and forms of Judaism. But here we were, in this Indianapolis secular arena, and the experience we were feeling, from a phenomenological perspective, was as rich as being in the Temple and as rich as whatever synagogue experience was. And it had underlying it values and world views and beliefs about what it was we were supposed to do in the world, as individuals and as Jews. But, of course, it hadn't yet been developed at all—and that's what I was challenging that 3,000 people to do: to own the form of Jewishness that was emerging.
Now, I was unsophisticated at the time, because what I didn't realize was that, that form of Jewishness—a form of Jewishness that's almost exclusively about the use of power and affluence—was itself just a very, very, little form of Judaism that was historically incredibly contingent, and incredibly important, but that being Jewish, or being anything that has to do with the existential way of being in the world, is going to be more than just how to use power and affluence.
Dan Libenson: I think there's both a metaphor here and a need for some sort of spiritual solace that we might probe at, right? Because, when we think about, again, the human lifecycle, when we think about . . . here’s this person who's lived for 85 years, and they've developed so much knowledge and so much wisdom and so many relationships, and they died. And then here’s this baby—what does it do? It doesn't do anything. And you're telling me that this baby is going to be the one that carries on the name and the values of this wonderful 85-year-old person who's died? And yet we know that that is how it works with human life—and that some of the consolation of that fact that the person died is that there is a baby here, and actually there's more than one baby—they had 42 grandchildren, and maybe a couple of them are going to . . . . And yet . . . so, what's interesting also is that when we—even those of us who might look at Rabbinic Judaism and say, "It died, that's sad, but it’s also okay, our history is one in which we do rebuild."—we still can't look at the babies and see anything other than crap. And that's where I think that, for me, at least, the disruptive innovation stuff starts to come in. I think one of Christensen's most exciting insights is this one that says the disruptive innovation that’s going to become the world-changing paradigm-shifting phenomenon that actually has more participants than the old thing ever did, at a higher quality than the old thing ever had—when it first comes onto the scene, it's not good. Objectively, it's not very good . . . .
Irwin Kula: It's just good enough to get the job done.
Dan Libenson: Right. So, before we get to the details of that, I guess I'm asking you, as a rabbi, or as a spiritual leader, to sort of help our listeners process some of this stuff on a more spiritual level and to say . . . I'm giving this metaphor, and this kind of almost business-like analogy, but I do feel there's something spiritual, deeply spiritual, in here that I tend to have trouble wrapping my mind around.
Irwin Kula: I think that it's funny you used the baby and the older person. What becomes really important then is the middle generation. We become really important in that drama. Are we capable of understanding that the dance is always between continuity and discontinuity? That's the dance. The dance is a dance, to use a Buddhist term, of impermanence. But the dance is what always stays. It's the dance that's permanent. The real challenge for the middle generation at this moment in which you have so many transitions happening is not to be freaked out by what's dying, but to take agency, to play with, to see what's going to remain, what's going to work, and what's going to be re-customized, and what's going to be re-imagined that we can pass on. And that's the challenge. The most important thing for the middle generation, is to begin to trust themselves.
And that's really brand new in a religion—trusting yourself. We're very used to trusting either the rabbi, or the religious authority. No different than in other domains—health and education and government—we're watching the role of expertise be challenged. That doesn't mean that expertise isn't important. It doesn't mean that some people really do have more access and more wisdom, and more capacity to use that wisdom, to get the real job done. Of course, the problem is: what is the real job for religion to get done? That's the $64,000 question that everyone's afraid to ask.
But if you want to feel permission and what this moment is like, I imagine that those early rabbis—and we have a little . . . in the Seder, who are having that first "proto-Seder," and we know because, even in the paragraphs that people skip, this paragraph they probably don't skip in the Haggadah—the rabbis who are staying up all night, and they were discussing the Exodus from Egypt, and their students came and knocked in the morning, and said, "Oh my God, you've stayed up all night." Well, what were they doing? They were doing the Passover experience in a way that was radically different than it had been done just 70 years earlier. Their own students were excluded. Their wives were excluded. Their children were excluded. Many of their colleagues were excluded. What they were doing is they were prototyping, and it was . . . we get a little, little, little, little insight into the first iteration of something that got iterated so many times that now we have people creating their own Seders all over again.
Now if anyone would have said, in the 130's, when we hear that story, when . . . whatever it is, the 110’s, 120's, when that story is at least talked about . . . if anyone would have said, "And you're going to see—not only is Seder going to make it, but it's going to be the most observed practice in Jewish history, and there's going to be hundreds of pages of what's called the Haggadah, you'll see it's going to make it." I'm sure many people would say, "What are you talking about?" People who looked in on those five rabbis who were doing that said, "This? This is a diluted product. This isn't good enough to get the job done. I was at the Passover sacrifice"—those great grandparents that were still alive then—"I was at the Passover sacrifice. You should have seen what it was like to take from that lamb—Pascal lamb—and to eat from that lamb with other families, and with Maror (bitter herbs), and Matzah . . . it was . . . you're telling me that sitting around a table and pointing at something is as good as being there. No it wasn't. It's not good enough to get the job done."
But what it is . . . is you have to have faith in something that’s working for you. And we have a lot of bad faith right now, in religious life in general in America, and in Jewish life in particular. You have a lot people supporting things that they no longer do or believe, but they're so freaked out that nothing will last, that they're holding on for dear life to things that aren't even working for them. That is the innovator’s dilemma, actually. The innovator’s dilemma is . . . out of a whole set of fears, and a whole set of anxieties . . . I hear it, it's the anxiety of preservation, the anxiety of what's legitimate and authentic, part of the religious . . . amongst the toxic qualities of religion, is this obsession with preservation. You wind up not even being able to trust your own experience.
But I think that's changing. It's definitely changing in the Millennial generation. I'm 58—I turned 59 two weeks ago, I’ve got to get that in there—I think in the Millennial generation that really is changing, and part of that is an age of technology, entrepreneurship in general beyond Jewish life. And so, we are winding up with explosive forms of creativity in religion across America. It's just going to be radically disconnected from existing legacy institutions.
The last thing is, and I think this is an important piece is—when we use that example of grandparents who have tremendous amount of wisdom, and palliative care is really important, and to download as much wisdom and stories from them so we can communicate to the children—the other thing is that, very often, when we take that wisdom, we take those stories, we take those practices, we have to disintermediate that wisdom and practice from the existing metaphysics, the existing theologies, the existing institutions, and here I would say even the existing person. You can take the wisdom and practice from the person, and then, by you owning it,and doing with it what it's supposed to get done for you—in some respects, in playing with it—you're actually honoring the past. You're not betraying the past.
Lex Rofes: So, I heard “Millennial,” and that's usually my cue, so I figured I would jump on in. There's one piece that I'm particularly interested in. You talked about how expertise is changing, and how the way—especially my generation and younger folks—relate to that whole idea of expertise, and what that means for rabbis and the Jewish world, is really important. I'm curious if we can use that and talk about this idea, that we've mentioned many times so far in this conversation, of leadership: So, if expertise is changing, and the way we relate to who holds authority, who holds knowledge, etc., is changing, what does that mean for leadership? And since your organization is, of course, the Center for Learning and Leadership, how do you think about those shifts, and how does it affect the work that you're doing so that the methodologies and experimenting that you're doing . . . is continuing to think about leadership in new ways?
Irwin Kula: The most important thing about leadership—at least how we conceptualize it here at CLAL—is that leadership isn't a noun. You excersize leadership, but people can exercise leadership from whatever position of authority they have. In fact, very often the people with the most authority exercise the least amount of leadership, and the people with very, very little authority can exercise the most leadership.
Here I'll use . . . within Jewish historical experience, we can actually use the shift from biblical Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism: Rabbis had limited authority, but it turns out they exercised leadership in incredibly creative ways, which simply means—not simply, but in a complex, amazingly interesting way—means that they're very, very sensitive to what it is, and now I'll use business language, to what the user actually needs to flourish in their lives.
The exercise of leadership needs to be separated from the positions of authority, and of course that's part of what's happening for all people—I don't care if you're an 80-year-old or you're a 12-year-old—because if you can go to Google and get resources that help you flourish on whatever the fundamental flourishing issue you need . . . . You want to become a more compassionate person, you do not have to go into the cathedral, you do not have to go where there are high barriers of entry; you can go on Google, put in “compassion,” and get the ten greatest religious teachers in the world within 60 seconds in your pocket. That means that you do not have to go to your synagogue, or your church, or your mosque, or your cathedral, to get a particular piece of wisdom that you need on a day which that person—that religious authority—happens not to be interested in teaching that. Now that's brand new, and it means that everyone, potentially, now can exercise leadership.
It doesn't mean everyone is a traditional leader, but everyone has the opportunity to exercise leadership in their lives. And, of course, that's what you see. Whether it's Daybreaker in New York City, which is not being run by rabbis, ministers, or priests, but 5,000, 8,000, 10,000 people come out at dawn to engage in some sort of morning prayer, morning exercise in which people are deeply connected, become more conscious and aware, and a sense of awe—relative to the world, relative to each other, and relative to themselves. That's completely non-expertise-driven. The mob mass in Buffalo, in which young people are deciding . . . you know what, there were these great churches in Buffalo—all kinds of churches, Catholic churches, Presbyterian churches, Methodist churches—that are amongst the most gorgeous buildings in Buffalo, and no one's coming, and once every month or two there's a mob mass in a different church that, in light of whatever that church’s practice is, that allows people to come into this great sacred space and say, "Oh my God." And then they might not show up in another church for eight more weeks, and it's not even announced ‘til a week before.
Those are not being done by priests. Those are being led, and created, and developed by normal, regular people who are both sensitive, in some way, to their inherited past, have been taking ownership over that wisdom and practice, and then just trying shit. And trying shit's a really, really, really big thing. We haven't been doing that in a religion for a long time. We've been preserving shit. And there's a real difference between trying stuff and then saying, "How did that work? Tell me how that worked?" and preserving stuff that we know is not working.
Dan Libenson: Why do you think that phenomenon happens—that religion seems to be identified in most people’s minds with preservation?
Irwin Kula: Because it’s been under attack since the Modern period. In defense of religion, modernity emerges—let's say what we mean by “modernity” is some kind of combination of a trajectory of human rights and equality, and a trajectory of the scientific method . . . let's call those two kinds of trajectories—well, it turns out that those, while they both came from a certain read of traditions, the people who were at the forefront of that were people who said, "Fuck religion—it’s damaging. . . ."
Whether it's in France where they had to kill every Catholic priest, or whether it's America and they had to separate church and state to keep church from being lunatics. So, it turns out that the coercive, triumphant role of religion, which has been a piece of religion . . . let's be honest, Jews say every human being is an image of God, but you don't have to return the lost object of a gentile, and you don't necessarily have to save a gentile’s life. And it's okay, I get it—when they want to kill you, you don't have to save them. I don't judge the past; people were doing the best they can.
The triumphant, non-scientific, a-historical forms of religion were under attack from the beginning of modernity, and so it went on the defensive. I mean, this is a hard thing to say: most people I meet in, let's call it the globalized world—really smart, highly educated, everybody has had some psychological training, whether they've gone to counseling, or therapy, or did Psychology 101 in college—institutional religion is not fundamental to their lives. To be honest, it's stupid for a lot of people. And at some point, if it's stupid for enough people, either they walk away, or they say, "Okay, it's stupid in the way I'm now seeing, but that doesn't mean everything in it is stupid."
Whatever Religion 3.0 is going to look like . . . and if Religion 2.0 is kind of myth, metaphor—that's kind of what modernity did to religion—second naivete and all that sort of stuff . . . Religion 3.0 is new creation stories that reflect the deep science that we know, new historical stories that respond to the deep history, an awareness of how positive psychology or neuroscience—what they teach us about what it means to become more compassionate human beings. But we haven't done that. That's not what religion has been doing. Religion’s been in preservation mode. And the last 30-40 years, religion, at least in America, has basically been politics in drag. So, you have right-wing conservative fundamentalists that basically layered their politics, proof-text their politics with religious text, and then you have a trivial liberalism, that proof texts “Justice, justice you shall pursue”—as if, you know, because you can quote it in Deuteronomy, all of a sudden it's . . . everything goes in a liberal tradition.
I'm okay with that, I understand. But at some point people grow up and say, "Gosh, I actually don't need a proof text for something that I already believe, especially a proof text from some Iron Age god that doesn't really even make sense to me." So, this is the next stage. But then Maimonides had to do the same thing, right? Maimonides writes for one character, Reb Yosef—one character who's perplexed, who has the education of the day—you can read it in the introduction for the Guide for the Perplexed, he has the education of the day, he has the Master’s, so to speak, from Harvard, maybe not a Ph.D., but he has a Master’s, and he says, like, "I don't know, this Judaism doesn't match up." And Maimonides has to take ten years to write . . . basically, it’s a letter to this one guy, this Guide for the Perplexed, and what does he essentially do, not to reduce Maimonides: he basically takes the science of the day, he takes, from an ethical perspective, Aristotelian ethics, and says, "I'm going to float this thing called Torah—kol hatorah kula [the entirety of Judaism]—I'm going to float the entire Torah through an Aristotelian ethical lens, the science of Aristotelian ethics, and see what comes out on the other side." And what comes out on the other side is a very, very compelling way of becoming virtuous and existentially true—a human being. And, of course, when you do that, you're being very innovative, your books get burned. We haven't done that. We haven’t done that. Kaplan did it a little bit. Soloveitchik did it a little bit with Kant. But no one has done with the three or four most important scientific works, or lenses, of the day. And if you don't do that, your system atrophies.
But what we have now is affiliation fetish. We have membership fetish. That's all we measure. This is my big debate with Steve Cohen. He measures belonging. It doesn't matter—we could . . . half of us could become Nazis, and it doesn't matter because, as long as we're belonging to the group, everything is going be okay. What the group is about is an irrelevant question to the presence counters of the Jewish people. Which is exactly why you're not allowed to count Jews—you have to make Jews count. And you're not supposed to count Jews because one-two-three doesn't mean anything . . . . What if that guy’s an asshole?
It doesn't matter if you light candles—I don't care how many people light candles—I'm interested in what happens to people who light candles. I don't care whether you’re kosher or not, I'm interested in . . . tell me, what happens to you when you're kosher? I don't care if you go to synagogue or not go to synagogue—tell me what happens when you go to synagogue, because if you go to synagogue and act like an asshole, then all I've learned is that the impact of synagogue is it increases asshole-ness.
It's almost like . . . at the organized level of Jewish life, there is almost like an intellectual disability in the capacity to use any metrics that actually makes any difference in the world. This is a very, very serious issue because, what you measure is what you become. If the only measurements that our donor class—and this is our version of elites disconnected from The People . . . our elites, which is a very, very small group—we're talking about less than 1,000 donors who are really controlling almost all Jewish public policy right now . . . and that's the same thing in America, so it's not like we're more corrupt, it's just that’s the corruption of the day . . . the way in which they measure success is toxic. I fully get why they're measuring it that way, and having dealt with many of them for most of my career, until recently . . .
Dan Libenson: . . . until this episode airs.
Irwin Kula: Yeah, so it's all well-motivated—I want to be clear, it's well-motivated, because their anxiety is about the group. It's not about their flourishing. They don't care if individual Jews flourish. All they care is that the group, and their institutions, flourish. But that's bad faith because a religion is not about the preservation of its institutions.
Dan Libenson: Do you think that it's the donor class who has those values and is trying to push that agenda, or do you think that donors have been given a mistaken sense of what the goals should be by various people in positions of authority, whether they're the people doing the measuring, or other people? Meaning, what is the agenda of the donor class that wants to preserve institutions, as opposed to that one of the jobs that we need in the Jewish world is a compelling alternative vision, that if it were really presented out there in a powerful way, many of those donors would say, "Oh, yeah, that does make sense, that is a better way." It's just that they haven't heard it put very well. In that sense it's one of the things that has been part of the hypothesis of our podcast—not about donors, although perhaps it should also be, but about regular people—that one of the reasons why they perceive themselves to be uninterested in Jewish life is because they've never been given a vision of Jewish life that would be compelling to them.
Irwin Kula: I'm with you. I think that here’s where we have a sort of “Jewish identity industrial complex.” And the Jewish identity industrial complex is motivated well—it's not like the military industrial complex is not motivated . . . and the people who actually fear stuff . . . they have genuine fears, whether they're right or wrong is something that you have to argue in the body politic—there's a Jewish identity industrial complex, a sort of ethnic-nationalist industrial complex, it’s been built for a long time, since the beginning of modernity, on an anxiety regarding assimilation and antisemitism. That anxiety—people do feel that, it's not that the donor class and the leadership trained by . . . remember, if you're rabbinic leadership, you're trained two generations before you—if the senior professional class of academics is in their 60's, it's two generations older than you in your 20's . . . so, you're actually in the shift right now, so it's legitimate. And this gets back to disruptive innovation—the answer, then, is not to try and convince that donor class because there is no yet compelling vision. And we may be finished with compelling vision; there's going to be compelling visions. And that level of pluralism, we're not ready for. It's how many people can jump off the cliff to create new stuff, knowing full well—that's what the innovative class is—knowing full well that most of us are going to fail, and how can we locate new resources to be the venture capital for our new iterations of Judaism? Without being angry at the donor class, or the professional class, or whether it's the organizational professional class, or the Rabbinic class.
Dan Libenson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Irwin Kula: And that involves creating venture funds that . . . part of our problem right now is we have venture funds that are actually iterating sustaining innovations. We need more disruptive innovations, not sustaining innovations. In other words, a shul that's a little bit better, because it happens to be a little more inclusive, I'm all for. But, let's be clear: whatever we call, by the “emerging synagogues” that are wonderful and amazing, but it's still a sustaining innovation. And disruptive innovations . . . the Seder is a disruptive innovation, okay? Adding a meditation technique to an existing liturgical service is a sustaining innovation. I’m all for it—sustaining innovations are as important as disruptive innovations, and communities and cultures need both. But it's important to know what you're doing.
Lex Rofes: We certainly agree with Irwin Kula that it's incredbly important to know what we're doing in today's Jewish world, and we're going to continue this conversation about just that, with Part 2 of this episode, so we encourage you to stay tuned for next week, where we continue this conversation with Irwin Kula and carry it to new places, looking both at disruptive innovation and that general framework, and more specifically how it can apply to the Jewish world. So we want to close this episode on that teaser note, encouraging you to listen next time, but also by encouraging you to be in touch with us, and there's a few ways for you to do that.
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