Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 54—Judaism's Job.
Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Dan Libenson . . .
Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.
Dan Libenson: Lex, we've made it! This is the last show of our first year, but our listeners shouldn't worry. This is not the beginning of the end, but only the end of the beginning. We'll be back again next week with another show, and we intend to keep going.
So, we're jumping into Part 2 of our two-part interview with Rabbi Irwin Kula. Just as a reminder, he's the president of CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank, and resource center in New York City. I should mention that Rabbi Kula, in addition to having been deemed for many years by Newsweek Magazine as one of America's most influential rabbis, is also an eighth-generation rabbi, which makes it all the more interesting that he has the perspective on rabbis and Rabbinic Judaism that he does. We're excited about jumping into the second part of our interview, where we explore some more applications of Clayton Christensen's theories of disruptive innovation to the future of Judaism, and without further ado, here we go with Part 2 with Rabbi Irwin Kula. . . .
Dan Libenson: I want to ask you about the term “religion” because you've used it freely, as well as using a term something like “wisdom tradition” that is about human flourishing. I'm wondering whether you could define what you mean by religion in a way that it's something that could speak to all of those people that you describe that don't believe in this—I don't remember—“man in the sky,” however you put it, and the “tribal fetish,” as you put it, and the various things. So, what does “religion” mean to you, and is there a reason to retain religion as the organizing concept of what we're talking about? Or, would it be better to talk about religion as the previous manifestation of Judaism, and the future one will be something else?
Irwin Kula: That's a great question. I want to be very Woody-Allen-like—chameleon—and, that is, it all depends on the group that I'm talking to. For me, very simply, religion is a technology of human flourishing. That's how I experience it now. “Technology of human flourishing” means that it has wisdom and practices designed to help you flourish as a human being. Now we can talk about the wisdom and practices, and we can talk about what means to flourish—but that's what it is: it's a technology of human flourishing.
And that tells you exactly what the job—its wisdom and practices, or the technology—is designed to do. It is designed to help you flourish, and that's what we should be measuring. Does it help you flourish?
Dan Libenson: So, Clayton Christensen talks about this idea of “jobs to be done,” which he really develops fully now in his most recent book, called Competing Against Luck.
Irwin Kula: Right.
Dan Libenson: And just to lay it out . . . let me lay it out a little, and you can add anything that you want, and then let's jump into the question of what is the job to be done, or what might they be.
He basically conceptualizes that when you are talking about a disruptive innovation—perhaps any kind of innovation, but surely when you're talking about disruptive innovation—you're trying to create something that, as you said earlier, is “good enough” for what people need right now, and that will develop over time and get better and better and gain all kinds of new functions, and then, over the course of time, it'll be just as good as the thing that we used to have, etc., etc. But, right now, we're looking for something that's good enough for what people need.
And he says a way to conceptualize what that looks like is: imagine the person out there is a corporation and has a job opening. What is that job description? What do they need to hire to accomplish some job that they need in their life? And then the question is, are they going to hire you? Is your product, or your thing that you have, is that capable of doing the job that that person needs in their life? So, the first thing you have to understand is what the job is, and then you have to ask yourself—use some introspection—and say, "Do I have that? Can I do that job?" And as we know from our own lives, there are a lot of jobs we don't apply for.
Irwin Kula: I’ll just add one piece to that framework because . . just a little background on that book because I can't help it: So, Craig—we'll get back to Craig Hatkoff—Craig Hatkoff and I were made by Clay Christensen . . . he designated us as his advance research team on the anomalies in disruptive innovation. And for five or six years, we worked on: what were the anomalies that kept disruptive innovations in certain domains from diffusing the way they were predicted in his business theory? And amongst the many things we came up with was that jobs that impinged upon people's world views, values, and beliefs . . . the infusion rate of the innovation was going to be much, much slower. And, therefore, not surprisingly, disruptions in things like taxi cabs, disruption in things like listening to music, disruptions in how we view entertainment—the diffusion of those disruptions actually were predictable in business theory.
But, in education and in health, where he wrote two very important books—the books were barely read and had almost no effect because health and education have many more stakeholders and are much more connected to people's world views, values, and beliefs. And then we made the suggestion that, similarly, in religion, we were going to see a much slower-paced . . . and there were probably some things that weren't going to happen in disruptive innovation theory applied in these domains. But, most important, the jobs to get done were much more complex in these domains, and if you notice in the book, he says, yes, jobs to get done now have social and emotional tasks that he did not take as seriously in The Innovator's Dilemma—let's put it that way.
The only other thing that I would say here is: it's not only what job . . . what are you hiring the product to do? Another way that I conceptualize it is: what progress in your life do you want to make? Those of us who have products, and services, and delivery systems, or are trying to develop those—we need to be really, really sensitive to, yes, the job a person's getting done, but what we really mean by that is: what progress is a person in their life trying to achieve? And does the product and service, and the delivery system that I have—and, obviously, it has to be aligned with my values—but does it actually get the job done?
The most important question, then, becomes . . . is asking: if this is a technology of human flourishing—if that's what “religion” really is—then what progress do we hire the products, services, and delivery systems of religion to get done in our lives? And that’s a very, very . . . I don't think the question is hard, but I think the answer to the whether the product, service, and delivery systems are getting that job done—I think that's a terrifying question.
Lex Rofes: I'm itching to ask a question, because it's one that I spend a lot of time thinking about and that I have a lot of conversations with some listeners and others about, which is: when we're talking about the jobs to be done, and the paradigm of hiring—whether it's a religion or a business—to achieve a particular function, it tends to be that we're talking in singular tense, we're talking about individuals, but basically how . . . ? Because the frequent critique of the disruptive innovation world is that it's sort of individualistic . . . people throw around the term “neoliberal,” and these kinds of things. So, how would you talk about collectives, communities, approaching these same kinds of questions— because, after all, we're looking at Judaism, which is a collective?
Irwin Kula: Let's not confuse our anxiety about individualism with some abstract version of “The Jewish Community,” okay? The reflex to go to The Community is an old reflex that is a defense against—it's completely understandable, but it's defense against—whether any of this stuff actually works for me. You're not going to be asked at the end of your life, "Were you a good member of The Jewish Community?" There's not one communal question there. You're going to be asked if you were an asshole or a good guy, so in that way, in relationship to people . . . you're going to be asked if you have intimate relationships, and not only—ethical relationships in your business world . . . that's true. But you're not responsible for The Jewish Community—The Jewish Community is an abstraction.
Let's also be clear that when we use the word “Jewish community,” we actually . . . that is a power word used by a small group of people who have tremendous authority in that community. The average synagogue has 10% of its membership that shows up regularly. It isn't anything that could be measured in any conventional way as a community, right? It has a business model in which 90% pay for an experience of community for 10%. Those 10% actually don't even like the other 90%, don't enjoy when they show up—it is not a community. It is a business model that . . . we can pretend Temple Beth-El is a community, but of 1,000 families, 80-90% are not part of any organized community there. That's the same thing when we talk about “the Federation community”—a Federation community that has 25% of the members of that Jewish community, or Jews in that catchment area, who give to that Federation—they aren't even in a community simply because they wrote anywhere from a $25 check to a $100,000 check. We have to be very clear about what we mean by “community.”
If you say to me, "Does everybody, as an individual, just decide which practice works and which practice doesn't work?" So, I say yes and no. One, that is how effectively it does work, right? A practice that doesn't work for a person, they are not going to do long-term. Bu it turns out, almost all practices in wisdom that have to do with human flourishing happen within a web of relationships. It's very difficult, because we are social animals, because we are always in webs of relationships, to flourish independent of positive relationships and engagement with other people.
So, when I say it's a “technology of human flourishing,” what I mean is that it's a technology that helps us understand the truth about ourselves, and that helps us be in relationship to each other and the world in a healthier, more ethical, more inspiring way. There's no such thing as a person who just decides on their own . . . they have to get the practice from somewhere, right? They have to test it with other people, and I don't care if that's an individual meditation technique, which then has to affect how they operate with other human beings, and if it turns out they operate with other human beings in their webs of relationships—their lovers, and their friends, and their business colleagues—and those people say, "My God, Irwin, what happened to you? You act so much calmer now and so much more centered, and you're so less angry," and you say, "Well, you know, I’ve got to tell you this, I'm using this practice that’s helping me in my life to understand who I am and to be in the world," the person says, "Well, can I hear about that practice?" And if it turns out that I have a meditation technique, and I'm using it, I'm using that practice, and I seem to still be a son of a bitch, then that meditation technique is not a technology that is functioning.
Dan Libenson: So, what is your working hypothesis about the jobs to be done?
Irwin Kula: The most important lens, I think, available to us right now on flourishing is—it's a 20-year-old field, Marty Seligman out of Penn started the field—it's called the field of positive psychology, or the science of human flourishing, or the science of character strengths. This seems to be the most important new science of human flourishing.
And there, it's pretty clear that, whether you use Seligman's PERMA or you use his 24 character strengths—which are really 24 virtues—if you want to be a flourishing human being, here's the sort of things you have to have:
One, is you have to have positive emotions [P]. You have to be able to feel joy. You have to be able to feel a, kind of, genuine happiness. You have to be able to feel a certain excitement and exuberance about life, positive emotions. Second, you have to be engaged with life [E]. You have to feel like you're in the flow. You have to be doing stuff that has a sense of purpose, that maximizes your capacities and talents and contributions. You also have to have positive relationships [R]. You have to have intimate relationships. You have to have relationships where you feel obligated to other people, where you care, and are compassionate, and where you forgive, and where you are forgiven and cared for, when you're vulnerable. You also need meaning in your life [M], and meaning means that you have to be connected to something beyond your smallest self. And then, you need achievement [A]. You have to have a sense of accomplishment and achievement in your life. You maybe don’t have to reach the Promised Land, but you have to move towards the Promised Land, whatever that Promised Land is.
And so, you look at that science, PERMA. And then you look at the character strengths that kind of underlie PERMA, and you say, "Gosh, here's what you need, the sorts of character strengths that you have to develop if you're going to be a flourishing human being—curate creativity, and curiosity, and a sense of open-mindedness, and a love of learning, a sense of courage, and bravery, and persistence, and resilience, and grit, a sense of love, a capacity for love, and kindness, and social intelligence, and perspective, a sense of fairness and justice, a character strength of forgiveness, and compassion, and humility, and a sense of transcendence and awe, and appreciation of beauty, and excellence, and gratitude, and hope.
These are the building blocks of a flourishing human being. Now, what we have to do is, in a sense, reverse-engineer Jewish wisdom and practice—for those of us who care about Jewish wisdom and practice, because you can get this done without being Jewish. You can get this done without Jewish wisdom and practice, and it may be that it'll turn out that there will be easier, more accessible and usable ways to get it done than Jewish wisdom and practice. And then, we will not make it. And cultures don't make it. It's not the end of the world, right? The end of the world is not whether the culture makes it or not. The end of the world is: how am I in the world? That's the world. How am I in this world with other people? My job is not to keep this system alive.
Now, as a rabbi, I care about the system, and I found that it works for me, so what we have to do is develop . . . so now we have to reverse-engineer. All right, you're telling me about Shabbos . . . Don't tell me that “more than the Jewish people have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jewish people”—I don't want that answer, because that is a lie, it is a rhetoric for people who are no longer observing Shabbos, and other people say to them, "Okay, I know Shabbos is stupid this way, but, you know . . . you care about the Jewish people . . . you don't care about Shabbos anymore, you care about the Jewish people, so, ‘more than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, it's the Shabbos that has kept the Jewish people,’ so keep the Shabbos.” Nice rhetoric. It worked for about 50 years, doesn't work anymore.
So, now I . . . look, I say Shabbos: okay, I say, Shabbos is a very interesting technology—think of Shabbos as a platform. Shabbos is a platform. It has 500 apps. It has the Lighting Candles app, which, by the way, can be completely disintermediated from the Kiddush app. And then, it has the Kiddush app, which can be completely disintermediated from the Grace After Meals app, let alone the Motzi app . . . which can be completely disintermediated from the Tablecloth app . . . which can be completely disintermediated from sitting down at the table and blessing your wife, or blessing your children, or offering gratitude—tov l’hodot (it’s good to give thanks). Or, it can be completely disintermediated from Shabbos morning, and anything that happens in the Shabbos morning apps. It can be completely disintermediated from a Shabbos nap.
So, what we have to do is we have to look at something like the technology of Shabbos and say, oh my gosh, there's like a thousand practices—forget about the wisdom yet—there's a thousand practices in this very, very complex platform called Shabbos. And what we have to do is literally start trying, and using, and hypothesizing: what does this practice do for me and my family first, or me and my webs and relationships? What does it do for me? And we don't know. We have hypotheses. We have hypotheses.
Here's a hypothesis: Light candles, and you will have more shalom bayit—you'll have peace in your home. Okay, let's see. Let's see. Let's have people light candles with the intention that the light of the Shabbos candles are supposed to enlighten us, and let's see if it works. Let's see if it works. It's very easy. You can take a survey if it works. If it works, I think it's very important for us to witness and teach that. "Here I have a practice. I have a practice that can help you. You know how, like, sometimes during the week you're a little bit sharp and a little bit on the run and there's no . . . Let me give you a practice." Not Shabbos, because it may be that the practice is not only going to be disintermediated from the Sabbath—it's going to be disintermediated from the rest of Sabbath practices—it's going to be disintermediated from the Sabbath day. It may be that Yom Kippur has . . . Yom Kippur is a platform. It's a platform designed, let's say right now, for forgiveness. It could be that it's going to be completely disintermediated into 500 different practices, that are going to be separated and not all on Yom Kippur—we don't know.
It's like we're in the year 71. We're not in the R&D stage yet. We're still recovering from the trauma of the Shoah, of the Holocaust. You can see that we haven't dealt with that trauma at all. We have explosions of trauma triggering right now all over the Jewish space. Until the last survivor—and may every survivor live till 120—until the last survivor is gone, and until we loosen the vicarious connection, the historically contingent radical importance of the State of Israel in Jewish identity and Jewish practice and human flourishing, until we loosen that connection, we can't even get to the R&D on the products and services and delivery systems of Judaism. But, people are beginning . . . people are beginning.
I'll tell you two things that is the newest stuff that CLAL is doing. One is we have a collaboration with the VIA Institute, which is the most important foundation studying the science of character strengths—so, that's part of the positive psychology movement out of Marty Seligman at Penn. We went to them and said, look, no religion is willing to put their wares under the microscope of this science. And it turns out that one of the weaknesses in positive psychology is there's a dearth of protocols and interventions—that's what they call them—besides journaling and meditation, there's almost no protocols and interventions, which isn't surprising because psychology itself is practice-adverse, and it's embedded in a Protestant culture, and Protestantism has a practice deficit. And so we went to the Institute and said, "Here's what we'd like to do. We need to immerse of bunch of very creative rabbis in the science. And then what we want them to do is to use the science to redesign their Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experience in 2017 for their congregations. They need congregational buy-in, and actually to have hypothesis about how much Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur is supposed to work, and then we want you—VIA—not only to immerse these rabbis in this science, not only to provide coaching, and then we'll take care helping them create and invent new intentions and applications of Jewish technology in light of the science, but what we need you to do is to do evaluations of the impact relative to human flourishing. And we don't want to touch that because we want it IDR-approved, we want it to affect the domain of what we might call “positive religion” (just like there's positive health, there's positive work, there's positive education).
Let's create a new field called “positive religion.” And, let's just use Jews as proof-of-concept because we have access to rabbis who are very creative and congregations where 1,000 people may be present. They said yes. We had our first retreat—five days of immersion in the science of 10 or 12 rabbis. They are in the process during this year, between now and high holidays of 2017, designing and redesigning—and here I think design thinking becomes another important lens—designing how does Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur work in light of their hypothesis of the job to get done, which here is going to be about forgiveness, and optimism, and hope, and perseverance, and perspective, the capacity to change. And they're going to be looking at . . . let's say there's 1,000 apps on Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre is one app. Shofar-blowing is one app. Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die is one app. Ne’ilah [the conclusion service for Yom Kippur] is 50 apps, and how do you parse it as micro as possible to understand what job . . . what progress do people want to make, and how does this particular liturgical moment actually help people make progress? Have any hypothesis—there's only two hypotheses not allowed: One, is this helps the person feel more Jewish—that's a fucked-up hypothesis that we're not allowing anymore. And two, somehow God commanded me, because even that has . . . "Okay. Tell me what happens to you. How does it help you flourish that you are experiencing observing God's command?"
Everything has to get to a real job—no fake jobs. They had to hire a set of evaluators from out of the social sciences who will be visiting all ten congregations post-High Holidays and doing interviews of people on the impact of the High Holidays. And that's literally to start . . . it's the first time this is ever being done in religion in America. The only thing that's ever been studied is meditation techniques, compassion meditation and insight meditation. That's basically only because the Dalai Lama's paid for it. He is the only religious leader that has said, "Okay. Put this under the microscope because if it doesn't work, we shouldn't be teaching it, and if it does work, we actually need to know how it works."
So, our goal is to create a new field there so that ten years from now no one's measuring how many people came to synagogue. People are measuring what happens when you use the Kol Nidre practice. What happens to your sense of honesty and obligation to people? What happens to your capacity to make promises, break promises? What does that mean? That's the reverse engineering.
And at the same time we're doing that, we just announced a partnership with Columbia Business School to develop the first spiritual entrepreneurship program. We're going to be launching a disruptive religious innovation incubator. The ideation stage is going to be a 12-week course taught by Columbia Business School to spiritual entrepreneurs. That means, you know, entrepreneurs need to . . . The average rabbi, or the average spiritual person, who has an idea doesn't even know what a business canvas is, doesn't know what jobs to get done is, doesn't know what customer development is, doesn't know what's the unique value proposition . . . .
So, we actually have a partnership. A professor of business is giving us his entire platform—it's his global leadership platform—and he's teaching the first iteration of this. We have twelve rabbis in the program—actually ten rabbis and two non-rabbis, so that they develop . . . what does it really mean to be a spiritual entrepreneur?
And in defense of people who are unnerved by this, I have a lot of respect for them. I've thrown my lot into not having anxiety about this, but I understand that it could be that what we discover is: this doesn't really work anymore. And that happens. Bloodletting worked until it didn't, and it took about 30 years, when we first began to recognize bloodletting wasn't working, for the AMA to decide, uh-oh, bloodletting doesn't work anymore. We had a president who died because . . . Garfield, who died because the AMA was still holding on to bloodletting when the young doctors in France on the front lines were learning, "Yikes, if you wash your hands, you'll save a lot of lives."
So, it is possible that we are moving towards a post-Jewish, post-Christian, post-religion world, and that that's even why we have so much backlash. And I get that there's always been—in religions, and in Judaism in particular—there's always been two strands: there's been the Maimonidean strand of “the entire Torah actually has a real utility—its goal is to help you have correct, truthful opinions about life and help you develop virtue”; and then, there was the Rabbi Judah Halevi, which is, you really don't ask about the reasons for the practices because . . . God has God's reasons, and once you do that, once you ask a utility question, if it doesn't have utility, it becomes a very precarious practice to transmit, and I get that.
We have used Jewish wisdom and practice for . . . surely the last 50 years in the United States, but actually much more than that—since the beginning of modernity, we've essentially used Jewish wisdom and practice to affirm group identity, a sort of Durkheimian way of understanding religion, and that's over. That really is over. You can't have 71% new marriages for two generations now in which the other comes into your family, and you come into the other's family, and think this is going to be a nice little group attachment game. So, Durkheim was right for his time, and, yes, rituals do help us establish webs of relationships, but those webs of relationships now are mixed, and blended, and bended, and switched, and that changes everything. That really changes everything.
So, people . . . they have a reason to be concerned. The only thing is, it's bad faith to be concerned and then to live a postmodern life. If you're really concerned, then you have to take a remnant ideology, a purist ideology, saying, "It's time to turn insular, and it's time to protect because it's a very dangerous time of mixing, and blending, and bending, and switching." And I get that. I have deep respect for the insular communities who are protecting their inherited traditions at all costs. I get them.
What I don't get is people living completely embedded in the postmodern technological information age and then preaching some kind of fetishized preservationism.
Dan Libenson: I want to go back into the description that you were giving of what this exploratory R&D approach to a disruptive innovation looks like, because one of the beauties, as I understand it . . . or the elegance of Christensen's theories are their simplicity and their understanding that it's precisely because of the great complexity of the existing system that is why disruptive innovations are the successful ones—because they essentially restart from scratch in a world of non-consumption.
Metaphorically, I've also thought about the reasons why there were so many of the early rabbis that were either converts or children of converts, because they were fundamentally not from a Jewish culture, and so, they didn't have the same baggage, and they didn't have the same nostalgia, and they didn't even necessarily have the same social connections, and they were able to be the ones who could look at the totality of what there was and not become overwhelmed by the gazillion apps but to say, there's like three of these apps that I think could still work, and I'm going to take those three, and . . . that's going to be Judaism, right? And then, it's going to grow . . . and, again, the elegance of Christensen, I think . . . it also is to say, and that doesn't mean that the ones that we didn't pick will never come back . . .
Irwin Kula: . . . no . . .
Dan Libenson: . . . we might take them at a later stage, right? And that’s why, again, from a systematic . . . I think that one of the great virtues of Judaism is this idea of studying practices that we no longer engage in—you know, the idea of studying Torah for its own sake—because we always know of something that we might want to bring along at a later stage. And so, you end up with a Rabbinic Judaism that at an early stage looks very different from Second Temple Judaism, and then as it evolves it looks a little bit more like it over time.
There’s that wonderful story of Moses at Mount Sinai wondering what Judaism is going to look like in the future and being brought forward to Rabbi Akiva's Yeshiva and not understanding anything and not recognizing it as Judaism, but then when Rabbi Akiva says, "This is what Moses got from Sinai," Moses is, like, "Oh, that's great—I see the way this works."
I felt like there was a disconnect between the framing and then the description of how we're going to tweak the High Holiday service—you know, we're going to play with this app and that app. Because that sounded to me more like either a sustaining innovation or . . . not so much a sustaining innovation, but sort of the story where Kodak developed the digital chip in their R&D Center, so I can imagine that in synagogues various important innovations will be discovered—and maybe it's the most fruitful place to do a lot of this experimentation because there's already a group of people that are wanting to play with this stuff—but also understanding that what's discovered there may not ultimately flourish by becoming the new center of synagogue, but somehow it will be brought out . . . maybe those two things that you described, the synagogue R&D work and the . . .
Irwin Kula: . . . spiritual entrepreneurs . . .
Dan Libenson: . . . spiritual entrepreneurs—maybe they go together in the sense that certain innovations that are found in the synagogue can be brought out by these entrepreneurs into the other . . . .
I'm just curious about you thinking about the simple question of the jobs to be done—can we describe them in a simple way? What are people missing in their lives? Most of these Jews, who have positive sense of being Jewish, but they're missing something important in their lives that maybe Judaism can help them with—and can we describe that very simply?
Irwin Kula: First thing, the spiritual entrepreneurship program is classic disruptive innovation. There's a whole set of specs for that that have to do with non-consumers, non-incumbents, etc.—that's where we're being haredi [ultra-Orthodox] on disruptive innovation. And with the Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur—that is a first attempt to simply measure any impact of any practice. Eventually what happens is as you develop ways in which, ah, this really does work, it can be pulled out and used in multiple places. And the spiritual entrepreneurs have an emerging new metric to use for their own products, and services, and delivery systems for non-consumers of the existing "Jewish legacy institutions." We're at the very beginning of both of those, but ideally, they should be feeding each other.
I think that your point about non-consumers of the existing product is really, really, really serious. We take that so seriously that the next iteration of the spiritual entrepreneurship program will not allow rabbis in. The first round we're doing with rabbis because we're trying to learn what it even means to create a spiritual entrepreneurship program. And we're taking rabbis, not one of whom is in an existing legacy institution. But the next iteration—the second iteration—will be non-rabbis. The third iteration is going to be people who aren't Jewish, from other religions.
That's a larger sense of what does a field of spiritual entrepreneurship look like in a place like America. And this gets to your questions . . . What is it that human beings—not Jews, because flourishing is a human being question—what is it that we human beings, and not human beings out there because we're the users . . . If we're not the users of it, it's not going to work—we’ve got a lot of people programming for other Jews, programs that they themselves would never go to. That is, basically, the entire continuity industry—let us in here, we're the good Jews, we're the inside Jews, we're the non-assimilated Jews; let's go develop programs that'll fix those Jews, and the only thing that's 100% clear is that we won't go to those programs. That's what we call bad faith.
So, I always ask, "What are the jobs I need done in my life?" There, I can get them down very, very simply. One is, I do need connection, and friendship, and webs of relationships. I need people who care about me. So, where is it? What are the products, and services, and environments, and delivery systems that can help me strengthen my webs of relationships? And there's not a human being on the planet that doesn't need more of that.
Two, I need to personally grow. I need to grow ethically, and I need to grow psychologically for my own mind, and heart, and body, so that the treacherous places of my own psyche, I can navigate better. So, is there any products, and services, and delivery systems that help me grow as an evolved—psychologically, spiritually—human being?
Three, I want a little bit more purpose and meaning in my life.
Four, I want to be a little bit more creative.
Five, I want to somehow make a contribution to make the world a little bit more just. Not mind-boggling more just, as some kind of messianic character, but a little bit more just.
That is what religion is supposed to help us do. There's a lot of different ways to say that. I mean, if you want to use religious language on the community or connection and friendship, it’s we try to turn strangers into people who feel at home, both internally . . . I'm strange to myself, how can I become more at home with myself? There are strangers around, how I make strangers feel a little bit more at home? There's ways to say it in religious language, but those are the jobs.
Dan Libenson: I think that's really a core important point—that people have relatively simple, straightforward needs in their lives that we all know about. I would add to that: How do I be a good parent? How do I be a good spouse . . . ?
Irwin Kula: That's in the webs of relationships and personal growth.
Dan Libenson: It is, but I would even call it out because, again, just to be really concrete and to say: Who in the world knows how to be a good parent? If there was a system that somebody told me about that, if you follow this system, you will be a good parent, I would want to know more, like you said earlier.
Irwin Kula: I’m married for 34 years, how can I be a better husband? Right? As my parents got old, and they both passed away in the last four or five years, how could I be a better son as they get older? I think that these things can get broken down into very, very simple . . . and that's parsing the job in a very, very . . . very, very . . . here we'll use the terms that you understand perfectly—a user-centric way. Right? The best way to test user-centric is, here it’s—I'm the user, first and foremost, if it's not a real problem for me, it's not a real problem for other people, probably.
Dan Libenson: Right, and by the way, that's something that’s one of the things that struck Lex and me the most in our year of talking to entrepreneurs . . . has been how often the most successful ones are ones who were trying to solve a problem that they themselves personally had.
Irwin Kula: But that's a really important point because if you get the problem wrong, you're probably going to get the innovation wrong. So, if you think the problem is assimilation, or you think the problem is attachment, or you think the problem is lack of observance, or you think the problem is illiteracy . . . no one wakes up in the morning and says, "Oh, shit, I'm assimilated!" No one gets up in the morning and says, "Oh, shit, I'm intermarried!" Okay? Or, "Oh, my God, I don't know Hebrew!"
A lot of people get up in the morning and say, "My God, how do I get through this day, because my job sucks?" Or, "How do I get through this day, because I'm actually a little scared about a new president of the United States? Or, "How do I get through this job, in which my colleagues don't seem to respect me, or I find myself so resentful of them." Or, as you said, "How do I raise kids in an environment in which it seems so nasty?" Now, those are real jobs. Now, whether Judaism has anything to say—I don’t know. That's where we have to be playful.
Dan Libenson: Well, that's the question. What strikes me as I listen to you describe these and think about them is that not a single one—maybe you could argue that the relational one is the only one where you could really argue this would somehow land on Jews differently than others . . . you could argue that Jews, as a particular group of people, that we want to have relationships with—but otherwise, these are simply human problems, at least in America. These are the problems that Americans have, and if it turns out that the problems that the Jews have are the problems that everybody has, and it turns out that Judaism does have the capacity to help people with those jobs to be done, there might be a lot of people who would want to join.
Irwin Kula: We already know there are some practices that clearly have tapped into something. So, you could put in “faux bar mitzvah” into Google, and you'll see that there are liberal Protestant churches that are beginning to play with bar mitzvah ceremonies. Obviously, they're not entering a Protestant kid into The Jewish People, but what's happened is, as over the last 20 years, 25 years, a third of many guests at a bar mitzvah are people's non-Jewish friends—right?—and people say, "Oh, my God, what a beautiful practice. Actually, my parents are getting older. I'd love for my parents to somehow come together and see that my child is, is . . . everything is going to be all right. Just as this child is spreading his wings and becoming independent, I want my child to know that the values of my parents somehow are being transmitted. That sounds really cool." So, you wind up with “faux mitzvah.” And why? Because it's tapping into a real need. The need isn't that you remember the Jewish people. The need is this moment of transition as a child becomes this next thing, and there's no practice like that in America. You go right from getting into middle school to driver's license, so there's no practice, so that's an opening in the culture.
It's the same with mezuzah. We're beginning to watch, and you can see the mezuzahs being sold in stores now, like Neiman Marcus, etc., as an ancient practice—put this on the doorpost of your home, and when you walk in and when you walk out, you will feel a peacefulness of your home. If it turns out that that works, and it helps people, then is the world better because more people use mezuzah? Some people will know it was originally a Jewish technology, some people won't know it's a Jewish technology. For Jews, it may have this extra value thing—that this is mine. But, “this is mine” has to be done very, very carefully in the next world, in the next era, next epoch. “This is mine” doesn't mean you have proprietary . . . . “this is mine,” meaning in an open source world, I take pride in having contributed to the open source world, but it's not mine in any proprietary way. That means you can't use it as a Jewish tribal marker anymore. You have to use it as a human flourishing practice. That's difficult, but we have no choice given the demographics.
Dan Libenson: Yeah, and that's one of the ways in which Judaism may well evolve. We don't even have the language to describe that yet, right? What does it mean for Judaism to still be a thing, and an important thing, and yet not exactly tribal, not exactly a membership . . . ? Yet, it really just makes me think of . . . you know, you imagine some of these podcasts during the waning days of the Second Temple period where they were saying, "You know what? We're going to do a lot of experiments to see: is it the evening sacrifice or the morning sacrifice that's going to make it."
And it's like, no, neither one is going to make it. But, it turns out that this background stuff—little songs that the Levites were singing—that's going to be the center. "No way. That's not going to be the center. That's like the background music to the center." "No, no that's going to be the . . . . " You know, so, the mezuzah maybe that's . . . of all things, if the bar mitzvah makes it, I'll be surprised—meaning, we're fighting about the bar mitzvah all the time, and it turns out that's being taken by others.
Irwin Kula: Yeah, I think that part of it is those of us who are on this side of the innovation divide—how do we give enough? Here's a, sort of, organizing challenge. How do we give—and this is where I think your podcast is so central, and I'm not saying this . . . you know I have a lot of admiration for you, you know I have a lot of respect for you, I'm not doing this because I'm on this . . . but we need new mediating structures that give hizzuk—that give support and solidarity and permission. We undervalue how important permission is, and a new institution—your podcast, and I know it doesn't feel institutional yet—but it's one of those new iterations that . . . it's a living beit midrash [house of study] where we're keeping all the archives of the conversations. Not once in this conversation—not once—did we question each other . . . I think these are the real rules of innovation . . . not once did we question each other in a way that dissed, dismissed, made us feel foolish for being "half-baked,” because it can't be . . . half-baked is already a lot at this moment. It's barely in the oven yet. Not once did we do that. The degree of smiling and laughter and a kind of playfulness at the core of the conversation—a listening that's at the core because, gosh, you may say something that I absolutely need to hear because I don't know what really I'm talking about. I think that there's a lot of stuff that we're doing, and that you're doing, that . . . what we need is this is on steroids.
We need a lot of experiments like this. You really are at the cutting edge. You took a real leap, and it's a fun thing to talk about disruptive innovation and bullshit all about it, etc., etc., It's another thing to take a leap into the unknown. There's nothing more spiritual than that. It's what Abraham did when he listened very, very deeply and decided to follow a dream and a trajectory. I think what the two of you are doing, if I was a prognosticator . . . I'm sure the first year was both delicious, exhilarating, and incredibly hard. My sense is, within the next 36 to 48 months, there's going to be an explosion of what you're doing, and it's going to go far beyond these remarkable intellectually, spiritually, psychologically incredibly healthy conversations. We just don't know what it is yet, what it's going to be exploding into, but I have no doubt about it. So, thank you. I'm honored to have participated today.
Dan Libenson: Thanks. It was so great to have you.
Lex Rofes: Absolutely. Thank you, Irwin Kula, for coming on for this conversation, both last week and this week. We've never tried that before, and thank you for making sure that that two-part episode was really rich and full, jam-packed with an hour and a half of good stuff. So, thank you.
We wanted to take a moment to also thank all of you out there, all of the listeners, because we try to do that, but there's always more that we can say to thank you because, without you listening, we would quite literally be speaking to thin air. Without you contributing your thoughts and being in touch with us, we would be far worse off than we have been. So, thanks to all of you, whether you just listened to this episode, or two episodes, or ten episodes, or all the episodes, whatever you have done to connect with our podcast this first year, thank you. And especially, if you've sent us a note at any point, if you've left a positive review in iTunes, we love that. We really listen to that feedback, and we incorporate it into the work that we do.
So, we encourage you to continue being in touch with us on our Facebook page, Judaism Unbound, on our website judaismunbound.com, and of course via email at Dan@nextjewishfuture.org and Lex@nextjewishfuture.org.
We also greatly, greatly appreciate the financial contributions that you've been able to give, and you can continue that with either a monthly donation, recurring, or a one-time donation at judaismunbound.com/donate.
We're really, really thrilled to be entering into year two. It's crazy to think that we've already had 52 weeks of material. But, in year two, we're excited to unleash to the world some really exciting new possibilities. Stay tuned for a new podcast that Dan will be co-hosting with Ruth Abusch-Magder, who you might remember from a few months back as one of our guests who spoke about Hanukkah Unbound.
And another part of our work that we've really enjoyed this past year is getting to meet some of our listeners. We've been invited by folks in various communities all around the country to come and visit and schmooze a bit about what we're talking about on Judaism Unbound and our ideas for the Jewish future, and we've really enjoyed that. It's incredible to be able to put faces to the invisible ears on the end of our microphones that we assume are out there, but it's nice to confirm that when we meet real live listeners in person.
So, if you are interested at all in bringing us to your community, just please get in touch with us in any of those various ways.
Whatever it is that you've found and connected with, know that we deeply, deeply appreciate it and just cherish your listenership. So, thanks to all of you for listening. And, with that, this has been year one of Judaism Unbound.