Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
In April, I represented ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal among #tenrabbis joining CLAL co-president Irwin Kula at the TriBeCa Disruptive Innovation Awards. In the Green Room backstage with me were titans of industry, technology, education, advocacy, media and the arts who’d made fundamental change in the world – the likes of Bill Magee (co-founder, Operation Smile); Georgette Mulheir (CEO, Lumos), Reshma Saujani (founder, Girls Who Code); Shane Smith (CEO, Vice Media); and Darren Walker (president, Ford Foundation). Why would such an illustrious group want to hang out with a bunch of rabbis?
An answer emerged after my colleagues and I went onstage to convene the ceremony, symbolic hammer in hand to smash a glass. For centuries, rabbis and Jews have stood atop the fulcrum of continuity and change, uplifting life’s inherent brokenness. To symbolize this commitment, we went onstage and broke a glass, and the event’s 900 attendees – on cue as if attending a wedding – shouted “Mazal tov!”
We laughed, but this was serious business. Rabbis convened an A-list event celebrating transformational innovation, but no other religious or spiritual figures were present among the awardees or attendees. Like the glass we smashed, something seemed broken.
Our Spiritual DNA as Change Agents
Hewn from tradition and dogma, spiritual leaders often forget that our mission includes change, innovation and sometimes disruption. Millennia of Jewish history testify that social and spiritual progress depends not on staying the same but by wisely adapting, absorbing and transforming. Only in the last 200 years – since the Chatam Sofer’s infamous claim that anything new in Jewish life is forbidden – did Judaism’s evolutionary impulse yield to a gospel of preservation, looking mainly backwards to see the future.
Ever embedded in tradition, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi poignantly reminded us that shift happens. He reminded us that nobody drives only by looking in a rearview mirror. He reminded us that Judaism honors its creed by inspiring principled evolution of spirit, mind, heart and lived experience. He reminded us that Judaism never needs to be calcified, brittle, feeble, afraid or small.
Reb Zalman presaged in Judaism the socioeconomic theory of disruptive innovation that we gathered onstage to honor. According to Clayton Christensen, disruptive innovations create value by shifting existing markets, neural pathways, communication networks and societal values. These were Reb Zalman’s life’s work in spiritual life; today they’re guiding lights of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
Spiritual life beckons us to do, feel, think and be different. Yet, Christensen told a packed TriBeCa theater, it is religion that today most needs disruptive innovation. He sees religion becoming stuck in its own models and methods – at risk of losing its market, medium and message. His words hurt because they struck nerves of familiarity and longing – and irony because so much that Jews hold dear were disruptive innovations in their day:
- Monotheism was a disruptive innovation. The Jewish creed – that God is One – grew out of polytheism and ultimately disrupted almost every other religious-political system then existing in human civilization.
- Prayer was a disruptive innovation. After Romans exiled Jews from Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, rabbis innovated prayer as a new spiritual network to supersede physical rites of piety. In so doing, Judaism de-centered from a Temple cult to a mobile religion able to translate across countries and cultures.
- Talmud was a disruptive innovation. Talmud advanced not only new ways to be Jewish but also new ways to decide Jewish questions, preserving minority views to challenge and sometimes later disrupt the majority.
- Liturgy was a disruptive innovation. As Jewish communities became diffuse and diverse, religious leaders fixed words for communal prayer – and their forms in prayer books – that gave liturgists authority and market power over spiritual life.
- Home ritual was a disruptive innovation. As Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus chronicled about rabbis who shared with the Dalai Lama secrets of surviving exile, the Jewish innovation of re-centering Jewish life at home – the Shabbat dinner table and Passover seder – kept Judaism alive and also disrupted the synagogue’s spiritual monopoly.
- Jewish denominations were disruptive innovations. Before the 19th century, there were no Jewish denominations. The Reform movement sought to disrupt traditionalism, which in response became Orthodoxy. The Conservative movement was a disruptive reaction to Reform but now positions itself mainly relative to Orthodoxy. Reconstructionism began as a 20th century Conservative offshoot seeking to disrupt its parent movement by pressing Jewish evolution as a civilization. Renewal emerged to jumpstart Jewish spirituality, cultivating direct experience of God and disrupting some centralized power structures.
- Israel was a disruptive innovation. The State of Israel is a bold but imperfect experiment to build a civil society at once free, vibrant, democratic and sectarian – and reshape the world by ending two millennia of Jewish exile and upheaval.
- Feminism and Queer Theory were disruptive innovations. Inclusion of women and LGBTs as full participants in Jewish community not only breaks down inequalities but also disrupts the hierarchical, patriarchal and hetero-normative religious power structures that create and maintain those inequalities.
We inherit a 2,000-year legacy of disruptive innovation – not change for its own sake, haphazard or unfaithful, but careful and principled when (in Reb Zalman’s computer-ese) Jewish “system files” need upgrades to keep the spiritual motherboard running strong. The path of innovation is built into Jewish life. Reb Zalman and Christensen both taught that disruptive innovators can’t rest on their laurels: shift happens. Only God is eternal. Time, people and markets change, and disruptive innovators will be disruptively innovated.
Judaism’s Next Disruptive Innovations
So we must ask: what will Judaism’s next disruptive innovations be? If we look carefully, we might see the future’s disruptive innovations now beginning to emerge.
- “Spirituality.” Spirituality and religion once were synonymous but now, for some, are diverging. The 2013 Pew Study found a surge in so-called “Jewish Nones” who identify as spiritual but claim “None of the Above” as their religion. Some are deep and authentic seekers proudly claiming their Judaism but rejecting current models. They are innovating new pathways for Jewish spirituality, disrupting synagogue life and challenging Jewish leaders to either adapt or lose them.
- Non-denominational synagogues. Independent synagogues are surging as Jews vote with their feet, hearts and wallets against denominations’ rigid dues structures, liturgies and restraints on rabbinic hiring. Synagogues are loosening or cutting ties to movements, going independent, choosing small-size intimacy and experimenting with internal chavurot. Synagogues that can’t adapt are calcifying, shrinking, merging or closing.
- Hashpa’ah (spiritual direction). Hashpa’ah is a set of spiritual tools to discern and remove blocks to spiritual flow through our lives, disrupting internal emotional and spiritual inertia (and its hidden power over us). In turn, new awareness or spiritual alignment can challenge religious dogma, which in turn must evolve.
- Sage-ing. Popularized by Sara Davidson’s The December Project, the “Age-ing to Sage-ing” or “wise eldering” movement seeks to disrupt the fear and devaluing of natural aging. By harnessing and transmitting elders’ wisdom as a spiritual practice, Sage-ing disrupts the vainglory of youth in spiritual and community life, cultivating within Judaism an all-ages developmental inclusivity.
- Deep Ecumenism. “Ecumenism” is inter-religious dialogue; “deep ecumenism,” in theologian Matthew Fox’s sense, is inter-religious practice. Deep ecumenism is to join from one’s own faith, from the full authenticity of one’s own spiritual practice, to touch the essence of another. By bridging differences of doctrine and liturgy, we can experience the unity we call God without diluting any faith, practice or creed – and thus disrupt the authority of triumphal particularism in religious life.
- Integral Halachah. Judaism’s most disruptive innovator is one of its oldest becoming new again. Halachah (Jewish law), rooted in 2,000 years of Talmudic tradition, often offers yesteryear’s answers to today’s questions. Integral halachah harnesses Talmud’s multi-vocal, adaptive and democratic nature to evolve 21st century answers, with a rigorous process that transcends and includes all that came before. The result disruptively innovates both doctrine and doctrinal process from the inside, breaking the monopoly of preservationism in a way that renews the Jewish mission of continuous disruptive innovation as a core value in spiritual life.
We all descend from innovators. Innovation, particularly disruptive innovation, is encoded in our spiritual DNA. It is the way of all human life, and the way of all spiritual life. It must be the way of Jewish life again. When the glass breaks, as it always will, we must pick up the pieces without fear. Better yet: we must be unafraid – at the right times and in the right ways – to break the glass ourselves, and joyfully shout out a hearty “mazal tov.”
Dedicated to my teachers Rabbis Leila Gal Berner, Nadya Gross, Victor Gross, Marcia Prager and Shohama Wiener – spiritual children of Reb Zalman, innovators and dreamers of the dreams.
Pronounced: SAY-der, Origin: Hebrew, literally “order”; usually used to describe the ceremonial meal and telling of the Passover story on the first two nights of Passover. (In Israel, Jews have a seder only on the first night of Passover.)
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.