Tuesday, December 21, 2010

3rd Century Disruptive Innovation
for Our Time

The photo shows the fellows and Lookstein staff in the theater 
at Zippori. (l to r: Front row: Dr. Eliezer Jones, Shalom 
Burger, Elana RIvel; 2nd row: Barry Gruber, Lillian Howard, 
Lisa Micley, Ellen Dietrick, Esther Feldman, Robyn Faintich, 
Ira Wise, Sid Singer, Jonathan Fass; 3rd row: Guide and 
Archaeologist Amit Dagan, Joy Wasserman, evaluator 
Elizabeth Bachrach, Zvi Grumet, Rachel Meytin, Nechemia 
Ichilov and 4th row: Howard Blas.)
I am currently in Israel, nearing the end of the final meeting of the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan. For the past 8 days, we have been exploring the idea of innovation in Jewish Education. We have learned from teachers of text, venture capitalists and disruptive change consultants. Today we explored the city of Zippori, not far from Haifa. It was the birthplace of the Mishnah. I shared this D'var Torah at the end of our time there.




Zippori is the site of one of the biggest innovations of the Tannaitic period. L’havdel: Kerry Olitzky suggests that the true miracle of Chanukah was not the jar of oil (never mind issues of historical accuracy) but the fact that in the rabbinic story, they chose to light the menorah anyway, even though there was not enough oil. Judah’s vision was to take the leap and rededicate immediately. Similarly, while the redaction of the Mishnah – which took place here at Zippori – was absolutely a disruptive innovation, I think the actual miracle was the decision to write it – it was the product of incredible vision as well.

History is riddled with examples of leaders who led their own generation well, but lacked or simply didn’t use the imagination to visualize the long-term future of their people. In hindsight, it is easy for us to say it must have been obvious to Yehuda Hanasi that the Jewish people would soon become even more dispersed. But was it really?

Zippori shows us a city that was vibrant. Jews and Romans lived among one another. The place was alive with culture and learning. Coexistence ruled the day. Hadrian’s persecutions were generations in the past. The city had avoided the fate that befell so many others in the previous 130 years. The Sanhedrin was there. The new month was declared there. Cultural egotism suggests that just as in Spain in the late 15th century, Germany in the 20’s and early 30’s and America today – life in Zippori was good, perhaps the Beverly Hills of its time. Why would they have anticipated leaving?

It took real vision – chazon – for Yehuda Hanasi to look beyond the good life of his day and see the coming storm clouds. He saw the need to put the Oral Law into writing, making it portable as the Jews went into galut or diaspora (depending on your perspective). Clearly those of us who came after appreciate his foresight.

In the Talmud Yehuda Hanasi is simply call “Rabbi.” Like David Hamelekh, he becomes the exemplar of his field. After him, the rabbis of Bavel are called Rav, not rabbi. His vision is like Jeremiah’s who also worked to adapt Judaism to survive a lengthy road trip. He was also the MacGuyver of his day. He took the tools at hand: students, teachers, Torah and 400 years of Oral Law and used the division tool (in Systemic Inventive Thinking terms) to reorganize and arrange it in a way that would work and travel.

So my question is: “How do we understand the disruptions to come?” We have a good sense of the digital/analog divide and the need to help learners encounter Jewish life through both lenses. And many of us have begun to speak about how the expression of people’s spiritual and learning needs are changing. Many talk about needing to jettison existing structures for “something new.” I think a real challenge is going to be to figure out what to keep.

The rabbis of the Gemara often found the need to bring a teaching from the Mishnaic period that did not make it into the Mishnah itself. Fortunately for us, they and their students had the memory to have brought the baraitot – teachings from the rabbis of the Mishnah that were left on the editing room floor – with them.

I am concerned that as we restructure Jewish education – and I think we must – we might also lose some of the ideas we will need further down the road of innovation. The tension over not losing things of value (I confess to being a bit of a pack rat myself) should not hold us back from initiating change, yet we need to make sure we have some kind of backup hard drive. Rabbi had his students, who became the next generation of teachers. We should look to our students as well.

Finally, in The Networked Nonprofit*, Allison Fine and Beth Kantor suggest that when we talk about “social media,” the more important word in that smichut is “social,” not “media.” Our learners are seeing through a digital lens, and we need to speak to that viewpoint. We must remember that the point is to bring people together to learn, to pray and to be a part of a community.


* Darim is hosting a Book Group Discussion on this book on Facebook in January.

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