Israel, Living in Jerusalem

This is About as Amateur Anthropology as you can Possibly Get

One of the highlights of this year living in Israel has been the Israel Seminar that takes place all day every Wednesday. In this class, we are engaged in the continual process of peeling back the layers of Israeli society, politics, history, and culture. As part of this class, I was recently sent with a team of fellow students out into the field to interview Israelis about their thoughts on local and national issues of importance.

Early in the morning a couple weeks ago, we boarded the train, taking the same route that the Ottomans used over a century ago to get to Jerusalem. We travelled to Beit Shemesh – a city about 30 km from Jerusalem – which over the past decade has been the focal point of tensions surrounding gender issues, immigrant rights, political corruption, and the relationship between Haredim and secular Jews.

Our goal was simple – speak with a diversity of people, ask them questions about their thoughts on the pressing issues of the day, and get it all on film. As our instructor slyly put it, “this is about as amateur anthropology as you can possibly get.”

You can watch our sheepish attempt at amateur anthropology (in Hebrew) up top. I’m working on getting English subtitles soon.

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Ideas, Judaism - General

Rabbi Google & Emergent Jewish Leadership

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“In an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, [Google] also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.”

Thomas Friedman, How to Get a Job at Google

Many of my fellow rabbinical students will often jokingly quip that we are training to enter an already redundant field, given how easy it is to google the answers to many Jewish questions, without the need to learn with or consult a rabbi in person.

Yes, Google has changed my job, making it more challenging in some ways. But Google is a visionary organization, and I’m not going to rant about how the internet has destroyed Jewish community life. Truth be told, the Jewish world could learn many lessons from Google’s forward-thinking perspective.

So here’s just one (or a few, really…)

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman has a great piece outlining how Google goes about interviewing and selecting prospective employees [see: How to Get a Job at Google]. These are the things Google looks for:

  1. General Cognitive Abilitythe ability to process on the fly
  2. Emergent Leadershipthe ability to step in and out of leadership
  3. Humility & Ownership – the ability to embrace boldness, responsibility, and others’ ideas
  4. Intellectual Humilitythe ability to embrace failure

The number-one thing that Google doesn’t look for? Expertise.

Surprise! While much of the North American professional world is otherwise obsessed with stacking up institutional leadership experiences and traditional resume-building, Google’s model upends this notion. It is one from which the Jewish world could learn much. Here’s what I think we can borrow from them:

When Google speaks of General Cognitive Ability, they don’t mean how smart one is in terms of I.Q.; they’re looking for “the ability to process on the fly… to pull together disparate bits of information.” This is a great perspective on the power of liberal, progressive Judaism. There is value and power in learning from our texts, but Jewish leadership should not be solely concerned with amassing as much knowledge as possible; we must also be able to find meaning in all of the “bits” of modern existence, and quickly respond to the needs of our constituents. More on this, and the tension with accumulating knowledge, later…

Google presents Emergent Leadership in opposition to traditional models of leadership, which valued answering questions such as “Were you the president of the chess club? Were you the vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there?” Google doesn’t care about these things; they care about how one is able to face problems with the ability to step in and out of leadership roles appropriately. In this light, we should be less concerned with how quickly one rises to become Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, and more concerned with how quickly said Executive Director is able to make room for others to lead within the organization. We should be less concerned with filling traditional institutional roles just for the sake of maintaining continuity, and instead concern ourselves with the divine Jewish concept of tzimtzum – the ability to step back and make room for others to lead.

Moshe Rabbeinu – the Jewish leader exemplar – is our prime model of Humility and Ownership. Perhaps Google turned to him for inspiration, when they wrote about their valuing “the sense of responsibility [and] ownership to step in… and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others.” Anavut (humility) goes hand-in-hand with the previous value of tzimtzum. We should be bold in our leadership, fostering personal and communal ownership of the role of Judaism in our lives. But we must also be humble, acknowledging that we do not have all the answers, and that there is a vast ocean of good Jewish ideas being brought to the world. Liberal Judaism doesn’t have all the answers to how to live life Jewishly; there is much we can learn from the ownership models of Orthodox Judaism and organizations outside the bounds of our own religion.

It seems to me that humility really drives much of Google’s model of leadership. Friedman’s article notes that Google isn’t just looking for humility in how people make room for others, they are looking for Intellectual Humility. Laszlo Bock, the Senior Vice President of People Operations for Google, aptly quotes that “Without humility, you are unable to learn.” Bock points to the fundamental error that many successful people are prone to: “If something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius. If something bad happens, it’s because someone’s an idiot or I didn’t get the resources or the market moved…”

How often do we rush to blame others for our own failures? As a result of his own greatest failure, Moshe Rabbeinu doesn’t get the greatest reward – the ability to enter into the Promised Land. But he ultimately embraces his failure and doesn’t try to blame others. Bock teaches us Google’s model of intellectual humility:

“What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ ” You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.”

This embraces the same dichotomy of ownership and humility – we need Jewish leaders with big egos to present radical ideas on behalf of their communities. At the same time, we need these  leaders to be balanced with small egos so that when they fail, they can be open to failure, change their mind, and keep going.

How about Google’s least important value – expertise? In this respect, Google’s model sits in tension with Judaism, where we place great emphasis on learning and amassing untold amounts of textual knowledge. Google says:

“The expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.’ Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer… because most of the time it’s not that hard.”

This doesn’t square well with Judaism’s focus on specific textual and ritual knowledge. As Jewish leaders, it is our responsibility to teach others how to become experts in their Jewish lives; how to maintain ownership of their Jewish lives. This most certainly involves encouraging expertise and excellence.

But we can take Google’s understanding of traditional expertise, and reframe it in a model of Jewish leadership that shows us how to approach those who are not yet experts. We can and should value Jewish expertise and hold it up as an aspirational value. It’s just that how we encourage others to get there is not via the traditional way; it is through Google’s four-pronged approach to hiring.

We should not merely encourage Jews to amass a resume full of textual knowledge. The old trope of “this is what Jews do” is increasingly meaningless to most Jews. We need more Jewish leaders who understand this, and who embrace a model of leadership that speaks to the ways in which Jews search for answers today.

Jewish spiritual leaders should embrace the concepts of a holistic, progressive paradigm (General Cognitive Ability),  tzimtzum (Emergent Leadership), anavut (Humility and Ownership), and the character of Moshe Rabbeinu (Intellectual Humility). 

In this way, we will encourage visionary ways of living Jewishly that can’t simply be found from Rabbi Google.

Judaism - Reform

What’s good about Reform Judaism?

Just as we were taking our seats in class today, and with little forewarning, my classmates and I read this question as Rabbi Marmur wrote it on the board. The question had been lingering beneath the surface for a while, as of yet unanswered in our class entitled, Why I am a Reform Jew. Our minds were already racing for answers as the question, “What is not good about Reform Judaism?” joined its pair on the whiteboard.

Ask a group of Jews these questions, and you’re sure to open the floodgates to a world of opinions. As a group of rabbinical students those questions at the Reform rabbinical school, and… well, you better have your scuba gear ready.

Our answers were wide, varied, and deep. They reflect the diversity of opinion and belief amongst our class. Deeply personal at times, they are thoughtfully critical of the things we need to work on, and unabashedly praiseful of the things we’re getting right.

What fascinated me the most was not the diversity of opinions shared (as impressive as it was), rather it was those ideas that appeared in both categories, and those that didn’t appear at all. What do we think that Reform Judaism is doing that is both good and bad? What are we doing that is promising, yet also has room for growth and reconsideration? And what aren’t we doing at all?!

Here’s a rundown of the things that appeared in both columns:

  • Choice
  • No Reform halakha
  • Liturgical creativity
  • The wealth of Reform Jews
  • Patrilineal descent
  • Not enough God-talk

And until we were prompted to think a little deeper, little was mentioned of:

  • God
  • Torah
  • Israel

A word first on the God/Torah/Israel triumvirate: I would hazard a guess to say that we didn’t say much about these three things simply because they are part and parcel of all that we do. While there’s a diversity of belief and practice surrounding these three pillars, they remain the central foci of Judaism. It was only after Rabbi Marmur drew our attention to their absence from either of the lists that we started narrowing down our focus and commenting on various aspects of the three. Those may be the topic of a later discussion, but for now, let’s take a look at our good/bad things of Reform Judaism.

By no means was this a scientific study. That said, I believe our answers shine a light on some of the major issues that are being grappled with today among committed Reform Jews. These are things we aren’t content to let hide in dark corners, untouched:

 

CHOICE

One of the first things mentioned by some in the class was the notion that the slogan “choice through knowledge” still bears weight and meaning, and represents an ideal vision of what Reform Judaism can aspire to be. But it also confronts us with the reality of choice through lack of knowledge, which remains a challenge for the knowledgeable leadership, and an impetus for the continued improvement of our educational models.

 

NO REFORM HALAKHA

On the one hand, the lack of a clearly defined set of instructions of what Reform Jews do and don’t do is a continued frustration for many. It makes it hard for us to talk about ourselves objectively and to think about how we interact with and share experiences with the wider Jewish world. And yet, it is a hallmark of the “big-tent” Judaism that we aspire to be, and makes us uniquely suited to reach out and help many unattached Jews find meaningful new Jewish experiences. So how do we hold high the values of personal meaning-making and self-agency, along with the need to have an accessible guide to Reform Jewish practice and belief?

 

LITURGICAL CREATIVITY

How do we balance a desire to have worship that is firmly attached to our textual roots, yet is freshly inspiring and reaches up to the heights of our creative imaginations? How do we bring together authenticity and creativity? How do we help maintain the liturgical innovations that Reform Judaism brought to the Jewish world, yet not become stagnant in our prayerful language?

 

THE WEALTH OF REFORM JEWS

Once, eons ago, Reform Judaism might have believed that Judaism is a private matter of the individual. Now, that idea is as anathema to us as a mechitza. clearly, there is an interplay between religion and the wider world that is of paramount importance. The gross wealth inequalities in North America – and yes, this includes those among Reform Jews – is something that draws our attention. This wealth opens many doors to meaningful experiences (summer camp, higher education, philanthropy, etc.), yet it cannot merely be seen as a private matter. What is the balance between personal and communal responsibility? We need not look further than Rabbi Hillel for the answer…

 

PATRILINEAL DESCENT

A key and central idea of Reform Judaism’s inclusiveness: the way a family observes Judaism at home and educates children is more important than which parent “owns” the right to pass Judaism on to their child. While this was a radical innovation when the Reform Movement introduced it in 1983, it actual has its roots firmly in the tribal affiliation of our biblical ancestors. Without question, championing patrilineal descent has brought tens of thousands of people into the realm of Jewish life, and has enabled countless families to make Judaism a meaningful part of their lives. Can we even begin to imagine how different life would have been for these people in an alternate reality? At the same time, the decision represented a radical divergence in the trajectory of Jewish life, further distinguishing Reform Judaism from other movements. An issue that cuts directly to the core of our being, this isn’t just a question of personal or communal belief or observance – it has to do with how we define ourselves as humans. So how do we take our firm belief in patrilineal descent in one hand, along with our desire to not be isolationists in the landscape of Judaism?

 

NOT ENOUGH GOD-TALK

Once we were prompted to think about more about how God, Torah, and Israel fit within the context of the two guiding questions,  a number of new ideas jumped out, but all were confined to one side or the other – except this one. While Reform Judaism makes room for a diversity of beliefs and conversations on the nature of God, I believe it is equally important for us to push ourselves to think and talk more about God – discovering new ideas and approaches to our relationship with The Most High. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein once shared with me: “It’s very hard for me to think of God and how God exists in this world, but it’s even harder for me to think of a world where God doesn’t exist.”

 

A closing caveat and thought: the ideas above don’t represent any official stance of Reform Judaism, nor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion nor of our instructor, Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur. Rather, they are the thoughts, ideas, and challenges being confronted, upheld, wrestled with, and championed by this generation of rabbinical students. Like any ideas, they have supporters and they have detractors. There are a multiplicity of opinions on how significant these issues are, and how we should approach them (or if we should at all).

I think, perhaps, that this is my favorite part of Rabbinical School so far – the ability to dive head first into issues of real substance, get dirty, wrestle and play around in the muck; then think about how much I want to shower off, and how much I want to make a part of my skin. It’s not easy – I’m confronted with serious challenges to things I thought I was sure about, and with real questions about the ideas of others. But perhaps this is precisely the idea at the heart of the words of R. Yosey ben Yoezer:

“Make your house a meeting house for the sages; and get sooty in the dust of their feet, and drink with thirst their words.”

(Pirkei Avot 1:4)