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Jewish Journal

Opinion: Don’t abandon old in pursuit of ‘Next’

by Yehuda Kurtzer

November 2, 2011 | 3:24 pm

Yehuda Kurtzer.

Yehuda Kurtzer.

Over the last few years, I have spent considerable time on the inside of what is called the “innovation sector” in Jewish life, even spending two terrific and unexpected years as a professor of Jewish communal innovation at Brandeis University. Most recently, the new organization that I am leading, the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, was named in its first year of existence to the prestigious Slingshot list, which catalogs and profiles the most innovative organizations working in the Jewish community.

Throughout this time, I have heard — and sometimes shared! — a lot of skepticism and antagonism about this terminology about “innovation.” And with good reason. The Jewish community in North America is in dramatic flux, as its defining institutions are vulnerable to cultural changes, leadership crises, dramatically different financial realities, and totally different models of affiliation and membership that threaten their membership rolls and the power that they have wielded for so long. Or we might paint the situation more drastically: Judaism, in general, is still an old religion seeking to make sense of seemingly incompatible modern values and ideas, and struggling in so many of its diverse incarnations just to survive in the marketplace of the present.

With all of this fear and trepidation, all of this talk of the new, the innovative — read: the different, the better — generates predictable fear and anxiety. This innovation sector tends to emphasize the work of outsiders, of young people and of those willing to challenge the status quo. What does this portend for the austere and august institutions that have served the Jewish community for so long? If so many of these young leaders are products of “the establishment,” why does their attention seem so focused on the marginal? Ultimately, what is going to be the relationship between the mainstream (which needs so much help) and the margins (where there seems to be so much enthusiasm and energy)?

And on the flip side, there is considerable anxiety as well on the innovation side of things. For all the attention flowing to the young Turks, the money has flowed more slowly — and usually in the form of start-up grants that dry up, ironically, as the organization moves into its critical and stabilizing second phase. If the innovation sector is being treated, even by its supporters, as faddish, what is the long-term success proposition for the legitimately good and important ideas that are swept up in this fervor?

But after all this, I think innovation in Jewish life is actually quite a simple proposition: To be cutting-edge or innovative in today’s Jewish community is to see systemic failures in Jewish life — whether organizational, cultural, methodological, or ideological — and to build a bridge from bad practices to good ones. The best Jewish innovators need not be young or iconoclastic; in fact, I would suggest that we will be best equipped to envision the present if we are well rooted in our past, emboldened and empowered by those who have come before us to have both confidence in the present and an optimistic eye toward the future.

The language of innovation is suffering badly from its blending meaninglessly with “newness.” Perhaps it is just Ecclesiastes ringing in my ears from hearing it read last week in shul, but I am not convinced that what we will come up with as “new” will really be new, or, for that matter, that what is new will necessarily be better. Jewish tradition actually embeds the role of innovation into its own integral ecosystem; for all its trivialities and minutiae, rabbinic traditions are driven by the centrality of the hiddush — the innovative idea or interpretation — which takes a stalled understanding or an outdated mode and gives it new meaning. The classical rabbis, I think, were less constrained by failed methodologies than they were by the ways in which those methodologies were understood. Their own surprising self-reflection about the beit midrash — the traditional study house, in so many ways the picture of staid and stodgy old Judaism — is very telling: “There is no study house without innovation.” Put differently, if the work of the past and the present does not involve a constant renewing and refreshing, then the old becomes stale while the new remains uninspired.

In our current work with the Hartman Institute — as one of the older institutions represented on Slingshot, but now one of the newer innovators on the block — we are trying to carry out a very plain but hopefully novel experiment. Our methodology is pleasantly “old school.” We believe in the interpersonal encounter with a text and a scholar, around a table in a classroom (or, more often, in a conference room of a strong Jewish institution). We also continue to rely heavily on the classical canon of Jewish thought and ideas, even as we work both to refresh the ideas and to find new delivery systems for the best of what Jewish tradition has to offer. Sure, we are growing our Web and social media presence, and we use all sorts of technologies both to run our internal operation and to broadcast the messages coming out of the work of our world-class research teams. But at the end of the day, we basically believe that the fundamentals of the educational encounter need not change. What does need to change — constantly and furiously — is the content of our conversations and the roster of the participants around the table.

This then might be one mechanism by which we as a community more effectively blend the old with the new, the fresh with the seasoned, the venerable institutions with the vervy start-ups: By focusing on the seriousness of the content of Jewish life, investing in the major ideas that characterize Judaism and have been its principal legacy, and then massively diversifying the base of participants who can take ownership of this hybrid between new and old. What are the big ideas for the Jewish future? It may just be the stuff of the Jewish past.

Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He was visiting assistant professor and the inaugural Chair of Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis University.

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