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The Flexigidity Exchange, Part 1: Taking a Broad View of Jewish History

by Shmuel Rosner

March 5, 2014 | 5:22 am

Gidi Grinstein

Gidi Grinstein is the Founder and President of The Reut Institute, a Tel-Aviv based nonprofit and nonpartisan institution, described by Tom Friedman of the New York Times as "Israel's premier strategy group". Between 1999 and 2001 he served as the Secretary and Coordinator of the Israeli delegation to the Peace Negotiations with the PLO in the Bureau of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. In his capacity, he participated in the 2000 Camp David Summit and in the negotiations on the Clinton Ideas. Prior hereto, Grinstein worked in the Economic Cooperation Foundation. He holds a Master degree in Public Policy from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government as a Wexner-Israel Fellow (2002) and a Bachelor degree in Economics (1991) and Law (1999) from Tel-Aviv University. He served as an economist in the Israeli Navy (1991-1995) and holds the rank of Captain (Res).

The following exchange will focus on Grinstein's new book  Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability & Challenge and Opportunity Facing Israel.

Dear Gidi,

I'd like to start this exchange by telling our readers that I was very much involved in the publication of the Hebrew version of this book. While this fact does make me somewhat less objective than usual, I hope it won't prevent me from asking you some challenging questions…

Your book begins by introducing the idea of Flexigidity- a hybrid term which derives from 'flexibility' and 'rigidity'. You basically argue that it was the Jewish people's ability to be both flexible and rigid that enabled it to survive for so long and to manage to overcome countless different challenges while still preserving its distinct identity and age-old traditions. You point out that while Jewish history is clearly a tale of remarkable change, evolution, and adaptability, it is also a story of deep conservatism and rigid adherence to tradition.

Besides telling a historical narrative, the book also addresses itself to today's Jewish leaders and calls them to seek inspiration and insight in the Jewish people's 'flexigid' past (to engage in "flexigid leadership"). Now, while being inspired by the Jewish people's remarkable flexibility (which could be associated with Jewish ingenuity and progress) is easy to imagine, the idea of finding inspiration in Jewish 'rigidity' is a bit more challenging. If it were Jewish 'tenacity', perhaps the concept would be easier to grasp (how does 'flexinacity' sound?), but does one ever really aspire to rigidity?

My first question- What do you mean by 'rigidity' and what lessons could today's Jewish leaders learn from the rigid aspects of the Jewish story? What's the difference between 'flexigid leadership' and flexible leadership?

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

Let me begin by explaining the concept of 'flexigid leadership'. It refers to acts of leadership that are inspired by a holistic, broad, historic and systemic view of Jewish society, history and future, aiming to serve the collective security and prosperity of the entire community. It is different from leadership initiatives that serve a narrow cause or a single issue of a specific constituency. Therefore, it may emanate from any area of Jewish society – from progressive or from conservative factions, from Israel or from the Diaspora – and be inspired by tradition or innovation. The Schusterman Foundation’s ROI Community, Moishe Housem, and the network of Chabad Houses are examples of Flexigid leadership.

Flexigid leaders, who want to influence the entirety of Jewish society, must in their vision and action take into account a great diversity of societal phenomena and engage with partners across the Jewish world. They need to ‘negotiate' and ‘deliberate' with a multi-faceted group of people and organizations. They must be able to work beyond their natural constituency, collaborating with factions that have different values, priorities and patterns. By doing so, they transcend the existing delineations within society and create a new reality of transformative alignments and coalitions. Shared interests may be important, but they are also contextual and insufficient for sustaining resilient and long-lasting partnerships. In this respect, Flexigid leadership is inherently flexible.

But, flexigid leadership is also doggedly rigid, particularly in its service of an audacious vision. It must advance a transformation that remedies a crisis between the existing order and the emerging reality by adapting the prevailing mindset, existing structures and institutions, language and discourse that are no longer effective. Such leadership inevitably meets fierce resistance and requires determinant resolution.

Finally, essential and integral to lasting Jewish flexigid leadership is affecting existing institutions and building new ones. Such Flexigid leadership is rarely just about articulating a vision, initiative or a specific program, but also about developing the institutions and capacities that will carry it forward, theoretically in perpetuity. Indeed, many of the towering figures of Jewish history were relentless institution-builders. Rabban Yochanan Ben-Zakai built the academy in Yavne, Rabbi Akiva had forty thousand students, Rabbi Saadia Gaon led the Jewish academies in Babylon and Herzl initiated key institutions of the Zionist movement.

Our time is unique in the unprecedented pace of technological and societal change within the Jewish People and in the world at large. Meanwhile, though the Jewish People may have never been more powerful, we have also rarely been as vulnerable. Over 80% of the world's Jews are centered in just two political baskets, undermining the extensive network which has laid at the heart of Jewish adaptability through the long years of our exile. The argument put forward in Flexigidity is that there is a dire need for more leaders who take the broad view of Jewish history and society, precisely right now, when the Jewish People seems to be at a moment of historical prosperity and security.

 

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