The Ethics of Innovation
Fri, 05/14/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
Shmuly Yanklowitz
Shmuly Yanklowitz

Faster! Bigger! Newer! More in touch! The innovative sector of Jewish life is thriving as never before through grassroots movements, including hip prayer groups, Jewish farming, and religious community organizing that are emerging to meet an expanding range of Jewish needs. While I consider myself a social entrepreneur within this trend and am excited by its progress and creativity, I can’t help but raise ethical concerns and questions about this progress. Why do so many innovators find it necessary to disparage the larger Jewish establishments? Why is there often so much inter-generational and inter-cultural animosity in the Jewish marketplace of ideas? Can innovators collaborate and support the time-honored institutions and still be avant-garde?

We also must be proud of the “un-innovative,” also known as the traditional systems and institutions that raised us, and instilled our values. We should be sure to acknowledge our gratitude to these systems in our cutting-edge discourse. There is a critical role for “intrapreneurs,” those who bring innovation from inside existing institutions and shape institutional change from within by devising innovative strategies to harness the wisdom of experience and tradition with the creative energy and ideas of a newer generation.

The discourse in the innovative sector should reflect an appreciation for the traditions and establishments given to us by previous generations of Jews. When we don’t express our appreciation for our sources of inspiration and our need for partnership, we risk a grave danger. Jewish tradition teaches that one who acknowledges the source of a statement or idea brings redemption to the world. Those of us who innovate and fail to acknowledge our roots foster an unredeemed world. We cannot think that our exuberance for youthful grassroots leadership is diminished by partnering with and supporting the larger Jewish community convention and systems: the shul, the day school, the federation, or our traditional texts. Indeed, some ostentatious groundbreakers have prematurely prophesied that these pillars of Judaism will become extinct, without realizing that the wings of our innovation soar higher by embracing our tradition.

We also should be reminded that those we term “un-innovative” are themselves constantly changing and innovating, although often in ways that are less visible. The traditional Jewish legal system, for example, has continued to evolve and respond to the needs of each era while maintaining ancient truths and values as guiding principles. Real revolutionary thinking and living should not be destructive, since true innovation is collaborative and invites shared leadership. Contemporary Jewish trailblazers would be wise to think twice before creating the classical “us and them” dichotomy, relegating the major Jewish establishments to the “them” category. Our establishments do change with the times and they need our voices and energy to continue to do so.

Additionally, our institutions meet broader Jewish communal needs and have a much larger scope than younger, innovative organizations. For example, there is currently a lot of momentum around independent partnership minyanim that often provide a vibrant lay-led alternative to traditional prayer. These minyanim are important because they are able to meet the needs of many seekers in ways that the traditional synagogue often cannot. However, these minyanim often cannot meet the broader communal need to support life cycle events with a rabbinic presence; nor can such innovative minyanim always provide more extensive communal leadership. Independent minyanim should pay tribute to the success of the traditional synagogues working alongside for their own development offering a hybrid solution as some began to do at a conference in New York last month. If these new minyanim operate on a model of competition and do not collaborate with established institutions, then we risk the warning of the Gemarrah that “Binyan Ne’arim Steera, V’Stirat zekeinim binyan,” sometimes the building of the young destroys and the destructions of the elders build.

To be sure, many Jewish trailblazers are thinking and acting in these symbiotic terms. Bikkurim, a remarkable incubator for new Jewish ideas mediates between tradition and innovation by advocating “conversations between the committed promoters of new ideas and the established institutions of the organized Jewish community.” It’s what Presentense, an institute dedicated to helping Jewish social entrepreneurs, calls “rootedness”, the discovery that “the creative mind should be connected to the past in order to develop ideas for the future.” Generation X (mid 20s to early 40s) and Generation Y (mid 20s and younger) are leveraging community resources effectively to create a new sense of possibility for future activists, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists.

In turn, instead of rejecting and alienating young innovators, the Jewish community needs to acknowledge its own vital need for more pioneers and encourage their emergence. Our community is craving more donor initiatives like Slingshot, which seeks to “change the way philanthropic dollars are allocated in the community, enabling everyone to partake in the joy of creating Jewish life for today and generations to come.” Ensuring Jewish continuity will require the funding of youthful expression and entrepreneurship by extraordinary enterprises like the Joshua Venture and ROI, and it also will require the respect of those pioneers for their roots.

Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka, a group that works to identify a cadre of elite "social entrepreneurs,” also has a more inclusive idea for our generation. Drayton proclaims that "everyone is a Changemaker," because he distinguishes a "social entrepreneur" as someone who innovates, and a "changemaker" as someone who implements change from within the community. Over the past several years, Drayton’s definitions have grown in use within the world of social change.

While social entrepreneurs ought to be recognized for their radically innovative ideas, society also desperately needs as many changemakers as possible –including the “non-innovative,” those who remain dedicated to addressing core problems in our community in classical form. Support for the elderly, camps, and yeshivot cannot fall from our radar in an era that rightfully seeks to perpetuate fresh approaches and goals, often of a broader scope than our community previously has addressed or undertaken. The newness celebrated by social entrepreneurs is unique precisely in its relationship to the vintage, and that is reason enough to honor and embrace the latter.

The first mitzvah in the Torah is Peru U'revu (be fruitful and multiply). This commandment is generally understood as a command to procreate. However, the Me’am Loez, the great 18th c. Turkish Torah commentator, suggests that this mitzvah is fulfilled through learning and spiritual creativity. The first Jewish imperative, thus explained, is to seek creativity and to transform the world in new ways, but only if those ways are built on a foundation of sacred memory. The tradition itself commands sanctified innovation and novelty as the first necessity of Jewish law. For Jewish creativity to actualize its full potential in dynamism and meaning, the core Jewish values must not be neglected. Innovation can never be the end objective, nor can it be the barometer for success, since it may sometimes pose threats and unnecessary competition to our most necessary systems. We need to keep our eyes on the prize – namely, the just and the holy.

The act of honoring our sacred foundations can enable our dreams. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, a 4th year rabbinical school student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and a 4th year PHD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.
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This is a great piece, bringing much-needed nuance to this topic. Personally, I think the Jewish community's circular conversation about innovation is just a small part of a much larger problem: the entire conversation about Jewish communal and organizational structures seems to center on tactics and not objectives. The goals are not agreed upon, nor clearly defined. For example, what does 'Jewish' mean, or 'Jewish identity'? These terms are in a thousand mission statements, but what do they mean? It doesn't bother me when two organizations have two different definitions as much as it bothers me when one organization has NO definition, nor any possibility of its leaders coming to agreement on a definition. In fact, massive organizations and alliances between multiple organizations maintain precisely this kind of nebulous, ill-defined mission. If we were clear about our goals, then the only question would be, what tactic (among the set of morally acceptable tactics) is most effective? Whether the most effective tactic was brand new or old as mountains would become completely irrelevant. But since (in the broad Jewish communal world) we dare not draw firm definitions, for the sake of 'Jewish unity,' we tend to cling to an unspoken agreement never to discuss what is most important. And then we argue about the color of the drapes -- or about tactics, which is almost the same thing.

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