Can we recreate the Jewish Enlightenment?
Why does it seem we've forgotten that difficult doesn't mean impossible?
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When I talk to people about what we’re building at JOOL to revitalize the Jewish world, most reply with something like: “Wow, how are you possibly gonna get this massive initiative off the ground?!” or “It’s really gonna be hard!”
The issue with these reactions is not just that anything easy or minor probably has already been attempted. And that transformational impact, the mother of innovation and technology, isn’t generated by sweat-free labor.
The issue is that we have seemingly stopped dreaming big. We’ve become terrified of, intimidated by, apprehensive to, and discouraged from doing hard things. Have we frivolously forgotten that progress and success are the results of an optimistic, undying determination to try, to experiment, to get in bed with trial and error?
“Think of Birthright, whose success was possible because there were 20 years of trial and error, mostly error, in creating the youth Israel experience,” said Andrés Spokoiny, CEO of Jewish Funders Network. “It’s not as if an awesome genius has a lightbulb moment. It’s hard work and you have to be open to try and fail and try again, and then eventually things coalesce.”1
Moreover, we seem to have forgotten that difficult does not mean impossible. The result is an overall lack of progress, and not just in the Jewish world. During the 50 years, we have seen “relative stagnation in technological and industrial progress,” according to Jason Crawford, who founded Roots of Progress. “Nuclear power was stunted, the Apollo program was canceled, the Concorde was grounded.”2
Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and billionaire entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and political activist, said that mosts fields of engineering “have been bad things to go into since the 1970s: nuclear engineering, aero- and astronautical engineering, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, even electrical engineering. We are living in a material world, so that’s pretty big to miss out on. I don’t think we’re living in an incredibly fast technological age.”3
In 2011, George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen wrote a digital pamphlet called The Great Stagnation, in which he claimed the U.S. economy has reached a historical technological plateau, and the factors that drove economic growth for most of the United States’ history are no longer present. His theory is that these factors have contributed to, for example, stagnation in the median U.S. wage since 1973.
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But life was not always this way. Just a few centuries ago, Western thinkers were caught up in a wave of optimism for technology, humanity and the future, based on the new philosophy of the Enlightenment — what Crawford calls “a philosophy of progress.” At the end of the 18th century, the Marquis de Condorcet gave expression to this philosophy and its optimism in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind — predicting unlimited progress, not only in science and technology, but in morality and society.
“By the end of the 19th century,” Crawford wrote, “it was obvious that the world had entered a new age, and progress was its watchword. The boundless optimism of the early Enlightenment seemed to have been justified.”
In the Jewish world, needle-moving progress seems to have precariously stalled as well. What and when was the last great Jewish innovation? I would argue, in no particular order, the Jewish world has experienced only three extraordinary, transformative gains during the last century or so:
The State of Israel (1948)
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been other gains in the Jewish world. Of course there have been. The aforementioned Taglit-Birthright Israel is one of them. Yet even Michael Steinhardt, one of Birthright’s billionaire founders, told a friend of mine that the program “didn’t do what I wanted it to do.”
Not to mention, when you study the immense amount of recent, readily available data about the Jewish world, particularly in the U.S. and Israel — home to the two largest Jewish populations — you start to understand that momentous, definitive, needle-moving progress, at least of late, is sparse.
“The difficulty for the Jewish community is to innovate without succumbing to faddism,” wrote Amy Sales, formerly of Brandeis University. “The community regularly shifts focus from one sub-sector or enterprise to another, always in search of the next ‘big thing,’ the ‘magic bullet’ that will make Jews out of its children.”4
“There is a danger in the community’s faddism,” Sales added. “The institution in the spotlight is often expected to be the be-all-and-end-all … Such an expectation inevitably leads to disappointment.”
And even when experimentation does take place in the Jewish world, “local professionals are often unaware of the activity of their national organization and of the lessons from its experiments and pilots,” Sales wrote. “They, themselves, give little heed to disseminating lessons from their own innovative work. There are few mechanisms for diffusing local innovation to other parts of the field. In addition, little has been done to scale up projects that seem ripe for such growth. Directors in local organizations do not have the capacity to scale up, and many of the foundation executives we interviewed are uncertain about how to diffuse innovation and bring good ideas up to scale.”