5 Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Jewish Life
A look at how tiny minorities of people have so much skin in the Jewish game, that it effectively forces the rest of us to play by their rules.
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“Skin in the game” isn’t just the idea of having a measurable risk when making major decisions. It’s also necessary for fairness, efficiency, risk management, interpersonal relationships, community development, and organizational success.
Plus, “skin in the game” is a requisite for understanding various dimensions of the Jewish world.
The phrase’s origins are uncertain, and may have originated from golf skins games played at IBM in the 1980s. Additionally, it has commonly been attributed to Warren Buffett, referring to his own investment in his initial fund.
Having skin in the game doesn’t come from reading books or from talking about them. It comes from practice. From trial and error. From defeats. From bankruptcies. From not agreeing with others. From doing something that can be beneficial for a community, or for a certain sector of society — which, unquestionably, is often hard and involves a dose of risk.
Looking good on paper is easy. Especially today. You simply need to pick the right set of vanity metrics and publish them online, which we know Jewish organizations (often the gatekeepers to Judaism and different parts of the Jewish world) tend to do.
But this is unlikely to get them, and Jews as a People, anywhere near progress and success. Hence why Judaism, particularly in the United States — home to the world’s second-largest Jewish population — is experiencing dropping institutional affiliations, among other mounting challenges.
“Quite a few congregations fail to inspire,” wrote Jack Wertheimer, a Professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary.1
And, according to Steven Windmueller, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles:
“In this condition of chaos and change, as we transition by generation, as we encounter shifting institutional models and absorb the waves of cultural and social influences, the Jewish communal enterprise is experiencing a major reset. We are facing a set of unknown and complex challenges that will fundamentally redefine our institutions and recalibrate our community as we move forward.”2
Bureaucracy, of which many Jewish organizations uphold and exemplify, is a construction by which a person is conveniently separated from the consequences of their actions. The worst casualty has been you, the individual, as increasingly more Jews sever their emotional ties with Israel, don’t see themselves in the organizations and religious streams which purport to serve them, and are generally unengaged or disengaged from Judaism.
In reality, it is the donors who make these things possible, by mechanisms of donations and bailouts, lured by vanity metrics and/or their own personal agendas which they attempt to exact on other Jews and Jewish communities.
And it is not just financial: Donor interference in general tends to remove skin in the game, which is aggravating and worrisome, because there is no evolution, no progress, no transformation, and certainly no success without skin in the game.
If we want to reverse the mostly self-inflicted, mounting challenges facing the Jewish world, we must get away from being submissive to, and dependent on, self-serving organizations, themselves gaming the system. These organizations are operated to first and foremost impress donors, and we end up with strange — irreversible — organizations that do not satisfy the well-being and continuity of the Jewish People!
We must also, each one of us personally, acquire more skin in the game. If we want to ensure the well-being and continuity of the Jewish People, we need to put ourselves out there. To take risks. To make mistakes and to learn from them. To have meaningful conversations, even if we don’t agree, with people who don’t look, act, and think like us. This is the right way, the only way, to acquire skin in the game and make a difference in our lives, in the lives of others, and in Jewish history.
As a Spartan mother would tell her departing son: With it or on it, a suggestion to either return with his shield, or don’t come back alive.
‘Soul in the Game’
At the same time, there are those, often a tiny minority, who have plenty of skin (or soul) in the game, so much so that it effectively forces the rest of us to play by their rules. This is known as hidden asymmetries.
The majority of people, by and large, are good people, yet we have laws due to a small percentage of bad actors.
Another example: The spread of automatic shifting cars is not necessarily a majority preference; it could just be because those who can drive manual shifts can always drive automatic, but the reverse is not true.
What’s more, revolutions are unarguably driven by an obsessive minority. And the entire growth of society, whether economic or moral, comes from a small number of people.
All it takes is, say, a three-percent minority for “Merry Christmas” to become “Happy Holidays.” But I suspect that should the minority rise in numbers, the effect would go away, as diverse societies are more syncretic. In Israel, where the population is 25-to-30-percent non-Jewish, many people greet each another in the Roman pagan way of sharing each other’s holidays.
In professional tennis, 90-percent of practice is focused on consistency, but artificial intelligence technology found that only 10-percent of the match play is in rallies of more than nine points.3
Let us also conjecture that the formation of moral values in society does not come from the evolution of consensus. No, it is the most intolerant person who imposes virtue on others precisely because of that intolerance. The same can apply to civil rights.
5 Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Jewish Life
An asymmetry, in this case, occurs when one actor enjoys the rewards, and another is stuck with the risks.
This is why Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the international bestselling Skin in the Game, encourages people to “focus on symmetry and risk sharing” because “forcing skin in the game corrects this asymmetry.”
“You cannot make profits and transfer the risks to others, as bankers and large corporations do,” Taleb wrote. “Forcing skin in the game corrects this asymmetry better than thousands of laws and regulations.”
“What people resent — or should resent — is the person at the top who has no skin in the game,” he added, “that is, because he doesn’t bear his allotted risk, he is immune to the possibility of falling from his pedestal, exiting his income or wealth bracket, and waiting in line outside the soup kitchen.”
Now, let’s examine how hidden asymmetries exist in daily Jewish life: