Spiritual Guidance and Social Change

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June 1, 2004
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by David Arnow

David Bornstein, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2004) $28, 320 pp.
God in All Moments: Mystical and Practical Spiritual Wisdom from Hasidic Masters, edited and translated by Or Rose with Ebn D. Leader (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004) $16.95, 163 pp.

DAVID BORNSTEIN writes with the enthusiasm of a man who has truly witnessed the power of social entrepreneurs to build nongovernmental organizations that have repaired some of what needs fixing in our sadly broken world. One fellow bucks the system in Brazil and brings electrification to a broad sector of farmers. This provides tens of thousands of families with a livelihood and slows the flight to cities and even more destitute circumstances. A woman creates a child protection hotline in India, which grows from a single location to 23 cities, and now receives almost three million calls a year and saves the lives of thousands of children. And Bill Drayton, a former EPA assistant administrator, founded Ashoka (in Sanskrit, “active absence of sorrow”), a foundation that ferrets out and makes grants to social entrepreneurs — now in 46 countries — to bring about “advances in education, environmental protection, rural development, poverty alleviation, human rights.” Aside from a few historical examples (e.g. Florence Nightingale), much of the book profiles the work of Ashoka fellows, Drayton, or the development of Ashoka itself. Interspersed, you’ll find general observations about what makes for successful social entrepreneurs and social change organizations.

An epilogue addresses September 11, which occurred midway through the project. The author put down his work for six weeks: “Its optimistic tone seemed hopelessly naïve.” Bornstein’s appraisal of the global sector’s potential is far from naïve. But after 9/11 it is hard to read his (and others’) descriptions of the social entrepreneur without a certain shudder: “monomaniac[s] with a mission”; practitioners of “creative destruction”; “people who are so restless in the pursuit of their visions that they will not give up until they have spread their ideas everywhere”; they are really possessed” (italics in the original). More than a few evil geniuses share the same characteristics.

In violent times, with the news unremittingly bleak, books like this become all the more important. This one helps us to see the good that never makes it into the news. It offers a worthy, if less poetic, rejoinder to William Butler Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” That Bornstein’s heroes remain committed to pursuing their ends through peaceful means supplies a well-needed measure of hope.

God in All Moments offers a string of luminous pearls collected from the hanhagot (spiritual practices) of Hasidic masters ranging from the Ba’al Shem Tov to neo-Hasidic teachers such as Arthur Green. Like the more familiar Hasidic tales, these hanhagot are exquisitely concise — most fewer than a dozen short lines. Each includes an equally brief and precisely crafted introduction. Hasidic masters composed these instructions for their students to read “whenever they needed spiritual guidance or centering.” As such, they are meant to be used one at a time and repeatedly pondered by spiritual seekers.

A few samples:

Rise from your sleep eagerly because you have been renewed and become a different person. You are capable of bringing forth worlds, like the Holy Blessed One.

Know that each and every letter of the alphabet comes from an open and endless world above, and every letter that leaves your mouth in prayer awakens these worlds. Therefore, utter the words of your prayer with passion, joy, and a feeling of intimacy with the Divine.

Remember: you can only bring pleasure to the Upper Worlds by first arousing passion below, that is, by experiencing your own physical pleasure.

If not the Ba’al Shem Tov himself, then certainly his disciple, Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch, would have qualified as a social entrepreneur. Within a few generations their followers transformed the religious consciousness and practice of millions of Jews.

How to Change the World is full of “how to’s” for the practice of tikkun olam, repairing the world. God in All Moments brims with “how to’s” for tikkun ha-nefesh, repairing the soul. As quoted in the latter, Abraham Joshua Heschel implies that books like these address two sides of the same coin: “Prayer is no panacea, no substitute for action. It is, rather, like a beam thrown from a flashlight before us into the darkness. It is in this light that we … discover where we stand …[and] we behold the worth of our efforts, the range of our hopes, and the meaning of our deeds.”

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Dr. David Arnow is a Jewish communal activist and author of Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities published by Jewish Lights.

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