Creativity by Critique: The Unseen Force Behind Innovation

May 6, 2010
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Jonathan Boyd

During the year I spent studying in Israel after I graduated from high school, I learned an organizational planning formula that consisted of three simple words: vision, critique, method. The formula maintained that any successful communal endeavor requires all three components: a clear and compelling idea of what ought to be, a sharp and engaging critique of what actually is, and a clear plan of how to get from the latter to the former. I have always found it clear, simple, and concise, and for that reason, I have returned to it time and again in my work.

The notion of vision is essential in today’s conversations about Jewish education and community development. The existential vision question (how should the Jewish world be?), as well as the organizational vision question (in what ways does my initiative establish an element of that ideal in reality?), have increasingly become part of normative Jewish educational discourse. Similarly, in the arena of method, certain things that focus on what to do and how to do it — analysis, discourse, and training, for example — are ubiquitous both within and beyond the Jewish world.

However, serious thinking seems to be lacking when it comes to the concept of critique. This is unfortunate, because critique may be the primary emotional driver of innovation. By critique, I do not simply mean objective analysis of the problem to be solved, but, more importantly, the subjective and affective experience of Jewish reality. The decision, for example, to create Limmud — the annual pluralist British Jewish educational conference — was inspired in part by a strong critique: shared feelings of frustration with the British Jewish establishment, the staid Jewish educational scene, and the lack of cross-communal dialogue and exchange.

Other more recent innovations in the United Kingdom similarly contain within them a powerful and motivating critique of supposed reality. Indeed Jewdas, an innovative and controversial Jewish cultural and educational organization that has become known for events like its “radical cosmopolitan yeshiva,” “PunkPurim,” and a film festival called “Treifspotting,” wears its critique clearly on its sleeve. In many respects, its underlying motivation, and certainly its notoriety, come from its edgy and often subversive critique of the mainstream community establishment. Jewdas rejects community obsessions such as “defending the State of Israel and making Jewish babies,” and draws its inspiration instead from the anarchist and socialist heritage of London’s early-20th-century Jewish East End. Its leadership has even been arrested on occasion: Suffice it to say not everyone regards the distribution of tongue-in-cheek leaflets promoting the “Protocols of the Elders of Hackney” party at a major public communal event very funny.

Grassroots Jews is another, albeit far less controversial, example. A new spiritual and learning community that began, in part, because of a clear dissatisfaction with synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it has actively taken Judaism out of the synagogue and relocated it within informal spaces — people’s homes, Bedouin tents, villas in Tuscany — and has replaced authoritarian and hierarchical models of leadership with far more democratic and collaborative ones. In so doing, it has been partly inspired by an acute critique of the community’s assumptions about the meaning of belonging or affiliation, the neat denominational boxes that comprise its essential structure, and its existing funding models. And its efforts are yielding results: It is offering serious and compelling Judaism and is attracting some of the community’s most passionate and dynamic young adults.

The jury is still out on the latest arrival on the innovation scene, NuMa, but again, the underlying critique is barely concealed beneath the activity. The organizational name says it all — NuMa comes from the Hebrew “Nu… Mah?” which can be loosely translated as “So… what are you going to do about it?!” NuMa’s definition of the “it” is a distinct lack of creative passion in the community, and the organization exists to encourage new thinking and to build networks of people who might work together to instigate new initiatives. The people drawn to it tacitly or explicitly share a critique: The Jewish community is simply not sufficiently well set up to respond to the real problems and challenges that confront us.

The hypothesis emerging out of all three of these examples might be expressed thus: Behind every innovation, there is a stinging, convincing, heartfelt, and personal critique. This is not the same as objective analytical criticism. Intellectual analysis clearly differs from emotional critique, and in the context of understanding innovation, what may be really essential to understand is the psychological impact of negative experience. While intellectual objective criticism is certainly valuable, it is rarely associated directly with innovation. Anecdotally, it seems that many of the best innovators feel personally disappointed, aggrieved, angry, short-changed, or frustrated about something on a subjective level, and then channel that emotional energy into something that serves as a corrective.

There are other factors, of course, that will inspire individuals and groups to innovate: the desire to belong, the quest for power, the drive to succeed. But underlying it all may be the personal experience or narrative that generates passion for change. Understanding more about that may help us to identify at least one of the jigsaw puzzle pieces of effective innovation.

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Jonathan Boyd is the executive director of JPR, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London. Editor of The Sovereign and the Situated Self: Jewish Identity and Community in the 21st Century, his current research interests include Jewish peoplehood, Jewish educational philosophy, and emerging forms of Jewish community.

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