Recipe for a Renaissance – Kol Nidrei 5774


“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

In January 1417, an obscure Italian scribe named Poggio Bracciolini changed the world. At the time, Europe was mired in the deepest of the Dark Ages, an era of disease, violence, stagnation, and death. Rigidity defined virtually every aspect of Poggio’s society, especially intellectual life. The Catholic Church had extraordinary power to determine and impose religious doctrine. Ideas that the Church deemed heretical were brutally stamped out, those who promulgated them, tortured and executed.

It was in this context that Poggio hunted and discovered the only known surviving manuscript of an ancient poem called De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”), a masterpiece composed by the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius. De Rerum Natura advocated an ancient philosophy known as Epicureanism, a celebration of the world’s beauty and life’s pleasures. Epicureanism, as you might imagine, was anathema to medieval Catholicism. Poggio risked his life hunting the poem and reintroducing its philosophy to a world hostile to such ideas.

But in so doing, Poggio helped spark the Renaissance, an intellectual transformation that reinvigorated Europe. Poggio’s discovery gave rise to artists like Michelangelo, political philosophers like Machiavelli, scientists like Copernicus, and explorers like Columbus. The Renaissance pried Europe from the grip of Church authority, infused it with a spirit of experimentation and curiosity lost since the fall of Rome, and ultimately gave birth to modernity.

In 1996, another renaissance happened that also, eventually, changed our world. Apple Computers was failing. Its visionary co-founder, Steve Jobs, was ousted from the company in 1985 after a failed power struggle with its then-CEO, and in the decade that followed, the company saw its market share collapse, and its stock dwindle. In 1996 alone the company lost a billion dollars, and by the fall of 1997, it was 90 days away from total insolvency.

In this bleak situation, Apple reached out to Jobs who, at the time, was running a relatively small but innovative software company called NeXT. Apple bought NeXt and, with it, brought Jobs back. Quickly, Jobs once again became the driving creative force behind Apple, and in a few short months, he became CEO, launching a tenure that saw the development of revolutionary products like the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Jobs’ return to Apple heralded arguably the greatest corporate renaissance in modern history and, ultimately, transformed our world.

These two stories are each in their own way about renaissances, the rebirth and rejuvenation of something that is struggling to survive or that has become stagnant and stuck. What do these two renaissances – separated by centuries and thousands of miles – have in common? And what can we in the American Jewish community in the year 5775, we who have witnessed synagogues erode and disappear with alarming regularity in recent years, we who deeply love our sanctuaries and schools, learn from past renaissances in order to empower us to engineer our own.

As I studied the renaissances sparked by Poggio and Steve Jobs, several important themes began to emerge, common elements that were central to what both men were able to ignite that helped to radically transform our world. I suppose we could even call them ingredients, ingredients that contribute to a kind of a “recipe for a renaissance.” It seems to me that both renaissances shared four ingredients – Authenticity, Creativity, Courage, and Passion. And these are precisely the four ingredients that are necessary to spark our own renaissance in the Jewish community.

Let’s start with authenticity. Perhaps counterintuitively, renaissances happen in large part not by inventing something new, but by rediscovering and drawing upon the great wisdom of the past, by asking, “What is it that we used to know that helped us thrive, but that we seem somehow to have lost?”

When Poggio set out to find De Rerum Natura, the book was well over a thousand years old. He was at best likely to find a moldy and worm-eaten copy tucked away in some hidden corner of some obscure monastery. It had little monetary value. But Poggio wasn’t interested in the ancient text for its cash value. He hunted down the book because, as Stephen Greenblatt writes in his recent book about Poggio called The Swerve, he believed his time was “a sink of superstition and ignorance” (Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve, 18). On the other hand, Poggio believed that his ancient ancestors possessed wisdom that could illuminate his age: how to nurture beauty and romance, how to investigate freely into the nature of the world, how to uncover truths for the advancement of human life.

Similarly, Steve Jobs didn’t revitalize Apple by creating a revolutionary product like the iPod. The iPod, it turns out, was a result of Apple’s renaissance, not its cause. Jobs saved his company through a return to Apple’s roots. He correctly believed that the company’s downward spiral was the result of, in his words, a decade of Apple executives caring more  “about making money – for themselves mainly, and also for Apple – rather than making great products…We at Apple had forgotten who we were” (Walter Isaacson, Jobs, 295-296). So, when he returned to Apple, Jobs emphasized the company’s founding principles: a focus on beauty, design, and quality. That’s why Jobs’ first major product launch back at Apple was not a radically new concept. It was the colorful iMac, basically a fresh take on an old idea.

Authenticity is also crucial for revitalizing synagogues. For many years, synagogues have tried to combat declining membership, decreased market share, and dwindling incomes with tactics like cutting service length, substituting more English, and decreasing Hebrew school expectations. But to our great shock and dismay, the strategy failed. Indeed, not only did many continue to disaffiliate, but others began to flock to more identifiably authentic spaces like Chabad houses and Orthodox shuls.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founding rabbi of IKAR, one of today’s few non-Orthodox success stories, explains it this way:

If a Jewish experience feels cheap and watered down, [today’s Jews] won’t sit through it, and they certainly won’t come back. But if it feels real – if it feels mysterious, enchanting, and powerful, if it feels like the revelation of truths that have been hidden in the past and might help them uncover hints about how to live meaningfully today, then they will invest (Sharon Brous, “Synagogues Reimagined,” in Jewish Megatrends, edited by Sidney Schwartz, 61).

For a renaissance to take root in the Jewish community, our pathway needs to be driven once again by our sacred sources, by the spiritual power latent in our age-old tradition. We can capture the spirits of today’s Jews by fashioning communities that pulsate with the unique moral and spiritual wisdom of our ancient tradition. We can ignite a renaissance by demonstrating that the faith found in our synagogues features powerful secrets from yesterday that can truly help us live better and change the world today.

The second essential ingredient for a renaissance is creativity, the ability, to paraphrase Bobby Kennedy, to dream things that never were and ask, “Why not?” Steve Jobs, of course, is the one who encouraged us to “Think Different.” Jobs never felt constrained by the way things had always been. In his words:

Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, “A faster horse!” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page (Isaacson 567).

In the same way, Poggio dreamt of a world of enlightenment, discovery, and beauty, despite the fact that the world he saw every day was benighted, provincial, and somber. Were it not for his ability to imagine a world that did not yet exist, he likely never would have set out on a perilous journey to recover a book that promised echoes of the world of his fantasies.

A similar spirit of imagination can revitalize synagogues. Creativity, after all, is central to our tradition. We are created in God’s image, and God is One who looks at a void and unformed cosmos and imagines that there might be light, order, and life.

Can you picture what our community could look like if we took seriously the godly work of birthing novelty? What if we thought more about how we should try to do things today and tomorrow rather than how we did things yesterday? What if we celebrated our community’s game-changers the way we celebrate our largest donors? What if an innovation team – a group empowered to evaluate the status quo, read things that were not yet on the page, and make regular recommendations for innovations – became the synagogue’s most important standing committee?

“Imagination,” reminded Albert Einstein, “is more important than knowledge.”

The necessary partner for creativity is courage. Courage is what enabled Poggio to embark on a treacherous quest to seek De Rerum Natura, and courage is what enabled him to reproduce and popularize a book that the medieval Church deemed heretical. Poggio knew full well that he could have died a thousand different deaths on his quest. And he knew that his discovery could have resulted in his being tortured and executed. Yet he bravely persevered.

Steve Jobs bet his company time and again on the untested fruits of his creativity. When he returned to Apple, everyone thought he was crazy to kill off the Newton. Analysts insisted that no one would want an all-in-one mobile device like the iPhone. But Steve Jobs was willing to take the risks necessary for creativity to flourish.

We who lead synagogues could use a little more courage. We are often fearful of creativity, experimentation, and change: We fear losing beloved customs. We fear ruffling feathers. We fear losing members. We fear that, even though the old ways may not be working for us, a new way might fail, hurtling us toward collapse. To paraphrase Faulkner, we’re more afraid of the trouble we might have than we are of the trouble we’ve already got, and as a result, we’d rather cling to the trouble we’re used to than risk a change.

But the truth is actually the opposite: the greater threat to our survival is fear; the fear of celebrating and harnessing imagination, of envisioning and working toward a future that does not yet exist. We cannot capture the hearts and minds of new generations of Jews if we are unwilling, as Rabbi Brous puts it, “to think creatively, experiment, flow, fail, and then try again” (Brous 63).

Courage also includes the willingness to take the risks associated with advancing a clear moral vision. Synagogues are too often morally pareve. We remain dispassionately on the sidelines of the day’s most crucial moral conversations, fearing that if we say or do anything that is deemed too “political,” we might offend someone or even lose members. But today’s Jews intuit that social justice is central to our religious heritage. And the communities that have been able to capture their attention, like IKAR, are those that are unafraid to take bold and courageous moral stands, that challenge unethical laws and norms, and that stand at the forefront of movements for social change.

Time and again Scripture reminds us that, when we are doing God’s work, al tira v’al tif’had, do not let fear dictate your direction. Hazak va-ematz, be bold and courageous! If we are not brave enough to stand for our dreams and our values, then we will never be able to rise.

Courage, Creativity, and Authenticity. These components are essential to renaissances. But it is passion – an intense and all-consuming love for someone or something – that underlies and drives those other elements. Passion is what drove Poggio to risk his life seeking a lost ancient poem; to spend tedious weeks diligently transcribing the archaic verse by hand; to reintroduce a philosophy that he could have been burned at the stake for espousing.

Passion propelled Steve Jobs to create Apple, to return a decade after the crushing experience of being fired from the company he founded, and ultimately to rejuvenate the business. As he once put it, “You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.”

Similarly, a renaissance in the Jewish community will have to be driven by passion: An animating and unflinching love of Judaism, the Jewish people, and humanity; A passion for changing lives through Torah; A passion for building meaningful community; A passion for fighting for human dignity, championing equality, and pursuing justice; A passion for repairing the world. These passions should keep us up at night. These passions should propel us out of bed in the morning. These passions should transform the job of building, maintaining, and growing a synagogue into a joyous calling and godly purpose for living. Only passion will propel us to shake off the dust, rise, and begin our journey from the mountain of stagnation toward the great Promised Land of Renaissance.

The watchword of Yom Kippur – and of the entire High Holy Day season – is teshuvah, a word that literally means turning around. This day calls us to stop abruptly the incessant business of our lives and ask ourselves: How am I doing? Am I living the life I deserve, or of which I am capable? And, if we aren’t happy with our honest answers to those questions, then our tradition insists that we can do something about it, that we can remake our lives into whatever we want them to be. Yom Kippur promises that we can, in a very real sense, be reborn, an entirely new creature, unbounded by your past, open to a future of infinite possibility. As the midrash teaches us, when you perform true teshuvah, “you are as if newly created” (Sifrei D’varim, Piska 30) Yom Kippur is about RENAISSANCE: for us as individuals, and, yes, for us as a community.

Yom Kippur reminds us that we can break with a script that no longer works, become reborn, and forge a new future. All it takes is authenticity, creativity, courage, and passion. It’s a recipe that gave us Michelangelo and Columbus. It’s a recipe that gave us the iPhone and the iPad. And it’s a recipe that can give us a magnificent, modern, vital, and vibrant Temple Beth-El. Go ahead. Think different.

G’mar Hatimah Tovah. May you be inscribed and sealed for life.

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