Sacred Community and Disruptive Innovation (by Rabbi Joshua Stanton)

By Rabbi Joshua Stanton

There was an unlikely group present for the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards: ten rabbis. This cohort, of which I was fortunate to be a part, was present through the Rabbis Without Borders program of CLAL. There was an unspoken but invaluable question for me as one of the few clergy among the attendees: can religious communities survive disruptive innovation?

Perhaps ironically, our very presence as standard-bearers of a religion that predates the Bronze Age was itself disruptive to the 800 participants, largely from across high tech, financial, governmental, and entrepreneurial sectors. In my mind, being a disruptive presence led to some of the most energizing dialogues and discussions that I’ve had as a rabbi – and hopefully for our interlocutors, as well.

What seemed evident to many of my fellow rabbis was just how much technological and related social change means for our communities and how much it is already forcing a re-articulation of religion and the institutions that undergird it. We need new terms, new ideas, and as Rabbi Irwin Kula aptly put it, better religious research and development (R&D) to guide calculated risk-taking. Otherwise, we risk stagnation, which is an existential threat in an era of rapid social change.

A key challenge facing many religions is the notion of community itself. When individuals can personalize, customize, and adapt just about everything in their lives, how are we to uphold communal standards or live out communal values?

A vivid session with top-flight marketing professionals from international brands, entitled “Brand Experience: Big Wisdom or Big Data?” provided the corporate corollary to this question. It highlighted the extent to which a shift towards individualism and free thinking is forcing changes in the marketplace. As Manoj Fenelon of Pepsi expressed, there has been a profound shift from “marketing” to “advocacy.” The former involves relaying messages to a willing cohort. The latter involves interacting with and convincing individuals to do something and to join a larger cohort of consumers. The former presumes a shared identity, while the latter presumes a high degree of personal latitude and the need to be persuaded as an individual.

Many religious leaders crow that renewed individualism is tantamount to renewed narcissism. This critique might not be entirely misplaced. But these private sector marketing experts who graced us with their insights were not suggesting the inability to connect with anyone but the individual or the obsolescence of communal identity. Instead, they were underscoring the need to emphasize individualism and view a group as a composite of individuals who come together or emerge for a shared purpose. To be sure, our religious traditions see significant benefits to enduring communities that live out ideals and reinforce shared values as a collective. But so too have we long embraced individualism, even within a communal setting.

These marketing experts were not indicating an end to group connection, but underscoring an end to the kind of ‘broadband’ approach that acts under the assumption that people will join or remain parts of communities simply because they are told to or because their fellow community members receive the same messaging. Shared messaging does not translate into shared identity. Compelling ideas and precepts are the central draw for individuals to join and remain part of communities. The barriers to communal entry (and exit) have been reduced through new technology and the society being significantly reshaped by it.

Ten Rabbis at TDIA 2015. Photo by Hannah Hunter, Tribeca Film Festival

Ten Rabbis at TDIA 2015. Photo by Hannah Hunter, Tribeca Film Festival

To be sure, the parallels between the private sector and the life of religious communities are imperfect. But the individuals who drive change within both are undergoing similar changes in mindset, in response to similar changes in the way we live. If anything, the disruptions in our life and our world are forcing us to clarify our missions and the values that draw us together. People are drawn together more than ever before by ideas. But what is religion itself, other than a vehicle through which to lead a good life, reinforced by community, and based on central ideas about humanity, our world, and eternal questions that guide our search? Religion, too, is driven by ideas.

What stood out to me most as an unlikely participant in the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards was not merely the vulnerability of religion in this time of social change, but the strength of religion if it remains attuned to the change and disruption taking place all around it. So long as religious ideas are compelling, so too will be our religious community. So long as religious ideas are out of touch, or unresponsive to social change, so too will be our religious communities.

We are entering a time of R&D driven community. We are entering a time of R&D driven religion.

About Rabbi Joshua Stanton:

Rabbi Joshua Stanton feels blessed to serve as an Assistant Rabbi at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey. He likewise is a co-founder of Tribe, a group for young Jewish professionals in New York, and serves as one of the representatives from the Central Conference of American Rabbis to the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.

Previously, Josh served as Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College and Director of Communications for the Coexist Foundation. He was a Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, as well as O.N. Scripture — The Torah, a weekly online Torah commentary featured on the Huffington Post and the Ethical Jamcolumn in the Times of Israel. 

Josh was one of just six finalists worldwide for the 2012 Coexist Prize and was additionally highlighted by the Coexist Forum as “one of the foremost Jewish and interreligious bloggers in the world.” In 2011, the Huffington Post named him one of the “best Jewish voices on Twitter.” The Huffington Post also selected two organizations he helped found as exemplary of those which effectively “have taken their positive interfaith message online.” Recently, Odyssey Networks noted him as “one of America’s most dynamic Jewish authors.” 

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