by Jon Adessky*

The intersection of Judaism and innovation in Israeli society

“[We,] By virtue of our natural and history right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel” – Declaration of Establishment of State of Israel (May 14, 1948).

From the Zionist dream to the nation’s birth, Israel has grown up as a Jewish state. If Judaism continues to play a pivotal role in shaping the very core of the country, it would be interesting to explore the intersection between Judaism and Israeli innovation. In this short piece, I will attempt to explain this intersection and in so doing, I will turn to Be’er-Sheva’s tech scene as a case study.

Cultural DNA

I truly began to question the innovation-Judaism intersection at a talk given by Dr. Ben Reis in Neve-Ilan, Israel. He asked the audience to identify the key factors behind Israel’s success as a global leader in high-tech. Among the responses were allusions to the notion of Israel’s unique culture and how it is conducive to innovation – that it is a direct and expressive culture that doesn’t shy away from trying new things out. In fact, I was one of the attendees who touched on that point, referencing a dimensional comparison between Canadian and Israeli culture. Dr. Reis agreed with me, but as the talk progressed, he took it a step further. He challenged us to identify the key drivers behind Israel’s unique business culture. Some pointed to the geopolitical situation, stating that the high level of stress resulting from the omnipresent security threat causes people to ‘cut to the chase’ and to think ‘outside the box’. Dr. Reis agreed that this is definitely at least one possible driver. It was what he said next that truly opened my eyes.

Dr. Reis posited that Judaism fuels Israeli innovation, even in an increasingly secular Jewish State. I was immediately intrigued by where the discussion was headed. I am not a religious Jew and was curious to see how Dr. Reis’s explanation would mesh with my secularism. In other words, I was curious to see what he had to say about Judaism driving innovation beyond an argument to the effect that God made it so. He said that the values stemming from the religion can explain Judaism’s innovative inclination. While some might certainly explain this as God’s doing, we focused on another, two-dimensional argument: (1) Israel’s national culture is largely informed by Jewish culture, (2) Jewish culture affects secular Jews through cultural programming. What may have once been the ‘correct, Jewish way’ to do things, eventually, for the secular, became normative just by virtue of inter-generational repetition.

Judaism and Innovation?

The first value that I will discuss, one that was introduced to me be Dr. Reis, is rooted in Talmudic study: continuously questioning the status quo. Before we discuss the meaning of this value and its potential impact on Israeli innovation, we must first understand what the Talmud is and how it is studied. According to My Jewish Learning, the “Talmud (literally, ‘study’) is the generic term for the documents that comment and expand upon the Mishnah (‘repeating’), the first work of rabbinic law, published around the year 200 CE…” In short, we can say that Talmudic study is one instance of Jewish law. Talmud is studied in pairs, where each individual tries to defend a position. The goal is to raise questions, finding new, creative angles at approaching problems. Even if the pair tackles a relatively ‘simple’ problem, it will explore it anew and will attempt to find the strongest arguments. So, the way in which the Jewish normative order is approached by students is not merely by reciting passages, but by constantly examining issues afresh to raise the strongest and soundest arguments. It is a culture that believes in continuous reinvention to mitigate against the risk of staleness.

talmud as hypertext

Talmud – the first hypertext? Source: Ray Gallon

While it is doubtful that most secular Israelis would have studied Talmud, they have likely grown up in a household that raised them with the Talmudic principle of questioning the status quo in mind. The Israeli cultural landscape is therefore one that is conducive to innovation. In approaching otherwise ‘understood’ problems, the inquisitive Israeli would likely have been culturally programmed to, while still keeping known solutions in mind, constantly search for even better ones.

Dr. Reis’s mention of how the Talmudic method of raising questions is at least one driver behind Israel’s culture of innovation really interested me. It led me to wonder how else Judaism may play a role in shaping the country’s high-tech edge. Naturally, discussing the matter with a Rabbi seemed like a logical thing to do. I reached out to Rabbi Mark Fishman, who also found the intersection of Judaism and Israeli innovation to be quite fascinating. He introduced me to the work of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

In his writing “A Judaism Engaged with the World“, Sacks explains how Judaism is a forward-looking religion. According to Sacks, “to be a Jew is to keep faith with the past by building a Jewish future.” There are many such examples throughout the Jewish life cycle. On Passover, while we examine the past and attempt to make sense of it, we ultimately turn to the future by asking for “next year in Jerusalem.” According to Sacks, the religion’s orientation toward the future is explained by the fact that the “messianic age has yet to come.” Secular Jews who may not identify with the religious belief in the return of the Messiah may well have been programmed to orient themselves toward the future, nonetheless – a value that, while informed by religion, has likely become a norm in Israeli culture through inter-generational repetition.

Rabbi Lord Sacks digs deeper. He informs us that Judaism also teaches us how to orient ourselves toward the future: by engaging in Kiddush haShem – doing good in the world. According to Sacks, we are God’s ambassadors to give the world our Jewish ideals and values. We are meant to be “His ‘partners in the work of creation‘”, ”using our God-given powers to enhance the lives of others.” Looking toward a future in which we aim to make the world a better place is a value that is certainly present in Israel’s high-tech scene. Israeli innovation improves the world in many ways with valuable contributions to health, education, cyber security and more. It is arguably a form of Kiddush haShem.

Taken together, Judaism encourages us to ask question and not to blindly accept the status quo as we look to the future to try to make the world a better place. It becomes clear these Jewish values create a cultural landscape that is very innovation-friendly – one that urges us to think outside the box to create a better tomorrow for humanity. We turn to a brief case study on Be’er-Sheva to build on the intersection that we have just explored between Judaism and innovation.

The Be’er-Sheva case study

In my two months consulting for Tech7, I became determined to understand how an impressive hi-tech ecosystem could develop in an otherwise remote part of the country. I am certain that culture is at least one possible explanation, and more specifically, Jewish culture. Let us consider the first value that we extracted from Judaism: challenging the status quo.

We can safely assume that the status quo in hi-tech, be it in Israel or elsewhere, would not encourage investing in remote, peripheral regions of a country. The decision to develop a tech ecosystem in Be’er-Sheva is a challenge to the status-quo. It is a bold move – one that communicates a sense of ‘we will find a way to make it work’. And sure enough, the tech community members did make it work, and quite well.

The two values that Rabbi Sacks discusses are extremely relevant as we examine the direction that the ecosystem continues to take: it is oriented towards creating disruptive technological solutions in areas crucial to improving people’s lives. In other words, a form of Kiddush haShem is present. It is well known that the tech community in the region is focused on innovating in cyber security. However, a closer look especially into CDI-Negev reveals another layer, innovation for society, finding solutions for challenges in digital health, urban development and education. Advances in those fields result in a safer, healthier future. Be’er-Sheva is therefore not just geared towards developing technologies that have the potential to yield high returns, but those that serve to improve people’s lives.

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Jon Adessky  is a student at McGill University, Montreal. He spent 2 months in Israel in the spring of 2017 through Onward Israel and worked with Tech7 and CDI Negev. This is his 3rd post giving his insight into the hi-tech scene in Be’er-Sheva.

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