a way forward

An outstanding contribution to my Invitation and Repair project (see the tag at the bottom of this post) from Samuel Arbseman: “The Way-Forward Machine”

Some have begun to look for inspiration at long-lived institutions, from religious establishments to multigenerational businesses — for example, Kongō Gumi is a Japanese construction company still operating after over 1,400 years and the Ise Jingu Shrine is about 2,000 years old. But there is one conspicuously overlooked group, one “community of practice” that has persisted, with surprising consistency, over millennia: the Jews. If what we’re really interested in is how to plan for millennia hence, why not ask how Judaism has managed to persist in a coherent way, benefiting humanity for millennia? By combining a deep reverence for history and text — one that can be drawn upon in times of catastrophe and rapid change — with the understanding that each generation needn’t be content with just revering the past, Jews have created a distinctive mechanism for creating while also maintaining


When we think about building something for the long term, most long-term thinking involves a burst of creation at the beginning, followed by maintenance, whether it’s for large-scale construction projects or long-lived institutions. While caretaking is far from a bad thing, future generations can be locked into the vision of those who have come before them, and are denied a certain amount of agency. And if the choice is simply maintainer or creator, too many of us are going to choose to build the new, rather than preserve the old. That’s simply what our modern age prizes: novelty. There have been attempts to rekindle the excitement at maintenance, such as with the group The Maintainers, a research community focused on the repair and maintenance of infrastructure. It’s a sympathy I share. But, by and large, people would far prefer to create the new than be a caretaker to the old. However, Judaism recognizes that this is a false dichotomy; it provides for a certain amount of innovation for each generation, a balance of the creative and the caretaker. 

Fantastic stuff — much to be reflected on here … assuming that I eventually return to blogging. 

In the Hebrew school, sitting on plank benches with timber-cutters’ children, Isaiah received his first formal religious instruction. It was also his first experience of schooling, and to the end of his life he could still remember the words of a song he learned with the other children, about the stove in the corner that kept a poor family warm. From an old rabbi, he learned the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The rabbi too was never forgotten. Once he paused and said, ‘Dear children, when you get older, you will realise how in every one of these letters there is Jewish blood and Jewish tears.’ When Berlin told me this story, eighty years later, in the downstairs sitting room of his home in Oxford, Headington House, for a split second his composure deserted him and he stared out across the garden. Then he looked back at me, equanimity restored, and said, ‘That is the history of the Jews.’ 

— Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life 

how Steve Reich discovered his own Judaism

I was brought up a secular, Reform Jew, which means I didn’t know Aleph from Bet. I knew nothing, and therefore I cared nothing. My father cared culturally, but that’s all. So when I came home from Africa, I thought to myself, there’s this incredible oral tradition in Ghana, passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, for thousands of years. Don’t I have something like that? I’m a member of the oldest group of human beings still known as a group that managed to cohere enough to survive – and I know nothing about it. So I started studying at Lincoln Square Synagogue in midtown Manhattan, an Orthodox temple, that had an incredible adult-education program for the likes of me – and I asked whether they would teach a course in biblical Hebrew, and they said sure, and they brought a professor down from Yeshiva University to teach that, and I studied the weekly portion – I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a weekly portion and commentaries thereon.

So this whole world opened up for me – it was 1975, at about the same time as I met my wife, Beryl, and so all of this sort of came together and it did occur to me – isn’t it curious that I had to go to Ghana to go back to my own traditions because I think if you understand any historical group, or any other religion for that matter, in any detail, then you’ll be able to approach another one with more understanding. So the answer to your question is yes. The longest yes you’ve ever heard.

Steve Reich