Embrace Complexity

Spokoiny's Challenge: Reject Simplicity, Embrace Complexity

Professor Jonathan SarnaThis year's Hornstein graduation in May represented a graduation of sorts for me too. After 12 years at Hornstein, where I began in January of 2006, I am moving on to become director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies here at Brandeis. My distinguished colleague, Prof. Len Saxe, is stepping in as chair for 2018-19.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of my colleagues at Hornstein, and especially Director Ellen Smith (with whom I have worked in various capacities for more than a quarter of a century), and Carol Hengerle and Claire Purgus, our able administrators. I hope that all of our graduates have the good fortune in the years ahead to enjoy the quality of colleagues and staff whom I have been privileged to work with here at Hornstein.

Reading the Torah portion on the eve of graduation, it struck me as a highly appropriate one for the occasion. The parshah (portion) that we read is particularly remembered for the Tochekhah, or execration, consisting of a long series of curses that befall those who disobey God and spurn God's commandments.

What I find remarkable and so appropriate about the portion is its emphasis on freedom of action. People make choices, the Bible teaches us, and those choices carry consequences. They affect life now and in the future.

Far too many people today in our community seem to have lost faith in our ability to make choices. Fatalism has become more and more pervasive. “Demographic decline is inevitable,” we hear. Distancing between Israel and the United States is inevitable. Orthodoxy is “fated” to become the dominant form of Judaism, and so on and so forth. Similar thinking pervades the general American community these days. Think of the rhetoric surrounding the poor and the immigrant, as if their status were impervious to change.

So it was with relief and joy that I read Andres Spokoiny's magnificent address to the Jewish Funder's Network a few weeks ago where he courageously reminded his audience that “rejection of fate” stands at the very core of philanthropy.

“We do philanthropy because we believe that we can change people's lives and the world,” Spokoiny declared. Through bold visions, people and countries can change their fate. But to do so, Spokoiny argues, one needs to “reject simple answers and embrace complexity.”

All around us we find magical thinking, attempts to find simple answers to the complexities of the world. [“Who knew that health care is so complicated?”] “Embracing complexity,” Spokoiny declares, is hard. But ignoring complexity will end in either irrelevance or catastrophe.

Spokoiny suggests five ways to embrace complexity better, within a Jewish context.

  1. First, accept the diversity of the Jewish People. Forget the idea that Orthodox Jews will triumph, that Liberal Jews will triumph, that Israel will triumph, that the diaspora will triumph. All together are part of the diversity of the Jewish people. If anything, Spokoiny suggests, we are “like a diamond, which is more valuable the more facets it has.”
  2. Second, he says, “become relentless question askers.” To be a truly strong leader in these complex times requires the ability to ask questions, tough questions, questions that challenge the status quo and force us to look at things in a different way. Isidor Rabi, that Nobel Prize-winning physicist, recalled late in life that “Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: So? Did you learn anything today? But not my mother. “Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?” That difference — asking good questions — is what creative leadership is all about.
  3. Third, Spokoiny continues, complexity demands collaboration. Indeed, he insists “collaboration, partnership and networking are basic necessities in facing difficult problems.” We need to put our brains together to achieve solutions that work. Perhaps that is why the ancient Sanhedrin in Jerusalem required 70 members; not just one.
  4. Fourth, commit for the long haul. “Any program that has made a real difference,” Spokoiny properly notices, “is a program that was supported for a long, long time.” Think the Zionist Movement, or the Soviet Jewry Movement, or Birthright. No complex problem can be solved overnight.
  5. Finally, Spokoiny argues that to navigate complexity requires an inspiring vision. Too often in contemporary Jewish life our vision is only about stopping things: stop assimilation, stop antisemitism, stop BDS. Being merely a STOP sign, he rightly says, is nobody's definition of an inspiring dream.

So there you have it: a five point program that calls for diversity, curiosity, collaboration, patience and vision. As our graduates and I move on from Hornstein and begin to make fresh choices — for our centers and organizations, for the Jewish people, for the world at large — let us all keep in mind the message of Andres Spokoiny: “reject simple answers and embrace complexity.”Shalom, farewell and best of luck to you all!

Jonathan D. Sarna
University Professor
Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History
Chair, Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program

Edited from Jonathan D. Sarna's address to the Hornstein Class of 2018 on May 13, 2018 at Brandeis University.