Christiane Montouri, writing on the Cambridge Leadership Associate’s Blog, makes an analogy between species adaptation and organizational change. She writes: “When a species adapts, it gives up a small portion of its DNA, usually only about 5%. However, giving up the DNA that is hindering adaptation and survival not only gets rid of what is getting in the way, but also makes room for new DNA than can survive in the changing reality… Which finger would you sacrifice to make progress?” When we engage in a change process, we often must let go of certain perspectives to make room for the new. This can be a traumatic process. That is why it is so critical, in the face of change, to acknowledge what it is we are afraid to lose, and what it is we hope to gain. This clarity is so important because it may help alleviate the pain of the inevitable sacrifices in the process.
The often-quoted Talmudic story about the oven of achnai (Baba Metzia 59b) can be read as a warning for a community in flux that does not effectively manage its change process. The story tells of the argument between Rabbi Eliezer and the other rabbis, headed by Rabban Gamliel, regarding the purity status of an oven. Though Eliezer brings numerous textual proofs to argue his point that the oven is pure, the rabbis remain unconvinced. Eliezer then resorts to supernatural evidence, moving carob trees, reversing stream, and even trying to collapse the walls of the house of study to prove that he is right. Finally, he summons a heavenly voice to declare the truth of his opinion; but the rabbis stand their ground, and Rabbi Joshua jumps to his feet and says:
It is not in Heaven! (Deuteronomy 30:12) As Rabbi Jeremiah explained: The Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai! We pay no attention now to a Heavenly Voice, because it has already been written in the Torah (Exodus 23:2): ‘Incline after the majority.’
The story, at this point, can be interpreted as a celebration of change – in particular, the democratization of the process of engaging with Torah and its laws, and the radical authority given to select individuals to render God’s word relevant to the community’s lives. But the story doesn’t end there. Rabbi Eliezer is excommunicated – for his opinion? For his methods of conveying it? He is so distraught that he brings destruction to the natural world. Rabban Gamliel, Jonah-like, is caught in a storm on a ship, and to calm the sea he convinces God that he has banished Rabbi Eliezer to prevent disagreements from multiplying in Israel. But Eliezer is still upset, and he falls on his face in pain, which causes Gamliel to die.
Does the second half of this story imply the dangers of ostracizing the minority opinion from the community? That when the majority becomes so self-righteous that it kicks out the voice that challenges it, it becomes a bullying mob? Maybe the rabbis need Eliezer’s voice, for it sharpens their own, and makes their process more authentic. What is this story really about? If Gamliel was wrong, why didn’t God finish him off in the boat? If he was right, why did he die?
Eliezer and Gamliel represent two opposing approaches to understanding Torah and interpreting it for the people. Their community was moving from a modality symbolized by Eliezer that valued the “truth” of the word of Torah, and the individual’s connection to the divine, to a modality embraced by Gamliel, the importance of the community over individuals, and of relevancy over “truth.”
Eliezer’s zeal for his interpretation of the Torah text, his use of supernatural powers, and even his willingness to bring down the walls of the study hall on his colleague’s heads for his point of view is an example of how passionate we become, and how we can lose our heads, when we believe we are right and our opinion ignored. It creates an environment of extreme responses. Gamliel felt that the only appropriate response to Eliezer’s intense methods was the more intense method of excommunication. And Eliezer, willfully or not, retaliated with the most intense response of all, causing Gamliel’s death.
In this story, Eliezer is the finger sacrificed for the sake of change. When we change our views and behaviors, as a result of either internal or external motivations, certain perspectives, values, and practices, can be lost. But while the challenges that arise for a community facing change is inevitable, the tremendous pain and suffering that often accompanies these processes is often avoidable. Had his colleagues acknowledged Eliezer’s opinion, or responded differently to his original arguments, Eliezer may not have become so extreme in trying to have his voice heard. Had Gamliel not responded with excommunication, he may have allowed the community the opportunity to sit in the uncomfortable space of unrest and navigate it more effectively. Instead, each individual clung to his important perspective, and both were lost in the process.
The message of this story, I believe, is that the way in which we navigate the process of change is as important as the change we seek. In any moment of growth or turbulence in a system, it is essential to verbalize and create shared vision around the reasons for change, and to appropriately mourn what will be lost in the process. Conflicting voices, passionately arguing for what they believe is necessary for a system to thrive, need a strong and flexible container in which to share their opinions, fears, and hopes. That is the only way to ensure that in the process of making room for the new, we don’t become casualties of what we must let go.
Maya Bernstein is the Strategic Design Officer at UpStart Bay Area, a social venture and innovation consulting firm.
This article first appeared in The Jewish Week.