Creativity & Innovation in Jewish Learning & Practice

By Emily Messinger

The world is changing. Judaism is changing. The way people engage in Jewish life is changing. However, the way we teach Judaism is not changing (at least not globally or fast enough). Furthermore, while there are pockets of innovation happening in the Jewish world today, the way Jewish leaders and educators present Jewish life is not (yet) changing, at large. Generally, our religious and secular education systems still function according to a Newtonian model that “was built on the idea that the world could be controlled like a big machine.” (Caine & Caine, 1997)

Yet, people are not predictable or orderly and they no longer want to function in a world that expects just that. Instead, as educators and Jewish leaders, we must acknowledge and embrace our new reality – we must find a way to incorporate creativity and innovation into all that we do. While innovation and creativity are not foreign concepts to the Jewish people, it is easy to forget their crucial role in our religion since so many pieces of Jewish tradition do not change. For instance, every year, we read the same words of Torah that were given to us at Mount Sinai thousands of years ago. Each year, at our Passover Seders, we read the same story of our ancestors who were freed from Egypt. Every Yom Kippur we read the same prayers to help us atone for our sins and start anew.

However, Jewish life and practice is so much more than maintaining the status quo. At its core, Jewish life and practice is filled with innovation, change, challenge, and creative problem solving. One of the most significant examples of this in Jewish history is the creation of Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism was created after the destruction of the second Temple during the 6th Century CE and it is this approach to Jewish life and living that is practiced by Jews today.

Yet, we must find a way to connect with and channel the spirit of our rabbinic ancestors. Our ancestors saw that Jewish practice needed to change in order to keep Judaism alive. So too is the case for the Jewish people today. Jewish educators can no longer be ruled by a form of Judaism that was created centuries ago. Jewish educators today must be open to innovation and creativity in order to create the Judaism of the future. According to Teresa M. Amabile, Harvard Professor and author of The Progress Principle, “the capacity for creativity is the result of an interrelationship among three things: expertise, creative-thinking skills, and motivation.” (Wagner, 24)

three-components-of-creativityAmabile’s framework highlights the intersection of John Dewey, the great educational philosopher, and Tony Wagner, an educational innovator and author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World. It takes into account the value of the expertise (curriculum), motivation (passion of the student), and creative thinking skills (the current milieu and 21st Century Learning). Like Dewey, Wager, and Amabile, I believe that Jewish educators must also find a way to connect these silos.

One particular avenue for bridging these silos may be through the integration of 21st Century Learning Skills and Mussar Education. More specifically, one can incorporate the essential qualities of successful innovators, according to Tony Wagner, into Jewish education through the integration of specific middot. See chart below for specific examples.

Essential Qualities of a Successful Innovator (according to Tony Wagner) Middot
Curiosity (the habit of asking good questions and a desire to understand more deeply) Hitlamdut: An Openness to Learn
Collaboration (listening to and learning from others who have perspective and expertise that are very different from your own) Shmiat Ha-Ozen: A Listening Ear           
Shomaya U’mosif: Absorb Knowledge and Add to It         
Shoayl U’Mayshiv: Asking and Answering
Associative or Integrative Thinking Mechavayn et Sh’muato: To Determine Exactly what One Hears
A Bias toward Action and Experimentalism Lomed al Manat La’asot: Study in Order to Perform Mitzvot

While there is no one-size-fits-all answer for how to link these silos, the charge to link them cannot be argued. Jewish educators and leaders must reflect upon the role of innovation, creativity, motivation, and 21st Century Learning Skills while creating Jewish experiences for the current and future generations.

Emily Messinger is the director of teen engagement and the co-interim director of congregational learning at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA.