The Infinite Game of Jewish Life
By Rabbi Joshua Rabin
“Ben Bag Bag says: Search in it and search in it, since everything is in it.”
Pirke Avot 5:22
When I worry about the Jewish future (spoiler alert: this happens a lot), I try to imagine that I am a historian of Judaism writing a paragraph about this era a thousand years from now. Sometimes, we can look at the debates of the moment and see them as urgent, and many times this is a good thing, because all transformative change requires a sense of urgency. However, there is a tremendous cost for only focusing on the urgency of now and forgetting that the work of Judaism never ends.
James Carse, former Director of Religious Studies at New York University, argues in Finite and Infinite Games that our world consists of two types of games: finite games, which are “played for the purpose of winning,” and infinite games, which are played “for the purpose of continuing the play” (1). Every day, I play finite games as a Jewish professional, filling out grant applications, marketing programs, and speaking with congregations. And at the end of each interaction, I can make some kind of objective determination as to whether or not I was successful.
At the same time, I did not become a rabbi in order to do these tasks, however essential they may be. I became a rabbi because I believe in the transformative power of Judaism, and ultimately, if I am lucky, a small piece of what I do will be a part of Judaism’s infinite game. And so it is with all of us.
Sometimes, I question whether or not the Jewish organizations play a finite game, where organizations and foundations pick winners and losers and where professionals jockey for influence, or an infinite game, where all of us join together to ensure the Jewish future. We can ascribe this dynamic to organizational politics and competition for philanthropic dollars, but I actually believe that this dynamic stems from something more insidious, a way of seeing Judaism as a finite game, rather than an infinite game. We owe it to the Jewish people today and tomorrow to refocus our minds.
1. Ego–Systems and Eco–Systems
Otto Scharmer’s theories about systemic change are a popular framework for Jewish organizations to think about the sea changes taking place in Jewish life. Scharmer’s work is replete with rich content about change management, and my favorite concept is his notion of “ego-systems” and “eco-systems,” and how the former gets in the way of system-wide transformation.
In Leading from the Emerging Future, Scharmer writes that an ego-system consist of actors “driven by the concerns and intentions of our small ego self” (2). The first examples that come to mind in an ego-system are when established institutions express frustration about disruptive innovators entering their area, such as a Chabad House moving down the street from a synagogue. However, I experience this frustration as a professional in a legacy organization every time I interact with a professional or donor who already decided that just because he/she/they do not belong to a synagogue, no one else must want to, either. In either case, getting caught in our egos keeps us from working together.
In contrast, Scharmer argues that, “Decision-makers across the institutions of a system have to go on a joint journey from seeing only their own viewpoint (ego-awareness) to experiencing the system from the perspective of the other players, particularly those who are most marginalized” (12). The Jews unserved by our institutions do not care about whether or not denominations matter, or whether or not they want to pray as a suburban synagogue or an emergent community that meets in a church basement. Our games of inside baseball could not be less interesting to them, yet the questions of finding rich, thick community always matter.
However, our communal debates signal that we care more about the finite than the infinite, and the more we value the latter, the less we elevate the former. The work of one community affects the work of all, and we have the opportunity to do better together, especially when we disagree in how we approach God, Torah, and Israel. We have no choice as to whether or not we are in an eco-system; the only question is whether or not we will build a thriving one together, or suffer separately.
2. Case Study: Conservative Judaism
As a Conservative rabbi, this metaphor deeply resonates with me, as Conservative Judaism constantly has its place in the Jewish world analyzed by insiders and outsiders. The conclusion drawn is almost too cliche to repeat: “The problem with Conservative Judaism is that all of our best work takes place outside of our institutions, whether in the form of Hadar, Ikar, etc.”
For many years, the response of Conservative Judaism was look at innovative organizations and try to co-opt their identity, asserting something along the lines of “I know that X organization calls itself post-denominational, but really … they’re Conservative.” This kind of narrative reflects Scharmer’s definition of an ego-system:
In this model, Conservative Judaism sees itself as the center of traditional, non-Orthodox Judaism, and the only way for this universe to succeed is for all communities in that universe to come under our umbrella.
And yet, the truth has always been that Conservative Judaism is not the center of the universe, or even the center of the universe of traditional, non-Orthodox Judaism. Instead, we are one of many actors in what Otto Scharmer calls an eco-system, looking something like the diagram below:
In this system, many actors intersect and interact within the universe of non-Orthodox Judaism. A child can go on USY Israel Pilgrimage in the summer, and pray at an independent minyan with his/her/their parents. A rabbi can be ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, join the Rabbinical Assembly, and create an independent startup community. Conservative synagogues can open their doors to an independent minyan, and allow each to operate with distinct brand identities. And a national organization like USCJ can loan a Torah scroll to an independent minyan, at no charge, because our network is thicker and cares about the growth of Jewish life, no matter the label.
The above examples are not theoretical; they happen every day. And it’s fantastic. In fact, the most successful Conservative synagogues today bridge the gap by not trying someone slap on a bumper sticker that says, “I’m a Conservative Jew,” but embrace the joint cause of a vibrant, traditional non-Orthodox Judaism, and build a foundation from that common ground. These choices reflect a strategic decision to embrace the infinite game, and yet much more can be done to make this approach the rule, rather than the exception. Conservative Judaism is far from the only eco-system that needs to change.
3. All Jews Are A Single Body
Our inability to define new ways that organizations interact with one another exhibits a disturbing trend towards motivated reasoning and confirmation bias in Jewish life that is both inefficient in the present and harmful for the future. When legacy organizations feel threatened by an upstart, and do everything in their power to avoid collaboration, they harm the Jewish present by siphoning off resources from new ways to engage Jewish life underserved by our community. And yet when those same startups view what currently exists as only anachronistic, they fall prey to the same assumptions that leads our community to under-serve Jews in the first place, caring more about the label attached to an organization, rather than the ultimate goal, which is ensuring all that Jews can embrace a rich and thick Jewish life.
In a beautiful commentary on the famous Talmudic statement that, “All Israel as responsible for one another” (BT Shevuot 39a), the Ritba argues that, “even though the commandments are placed upon each individual … they [all Jews] are all a single body” (Ritba on BT Rosh HaShanah 29a). Every Jewish organization has a single mission, to say nothing of a budget and financial obligations, yet whether we want to or not, the strength of our organizations is bound up in the success of every other organization. The more we strive to play the infinite game, the more transformation we can achieve together.
Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Innovation at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and is the Program Director of the USCJ Convention. You can read more of his writings at www.joshuarabin.com.