Dear Friends and Colleagues:
When I was in my 20s, I taught 7th grade religious school at a Reform synagogue in the Bay Area. Among other things, I was charged with teaching the Jewish holidays as the cycle of the year unfolded. Probably as a reaction against the mediocrity and irrelevance of my own Sunday School experience, I approached this exploration of the holidays—and everything else I taught—with a deep desire to make it relevant for my students. In other words—though I certainly wouldn’t have articulated it this way myself at the time—I wanted them to experience Jewish learning as a source of Jewish wisdom with the potential for practical application, something that could have an authentic role in their day-to-day lived experience. I was more or less successful in this regard (Lag b’Omer always presented a relevance challenge), but I want to highlight my Yom Kippur teaching as an illustration of a particular limitation of my approach.
While I later learned that the Yom Kippur prohibition on wearing leather shoes is traditionally understood as a form of self-affliction in dialogue with fasting and the other forms of self-abnegation undertaken on the day, I was drawn to the idea that avoiding leather was an expression of support for animal rights: On this day when we stand in judgment, we ought to refrain from reminding the judge that we regularly kill other living things. As a longtime vegetarian, I still find this far more compelling than avoiding the comfort of leather shoes (I prefer my Converse Chuck Taylors anyway).
Now, how to translate this into a relevant learning for my students? As I shared with my students the Yom Kippur rules governing leather footwear and introduced them to the Jewish ethical values around tza’ar ba’alei chayim—the ethical treatment of animals—I also made them aware of the boycott against Proctor & Gamble that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was then leading in an effort to force P&G to abandon its longstanding, cruel, and antiquated practice of testing cosmetics and household cleaning products on animals. As a coup de grace, I gave my students a homework assignment: When you get home, go through your house and gather up all of the Proctor & Gamble products you can find—Crest toothpaste, Tide laundry detergent, Charmin toilet paper—and pile it all up on the kitchen table. When your parents get home, tell them that you’re going to use up these products (since to dump them would violate the mitzvah of bal tashchit—wastefulness), but that going forward, until the boycott is over, you’re going to refrain from buying these products because Proctor & Gamble engages in cruel and unnecessary testing on animals, and that’s not a thing that Jews—who don’t wear leather on Yom Kippur—can support. (This recent New York Times article offers a more developmentally sound basis for what I then called “bounded transgression.”)
Needless to say, there were consequences. On the one hand, my students were inspired: Wait a minute. You’re saying that Judaism can offer me an authentic justification to put my nascent sense of righteous indignation into practice in a way that will assert my independence of my parents?! I’m in! On the other hand, I caught a bit of hell from a few parents, one of whom just might have called me an eco-terrorist in the after-school pick-up line (she later became a friend).
So… mistakes were made. But there was a spark of something interesting in that offbeat pedagogical moment.
In his book Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation, Donald Stokes outlines a 2x2 taxonomy for scientific and technological research based on the extent to which the research is designed to expand fundamental understanding and/or solve a particular, applied problem:
Research that’s purely intended to advance fundamental understanding—the Torah lishma of scientific inquiry—is epitomized by the early 20th Century physicist Niels Bohr. Thomas Edison, on the other end of the spectrum, is the archetype for research that’s driven entirely by its potential application. Stokes sees the greatest value in the intersection of these two, embodied by Louis Pasteur, whose use-inspired work in fermentation helped confirm the germ theory of disease. (It is in this quadrant that the breakthroughs initiated by DARPA—like the internet and GPS—sit, along with John Maynard Keynes’ foundational work in macroeconomic theory, undertaken while trying to ameliorate the effects of economic depression.)
I love engaging Torah lishma, and I continue to find power in study for its own sake. But I am increasingly compelled by applied wisdom, whether the Edison flavor—taking extant knowledge and making it newly useful, as my twenty-something self was trying his best to do—or that of Pasteur’s quadrant—in which we ask hard questions to which we don’t yet know the answers and not only mine existing research but generate new knowledge in pursuit of a solution.
Work in Edison’s and Pasteur’s quadrants is what we’re trying to catalyze with the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom, the Finalists of which we’re announcing elsewhere in this newsletter. How do we address economic inequality? What does it mean to be stewards of our planet? How do we cultivate civil discourse in an era of increasing social atomization and polarization? How do we nurture meaningful and sustaining relationships with our spouses? How do we align our economic choices—work, saving, investment, consumption, philanthropy—with our values? For these questions and others, the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom offers an opportunity to go deep into Pasteur’s and Edison’s quadrants, inviting us to ask how Jewish text and tradition inform and guide new thinking into the most important questions with which we as a community must grapple.