Sunday, July 1, 2012

Planning for the Impossible

 Could thinking about the impossible be useful for nonprofit organizations?

I'm enjoying reading Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku.  Will we ever have Star Wars-style light swords?  What about a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak?  Discussing these questions, he manages to teach me a lot about electromagnetism and optics and the state of technology that I didn't know, and make it fun.

Kaku says there are three orders of impossibility.  Class I impossibilities are impossible today but "might be possible in this century, or perhaps the next, in modified form."   Class II impossibilities "sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world" and might be possible in "millennia to millions of years in the future."  Class III impossibilities are "technologies that violate the known laws of physics...If they do turn out to be possible, they would represent a fundamental shift in our understanding...."

What if we applied this framework to the challenges we face in running our organizations and achieving our missions?  (Of course the time scales wold have to be very different!)

Ask yourself: if what we want to do seems impossible now, what would it take to make it real?  If it's just funding, or a change in regulations, that might be a Class I impossibility--meaning not impossible at all for people as hopeful as people who work in nonprofits tend to be.  Figuring out the steps to get there and setting ourselves an attainable deadline might  embolden us to change what's possible, financially or politically.

If it's a change in society, it's a Class II impossibility: it might take the rest of our lives and then some.  But historically speaking, that's a very small time.  Ask yourself: Is the mission worth that kind of concentrated, persistent effort?  What will make that kind of effort possible?  What will sustain it for the time it takes?

And as for Class III impossibilities, it's good to be reminded that even things Einstein once thought impossible have been proven to be true.  Don't bet the organization on changes that violate the way you believe things are at a fundamental level.  But be hopeful, and be prepared.

A Questioning Tradition

On the walls of his classroom, one of my high school teachers displayed the following saying, which he attributed to the Koran: “Questions asked only to cause confusion do not need to be answered.” 

 If you read Parshat Korach the way my friend Larry Lennhoff does, then Korach’s questioning of authority was just that kind of confusion-sowing.  Larry wrote in response to my blog post of June 25:

Do you think Korach was sincere? I don't, and neither do most traditional rabbis. I think Korach and the others wanted to keep the idea of [hierarchy], but just place themselves at the top in the place of Moses, Aaron, and their close relatives.

I am willing to believe Korach was sincere.  Partly, I have seen too many sincere challenges to authority dismissed—and partly, I think taking Korach at his word lets us explore more interesting questions.  How and when should Jews challenge authority, including the authority of our own tradition?  How can the tradition adapt and learn from rebels and innovators?  Because that kind of adaptation and innovation is the only thing that keeps a tradition alive.

The Jewish tradition has adapted and changed a great deal over the centuries.   Rabbinic Judaism greatly modified the religious civilization described in Torah.  It had to.  With the Temple destroyed, a religion based on sacrifices conducted by a centralized caste-based priesthood could not have survived.  Prayer and Torah study replaced sacrifice, and in place of the Temple in Jerusalem, the rabbis gave us way of seeking holiness that we could carry out at home, from resting on Shabbat to keeping kosher throughout the year (and in different ways on Passover).

As I have studied it, rabbinic Judaism is a paradox: a bold and respectful tradition of hecklers.  
·         It’s bold because of the authority it claims for its adherents.  “All that a serious student will yet expound before his teacher has already been told to Moses at Sinai” (and has the force of revelation), says the Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 17:1. 

·         It’s respectful because to say something new, you have to study the old and come up with a connection to it, be that connection logical or highly creative, or both. 

·         It’s full of hecklers.  You can find one rabbi saying in the Talmud, “Any dayan (judge, interpreter) who judges that way is no judge!”, and find another responding, “Any dayan who judges that way is no judge!”
And yet it remains a tradition, not a set of schisms.  The 1st-century teachers Hillel and Shammai disagreed on every major ruling, down to whether you should light more candles as Chanukah goes on or fewer.  Both were highly influential teachers with many followers.  The followers could have grown apart, as Catholics and Protestants did in Christianity and Sunnis and Shi’ites did in Islam.  Instead, the next generation of rabbis found a way to keep them together.  “These AND these are the words of the living God,” they said.  In practice, we light candles the way Hillel told us to do.  To become wiser, we study Shammai as well as Hillel, seeing what we can learn from each.

This is one of the reasons the uncompromising attitude the text of Parshat Korach takes with the rebels poses such a problem for us today.  I will return to Korach soon, asking the question a different way:  when and how should we challenge authority, and how should authority respond?