Sunday, 18 May 2014

Religion and high tech at the JCC

I finished my Days of Israel experience this Friday by attending two magnificent lectures held at the JCC as a part of the A Kaleidoscope of Israeli Cultures international expert panel. To start with: shame on you all who were too lazy to come! Sitting there, I kept wondering what’s the mysterious reason for all these free chairs around. Fascinating topics, renowned scholars and a great place – an opportunity not  to miss.  Now, as you guys are sobbing with regret, let me comfort you with an entertaining summary of the lectures.
The first one "Religions and Religiousness in Israel: A Coat of Many Colors" was delivered by dr Annamaria Orla-Bukowska from the UJ Institute of Sociology. She was describing the vibrant Israeli multireligousness in such a joyful, calm way that I couldn’t help smiling. What I loved in particular was her absolutely open-minded, respectful attitude towards every single denomination she would talk about. Perhaps it was this approach of a wise social anthropologist: no judging, just constant, curious observation. At the end, she said one brilliant sentence that seems to perfectly characterize the extreme intensity of Israel: “Our human nature tends to fit everything into these little boxes. Whereas in Israel, nothing fits into any box! Everything overflows”.
Dr Orla-Bukowska’s speech was followed by a presentation by Rabbi Avi Baumol “The Start-up Nation: How Talmud Shapes Modern Day Israeli Capitalism”. This one had what I enjoy most in lectures and books - completely new information and a fresh point of view. I am not very much into technology and economy so I wouldn’t rather get another opportunity to learn all these things. But to tell you the truth, it turned out to be far more interesting that I’d ever guess. Israel is known as a high tech world leader. But have you known how many genius devices come from this country? From flash drives through drop irrigation system up to endoscopic pills, our world is filled with tiny yet brilliant Israeli inventions. The authors of the cited book ‘The startup nation‘ believe that that this phenomena must be linked not only to the government policy or foreign grants but also to certain psychological aspects. The optimistic Israeli ambition and self-confidence close to arrogance (see: make perfect businessmen, leaders and innovators. But these traits cannot come out of nowhere. 
The authors derive them mainly from the compulsory military service and constant immigration. The latter one is rather obvious. People abandoning their past homeland are always the risk-takers. They tend to treat the aliyah as a chance to fulfill their dreams and hopes – that applies to launching a business as well. Moreover, as Israelis are raised in a multicultural society, they naturally develop an open-minded, creative attitude. The latter one- military service - came as a bit of a shock to me. As a pacifist, I’ve always considered the army as something that kills all the personal qualities, transforming young people into thoughtless fighting machines. However, the Israeli Defence Forces appear to work quite differently. They actually encourage the soldiers to think and work independently, acquire leadership skills and question the authorities.
According to Rabbi Baumol, the last skill is not anything new for the Jews. Conversely, it is deeply rooted in the Jewish mentality thanks to… the Talmud. This was the shock number two. I’ve always associated Orthodox Judaism with a strict obedience to the 613 commandments. And here comes an orthodox rabbi, proving that the foundation of his religion is challenging the authority of God! The Old Testament and Talmud are plenty of stories in which the least significant ones argue with the Almighty himself. Mind-blowing. What’s more, the old Jewish tradition has its unique approach to intellectual development. The Talmud knowledge is all deep-rooted in logic, critical thinking and reality, it forms a culture of discussion, arguments and doubts.
If you ever wondered ‘Why are Jews so smart?”, that seems to be a fair answer.

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