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In 2005, journalist A. J. Jacobs wrote of his one-year mission to read all of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  It is a feat that cannot be attempted in today’s electronic age when the sheer volume of information with which we are bombarded is daunting: the equivalent of reading 174 newspapers daily. Writing recently in the New York Times, Professor Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University calculated that for every hour of YouTube video watched, there are 5,999 hours of new video posted.  That means that it is virtually impossible to ever see the entirety of the content of YouTube, assuming anyone was so inclined to do so.

Over forty years ago, Bar Ilan University in Israel launched a project to digitize the sources of Jewish law so that, with a powerful search engine, scholars would have access to the treasure trove of the Jewish legal tradition.  To date, thousands of books totaling over one hundred thousand response and well over 200 million words are available with hyperlinks to millions more.  The twentieth edition will add even more texts yet the library of scholarship has barely been dented.  And the rate of publication of new works exceeds the rate at which extant words are added to the collection.

Given the enormity – even impossibility – of the task of mastering the entirety of the Jewish legal canon, we cannot help but empathize with little boy who returns home with a failing mark in Jewish history.  His father reprimands him with a recollection of his own success.  “When I was your age,” he says to his son, “I always scored A’s in history.”  The little boy immediately retorted: “Yeah, but in your day there was a lot less history.”

The “good news” related to the exponential growth of Jewish legal literature is the vitality of the Jewish tradition.  The open-endedness of the Jewish legal canon is a testament to its dynamism.  A dead tradition has a finite end.  A living tradition, on the other hand, is endless.  While the task of experts becomes increasingly challenging with every new commentary or response anthology, the liveliness of legal debate is a tribute to the seriousness scholars still give to the application of Jewish law as well as the ability of the Jewish legal tradition to adapt to new circumstances.

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In 2013 Ashley Good won the Innovating Innovation Award from the Harvard Business Review and McKinsey and Company.  She did not invent a new technology or new way of using technology; neither did she discover some new principle that governs successful enterprises.  Instead, she was recognized for failure: her own and that of others.

Three years earlier she launched a website called admittingfailure.com.  By her own admission the project failed.  But trying to understand failure was her domain.  Her interest in failure began when she was working for Engineers With Borders, assigned to a United Nations project in Ghana.  When she arrived, her colleagues were all too happy to candidly tell her all the glaring deficiencies in the program and in its management.  But when a U.N. evaluator arrived to make a report, all they would dare mention were minor equipment needs.  Confronting the others with the dissonance between their silence in the presence of the evaluator but their disdain for the program itself, her fellow workings confessed they liked their jobs more than their concern for the success of the program.  Good was prompted to explore the problem, beginning with the question ‘Why was it not safe to be honest?’

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The greatest fear from which we all suffer, according to a host of surveys, is the fear of being alone.  Loneliness surpasses death, darkness, failure, snakes, spiders, and even disease, as the number one source of anxiety for Americans.  Yet there are two kinds of loneliness: physical loneliness and ideational loneliness.

Physical loneliness is exemplified by the loneliness of Adam.  The first Biblical human being was created alone.  He was singular among the creatures as judged by both his skills and abilities as well as by his inability to find a suitable mate among the other creatures.  Adam’s loneliness ended with the creation of his female partner.  Spiritual loneliness is exemplified by the loneliness of Abraham. 

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Words to live by

We’re all so busy chasing the extraordinary that we forget to stop and be grateful for the ordinary.

- Professor Brené Brown