Abraham’s “disruptive innovation”
This week we begin to follow Abraham as he embarks on a transformative journey. It takes him away from the comforting belief system of his ancestors and throws him into the unknown wilderness of attempting to connect to a deity that he can hear, but cannot see.
The famous story of Abraham smashing his father’s idols is not actually in the text of the Torah. It is a Midrash (a word that comes from a Hebrew root meaning “explain”); an early rabbinic oral tradition that involved identifying gaps or redundancies in the text of the Torah and using these as points for inserting narratives that explain or grow from the discrepancy. Many Midrashim add such compelling narratives that we are often more familiar with them than with the actual text.
In this case, the story is that Abraham challenges the prevailing belief in idols by smashing all the idols in his father’s shop except one, and then places a stick in the hand of the remaining idol. When his father returns he blames the destruction on the idol, exposing his father’s belief that idols are really only statues. “So why do you worship them?”, asks the child.
I am calling this moment a disruptive innovation, though I don’t know if I am using the term in a technically correct way. Abraham had a powerful new idea, the very nature of which changed the deity “market.”
The advent of modern technology has created a system in which disruptive innovation is so common that we are used to having a new normal every few years. I’ve been reading a lot about this process as it relates to education – as a field, educators are trying (probably in vain) to predict the coming innovations, and to adapt quickly to this shifting landscape.
I believe that it is impossible to predict disruptive innovation (that is what makes it disruptive, right?). What educators can do, though, is focus on the constants. We know a lot about human nature, relationships, cultures, and needs. Though these human universals are sometimes realized in new ways, at their most basic levels they are what they have been for millennia, thanks to the relatively slow pace of genetic evolution. The strength of Judaism and other religions is that they ground us in traditions that address basic human needs, giving us the foundation from which to explore each new innovation as the rate of change in our world continues to increase.