It is rare to find the terms “rabbi” and “disruptive innovation” used in the same sentence. Rarer still, is to find those words inexplicably embedded into the vision of one individual.
When Rabbi Irwin Kula spoke from the BIF10 stage (Business Innovation Factory Summit) in Providence, he asked a provocative question: How do we innovate more developed and evolved human beings?
Kula, the President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and the author of Yearnings: The Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, believes that like any system, religion has to adapt to an evolving world.
Along with Craig Hatkoff, Kula founded the Disruptor Foundation, whose mission is to apply disruptive innovation theory to religion, spirituality, ethics, and moral development.
“Religion is a technology of human flourishing. There is no tradition on the face of the earth that wasn’t at one time an innovation designed to help us flourish. A tradition is simply an innovation that makes it.”
The tragedy of 9/11 and the loss of several close friends was a watershed moment for Kula – who turned loss into hope by collecting the last words of people who perished but left transcendent messages of love, compassion, and hope.
He took those words and adapted them into a chant for his synagogue. The tune and meter of the chant he chose was traditionally about the destruction of the Jewish temple. What he learned was not only that these words words fit the traditional chant perfectly, but that the final conversations he had in his collections were ultimately love.
But Kula’s hope is leavened with a dynamic practicality. “The fastest growing religious identification in America is none. There are increasing numbers of “non-consumers: of existing religious products and services.”
“We need,” says Kula, “Some of our best and brightest to be early moral adopters – disruptive spiritual innovators who are interested in working to develop new wisdom and practices that can compress the time and space necessary to create “good, ethical people.”
“If the only early adopters we have are only concerned with the most cutting-edge technology, we’re going to be in big trouble.”
He told the BIF audience that he is currently working on a study with 5,000 people to see if the traditions and practices of Jewish people from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur actually help individual flourish and grow.
“This is the first study in the history of religion in American in which people are being asked, “what is the actual impact on the person?”
Will gratitude increase? Will hope and optimism increase? Will a sense of belonging increase?”
To apply statistical rigor to religious traditions may seem like heresy, but Kula’s thesis is that even sacred traditions, which were at one time innovations, should work. They should fill the human need or they should to evolve to fill that need.
It is nearly impossible to convey the warmth and compassion of Rabbi Kula’s talk in words. He is a Rabbi but could easily be called a secular humanist.
Because ultimately, his mission is less about saving religion but about saving our humanity and finding innovative ways to regain an ethical and compassionate Eden.