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On Problems, Prizes and PaRDeS

July 23, 2008

There is an interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times about the use of competitive challenges and financial prizes in prompting innovative solutions to technological problems. The article discusses the model used by Innocentive, described in the article as “a company that links organizations (seekers) with problems (challenges) to people all over the world (solvers) who win cash prizes for resolving them.”

Seekers. Challenges. Solvers.

Sound familiar?

Now this model is by no means entirely novel, competitions to prompt solutions have been around for a very long time. But what has changed is the way technology can facilitate these competitions. In an ever-shrinking world where technology facilitates rapid communication and collaboration, these competitions are now accessible to everyone who has an interest, some knowledge and creative itch to combine the two in exchange for a chance at some money.

And we have seen evidence of this trend in our Jewish community – just this year Brandeis University and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation sponsored a competition for “the next big Jewish idea” of how the Jewish community can transform itself. The prize in that case, won by Yehuda Kurtzer (a Harvard doctoral student), was the appointment as the Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Studies – a two-year visiting professorship at Brandeis with a commission to publish a book. In that competition, 231 applicants submitted their “big ideas” (myself included), validating that, at the very least, there are people who believe in their “big ideas” enough to compete with them.

But what I wonder is whether this model of developing big solutions as part of big competitions is the right one. While it is important to think big – isn’t it just as important to think small? Yes, we have big systemic challenges, big communal issues and big existential concerns. But we have small problems too – small problems in need of answers. There aren’t competitions for the small, tactical ideas. There aren’t many prizes for the solutions that face our communities on a day-to-day basis. In searching for the big ideas, are we luring our bright thinkers too far astray from the most proximate and precise needs of our community? As was exceptionally well-stated in a recent column in the Jewish Daily Forward by Noam Neusner, “[p]erhaps instead of commissioning yet another book about the future of the Jews, we ought to hire people to organize fundraising dinners lasting two hours or less — now that would be a true stroke of genius.”

In Jewish learning, when we look to understand the meaning of biblical text we are studying we oftentimes use the PaRDeS method of interpretation, approaching the challenge of the text by means of the Peshat (the literal meaning), Remez (the allegorical meaning), Derash (the midrashic, homiletic meaning) and Sod (the mystical meaning). Using the PaRDeS methodology, when faced with the challenge of a text, we have four paths to finding a solution. Each one no less valid than the other, each one worthy of the ‘prize’ of understanding.

Juxtapose the PaRDeS approach to meeting the challenges of text to the competitive model of meeting the challenges of our community. While the latter is nuanced, taking into account a variety of approaches each with an equally rewarding result, the latter requires a selection of an exclusive answer – one that is more valid (however validity may be defined) than the other.

What if rather than creating competitions, we challenged Jews to look at our community challenges through the nuanced prisms of Jewish understanding? Perhaps if, rather than hand-wringing about the need for big-thinkers to compete with big ideas, we motivated individuals to create bite-sizes ideas to solve bite-size problems? If we did that then perhaps our Jewish problem-solvers, using whatever methodologies they might choose, literal, allegorical, moral or mystical, might find deeper Jewish meaning in their search for solutions. And we would benefit from their ideas, small and big.

And who knows, cumulatively all of these small ideas might add up to the achievement of one really big idea – the redemption of the Jewish people.

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