Thursday, March 19, 2009

Relationships and Rationality (Speech at Sheva Brachot)

Elad and I met properly in the context of a fortnightly Tel Aviv Shiur that our lovely hostess Susie organized a couple of years ago. That shiur – in which each member of the small group of people would present on a Jewish topic of interest while the others sipped wine and interjected in generally relevant places – is actually still going strong two and a half years later.

In fact, I’m missing it tonight to be here.

So in memory of this relationship grounded in Jewish theology, I’m glad I have the opportunity to share some ideas based on the thought the people we spent many an evening in Susie’s old apartment discussing.

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Martin Buber is a famous Jewish theologian of the past century who is perhaps best known for his ‘I-Thou’ (I – You singular for the less posh) thesis. Its main proposition is that we may address existence or relationships in two ways:

The first he calls ‘I-It’ which is when one relates to an object (or person) functionally, in the context of its output or what it ‘gives’ us. It could be anything from our relationship to a table or a bank clerk (or a spouse). These relationships aren’t necessarily bad, often they are even necessary. But they are a lower form of relationship.

The second type Buber terms ‘I-Thou’ which refers to placing ourselves completely into a relationship, truly being with another person, without masks or pretenses. It’s the genuine sharing of our truest selves without masks or pretenses.

This is what we should all be striving for with the people we genuinely love and care for.

Buber explains that these I-Thou relationships help to bring us into relationship with the ‘Eternal Thou’ i.e. God.

If this reading is correct, then it seems Buber believes that we should use our experience with people to better understand the relationship we’re supposed to create with the Divine.

But I wonder if perhaps things are supposed to be the other way round – that our relationship with God and Torah ultimately helps us to achieve a better relationship with people.

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Last week we read about the red heifer, a law whose logic even King Solomon couldn’t fathom. The ashes of this heifer are used to purify, but they simultaneously make the Cohen performing the action impure.

The law seems completely irrational and non-sensical. In Jewish sources, it’s known as the ultimate chok, a biblical law for which there is no apparent reason.

And it reminds me of a beautiful passage by
Abraham Joshua Heschel on rationality (more than any other Jewish thinker, Heschel helps me to pray, and sometimes even helps to believe that my prayers are heard);

He writes that “The search of reason ends at the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide. It alone knows the route to that which is remote from experience and understanding. Neither of them is amphibious: reason cannot go beyond the shore, and the sense of the ineffable is out of place where we measure, where we weigh.”

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Elad – one of the things I always liked about you in our discussions was that we were both very rational (we were the guys after all). We value intellect and logic; we trust things we can measure. Maybe we even feel that if reason and emotion clash, then reason comes out trumps. But I wonder if at a certain stage, perhaps when it comes to trying to create an ‘I-Thou’ love with another individual we may need to de-emphasize it.

I wonder whether love is ineffable, part of the immense expanse beyond the shore of reason which can’t be weighed or measured.

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And I wonder whether the concept of an illogical or irrational command we simply can’t fathom is highly relevant not just when serving God, but in loving people.

Because some things (like relationships) simply ‘are,’ without being logically measurable or easily classified.

And what’s fantastic about your relationship is that even though 2 years ago no one would have put you two together (on paper), in practice, your relationship just ‘works,’ and everyone who meets you sees how much it works.

And it’s very very wonderful to see…

Mazal Tov

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Working at Reut: What I Actually Do All Day

(I was asked by Global Politics Magazine to write about what its like working for the Reut Institute. The piece was published last week and hopefully explains (better than I am able to do verbally) what I actually do every day.

When I first moved to Israel from my native London three years ago, I was hoping to find a job that would merge two of my main professional interests; academic research and practical political involvement (but without the 'politics'). As it turned out, the Reut Institute proved to be a good match.

Reut was founded in January 2004 by Gidi Grinstein who had previously worked in the Prime Minister's Office during Ehud Barak's premiership (1999-2001) and had been part of the Israeli delegation which experienced the collapse of the Camp David Summit in 2000 with the Palestinians.

Many people involved in the Summit such as Shlomo Ben Ami, Gilead Sher, Dennis Ross and Clayton Swisher used their experiences to write books. Gidi, meanwhile, founded a non-partisan policy group whose purpose was to fill what he understood as the 'systemic gap' plaguing the Israel Government – that those responsible for strategic decisions affecting the country's future have meager tools at their disposal with no agency able to provide them with real-time strategic decision support. He felt that Israel suffers from a structural mismatch:

On the one hand, the complexity and number of challenges - security, economic and social - it faces require it to think and act strategically, substantively and long term. On the other hand, its political system - with unstable coalitions and fragmentation between Parliament and Government - often generates short term, populist and sectarian conduct. The current system frequently leads to situations in which two out of three senior ministers in a given government are the Prime Minister's political rivals. Israel has had 31 different governments since its establishment and has held six elections in the last 12 years. The average term length of each government is two years; for a minister, it is only 12 months.

It is not surprising that this severely limits the State's ability to design and implement long-term policies.

Reut attempts to fill this mismatch by providing an address for decision-makers and helping them to think more 'strategically'. The world view of decision-makers is based on a combination of implicit and explicit assumptions. Yet when reality changes without these assumptions being updated, it creates a 'relevancy gap' (the gap between original assumptions and the divergent reality) which can lead to 'strategic surprises'. Historical examples of such surprises range from the 1973 Yom Kippur war (where despite possessing all the information warning of a surprise joint Egyptian Syrian attack, Israeli leaders were surprised) to Kodak's failure to identify the revolution of the digital camera.

Through Reut's structure and methodology based on tools from an organization called Praxis, we specialize in identifying these potential strategic surprises. Using experts and texts to carry out focused research on the topic and create new knowledge, we then try and help decision-makers close the gap.

In the longer term, Reut aims to train future strategists who will ultimately enter the government or public sector after their time at the institute. An oft-heard phrase is that we hope our staff's email address at their next job will end with 'dot gov' or 'dot org' (rather than a 'dot com').

Although I tell people I work in a 'political think tank' (my one line answer to the question of what I do), the truth is that Reut is very different from traditional research institutions.
Most think tanks operate on the assumption that the central problem is lack of information and so deal with research. Reut, meanwhile, believes that the central problem facing governments lies with the conceptual understanding of the problem. We thus deal with evaluating basic working assumptions.

While other organizations employ 'content' experts (such as an 'Iranian expert' who has spent 30 years studying the issue and is supported by a younger research assistant), Reut utilizes 'process' experts (analysts trained in the methodology of identifying relevancy gaps) while using content experts on an ad hoc basis.

A 'typical' day at Reut is a bit of an oxymoron – it doesn’t really exist.

It generally includes team meetings in which we discuss our current research and try to clarify what issues we should focus on. My policy team (which includes a team leader and three analysts) splits its time between writing about the Palestinian issue, Israel's National Security Strategy and how to turn the Arab sector into an economic engine of growth for the whole country.

The day might also include preparing presentations for decision-makers, meetings with outside experts or grass-roots organizations, attending conferences or updating our new organizational blog with analysis on relevant topics to our work.

In addition to my role as an analyst, I am also responsible for our website and part of a team creating Reut's 'Impact Theory' which incorporates insights from books on leadership such as Harvard lecturers Ron Heifetz and Dean Williams and integrating them into our work of helping decision-makers close their relevancy gaps.

Yet none of these things are actually what I enjoy most about Reut. Instead, it’s the training and the people.

The material we have read and discussed over the past two years on business, strategy, leadership, networks, globalization, Web 2.0 and political judgment have hugely enriched my understanding of the type of world we all live in (and in my opinion are just as valuable as a degree in Strategic Thinking).

I also feel blessed to share my professional life with other young and ideologically motivated people from around the world who have chosen to make Israel their home. The intellectual richness and openness in our discussions (during meetings and over lunch) have immeasurably benefited my professional and personal development.