The Mangled Call to Action

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Andrew Pickering, the influential historian of science, likes to tell a story about the Mississippi River. Pickering calls it one of the great rivers of the world, mighty and vital, an artery for commerce, energy, and agriculture. For the past one hundred years, the army corp of engineers has been, as they describe it, at “war” with the river. They’ve built levees, gates, gigantic metal structures to hold the river in place, to prevent it from changing course, to stop it from flooding. Their engineering has gotten better over the years too. The science of hydrology called, in the 60s, for a levees only approach. Now, the corp has a fifteen acre scale model of the Mississippi, where it can run countless simulations and creatively address each potential problem. It still doesn’t work. The Mississippi’s strength remains a marvel, well beyond the corps capacity to affect. There are just some things that can’t be controlled.

Or rather, they can’t be controlled by asserting systematic dominion over them. Pickering argues that “machines, instruments, facts, theories, conceptual and mathematical structures, disciplined practices, and human beings are in constantly shifting relationships with one another—”mangled” together in unforeseeable ways that are shaped by the contingencies of culture, time, and place.” Consequently, he advocates for a more open ended approach to scientific problem solving, one that accounts for the unpredictability of nature and the limits of human agency. It’s worth reading in long form, but the outcome is a method founded upon deep humility and intense curiosity.

I couldn’t help but hear Pickering in the background while I read the Strategic Direction for Jewish Life: A Call to Action. This impressive group of signers and writers – let’s call them the Army Corp of Engineers for Jewish Peoplehood – were again calling for much of the same. Levees in the form of summer camps and day schools, and, when all else fails, gates in the form of Birthright. They insist on a notion of Jewishness, a direction that the river must flow. And they honestly believe – despite the continuing demographic flood toward non affiliation – that if only people were exposed to “good” Judaism in the “right” ways, then they could change the course of the river.

The river though is too mighty. The mangle – the conflicting values, priorities, and interventions contained, perhaps bursting at the seems of this Call – too complex. While Pickering has never broached the subject of Jewish education, I can’t help but imagine his counter proposal to gracefully let the river run, to meet the river on its own terms.

In contrast to the Strategic Call and drawing on the openness of Pickering, I’d instead call for humility and curiosity. As a researcher and practitioner of Jewish education, I seek to partner, not to direct. I seek to understand, not to assert. I seek to include, not to exclude. I recognize that my Jewishness might not be for everyone and far be it for me to insist that it should be. I aspire to embrace and respect the river as majority owner in its destiny.

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