The Origins of the Start-up Nation

In May 2016 I attended the Israel EdTech (Education Technology) Summit in Tel Aviv. There were many people there, all interested and concerned about the future of education. Included among them was a sizeable delegation from China.

One of the Chinese delegates was asked on stage what he was looking for in his search for education technology. He answered that he was looking for anything that could help children pass their examinations in school, and to increase their chances of getting a place at a university, and ultimately compete for good and lucrative jobs. As much as I understand the drive to push our children forwards and to give them every conceivable advantage to share in the good life, this answer made me very sad. It sounded just like the structure behind the traditional Confucian schools of learning, namely: pass the local exams, pass the regional exams, pass the Imperial exams, become a recognized scholar and join the scholarly class. It also sounded too much like my own schooling: pass 11+, pass O-levels, pass A-levels. I was in fact a terrible student – I couldn’t regurgitate the facts when the time came; I just couldn’t remember all those details. Luckily, I always managed to work around the system — to survive and thrive (I have a doctorate in chemistry).

The same person was then asked what he most enjoyed about his visit to Israel and the schools, universities, colleges, technological incubators, start-ups and mature companies that he had visited. At this point he started to get excited. He said that he loved the Israeli schools; he loved how the children all shouted at the teacher at the same time; how the teacher shouted back; how they challenged the teacher all the time; and how the teacher challenged them in return. He loved the sense of “balagan” (not the easiest word for the Chinese to pronounce), a term, borrowed from the Russian, meaning chaos in Hebrew, and how somehow out of the chaos, or within the chaos, there was order (which, incidentally, was the subject of my doctoral thesis). He said that such behavior doesn’t exist in China. In China, children do not ask questions in class and they certainly do not challenge their teachers to their face. He said that China needs more of this “technology” because this chaos is the breeding ground for creativity, individuality and entrepreneurship.

After his session, I asked him if he had visited, or was even aware of, Jewish academies that utilize educational methodologies that are over 2000-years old and that, in my opinion, are largely responsible for the success of the Start-up Nation and the general excellence and genius of Jews over the centuries. He was not aware of such a phenomenon. I promised to take him to such an academy called a yeshiva, on his next visit.

A yeshiva (which literally means a place of sitting) is an institute where people, mainly men, although there are now more and more places for women, learn Torah according to the methods of Traditional Jewish Learning (TJL). Torah means the aggregated wisdom of Israel. It starts with the TaNaCH (Five Books of Moses, Prophets, Writings) and goes through the commentaries, and the legal/ethical/ritual/folklore compilations known as the Talmud (6300 pages), and on to the commentaries of the Talmud, and the legal/ethical codes, and the medieval philosophers, the psychological insights of the Hasidic movement of the 19th century, all the way up to contemporary philosophies and commentaries. And then there are all the esoteric texts (kabbalah).   It takes several lifetimes to cover all this material. Each person is only able to just scratch the surface of the Jewish intellectual and spiritual heritage. The great scholars (sages) spend their entire lives learning and have the mental capacities to absorb and integrate huge amounts of material, making connections across the centuries, and extracting very deep understandings of the nature of God, the universe and the human being.

Now if you were to visit such a traditional yeshivah you would probably be as shocked as my Chinese friend who entered a regular Israeli school, for inside a yeshiva there appears to be total chaos in the learning halls. You will find rows upon rows of desks, usually with two people sitting opposite each other and books in between, arguing, sometimes very loudly, and demonstratively throwing their arms into the air and banging on the tables, all in order to make their point about what the text is trying to say. Not only that but the traditional texts are not read but sung in a particular trop (melody) that helps emphasize its inherent flow of logic. The accumulation of tens to hundreds of yeshiva students all learning like this produces a cacophony of sound and motion that can only be described as a balagan. But out of this balagan emerges profound understandings, wisdom and creativity. It’s order out of chaos. Or what could be called – holy chutzpah.

China too has a very long tradition of learning texts and distilling wisdom. What was it like in the great Confucian academies of learning that survived for over 2000 years until they were finally closed at the beginning of the 1900s? Were they all hushed quiet like a library? Or were they a hub of activity as hundreds of scholars tackled the mysteries of the great sages of China? I have not yet found an answer to this question.

What is the reason for Jews excelling in creativity to such a degree that they make up such disproportionately high percentages of original thinkers compared to their miniscule population size: Not only Nobel prize winners, but also founders of political doctrine, founders of psychology, revolutionary leaders, leading lawyers, doctors, economists, writers of all types, philosophers, artists, film makers, producers and, of course, merchants? It is my opinion that there are two mechanisms that can explain such a phenomenon:

  • Exile
  • Traditional Jewish Learning (TJL).

Exile from their land 2000-years ago threw the Jewish people into an ‘adapt or die’ mode. Meaning that Jewish national life had to undergo a major paradigm shift in order to survive without a land, without central governance and without central, hierarchical worship around the destroyed Temple. This shift the sages managed to accomplish and it has been effective until this day. In each land, under each new challenge, both positive and (mostly) oppressive, the dispersed leadership of the dispersed people managed to adapt. This is the true meaning of the Darwinian evolutionary principle: “survival of the fittest”. It means survival of the most flexible, the most adaptable, the most nimble. It means you have to be smart.   It means finding niches where nobody else would dare enter, and thriving in them. A good example of this is the American film industry, which Jews founded a 100-years ago and dominate to this day.

The other is the practice of learning Torah, what I call Traditional Jewish Learning (TJL), especially Talmud. Sharpening one’s mind on a Biblical sentence, a story, a legal discussion, a philosophical text or a psychological discourse has, over the centuries, produced a people that is argumentative, analytical, imaginative, and probing. The quest is always the same: to understand the mind of God and hence understand our own minds; since the mind of God is infinite, then the possibilities of understanding are also infinite. Which means that innovative thinking, finding that understanding that comes from within one’s own uniqueness, is held as the ideal. Hence creativity and originality.

The methodology of Traditional Jewish Learning is based on the following principles:

  • Learning is around a text
  • Questioning is essential
  • All questions are valid
  • There’s no learning without conflict
  • There is no absolute truth i.e. all answers are subjective and hence legitimate
  • Learning is for the sake of learning and not for objective needs i.e. learning is for the Sake of Heaven
  • Learning is best done with a learning partner (hevruta)
  • The hevruta’s job is to challenge and prevent weak thinking
  • Learning is open to all
  • Learning is a necessity for all
  • Paradoxes are acceptable and do not have to be rejected
  • Imaginative thinking (aggadah) is as important as logical thinking (halakha).

Studying with a hevruta – a learning partner – is essential; someone that you learn with at least once a week or, in a yeshiva, at least once a day and learn a text with. Without somebody continuously challenging your logic it is easy to fool yourself into thinking that you understand the text. Each side is pushing the other to excellence. A hevruta must be ruthless in not letting you get away with weak argumentation. In the Talmud each of the great sages had a great hevruta and if that hevruta ended, perhaps because of the death of one, then the other would feel as if part of his soul had died. In a sense, a hevruta was almost like a spouse. Last week a friend of mine died and it was his hevruta of 25 years that so beautifully eulogized him at his funeral. I am convinced that if the practice of hevruta study were to be extended into the secular education system it would make a vast improvement in people’s capacity to think (not just to learn).

Asking questions is also an essential element in creative thinking. When the great Jewish physicist Isidor Rabi, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance, was asked what influence made him into such a great scientist he answered:

My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: So? Did you learn anything today? But not my mother. “Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?” That difference — asking good questions — made me become a scientist.

Traditional Jewish Learning (TJL) has already been identified by other peoples as the cause of Jewish genius. It is claimed that in South Korea there is a book about the Talmud in every home and that some schools have already adopted some of the educational technologies described above into their school system. (How The Talmud Became A Best-Seller In South Korea, The New Yorker, Ross Arbes, June 23, 2015)

At the same EdTech conference Saul Singer, the co-author of Start-up Nation, gave a keynote address. This book has changed the consciousness of the world by not only introducing the term ‘Start-up Nation’ but also by elevating Israel as the quintessential example of such a phenomenon.   I remember when the book first came out, Jon Medved of OurCrowd Investments said to me: “These guys have done the greatest mitzvah (positive deed) for the Israeli nation.” Saul repeated the thesis presented in the book that the prime source of Israeli genius comes from the army experience: leadership, responsibility, access to technology, constant threat and the need to innovate. I maintain that this is only a partial answer. The army is a balagan. Discipline is partial; standing on ceremony is almost non-existent. In fact, built into the Israeli army training is both the necessity to obey orders and the imperative to question orders. This is a double-edged sword, as any one who has served knows only too well. It results in huge waste (mostly time) and inefficiencies, but it also leads to heroic creativity or chutzpah (the crossing of the Suez Canal by Arik Sharon in the middle of the Yom Kippur War comes to mind).

The Israel army is a people’s army and is therefore a reflection of the general culture of the society. Israeli society has that same combination of balagan and holy chutzpah, of craziness and friendliness. But where does it come from? What are the major influences on the emergence of modern Israeli culture? Well, the fact is that the founding fathers were all educated in the classic yeshivot of Eastern Europe. They all spoke Yiddish, which has the similar intonations as the trop for learning Torah. In Yiddish, every sentence is either a question or an insult (chutzpah). And this migrated over into modern Hebrew.

Ever heard of the expression “Two Jews, three opinions”? Ever seen Jews argue about seemingly insignificant points? Ever noticed how stubborn we can be? Where does that attitude come from? I maintain that one of the major influences that accounts for the creativity of the Jewish mind is the constant questioning and berating that comes out of the yeshiva world. In other words, TJL flows in our blood through our language(s) and our culture.

Now if we could capture and package that we would have a great Start-up.

About the Author
Michael Kagan is the author of the Holistic Haggadah (Urim), God’s Prayer (Albion-Andalus) and The King’s Messenger (Albion-Andalus Books). He is a scientist, entrepreneur, film-maker and teacher of Holistic Judaism. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan.