When I was in college, I fueled my addictions to pretentious magazines and Toscanini‘s Grape Nut Custard ice cream by teaching Hebrew School. I commuted to the synagogue — the Red Line to the Green Line — with two other Harvard ’89ers, David Rosenn and Danny Nevins. Since those halcyon days teaching Jewish history and values to hormonally addled wee suburbanites, David has gone on to found Avodah, the Jewish service corps, and become the COO of the New Israel Fund. Danny is now the Dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a co-author of the rabbinic decision that led to the admission of gay and lesbian students to Conservative Jewish rabbinical schools. One of us is an underachiever.
In a total lack of transitional sentence, I will now share with you that I’ve been more upset than I ever expected to be about Steve Jobs’s death. (I loved this story from the education blog of the Washington Post, quoting Steve Jobs on calligraphy. Yes, calligraphy. And a lot more. I cried.) My point here, and I do have one, is that when my mom shared Danny’s pre-Yom-Kippur words to JTS’s rabbinical students, they made me feel a little bit of clarity and the desire to turn my sad feelings into useful action. Danny kindly gave me permission to share. Not only is he an Important Jew, he got his first Mac — the 512e — in 1985, so you should probably listen.
I feel that we owe quite a bit to Steve Jobs, not just for providing us with dazzling products, but for helping people discover joy and creativity in aspects of life that once felt drab. The values of elegance, simplicity, intuitiveness and interaction which he brought to technology are very much relevant to the work that we do in teaching Torah to the Jewish people. I’m afraid that we seldom succeed in this regard. We make things complicated and inaccessible when they should be beautiful, fun and delightful. He also realized, as many articles have noted, the importance of finding the most talented people around and helping them realize their potential. This too is essential for us, and yet seldom practiced. Another lesson that I take from Steve Jobs regards his refusal to give in and dilute product quality for the sake of gaining market share. There was a long time when Apple and its Macintosh computers were viewed as a niche market for countercultural elites. DOS and then Windows were the dominant ways of computing, and Mac represented a tiny percentage of the market. If anything, Microsoft needed Apple around to protect itself from having a 100% monopoly on system software and being vulnerable to anti-trust actions. The Mac was a bit of a joke for many (not me!) and Jobs himself was forced out of Apple at this time. It took incredible determination, intelligence, creativity, talent and guts to bring his company back from the abyss and make it the juggernaut that we know. The nimshal [message of the story] is again about Torah, and specifically the formulation of Judaism that we are offering at JTS. Sometimes it seems that the world has no interest—that we are just a niche market that isn’t relevant to the larger discourse. Steve Jobs inspires me not to give up hope. We must insist on quality, depth, elegance and beauty in our “product.” And here we do have an advantage—our product is Torah, and our Torah is a Torat Emet—a truthful Torah, and it is also a Torat Chesed—a kind Torah. Let’s rededicate ourselves to teaching that Torah with greater intensity this year, making it joyous and passionate so that it can touch the heart as well as the mind.
Lovely and smart, no?
Quality, depth, elegance and beauty are not quite all ye know on earth and all need to know, but they’re up there. And no matter what your “product” is, surely you can strive to pour more kindness and truth into it in the coming year. I’m guessing, too, that we can all work harder to reach other people’s hearts as well as minds. So there’s that.