Paradigm Shift

Rabbi Larry Hoffman taught me, in his “Rites and Rituals” class my senior year of rabbinical school, that how we think about things is deeply influenced by current scientific models of thinking about the universe — except that our thinking about social and religious issues tends to lag behind the actual scientific thinking, until at some point there is a major paradigm shift and we start thinking differently. Well, it’s time.

The whole notion of a “slippery slope” is straight Newtonian. It suggests that if you introduce change into a social system (say, make compassionate space for gay men and lesbians to live in a healthy way within an Orthodox observant Jewish community), the change will continue in the same direction and will even pick up speed over time (due to gravity, of course) and that there’s no stopping it (“slippery” means there’s no coefficient of friction [revised after Leo’s comment: OK, it means that the coefficient of friction is to low to offset the pull of gravity]).

That makes it too scary to deliberately introduce change, because it looks like the community will then start moving down the slippery slope and there won’t be any way to stop it. Apparently the assumption is that one’s community is currently resting precariously in a place which either isn’t on an incline, or which has sufficient friction to maintain the current location against the pull of gravity. Move the tiniest bit, and you’ve overcome the friction, or made the no-turning-back transition from being on the level to being on the frictionless incline. At its ultimate, this leads to the Chatam Sofer‘s declaration, Kol chadash asur min haTorah,” “Everything new is forbidden by the Torah.” Nonsense, but there are segments of the community which subscribe to both the conclusion and the fear.

Make the paradigm shift to “Einsteinian mechanics”, and you learn that motion is different on different scales. Newton is a pretty good rough approximation of what we see on an everyday basis, but once you start looking on grand or tiny scales, things work very differently. On the atomic level, we’re all internally in motion all the time. And the motion of electrons takes a very different form: quantum leaps. Movement by predetermined amounts, which happens only after a certain amount of energy (think pressure or force) is introduced (or applied) to the system. (Disclaimer: this is based on what I remember from high school.)
If that were to be our paradigm for thinking about cultural/societal/communal change, there might be a great deal less fear. Electrons prefer a steady state (I think — a kind of stability), and move reluctantly, and even then only to the next higher or lower state. If this model applies to communal change, it suggests that communities are inherently stable (read: conservative), and infinite change is not likely. Unless they are bombarded with outside energy all out of proportion to their own inner cohesiveness, in which case you can get wildly new elements. Think of the radical change of the first years of the Reform Movement, in Germany and then the United States. But you have to realize that the movement didn’t come of of nowhere; HUGE social pressures were already splintering the Jewish community, and Reform is one of the new “steady states” that it reorganized itself into.

Shift again: Chaos theory. Chaos theory tells us that we can’t know or predict at any level of detail where we’ll be a long ways down the road, even if we closely observe current trends. Chaos theory is what governs, for instance, the weather. The fact that it’s sunny today and cloudy tomorrow doesn’t mean that it’ll rain two days from now; sometimes it will, sometimes it will still be cloudy, sometimes it’ll be hot and sunny, and it might snow; and never mind guessing what the weather will be like 30 days from now. We can only say that it tends to be warm in the summer and cold in the winter in the northern hemisphere. The system is way too complicated for us to have all the information that we’d need to predict details accurately in any long-range way.

And that’s a comfort in so many ways. It does mean that “the best-laid plans of mice and men” can go astray in absolutely unforseen ways; but it also means that introducing change doesn’t necessarily mean that the change will accelerate and continue in the original direction. It suggests that there are bounds to change, cycles and patterns underlying change, even if we really can’t really describe where we are in the system or predict what’s next for us. Newton may be pretty accurate for gravity, but seems to have little predictive power when it comes to the evolution of complex systems. Of which we humans, I say with no little hubris, are probably among the most complex.

Musings after listening to Rabbi Steven Greenberg talk about the need for some changes in the Orthodox community around welcoming and including gay men and lesbians. More on that to come.