A tale of two civilizations

The real threat to Zionism is the growing extremism of segments of the population.

Saudi traders stocks 311 (photo credit: STR New / Reuters)
Saudi traders stocks 311
(photo credit: STR New / Reuters)
Ever wonder why Silicon Valley is bursting with new ideas that revolutionize the way people live all over the globe, while places like Saudi Arabia produce almost nothing novel at all?
The gap between the two is hard to fathom, but as just one indicator, consider new patents: Silicon Valley, the epitome of explosive creativity, gave birth to over 13,300 new patents in 2010 alone (12 percent of all US patents). Saudi Arabia's 25 million people, on the other hand, hold about 15 US patents. Not per year, mind you. Total.
Yes, this measure discounts local Saudi patents, but consider that in 2008, Israelis received 1,496 U.S. patents, roughly 208 patents per million inhabitants per year. Saudi Arabia's rate is about 0.6 per million (and again, total not annual).
Unfortunately, the Saudis are not alone. For the past 50 years, the entire Arab world has been an intellectual wasteland: 325 million people have produced about 100 patents.  If we look at publications in scientific journals, the pattern is nearly identical.
Do not be misled by the example: the Saudis and the Arab world are not unique, and frankly, not even my main concern here. What troubles me is that within Israel, certain segments of the population look intellectually more like Saudi Arabia than Silicon Valley.   
While many factors can help us explain innovation (e.g. literacy, wealth), there is one indispensable cultural factor that is often overlooked. That factor can be summed up as follows: when people walk around doing their daily business, do they worry more about what is the "right" way to live, or what is the "best" way to live?
By this I mean are people primarily concerned with conforming to a specific standard about how they are "supposed" to behave, or are they primarily concerned with how to make their lives better.
The first mindset assumes that there is a clearly defined "right" way to live, and that some guru, prophet, etc.–our model for emulation–has already reached such perfection. The goal for the rest of us, then, is simply to try to imitate that model to the best of our (in)ability. Not to change the model, you understand. A perfect and infallible model for how to live cannot, by definition, be improved upon.
The second outlook is driven by the opposite assumption: our lives and world are flawed and deficient. Perfection has not been reached yet and it is unlikely to ever be reached. At its best moments, life is simply improved upon. So our goal is not imitation—quite the opposite—it is innovation.
On the surface, both philosophies appear the same: they want to change and improve the world. At their core, however, their prescriptions for how to do so are polar opposites. The first hopes that by adopting "the right way," we will all one day become (poor) copies of that ideal person. The second realizes that our lives improve when we borrow new insights from the wisdom of others (and yes, even those 'right way' types have got a point sometimes), but that it is adaptation and modification of insights which leads to breakthroughs.
Of course, this is a simplification of sorts. We all do both of these things. A "Shabbat elevator" is a great example of "right"-minded people using "best"-minded thinking. The problem is that often that balance between "right" and "best" is out of whack, and generally it is due to an overabundance of "right"-minded thinking. This is particularly the case with religion, and here Jews are no exception. Too many of us get sucked into believing that there is a "right" way to live a Jewish life, and that (to borrow Rabbi Joseph Karo's analogy) how to live such a life is already fully spread out on a table before us.
Hogwash. Our lives are not static, and even the way those "right"-minded people live changes all the time! Even in the present era, we see certain sects of Muslims and Jews becoming far more extreme on issues of separating men and women than they were only a few decades ago.
Indeed, the reason we call Jewish law "Halacha" (derived from the word "to walk") and not "Amidah" ("standing") is because it is meant to be dynamic. And historically, there were times when great rabbis roamed the earth and dared to change Halacha with a "best"-minded approach—even to the point of overriding clearly spelled out biblical injunctions—in order to make our lives better.
We hear more these days from politicians and news media alike about the grand religious divide in this country. There is much at stake here, and the outcome will decide whether Israel will continue to look like Silicon Valley or will eventually look like Saudi Arabia.
Yet the way to emerge victorious in this battle is, as Zechariah wrote, "not by might nor power." True victory will require us to convince the other side that the future of the Jewish people will ride on whether or not they can return to the days of old and adopt the "best"-minded spirit of our forefathers.
The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.