Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” Foolish consistency is clinging to a viewpoint when all evidence points to the contrary. It is refusing to change when change is the only approach that makes sense. We see a beautiful historical illustration of this truth in a study of the Jewish Sabbath in America.
Beginning in the 1870s, Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler–the seminal philosopher of Reform Judaism and soon-to-be President of its rabbinical seminary–initiated a radical change. He began holding his synagogue’s primary worship service on Sunday. While maintaining Saturday as Judaism’s “historical Sabbath”, he designated Sunday as the primary day of communal worship. The service included a liturgy, choral music and sermon/lecture.
Kohler rooted his change in Jewish history, contending that he was following rabbinic tradition. Near the start of the Common Era, he noted, Jewish communities read Torah on Monday and Thursday, the market days when most Jews would already be in town.
The Sunday service followed this precedent in also meeting an economic need. By gathering for worship on Sunday, rabbis would acknowledge the many immigrant Jews who had to work and their businesses open on Saturday.
In predicting its impact, Kohler did not mince words. It would, he insisted, “prevent people from becoming altogether estranged from Judaism.”
In a stunning mea culpa, he wrote “ having for eighteen years been one of the chief advocates and promoters of the Sunday Service, often standing forth in its defence single-handed against a multitude of assailants, I consider it not merely my privilege but my duty to state publicly that I have found sufficient reasons to change my views.”
His reasoning was straightforward. The Sunday service lacked the spirituality of the traditional Sabbath. Famous lecturers would draw big crowds, but few engaged in the rest and study that made the Sabbath sacred.
A New World
Kohler had also lost a great deal of confidence in his belief that antisemitism was declining. Whereas his early sermons and lectures predicted the world’s embrace of “Israel’s pure monotheistic truth and broad humanitarian ethics,” he now lamented that “the world still hates the Jew.”
Kohler refered specifically to the rise of pogroms in Eastern Europe and growing hostility toward Jews among the German intellectual establishment. He also lamented continued social antisemitism in the United States, pointing out that “No Jew Need Apply is still the able of clubhouses and summer resorts.” Kohler’s tone of the 1890s differed significantly from that of the 1880s.
Kohler also became more circumspect about the wisdom of rapid change. He describes the danger of a “perilous drift” in which traditions are changed simply for the sake of convenience. The only legitimate reasons for radical change, he argued, were ethical demands and demonstrated effectiveness in strengthening religious life.
Kaufman Kohler’s change of heart is not only an exploration of the meaning of the Sabbath and a window into late nineteenth century Jewish life. It is an exercise in adaptive leadership.
Harvard leadership expert Ronald Heifetz distinguishes between technical and adaptive leadership. Technical leadership addresses challenges with simple solutions. Adaptive leadership addresses more complex challenges that involve the way we think and define the problem.
Kohler’s initial response–moving the primary worship service to Sunday–was a technical solution to an adaptive challenge. The challenge was strengthening Jewish life. The technical solution was changing the primary day of worship.
Over time, however, Kohler revised his conception of the challenge. No technical solution would solve the evolving challenge of building Jewish life in the transformative new context of America. A new understanding of Reform Judaism was needed.
As Kohler himself put it, “True progress lies not in abolishing but in improving the ceremonies of religion, and in making such innovation as tend to strengthen the loyalty and reverential piety of the people.”
Kohler recognized that transformative leadership is not solely about embracing what is new. It also renews what is old. Looking to the future, it reflects upon what has worked and guided the past, and envisions a way in which they can provide a foundation for the future.