The Space Between: Creativity’s roots found in Jewish culture of debate, inquiry

During the week of Passover, we recall how the Israelites found themselves wandering between the known evils of Egypt and the unknown opportunities of the Promised Land. It was in this arid, in-between space that the Torah was handed down, a book bridging the multiple storylines that had always defined peoplehood: a mythical history of the universe, the genealogy of ancestors, the laws and customs that differentiated one group from another, and the laying down of a specific mission.

The Torah might be the most creative document of all time, and in Jonah Lehrer’s new book “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” I caught a glimmer of what might have been going on in the minds of those who wrote (or channeled) the Torah, as well as those who received it. I had the chance to discuss Lehrer’s ideas with him when I interviewed the Los Angeles–based author April 5 at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater for City Arts & Lectures.

Like his other best-selling books “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and “How We Decide,” “Imagine” links new developments in neuroscience to the texture of our lived experiences. For instance, Lehrer — who is also a contributing editor for Wired magazine and National Public Radio’s Radio Lab — discusses how Bob Dylan wrote the prophetic screed “Like a Rolling Stone” in the wilderness of Woodstock, grooving to the vibrations of his anterior superior temporal gyrus, the “neural correlate of insight” that lives just above our right ear.

And while Lehrer doesn’t talk specifically about the ancient Israelites in his book (and we didn’t quite get to it during our conversation), his descriptions of what people do when they are profoundly stuck resonates with the inspiration that birthed a free Israel.

“Every creative journey begins with a problem,” he explains. “It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. We have worked hard, but we have hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next.”

Lehrer uses neuroscience to explain these modes of creativity. The epiphanies of Mount Sinai — like the music of Bob Dylan, and the everyday activities of the rest of us — start in the explosion of alpha waves that emanate from the right hemisphere of our brain, making connections between ideas and events that otherwise would never have been made. But Lehrer reminds us that “the grandest revelations often still need work,” and the focused determination that allowed the Israelites to travel 40 more years in the desert, or spend centuries writing and editing the Talmud, relies on the jacked-up neurons of the prefrontal cortex.

Lehrer explores the creativity of contemporary Israel in “Imagine,” identifying it — along with the Bay Area — as among the most creative places in the world. The focus of his chapter on “Urban Friction” is Yossi Vardi, a serial technology entrepreneur who has worked in Israel and Silicon Valley. Vardi, the co-founder of ICQ, curates an enormous number of conversations in a country where urban density, the forced togetherness of the army reserve system, and a sense of being indirectly connected to almost everyone else creates a social expansiveness ready-made for new ideas.

Like the Bay Area, Israel’s culture of sharing information among a large casual network turns out to be “a crucial ingredient of creativity, which is why those cities that encourage an expanded social circle, such as Tel Aviv and San Jose, are more innovative,” Lehrer explains.

Other creative studies cited by Lehrer evoke certain Jewish sensibilities, as well as the continuing power of the spaces in between traditional ideas. For instance, Lehrer explains that brainstorming is bunk; research overwhelmingly shows that a culture of opposition is much more enriching and productive. As Lehrer explains, “Beginning a group session with a moment of dissent — even when the dissent is wrong — can dramatically expand creative potential.”

This puts me in mind of the quintessential approach to Talmud study — chevruta — in which two people argue and critique both the text and each other until the best commentaries float to the surface.

Lehrer also discusses the value of being an “outsider” in solving creative problems, from the Jewish housewife who convinced Mattel to manufacture the Barbie doll (no American company had thought to make a doll with adult features before), to the computer programmer who became New York’s best bartender, to the Indiana students who solved more problems when they merely imagined traveling to a distant country. Needless to say, thousands of years of being outsiders must have provided Jews with more creative benefits than drawbacks; otherwise they would have petered out long ago.

Of course, Jews have no more claim on creativity than any other group, just as the average dyad of yeshiva students is unlikely to turn into the Lennon and McCartney of Talmud study. But the value of a culture of disputation — and the power of verbal friction that created the texts of Jewish life — now has more than anecdotes and ethnic pride to back it up.


Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.