When Thomas Kuhn’s seminal work, "On the Structure of Scientific Revolution," was first published, people were seeing paradigm shifts everywhere. If you craved the label "intellectual" (in those days, that was cool—even cooler than "geek" nowadays), you needed only to use "paradigm shift" in one cogent sentence and you were in.

So when I too started seeing paradigm shifts in Jewish history, at first I though I had just caught the fever along with everyone else. Nevertheless, when it came to the revolution of the early chassidic movement, the parallels were unavoidable. Kuhn had described the shift he saw still in progress with the new physics, demonstrating how much of science had yet to adapt to the new paradigm. With the ideas of the chassidut, particularly chassidut chabad, the new paradigm has been so miscommunicated, distorted and otherwise mangled, it’s no surprise that so many community leaders continue on as though it never happened—or that something else entirely happened that doesn’t really make much difference anyways. Articulating clearly how these two paradigms knocked heads might heal some of the rift by bringing greater understanding.

The idea sat there, bubbling on a back burner, research piled up, and went nowhere. Then, one spring day, on a visit wandering through the lovely public gardens of Vancouver, Canada, it all somehow came together. Not just how this paradigm shift had occurred, but a concept of how the Jewish tradition has developed a unique mechanism for dealing with such shifts—which may provide some key to the secret of its survival and its enormous contribution to the progress of stable societies.

Kuhn’s book is one of the foundation works of the 2nd half of the 20th century. Kuhn had studied Aristotle at Yale and was perplexed how "such a great intellect could have gotten things so wrong." Looking from the perspective of Galileo’s experiments and later, Newtonian mechanics, Aristotle’s concept of motion becomes unintelligible. Kuhn’s epiphany was that Galileo and Newton were discussing an entirely different universe than Aristotle, solving very different problems in very different terms. Aristotle’s world was all about qualities; Galileo’s was about quantities. Aristotle and his milieu were interested in "what is." Galileo and his colleagues were after "how it is." Each develops his set of problems and solutions, but neither can contradict or comment meaningfully on the other—a concept for which he coined another cool intellectual term, "incommensurability."

Kuhn saw the same paradigm shift in Ptolemy to Copernicus. And as I mentioned, he saw it occurring in the new physics of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg et al in the 20th century.

Most scientists I know don’t like Kuhn too much. His greatest crime is that he saw science as a social construct—it’s not the quest for truth that drives scientists towards a new paradigm, but simply the mood of the period that gets them asking new questions, thinking of the world in new ways. The old paradigm is found insufficient to solve those problems. A new one is adopted, which, initially at least, unearths a whole new slew of problems, no less than the old paradigm. But eventually, it becomes the "new sandbox on the block," engaging a new generation of scientists in solving those problems within the assumptions established by the paradigm breakers.

In the latter half of the 20th century, it’s possible that yet more paradigm shifts have occurred—or are occurring. In the 1960s, geophysicists rapidly moved from a statist earth of cyclical, uniform processes, to one that relied on great catastrophes, where entire continents were drifting apart, driven by cataclysmic events. Astrophysics also shifted dramatically—albeit with greater caution—from a static universe to one that has a beginning, continues to expand and may well have an end. Some would say that we are on the verge of a paradigm shift in microbiology, driven by our understanding of the genome. In neurology today, more and more experts are taking the idea of an independent mind seriously, as the study of human consciousness becomes an accepted academic study.

Sociologically, the categorical rejection of racism is a defining factor in the shift of American consciousness, with impact worldwide. The shift to a global economy proved difficult for many corporations to adapt. Totalitarian regimes are unable to adapt to social networking technology. Many other examples abound.

The paradigm shift I see centered around Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov and his student’s student, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi bears much resemblance to many of these mentioned above—I’ll discuss some of this as the story unfolds. Outwardly, it was a social revolution, but inwardly a thorough shift in how a Jew sees his place in the world. True, it did not happen in a single day—or even in a single century. There were predecessors. One must note the maverick philosopher-mystic of Renaissance Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, "The Maharal." Also the rigorous Kabbalists of Tzefat, most notably, Rabbi Yitzchaak Luria, "the Arizal," whose concept of tikunman healing G‑d’s world—marks a watershed in Jewish messianism.

Yet it was Rabbi Schneur Zalman, far beyond any other thinker, who managed to find the words and the metaphors to articulate the new paradigm into a new dialectic, a stable structure with its center of gravity close to the ground, upon which future generations could build, reach yet higher and see yet further. Without his work, the Baal Shem Tov and his students would be just another transit point along the way, picking up a few new passengers, letting off some old ones, but leaving the bus the same old bus. R. Schneur Zalman articulated the ideas of the movement in a way that demonstrated how it grew naturally out of all that came before, and in doing so revealed a structure and a path never seen before.

The Arizal provided the spark, the Baal Shem Tov the fuel, and Rabbi Schneur Zalman the structure and form. The result was a new paradigm that in many ways turns the Jewish world-view on its head. Everything has to be reconsidered. Geophysicists in the 1960s came to accept that continents had torn themselves apart. They have yet to figure out how the energy required for this could have been released without the planet blowing to smithereens. In the story before us, it is at least as much a wonder how this new paradigm did not blow tradition out of the water.

Kuhn’s paradigm of paradigms might just turn out useful after all. In this article and in a few others I have in mind, I hope not only to better articulate just what the hullabaloo is all about, but also to examine the unique way Jewish tradition manages to synthesize radically new ideas while not only preserving, but fortifying its own stability.

The practical implications for modernity are plentiful. We also struggle today to preserve the values of family, community, faith and spiritual quest while moving steadfast into a hi-tech world. We struggle with sustaining the richness of our natural environment while steadily increasing mass production. If we can learn the secret of paradigm synthesis, rather than just paradigm shift, the key to many of these burning issues lies in our hand.