The exercise of imagining the Jewish future is, of course, more precisely an effort to understand the Jewish present by thinking through what the consequences of our actions and beliefs might be. There is no way to envision how we Jews can and will react to real-world events, calamities, and scientific advances. After all, as Dennis Prager writes, in 2065 “there may well be a Chabad House on the moon.” Prager says this not in a tone of triumphalism, by the way; he is the gloomiest of Commentary’s 69 symposiasts. And certainly the Jewish past gives us no reason to believe the Jewish future will be a sunny one.
And yet optimism, of a kind, informs most of the contributions to “The Jewish Future.” There will, practically everyone agrees, be a Jewish future. And that is a triumph. It might not seem like much of one, since the Jewish people have survived for more than three millennia—against which the next 50 years can be seen as nothing more than a blip in time. But considering the many reasons we have been given in the past few years to doubt the Jewish future, the general spirit of optimism expressed in these musings should not be taken lightly.
The 60,000 words that compose “The Jewish Future” were written under twin shadows, one hovering over each of the world’s most important communities of Jews—ours in the United States, and the one in Israel.
In 2013, the Pew survey of American Jewry painted nothing less than a portrait of a people drifting toward nonexistence. The findings documented an American Jewish community largely ignorant about the fundaments of their faith and their history, largely indifferent to their ignorance, and possibly on the verge of seeing its middle ground—the grand compromise between modernity and tradition known as the Conservative movement—vanish almost entirely. Intermarriage and out-marriage have become the norm, not the exception, and the record of the past century suggests that descendents of these couplings will not be Jews by their own reckoning in relatively short order.
As for Israel: We sent out our requests for symposium entries this past June, when it already seemed certain the president of the United States would agree to a deal that would create a legal path toward the transformation of the Islamic Republic of Iran into a legitimate nuclear military power. Given that regime’s millenarian views and its insistence that Israel would soon cease to exist, we thought perhaps our respondents might find themselves compelled to “think about the unthinkable,” as the late Herman Kahn would have had it—to think about a 2065 in which Israel had been at least partly decimated by an Iranian nuclear strike. Half of world Jewry has ingathered in a small geographical area, and their foremost enemy will almost certainly have the Bomb by, at the very latest, 2028. Should such an event occur, the Zionist ingathering would seem retroactively to have been a disastrous strategic mistake, the worst in history.
Moreover, we knew the fact that we were framing this discussion in the context of Commentary’s founding in 1945 would of necessity raise the subject of the greatest nightmare the Jewish people have ever known, which was revealed to the world that same year. It is a painful truth that the fact of the Shoah was and remains an existential calamity for the Jewish people, and one to which there has not been, and to which there cannot truly be, a satisfactory intellectual, philosophical, or theological response. The impossible questions posed by any Jewish child who knows of God’s promise to Abraham and then learns of the Holocaust demonstrate just how difficult the two are to reconcile.
Indeed, can there be any doubt that the fact of the Shoah is part of the reason for the unquestioned fraying of Jewish ties to Judaism itself over the past seven decades? Now combine that with the prospect of the Iranian bomb; as a matter of the coldest and bitterest logic, it seems almost impossible to imagine that our ancient people could survive not one but two genocidal assaults in a century’s time. On what basis could the Jewish remnant continue?
There could be no thoughts of the future any more bleak. And yet, though several of the symposium respondents are deeply pessimistic about the future of Jewry—and one, Bret Stephens, even offers a black-comic scenario about a post-Israel world—no one actually envisions the Jewish people’s end in an Iranian mushroom cloud. Indeed, even those in the symposium who express disgust and alarm at the Iranian nuclear deal seem to find it impossible to look at the course of human history as it unfolds over the next half-century and see a serious possibility of a world without Jews.
That is no small thing. It is, rather, a very large thing. It suggests the influence, largely unconscious, of what is likely the most important article ever published in Commentary. In “Jewish Faith and the Holocaust,” the theologian Emil Fackenheim sought to find a way to rise above the historical calamity by posing an existential challenge to our people. “Jews,” he wrote in 1968,
are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories. They are commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz, lest their memory perish. They are forbidden to despair of man and his world, and to escape into either cynicism or otherworldliness, lest they cooperate in delivering the world over to the forces of Auschwitz. Finally, they are forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish.
In some sense, then, “The Jewish Future” indicates that we are all—most of us—Fackenheim’s children, whether or not we have read “Jewish Faith and the Holocaust.” Even in prospect, even intellectually, even prophetically, we will not hand Hitler this posthumous victory. We do not despair of man and his world so much that we believe it can happen. And we do not despair of the God of Israel.
The respondents portray a Jewish future very much transformed from the Jewish present, especially in the United States. Most agree that the most significant aspect of this transformation will be the increased size and centrality of Orthodox Jewry, which has been the smallest of the three American denominations for more than a century.
Remarkably, this is a conclusion with which non-Orthodox clergy and lay leaders seem to agree. Eric Yoffie, recently retired as president of the Union of Reform Judaism, foresees American Orthodox Jews more than doubling in number by 2065. David Ellenson, former president of the Hebrew Union College, specifically sees a bright demographic future for the Haredim, the most rigorous among the Orthodox. This dovetails with the most recent research on the Jewish community, but the acknowledgement of it is a refreshing mark of honesty among those who might have good reason to deny it. That honesty extends to the symposium offerings by those who follow the Orthodox path as well, many of whom see not merely a rise in their overall number but theological conflict and, ultimately, schism within the broader Orthodox ranks.
Reform Judaism has been undergoing what Yoffie calls a “re-ritualization,” and it is striking to note how openly spiritual—indeed, how openly religious—are the entries by two of New York City’s most important Reform rabbis, Joshua M. Davidson of Temple Emanu-El and Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue. Both of them write intimately of aspects of the Jewish religious tradition in words that would never have been issued from the pens of their predecessors.
They see a Jewish future in which a century or more of the unmooring of Jews from Judaism will result in a stronger community because the Jews of 2065 will be Jews by choice. This is a hopeful vision, and it too is a transformative one in a sociological sense—because, alas, that hope is not supported by the realities of the current moment. The past and present behavior of the Jewish community as a whole certainly does not suggest that the ever-growing sense of liberation from the Jewish past or the Jewish community will work to the benefit of the Reform or Conservative movements.
Indeed, the Conservative movement is under particular demographic and philosophical challenge, according to the data. Like Reform Judaism, it provides ideas, and very sophisticated ideas, for how life should be lived, but increasingly it prescribes little and proscribes less. Many of their leaders and clergy suggest that Jews can fulfill their obligations as Jews by dedicating themselves to a broader pursuit of the good, with results that may augur well for their societal goals but not for the continuance of their place in the spiritual lives of the Jewish people. For, as Harvard’s Jon D. Levenson writes in his symposium entry, “Those groups that have convinced American Jews that the Jewish ethical tradition largely coincides with the progressivist social agenda are likely to atrophy because of their phenomenal success at doing exactly that.”
‘Jews make prophecies, not predictions,” writes Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. “The difference is that if a prediction comes true, it has succeeded. If a prophecy has come true, it has failed.” Alas, there doesn’t seem to be enough time to keep the key prophecy in the symposium—the ultimate de-Judaization of Europe—from coming true. The refugee crisis of 2015 seems certain to lead to a radical increase in the number of Muslims of Middle Eastern origin living on the continent, which will turn hatred of Israel from a species of conventional opinion into something close to an electoral necessity. So in the century following Hitler’s defeat, he may indeed win a posthumous victory of a kind. But pace Fackenheim, it will not be Jews handing him that victory. A Europe without Jews will constitute the death of Europe, not the death of Jewry
In 1988, Ronald Reagan delivered a speech at the laying of the cornerstone of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The pressing present-day issue to which he made reference that day 27 years ago gives us a sense of how history can bend: Only a year before the Berlin Wall came down, the sitting president of the United States was condemning the refusal of the Soviet Union to issue exit visas for their captive Jews. But in one respect, as the speech demonstrates, history does not bend, and has not bent in more than 3,000 years: “The Jewish people were on this Earth at the time of the pyramids. Those structures are still standing, and the Jews are still here. We must make sure that when the tall towers of our greatest cities have crumbled to dust in the turnings of time, the Jewish people will still be on this Earth to cast their blessings and remind all of us that this world and the people who live upon it have a history and, yes, even a destiny.”
Reagan’s charge was not to Jews, but in our time, Jews have secured unprecedented influence over the destiny that was God’s promise to Abraham. For two millennia, Jews were acted upon. Now our future is in our hands, both here and in Israel. And if there is one eternal verity that flows through “The Jewish Future” it is Hillel’s admonition from Ethics of Our Fathers: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”