Elliot J. Cosgrove
Fifty years from now, I believe the Jewish community will look back and understand its condition to have been seeded and shaped by the unprecedented freedoms of our generation. As William Ford Gibson wrote: “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
To live Jewishly today is a willed choice. Marrying a Jew, affiliating as a Jew, and practicing an engaged Jewish life are decisions we can make without fear of damning (or any) social consequence. In such a climate of radical autonomy, two markedly different communal roles have emerged, both claiming to be most able to secure the Jewish future: “gatekeepers” and “agents.”
The “gatekeepers” are guided by the belief that the Jewish future is best assured by holding the lines of Jewish practice, Jewish communal boundaries, and rabbinic authority. Only by tightly defining the who and the what of Jewish life will there be a Jewish future worthy of preservation. Small, fervent, and loyal to the tradition, 50 years from now, the network of these insular communities will constitute the right wing of Jewry.
Facing the same landscape, the “agents” of the Jewish present seek a language of inclusion whereby the practices of and participants in the Jewish experience are defined as broadly as possible so as to “meet Jews where they are.” The portals of entry to Jewish life must be sufficiently wide, creative, and varied if one hopes to attract and retain the would-be members of our people’s future. Fifty years from now, this porous, mixed multitude, guided by the belief that Jewish identity is asserted, not assigned, will constitute the other segment of Jewish life.
Sadly, such a future will yield at least two divergent Jewish communities, fracturing our people, already small in number. The Diaspora Jewish community will be divided between Orthodox and “everyone else,” two communities that, while both bearing the title “Jewish,” will have very little to do with each other.
In Israel, I suspect a similar split will take place, intensified by the toxic interaction between church and state that has characterized Israel since her founding. How the Jewish state will negotiate its secular–religious divide while maintaining its democratic character (and tending to its existential threats) is a mystery to me. Given the unsustainable nature of Israel’s present circumstance, a more likely outcome will entail a radical break from the status quo, hopefully (but not necessarily) leading to a stronger Israel.
As for any interconnectedness shared among world Jewry, the future will yield an impoverished notion of peoplehood as Diaspora and Israeli Jews find themselves with less and less in common. Such an outcome does not bode well for either community. Beyond the inherent merits of Jewish peoplehood, Israel and Diaspora Jewry depend on each other for their respective security. Whatever external threats await our people’s future, it will be our internal divisions that will be responsible for our much weakened position.
Somber as the above predictions might seem, it is a future entirely contingent on the continuation of “present trends.” Unlike the weather, however, we need not be resigned to any particular forecast. Rather, this exercise should prompt us to identify and implement the interventions needed to draft an alternative narrative. After all, far more interesting than predicting the future is building it, and it is to that task that all should be committed.
Elliot J. Cosgrove is the rabbi of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue.
Joshua M. Davidson
Two centuries ago, when emancipation unlocked the ghetto gates welcoming our great- or great-great-grandparents to fields of endeavor previously inaccessible and the Enlightenment shined the light of historical criticism on biblical texts, tremors of secularization began that for many shook Judaism’s foundations. One hundred years ago, Franz Rosenzweig lamented what had befallen the Jewish home as a result: “The mezuzah may have still greeted one at the door, but the bookcase had, at best, a single Jewish corner.” And today, “Secularization…continues to erode the religious basis of American Jewish life,” writes Rabbi Lance Sussman. “Every major historical study of Judaism…indicates that American Jews are comfortable with their ‘Jewishness’ but increasingly distant from Judaism as a…faith.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 94 percent of American Jews take pride in their Jewishness, but 22 percent also label themselves “not religious” (sociologists call them “nones”). Jewish life defined by worship, study, and membership will not engage a generation for whom affiliation no longer represents their primary vehicle of Jewish expression. Growing numbers of Jews, some single and others with young families—including the grown children of many devoted (often bewildered and disappointed) synagogue members—now join Jewish institutions only if they find them personally meaningful. So the burden rests squarely upon us to prove our relevance.
Mordecai Kaplan, a Russian-born Jew who immigrated to America at age eight, wrote his most influential work, Judaism as a Civilization, in response to a similar situation in which American Jews were living in the 1930s. Then, too, Jews were assimilating. Kaplan understood that Judaism encompassed not only ritual, but also the cultural and social aspects of communal living. Kaplan’s response was therefore to reconstruct American Jewish life so that it included additional outlets through which communities naturally express themselves, which for us include literature, the visual arts, theater, music, food, philosophy, history, and politics.
But Kaplan also understood that in the heart of every people, there is a set of beliefs without which they cannot endure the passage of the generations. For us, that spiritual center is Torah, deep and profound. We survive only if it does. To the Jewishly sophisticated, we must teach Torah steeped in two millennia of scholarship. To the Jewishly searching, our Torah must be relevant and accessible.
The journey of each Jew is unique, shaped by one’s passions and interests as well as by one’s starting point. Increasing numbers appear regularly on our doorstep seeking to learn more about the traditions their parents or grandparents once set aside. And countless non-Jews are also looking to explore the beauty of Jewish life. We must embrace them, as we must embrace non-Jews who support their spouses’ Jewish lives, and non-Jewish parents who are creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children.
We live in an age of increasing personal empowerment and diminishing communal commitment, but the threat of assimilation need not spell the end of a vibrant American Jewish community. Around the country, even in a widening sea of disaffection, exciting new currents of Jewish creativity are flowing—in music, in art, in theater, in social action, in alternative minyanim, in discussion groups face-to-face and online—often the innovations of the very individualists who won’t join our institutions as currently envisioned but who may well hold the key to our future.
The centuries have taught us the resilience and adaptability of our people, our fire that will not be extinguished—one that when exposed to the fresh air of new ideas blazes with even greater brilliance. But in an era when individuals, including Jews, can choose Judaism or reject it, Judaism’s survival depends on our relevance, our warmth, and our creativity.
Joshua M. Davidson is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in New York City.
There is no longer a “Jewish community”—if there ever was one. There are numerous Jewish communities and individuals. There is no one thing that holds Jews together—not religion, not politics, not persecution, not even Israel.
Even when there was a common religion, it was practiced differently by Sephardim and Ashkenazim.
Even when Israel was a uniting force, there were different brands of Zionism.
Even persecution had a different influence in different places.
All these differences are now exaggerated as religious antagonisms have been exacerbated, particularly by the rabbinate in Israel and elsewhere. So, too, with Zionism, as political views have become more extreme on all sides. As to persecution, it has disappeared in the United States just as it has gotten worse in Western Europe and somewhat better in Eastern Europe. It is a function of our maturity that we are a divided community—divided by tactics, by strategy, by religion, by ideology, by status, by politics, and by our levels of security and fear. Our divisiveness is a reflection of our power and a source of our vulnerability.
Alan Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard. His latest book is Abraham: The World’s First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer.
Arnold M. Eisen
The impossibility of predicting the long-term Jewish future in America or anywhere else was highlighted for me recently by the announcement of a scholarly conference devoted to the question of whether the world’s food supply would still be adequate in 2030—a mere 15 years from now. Commentary’s questions implicitly assume, among other things, that solutions will have been found to global warming (or that the ecological disasters currently forecast prove false alarms); that China will not have supplanted America as the dominant economic and political power in the world (a development that would curtail the influence of American Jewry and threaten the security of Israel); that Islamic terrorism will have been eliminated or contained; and that Israel will have found a way to live peaceably with the Palestinians inside its borders, with Arab and Islamic neighbors, and with the diverse, contentious groups of Jews who comprise the majority of its citizenry. All these variables bear directly on the Jewish future. They greatly disturb one’s sleep in 2015 and make it difficult to dream about better days.
Asked to look far ahead nonetheless, a Jew like me cannot but look back. It gives one comfort, as well as a measure of humility, to recall three millennia of near constant Jewish anxiety about the Jewish future—and to reread the Commentary symposium of 1966, “The State of Jewish Belief,” a mere 50 years ago. Both the Holocaust and Israel, which a decade later would assume centrality in Jewish thought and communal activity, are barely mentioned in its pages. Three of the most influential rabbinic figures of the generation—Heschel, Soloveitchik, and Schneerson—are absent. So are women, whose entry into lay and rabbinic leadership positions would soon prove decisive, and ultra-Orthodox Jews, whether Hasidic or “yesheivish,” without whom one can no longer assess the Jewish present or limn the Jewish future. The 1996 Commentary symposium—“What Do American Jews Believe?”—did include women’s voices (though not many of them). It gave due attention to the outsized role of Israel in shaping and sustaining American Jewish commitment and evinced near total consensus that “Auschwitz” posed far more of a problem to belief in humanity than it did to belief in God. Contributors expressed appropriately deep concern over whether a larger portion of the Jewish community would ever be interested in becoming what one called “serious Jews.”
That remains the question on which our future hangs. The well-being of American and world Jewry does not depend on mass return to punctilious observance or the adoption of this or that belief concerning creation, revelation, and redemption. Nor will that future be secured by mass efforts at outreach or more creative programming and marketing (though these would certainly help). It depends, rather, on two things: deep and sustained engagement by a critical mass of Jews with the texts, practices, norms, and sensibility of past Jewish communities; and experiences of face-to-face community—whether in a summer camp or congregation, gathered around an adult study table or a home Shabbat table—that convince individual Jews they are not alone in the world. These things persuade them to take part in the age-old story going back to Abraham and Sarah and the responsibilities bound up in the Covenant since Sinai.
Will a majority of Jews, in Israel or North America, sign on to such a commitment in the first half of the 21st century? I doubt it. Will our people retain sufficient critical mass of “serious Jews” to guarantee a collective future both for Jews and for Judaism? I believe that we can and will. The intellectual and emotional satisfactions of this tradition are so great, its rewards for family life so palpable—especially at critical moments of transcendent joy or sadness—the pride in individual and collective Jewish achievement so widespread, the talent and dedication of the emerging generation of lay and professional leaders so impressive, and the depths of encounter with the Holy One, the Source of all Being, the Master of the Universe made possible by Judaism are so priceless—all these gifts recognized and appreciated by far more Jews than are accounted for by the surveys—that Jews need have no fear concerning our imminent disappearance.
We Jews have been wrestling with God, Torah, the world, and one another for many centuries, and we are not likely to stop any time soon.
Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is the author of Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community and Conservative Judaism Today and Tomorrow.
Futurology is at best a hazardous enterprise. Human conduct is changeable, and events have a way of altering the course of reasonably anticipated communal, political, cultural, religious, and social outcomes. In short, history is cunning, and the future frequently unfolds in unexpected ways.
With this caution in mind, I will respond to the question posed by the editors of Commentary in this symposium and offer the following observations about what I think the Jewish condition will be in the United States in another half-century. I will leave other venues of Jewish life—including Israel—to others.
I believe that in 2065 the American Jewish community will look different than it does today. More than a century will have passed since the vast waves of German and Eastern European Jewish immigrants first came to these shores, and the historical contexts and forces that led to the creation of the institutions, attitudes, and patterns that marked the 20th-century American Jewish community will have faded into the past. The Jews of 2065 will have been accepted into American society for so long that they will no longer even remember—unlike many Jews in 2015—that there was ever a time in American history when Jews had to struggle for entry and acceptance into the larger American society. The American Jewish community of 2065 will be even more ethnically and racially heterogeneous than it is today, and the phenomenon of Jewish-gentile intermarriage will perhaps be even greater. The 20th-century religious divisions of American Jewish life into Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative denominations will also be less significant in 2065 than they are now. I suspect that there will instead be a tripartite division in American Jewish life, segmenting into a large separatist Haredi Orthodox enclave, a group of “Open Orthodox” and traditionally oriented religious Jews, and a vast array of non-Orthodox Jews ranging from renewal and religiously liberal Jews to secular ones. Let me elaborate briefly.
The ever-growing strength of Haredi institutions in this country and the massive birthrate of the Haredi community today bode well for Haredi strength in 2065. The economic pressures this segment of the Jewish community will confront, however, and the ongoing openness and virtually infinite choices and temptations available in American society pose potential dangers to the success of their insular mode of sectarian Orthodoxy.
In contrast to the Haredi group, the “Open Orthodox-Traditional” group and the religiously and secularly liberal non-Orthodox Jews will be linked in major ways, because all these Jews have in common a celebration of the open society and its universal values. Clearly, the more traditionally religious Jews in this group will have different emphases and sensibilities. The commitments of all these Jews, however, to gender equality, secular education, social justice, acceptance and inclusion of Jews who intermarry, an embrace of LGBTQ persons, and an emphasis on a democratic Israel that strives for equality for all its citizens cause me to place these Jews under one rather large umbrella. Nevertheless, I still recognize that these groups will not be identical. This is because the large number of non-Jews and their progeny who will surely be within the non-Orthodox sector of the community will pose a problem for the adherents of “Open Orthodox-Traditional” Judaism. These Jews will have to balance their affirmation of liberal values against their strong commitment to the traditional membership norms and definitions of classical rabbinic Judaism. This will be no easy task.
Among the non-Orthodox Jews, there will surely be great pockets of ongoing Jewish creativity, commitment, knowledge, and renewal. At the same time, these non-Orthodox Jews have a strong propensity for individualism. They will probably create institutions and rituals that will be—from a traditional Jewish standpoint—highly eclectic and somewhat idiosyncratic. How to avoid the fragility such privatization poses for communal cohesion will be the great challenge this segment of the Jewish community will face.
The dilemmas the American Jewish community will face in 2065 are obvious. The promises 2065 offers are also great. It has always been so for Jews, and the determinations and commitments of the Jews of 2065—their acts and deeds—will forge the Jewish community they deserve.
David Ellenson is chancellor emeritus and former president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. He currently serves as acting director of the Schusterman Center of Israel Studies at Brandeis.
The Jewish people are in the initial stages of a demographic revolution, a change so profound and historic in nature that it will reshape the contours, character, and even the color of Jewry.
Around the world, an unprecedented awakening is taking place. Descendants of Jews from all walks of life are looking to return to their roots and embrace their heritage.
For the past 15 years, through Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, I have come to discern that there are multitudes of people whose forefathers were once part of us and who now seek a way back into the fold.
From the Jews of Kaifeng, China, whose Sephardic ancestors traveled along the Silk Road, to the Bnei Menashe of northeastern India, who claim descent from a lost tribe of Israel, and to the Hidden Jews of Poland from the Holocaust, there are multitudes with a historical connection to the Jewish people.
Perhaps the largest of them all is the Bnei Anousim, whom historians refer to by the derogatory term Marranos and whose forebears were Spanish and Portuguese Jews forced to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries. Scholars estimate their numbers worldwide to be in the millions, and genetic tests have revealed that 10 to 15 percent of Hispanic Americans have Jewish roots.
If we are prudent enough to seize the opportunity and extend a hand to these communities and strengthen our connection with them, then in the coming decades we will witness the return of hundreds of thousands, and possibly more, to our ranks.
After all, size does matter, whether in basketball, business, or diplomacy. To make a difference in the world and to live up to our national mission as Jews, we need a much larger and more diverse “team” at our disposal, one with an expanded roster and a strong bench.
Historians estimate that during the Herodian period two millennia ago, there were approximately 8 million Jews worldwide. At the same time, the Han Dynasty conducted a census in the year 2 c.e. which found that there were 57.5 million Han Chinese. Jump ahead to the present, and the numbers are of course quite different, with China home to 1.1 billion people, even as world Jewry barely numbers more than 13 million souls.
During the past 2,000 years of exile, we lost countless numbers of Jews, whether through assimilation or oppression. Many of their descendants are now clamoring to return. This development is testimony to the power of Jewish history and the triumph of Jewish destiny.
The world, it has been said, is growing smaller by the day thanks to the processes of globalization and growing economic and strategic interdependence. In order to thrive in this global village, the Jewish people will need Chinese Jews and Indian Jews no less than American and British Jews.
This means that we not only need to do more to keep Jews Jewish, but we must also begin to think outside the box about how to boost our numbers. We need more Jews, so why not reach back into our collective past and reclaim those who were torn away from us due to exile and persecution? Many descendants of Jews are already knocking on our door, asking to be allowed in. All we need do is turn the knob, pry open the entrance, and they will come.
This nascent process is already under way, and I call on Israel and Jewish leaders worldwide to recognize this salient development and to act.
Five decades hence, the Jewish people will be one nation with many faces, far more numerous and diverse than anyone could possibly have imagined at the start of the 21st century.
People will gaze back and see the turning point that we have reached, as we stand on the cusp of a tidal wave of return, one that will see millions of Jewish descendants reconnect with Jewry. Demographically and spiritually, the Jewish people will be stronger for it.
Michael Freund, the founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, served as deputy communications director during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term of office. His syndicated weekly column appears in the Jerusalem Post.
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Death, taxes, and anti-Semitism. Whatever else may change for Jews and non-Jews in the next 50 years, anti-Semitism will afflict the former and be harbored by many of the latter. This has been the case for 2,000 years. As there is some reliable prediction in social science, this world-historically most potent of all prejudices will surely continue for another 50.
Anti-Semitism is not grounded in reality, but neither modernity nor even globalization has put an end to this deep-seated animus against Jews. In fact, its scourge is more widespread, powerful, and insidious than ever. I say this as an expert on Nazism and the Holocaust. The recent Anti-Defamation League Global 100 Index of anti-Semitism determined that 26 percent of the surveyed population, roughly 1.1 billion adults in the countries investigated, are anti-Semitic. If that percentage obtained all over the world and included teenagers, it would total on the order of 1.5 billion people.
This survey, moreover, considerably underreports the extent of anti-Semitism. People had to hold at least six anti-Semitic views for the study to deem them anti-Semites. Five were not enough. One thoroughgoing anti-Semitic belief, even one such as “Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars,” should have been, but was not, sufficient. The survey also did not tap those religious beliefs, whether Christian or Muslim, that are profoundly anti-Semitic and that drive so much additional animus toward Jews. The survey did not ask, for example, whether people agree that all Jews are guilty for the death of Jesus or that Jews are the children of apes and pigs. When applying more reasonable criteria, such as asking whether a person holds any serious anti-Semitic beliefs, the study finds that only about one-third of those living in the ADL’s least anti-Semitic countries are free of this most pernicious prejudice.
The outlandish views about, and profound hatred for, Jews among this vast number of anti-Semites vary widely in content. Some anti-Semitic themes are age-old, such as the Christians’ demonizing deicide charge and the Muslims’ dehumanizing claim of the Jews’ animalic parentage. Others are centuries old, such as the widespread notion that Jews wield and abuse great financial power. Still others are of recent vintage, such as the twin fantasies that Israel, the country of Jews, is the greatest threat to world peace and the perpetrator of “a war of extermination,” a genocide, against Palestinians.
All these various accusations, and the various historical and contemporary forms of anti-Semitism, are grounded in the foundational anti-Semitic paradigm, which consists of the following core notions:
Jews are fundamentally different from non-Jews.
Jews are noxious or pernicious.
Jews willfully wish or do harm to others.
Jews are powerful.
Therefore, Jews are dangerous.
The conclusion drawn by ever more people is that Jews or their alleged power must in some way be eliminated from the anti-Semites’ ranks, from their countries, or from the earth. The foundational anti-Semitic paradigm—the soul of anti-Semitism—gets passed down through the generations and underlies the vast anti-Semitic barrage that courses through the public spheres of so many countries. Anti-Semitism has endured through the ages in its essence and been malleable in its particular accusations because this core paradigm, which is deeply rooted and deeply felt, lends itself to all kinds of demonizing and dehumanizing beliefs about what sets the Jews apart, what makes them noxious, the nature and expression of their power, and the particular types of threats they pose to non-Jews.
In the past two decades, anti-Semitism has remade itself. Its constituency now spans the globe, reaching deep into every continent. Its orientation is primarily international. The means for its spread now includes the Internet. Its focus centers on the globe’s putative predatory country and people exceeding all others: Israel and the Jews. The various historical streams of anti-Semitism—Muslim and Christian, the political left and the political right, the downtrodden and the well-off—have been brought into the new global anti-Semitism.
In its new global form, anti-Semitism is a powerful engine that will keep driving forward—spreading its reach, and threatening Jews’ well-being and safety for the next 50 years and beyond.
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, a former professor in Harvard’s government and social-studies departments, is the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners and The Devil That Never Dies.
Eric S. Goldstein
My long-term vision for our community and our people is impossibly hopeful. It has to be. For if we allow ourselves to be defined solely by today’s challenges and do not actively hope for a better future, it would be difficult to make it through the day, let alone the next half-century.
As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks notes: Hope is not the same as optimism. “Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope.”
So, let us be courageous and hope.
In the year 2065, UJA-Federation of New York is nearing its 150th anniversary. Its mission endures: serving as a global Jewish safety net, caring for the needs of all New Yorkers, inspiring a passion for Jewish life and learning, and strengthening Jewish communities around the world.
More hopefully, our 1 million supporters represent the entirety of Jewish New York—every background, ethnicity, and denomination. And beyond annual support for UJA’s work, they perform at least 180 hours a year of volunteer service at UJA-supported agencies across the region—a communal norm.
Every Jew, irrespective of age and affluence, has the opportunity to experience Israel. Every Jewish child is able to attend Jewish summer camp and day school. No financial barriers exist, as community-wide endowments we’ve helped create have changed the landscape, allowing everyone to experience Jewish life in all its breadth and beauty.
America has had a Jewish president; she held office for eight years. Bringing together political, religious, and ethnic leaders from across the spectrum to tackle persistent problems plaguing our country, she presided over a period marked by peace and prosperity. There was a sukkah on the White House lawn . . . and presidential Passover dishes.
Now, daring to hope even more . . . in 50 years we’ll be telling our great-grandchildren that there was once a time when a Jewish State of Israel neighbored by a Palestinian State didn’t exist, and peace between Israel and other countries in the region seemed all but impossible. They will turn to history books to learn more, never knowing the fear and uncertainty of war and terror.
The millennials of 2015 are in their 80s, now in retirement. Tired of posting their lives online, they regularly meet in person at our community centers and synagogues. They talk about their first experience at a UJA-supported Jewish environmental summer camp and how it helped shape their Jewish identity. They remember when supporting Israel on college campuses made them feel vulnerable. They recall the crises that brought them closer to the Jewish community—and how they stayed after the crises receded because they wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves.
Poverty in New York has sharply declined. Joining forces with every ethnic and religious group in our city, UJA helps develop policies and programs to ensure that no New Yorker goes to bed hungry. New York is heralded as the city that broke poverty, a model of collaboration and generosity that is being replicated globally.
Israel at 117 is a world leader, not just in technology and science but also in delivering humanitarian aid and brokering peace among other nations. UJA and its global partners invest together in helping to ensure the strength of the Jewish community for the next 50 years. Thanks to our support, our great-grandchildren travel frequently to Israel and are deeply connected to their brothers and sisters there, and across the globe. The Jewish community has no borders and boundaries. We are not all the same and have many diverse views, but we are more united than ever.
All this might seem impossible today when we as a Jewish people are confronted with so many challenges. And yet, in the words of Rabbi Lord Sacks, we must hope—for ourselves and for generations not yet born—that we can exceed our own expectations and realize our vision for the Jewish future.
It is the courage and resolve of a people who, even in the worst of times, continue to say, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Eric S. Goldstein is chief executive officer of UJA-Federation of New York.
The search for the roots of the spiritual, cultural, and communal flowering of contemporary world Jewry leads to a particular conceptual shift that occurred in the second decade of the 21st century. According to the prevailing sentiment of the time, Judaism was withering, aging, shrinking. Many saw in Judaism’s waning appeal proof that it had become anachronistic, lagging behind modernity. This belief fueled attempts to modernize Judaism and update its ancient traditions to reflect the times. Yet the new interpretations accorded to Judaism failed to renew its appeal. The turning point came only when modern disappointment in Judaism gave way to disappointment in modernity itself.
This phenomenon can be understood by revisiting two lines of thought prevalent in various versions at the start of the 21st century.
The first posits that Judaism engenders in believers a deep sense of guilt. Halakha sentences adherents to a perpetual guilty conscience. Judgment is the natural corollary to this persistent guilt, with religiously observant Jews often being highly judgmental. Guilt and judgment go hand in hand, as Judaism generates societies steeped in judgment and cultivates individuals laden with guilt. Judaism exacts a further, greater sacrifice from the religious—intellectual integrity—with religious Jews versed in modern science and criticism often forced to suspend critical thought upon entering the synagogue or Beit Midrash.
It is possible that Yeshayahu Leibowitz was correct in saying that religion is not measured by what it gives people, but by what it takes from them. While Leibowitz referred to the weighty efforts required to observe the mitzvoth, perhaps more than time and energy, Judaism exacts from people a piece of themselves. An observant Jew sacrifices parts of himself for the sake of his religiosity. According to the modern, enlightened worldview, the only path to liberation from the costs of religious observance is through liberation from religion itself.
Many young Jews at the start of the 21st century found this line of thought persuasive. Yet they found the following one persuasive as well: The birthrate in the Western world is in decline. In the United States, and even more so in Western Europe, people are reproducing at declining rates. The pursuit of a high quality of life reduces the desire to reproduce. As a result, rational modern Europe is aging and shrinking. What is more, the Western family is falling apart. At a time when more than 50 percent of couples divorce, the nuclear family is no longer a stable foundation in many people’s lives. Family life, with its demands of sacrifice and surrender, is not appealing to people who have internalized, consciously or not, the aspirations of modern individualism. The Western ethos that remade a person’s desire into the central compass of his life eliminated room in his life for others.
Alexis de Tocqueville articulated the threats posed by modern individualism, foreseeing that individualism would evolve into egoism. A culture that calls for people to be unique, in his view, would give rise to people who are indifferent to others and focused on themselves.
Add to this the technology of virtual reality through which people can endlessly document their lives. The Internet accelerates the process through which the modern call to self-actualization ultimately leads to self-worship.
It is difficult not to recognize the realization of Tocqueville’s prophecy; the impetus of the Enlightenment, which called people to be unique, rendered them solitary. The idea that there are no beliefs that are larger than life actually contracted life itself.
As strange as it sounds, these two opposing lines of thought captured the minds of many young Jews at the same time. At the start of the 21st century, young Jews experienced a double disappointment, in modernity and in Judaism. This double disappointment gave birth to a new inquiry. In addition to asking how modernity might heal Judaism, people began asking how the Jewish tradition might heal modernity.
Judaism began being relevant again not only through rabbinic persuasion regarding its compatibility with modernity, but through a realization of its ability to guard against modernity’s dangers. The halakhic tradition, for example, provides for periods of time free from technology and for spaces that protect family intimacy. It also cultivates a connection to something larger than the individual, softening Western narcissism and its accompanying alienation and isolation. The Judaism of the 21st century is blossoming thanks to its bi-directionality: It seeks modern solutions to Jewish problems while seeking Jewish solutions to modern problems.
Micah Goodman is an Israeli philosopher.
Will a flourishing, sovereign Jewish state exist in 50 years? That is the question most likely to shape the nature and quality of Jewish life half a century from now.
Israel faces sobering, existential challenges. Barring a dramatic change in American and European policy, Tehran will almost certainly acquire a nuclear weapon. Jewish history suggests that when a sworn, ideologically driven enemy of the Jewish people declares that it will kill Jews, Jews ought to listen carefully. Our dismissals of similar threats in the past—in retrospect, a grotesque abdication of moral responsibility—have come at great cost.
Iran’s bomb will probably unleash a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, a region devoid (with the exception of Israel) of democracies and prone to coups and religious extremism. Such an arms race—and the use of the weapons to which it leads—could easily catch Israel in its crosshairs.
Israel’s increasing international isolation is no less a threat. The UN’s 1975 assertion that “Zionism Is Racism” had nothing to do with Israeli policy. It was then simply the clearest indication that the world cannot abide the Jewish flourishing that Israeli sovereignty makes possible. A deadly virus, anti-Semitism simply morphs over time. Once theological or biological, it has now re-emerged in post-nationalist form. To imagine that returning to the 1967 lines (more accurately, the 1949 Armistice Lines) would mollify Europe is to consciously embrace naiveté and is thus utterly immoral.
Sadly, the Western world, sans moral compass, no longer advocates for democracy over despotism, women’s rights over family honor killings, intellectual pursuit over an embrace of medieval barbarity, and religious freedom over governmentally sanctioned murderous fanaticism. Yet while Europe’s renewed anti-Semitic rant is not fundamentally surprising, what is inexplicable—and what will undoubtedly eventually be recalled as a moment of utter Jewish disgrace and sickness—is the degree to which a wide swathe of American Jewish leaders have bought in to the European idea.
So deeply have American Jews adopted the universalism now in vogue that they are among the leaders of the assault on the very state that gives them the confidence they need to take the international stage in the first place. Further fueling their discomfort with Jewish sovereignty—and thus contributing to their abandonment of the Jewish state—is the longstanding fear of being tarred with the “dual loyalty” brush, a fear that Barack Obama has knowingly and successfully exploited.
The resulting Jewish abdication of responsibility to defend Israel against a worldwide tide of unbridled hatred might make it impossible for Israel to survive. Israel’s collapse would require no bombs and no invasion. It would take only increased isolation, a sense of precariousness in which Israelis do not wish to raise their children, an economic downturn resulting from international sanctions that make life in Israel even harder than it already is. Then, many of the best-educated and most mobile Israelis would make their homes elsewhere. Slowly, Israel would weaken. Arabs would assume a greater role in setting the tone of the state, or Israel would find itself under international jurisdiction. Either situation would mean a return to the Yishuv—a Palestine with a large number of Jews, but without the independence that has breathed new life into the Jewish people everywhere.
For all its many warts, though, the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty has afforded the Jews a means of reclaiming their prophetic role, coupling to the clarion voice that has always been Judaism’s raison d’être the possibility of actually forging a society framed by Judaism’s values. That change has infused Jews worldwide with a sense of normalcy and pride that they now take for granted. Without their state, Jews would be reduced to the nervous rabble about which Zionism’s founding intellectuals wrote so compellingly just a century ago. Without Israel, the optimism and confidence that characterize Jews everywhere will evaporate almost immediately.
The good news is that we can still avert this eventuality. But resisting the tide will require fortitude and pride, a yearning for peace as well as a renewed sense of realism—about the West and about our enemies. Can contemporary Jews, particularly in America, muster what it will take? We must hope that they can, for what is at stake is not just the Jewish state but the very nature of Jewish life as we know it.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow, and chair of the core curriculum at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul.
Today’s Jewish world has two main centers: America and Israel. But by 2065, if current trends hold, it will have only one—Israel.
One reason is simple demographics. Today, the two communities are of similar size. Israel, according to its Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), has 6.3 million Jews. America, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, has between 5.4 to 6.8 million, depending on whether you count only “core Jews” or the “enlarged” population, which includes “persons of Jewish parentage” and “non-Jewish household members.”
But America’s core Jewish population has barely grown over the past half-century. True, in 1960, the “enlarged” population was only 5.4 to 5.5 million. But since intermarriage was much less common then, this population—identical to today’s core Jewish figure—primarily comprised core Jews. Its subsequent increase has thus come mainly from counting non-Jews as Jews.
Israel’s core Jewish population, in contrast, has more than tripled, from 1.9 million in 1960.
This divergence will only increase. According to a Pew Research study released this year, American Jewish fertility is below replacement rate, at 1.9 children per woman. Israel’s Jewish fertility rate, according to the CBS, is a robust 3.05. Thus, while America’s Jewish population is suffering natural decline, Israel’s benefits from strong natural growth. And though European Jewish emigration may bolster both, past experience indicates that any large-scale exodus would disproportionately benefit Israel.
Thus 50 years hence, Israeli Jews will far outnumber their American kin, which alone would ensure Israel’s predominance. But Israel will also probably have the more Jewishly committed community.
American Jews are increasingly opting out. In a 2013 Pew poll, 32 percent of those born after 1980 defined themselves as “Jews of no religion,” compared with only 7 percent born in 1914–27. And compared with Jews “by religion,” Jews “of no religion” were more than twice as likely to intermarry, almost seven times as likely to raise their children non-Jewish, more than five times as likely to deem being Jewish of little or no importance, more than twice as likely to feel no attachment to Israel, and less than a third as likely to care about belonging to a Jewish community. In short, their contribution to American Jewry is almost nil.
Only 28 percent of all American Jews, moreover, deemed “being part of a Jewish community” essential to their Jewish identity. American Jews’ outsized impact on world Jewry has stemmed largely from their capacity for collective action both at home and abroad. But organized communities are important vehicles for mobilizing collective action; as more Jews shun such communities, American Jewry will inevitably be diminished.
In Israel, by contrast, opting out is hard to do; like it or not, you’re part of an enormous Jewish collective—the State of Israel—whose decisions affect everyone. And perhaps partly in consequence, Jewish engagement is booming.
A 2007 Guttman Center study found that while 68 percent of Israeli Jews over 60 years old defined themselves as secular, only 37 percent of adults under 30 did so; the rest placed themselves on the broad spectrum from traditional-but-nonobservant to ultra-Orthodox. And even secular Israelis rarely abandon Judaism entirely. In another Guttman Center survey, from 2009, sweeping majorities of Israeli Jews deemed it important to observe Jewish lifestyle rituals such as circumcision or shivah (over 90 percent), celebrate Jewish holidays “in the traditional manner” (85 percent), keep kosher at home (76 percent), and have a special Sabbath-eve meal (more than two-thirds).
More than two-thirds also attributed importance to studying classical Jewish texts such as the Bible and the Talmud. Study options for secular Jews have mushroomed accordingly, from jam-packed Shavuot learning sessions to full-year pre-army programs.
Thus by dint of both size and commitment, Israel seems set to become the world’s predominant Jewish community, replacing the current American–Israeli parity.
Of course, this assumes Israel’s survival. American Jews increasingly seem to doubt such survival is possible unless the intractable Palestinian conflict is somehow resolved. As one distinguished American Jew warned: “Regardless of what the United States does, Israel’s diplomatic isolation will increase unless there is a general settlement. Without a fundamental change, Israel could wind up in an international diplomatic ghetto, with the United States her only friend. Even in the United States, Israel’s position will not be secure unless she changes her policy.”
Actually, that’s from December 1973; it’s New York Times journalist James Reston’s summary of Henry Kissinger’s views. Since then, Israel’s Jewish population has more than doubled, its GDP has quintupled, and it has opened diplomatic relations with dozens of additional countries.
The future contains no guarantees. But previous rumors of Israel’s impending demise have proved greatly exaggerated.
Evelyn Gordon is an Israeli journalist and commentator. Her proposal for a new Israeli strategy on the Palestinian–Israeli conflict appeared in the September issue of Mosaic.