Action and innovation, not faith and tradition, may be the keys to Judaism's future.
Repeated incidents of violence and hate-filled rhetoric in recent years have focused world attention on the threat posed by extremist groups within all major religions, not only Islam. But Israeli scholars Tsvi Bisk and Moshe Dror, writing specifically on future prospects for Judaism, see the basis for a rebirth of tolerance and more positive involvement in solving world problems by emphasizing the personal benefits and responsibilities of religious identity in the twenty-first century.
In Futurizing the Jews, Bisk and Dror explore how Jews in Israel and throughout the world might unify in new and effective ways that embrace economic globalization and government by secular law.
The future they envision for Judaism builds on the experience of Western, secular Jews. Their main concern is to demonstrate how nonobservant individuals, even convinced atheists, can still identify with Judaism as a living culture and contribute to its future growth regardless of how far their personal faith and worship practices may diverge from traditional norms.
What Will it Mean to Be Jewish?
For many centuries following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, Jewish communities existed only as small and weak minorities scattered throughout the world. During this time, the question "What does it mean to be Jewish?"was easy to answer. Being Jewish meant belonging to "the tribe"; that is, identifiable by a language and culture noticeably different from all the other groups around them. Though this separation was reinforced by suspicion, hostility, and occasional persecution from outside, it was fundamentally preserved by choice and tradition.
With the Enlightenment in western Europe, religious tolerance expanded, and laws and institutions grew increasingly secular. This opened opportunities for individuals of all backgrounds to acquire wealth and power based primarily on their own effort and ability, while the relative advantages conferred by birth or inherited land holdings decreased.
As a result, many Jews left their old communities and adopted new ways of life and worship that reflected the diversity around them. By the mid-nineteenth century, urban ghettos and rural villages were no longer the only models for Jewish identity, and assimilation into the mainstream of Western cultural and economic life had become an attractive option for some.
By the mid-twentieth century, the emigration of many Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe and their resettlement in the United States had made American Jewry the largest, most affluent, and at the same time most culturally diverse Jewish community in the world. At this same time, however, the Zionist movement was promoting Jewish migration to Palestine and laying the foundation for a revival of Judaism at the historical center of Jewish civilization. This effort has been so successful that today in the United States the one thing that practically all who claim to be Jewish have in common is an affection for, and willingness to support, the state of Israel.
But what of the future? For Orthodox Jews (as for many fundamentalist Christians and Islamists), even slight modifications of tradition represent dangerous departures from time-tested ways and values that have preserved their community from corruption and assimilation. Their desired future is to return as much as possible to the lifestyle and community norms of their ancestors.
But authors Bisk and Dror see little chance that reviving orthodox practices will spread or strengthen Jewish community. Instead, they urge that Jews stop looking back to the far past (specifically the era of King Solomon and the First Temple) as a utopia and to recognize that the conditions existing then cannot be reestablished or even successfully approximated today. Bisk and Dror also believe Jews must transcend the horrific recent past of the Holocaust and accept that the Jewish people can no longer remain a nation apart, unaffected by or indifferent to the trends and problems of an increasingly interdependent world community.
A Model Nation
Israel, the authors argue, should view itself as a city-state like ancient Athens and not as a potentially self-sufficient nation. Even if Israel were to create an efficient agrarian society and "make the desert bloom," as the early Kibbutz system of collective farms set out to do, it would remain a minor country with little economic or cultural influence. A far better approach, they insist, is for Israel to focus on Third Wave economic activity (that is, providing services and expertise) rather than agriculture or even manufacturing. By pursuing excellence in research, education, government, and public services, Israel can make itself a model state and demonstrate how democracy and economic opportunity can function in a postmodern world to benefit all citizens.
Rather than promote unlimited Jewish immigration that would only intensify the pressure for new settlements and expansion at the expense of neighboring states, Bisk and Dror recommend capitalizing on the Internet to enlarge the Jewish homeland. Electronically linking experts, scholars, and congregations from Jewish communities all over the world with their counterparts in Israel itself would effectively reunite twenty-first-century Judaism in the form of a cyber-reality transcending physical borders, the authors contend.
In practical terms, this expanded notion of citizenship would help generate healthy debate and constructive criticism of Israeli policies and marshal support for internal bureaucratic and legal reforms. At the same time, it would greatly expand Israel's global reach and give Jews who live outside Israel a more constructive and fulfilling way to support the Jewish state than merely giving money or blindly backing any policy or action for fear that criticism might encourage Israel's enemies. Joining alliances like NATO and the European Union and cooperating with other states and regional authorities to address global problems of ecology, development, and security offer Israel its surest way to guarantee long-term survival.
But is survival enough? Many Jews, like the later Christian and Muslim communities that have accepted and adapted many basic Jewish values, have long believed they have a special duty to set an example for the world. This means that the challenge facing Israel, and the far-flung community of those living outside Israel today who identify themselves as Jews, is not merely to survive, but to prosper and, in so doing, to benefit others as well as themselves.
The inherent dangers in such a sense of mission are arrogance and self-congratulation. But without some overriding long-range goal what is the point of risking or improving anything? History demonstrates that attempting to preserve the past unchanged is an exercise in futility. Yet having no purpose beyond maximizing near-term pleasure and convenience can leave an individual or a whole society unsatisfied and depressed in the midst of plenty.
While some futures thinkers believe the role of organized religion in human affairs will likely diminish over time, traditional religious practices and deeply held personal beliefs still powerfully affect daily life in many parts of the world today. Reexamining the basis for established rituals and customs and rethinking transmitted wisdom in the light of new priorities need not threaten personal beliefs and worship practices. In fact, the effort seems a reasonable way to improve the likelihood that fervor and hope will continue to work alongside technical knowledge and ingenuity to address both short-term and long-term human needs.
Sources: Futurizing the Jews: Alternative Futures for Meaningful Jewish Existence in the 21st Century by Tsvi Bisk and Moshe Dror. Praeger Books/Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003. 258 pages. To Order
Source: The Futurist, January-February 2005 Vol. 39, No. 1
COPYRIGHT © 2005 WORLD FUTURE SOCIETY, http://www.wfs.org/. All rights reserved.