Notes on the Jewish Future

On October 18, I attended a fundraising event/conference titled “What Comes Next? Conversations on the Jewish Future,” in honor of Jewish Review of Book’s 5 year anniversary.

The whole day event took place at Yeshiva University’s Museum of Jewish History in New York, and the lineup of speakers looked promising, some drawn from the editorial board and regular contributors to the journal, with some added speakers from the world of politics. I had high hopes. I usually read the quarterly journal from first to last page, finding just about all the content interesting, topically and intellectually.

So what have I learned? Not much. Well, perhaps that’s a bit unfair. I did learn a few things – it’s hard not to learn something from world leaders like Henry Kissinger or academic scholars like Ruth Wisse – but not much about the Jewish future.

The missed opportunities for real intellectual engagement were plenty. I wonder if the lack of involvement from cultural Judaism and reform Judaism were partially at fault. The day was kicked off with a presentation by Alan Cooperman from the Pew survey which identified those two streams of self-identified Jews as the largest a long with the familiar finding that intermarriage is the largest problem for liberal Judaism, while modern orthodox and ultraorthdox seem well buffered from this problem and are able to keep their numbers at replacement rate if not more. Seems terribly odd to try to address “what comes next” in Judaism without including reform and cultural Jews. I wrote a longer summary of the event, but here are some questions that remained unasked let alone answered:

  • Why should American Jews living in a diverse and tolerant society choose Jewish partners and an immersed Jewish life for themselves and their children?
  • Are there ways to practically, philosophically, and theologically “maximize” opportunities for Jewish engagement within the context of intermarriage?
  • Does that require creative approaches to understanding Jewish identity and a form of “on-ramping” that reconceptualizes Jewish law on this issue?
  • Is there anything Jewish about Israel that can offer a positive and progressive aspect to American Jewish identity, or is Israel an obstacle to a modern, positive, progressive Jewish identity?
  • What does it mean to be grounded in a conception of a progressive heritage of social justice, when Israel stands as a symbol of injustice and intolerance?
  • Does it mean that today, Zionism is incompatible with cultural and Liberal Judaism?
  • Or does it mean American Zionism and its story should be narrated less from a perspective of a State besieged by enemies that must be defended against, and as an outpost of Western civilization and democracy, and instead focus on the creative progressive foundations that made this unique project possible in the first place, and as a source of future creative energies, models, and philosophies to imagine renewed social solidarity based on social justice, in Israel as well as America?
  • Can such a Zionist reconceptualization be enough to sustain resonance and relevance across daily (Jewish) practices? If so, how?
  • If the occupation continues with the same demographic trends, and the lack of progress on peace, and Israel requiring increasingly intrusive means of separation and control to suppress violence, what would that mean in terms of Israel’s perception as a democracy, as the David surrounded by hostile Goliaths, as the Western outposts in a sea of dictatorships, and what would any shifts in such images mean for identification of the US with Israel and ability of pro-Israeli forces to mobilize political support?
  • And how can rabbinic Judaism be relevant to address broader issues of social justice and engagement with a non-Jewish majority for the vast majority of Jews who crave relevance and engagement with not just broader segments of the society they encounter, but indeed for the global stage?
  • Why are responses to global warming, racism, and deep social inequality not a halakhically grounded set of tools and institutions, and part of daily enacted and resonant practice?
  • What are the future long-term pictures of American and Israeli cultures and values, and what do they mean for how Judaism would need to re-align to remain relevant? And would they go in different directions and create gaps that would need to be bridged?
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