A New Moment in Time: How Changing Political and Religious Realities Are Reshaping Global Judaism

A new set of external forces now contend for influence in shaping the Jewish future.

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

As we move into a new year, one has a tendency to reflect back not only concerning the immediate past but to also examine the broader trends that are likely to impact one’s life. Jews on a more macro scale also have a tendency to measure their well-being as a people and civilization. We seem to be constantly centered in such a discourse. At this moment in time, we are uncovering yet another dimension to our story.

In this the 21st century of our modern era, Christianity and Western civilization would represent the two pillars around which we as Jews have historically defined our status. Our story has been intertwined with the evolution of these two traditions. Western political ideology and Christian thought have each played a central role in influencing Jewish religious and cultural expression. The status of Jews would be influenced by Christian doctrine. How Jews would survive politically over 2000 would be negotiated by Western elites. The political structures of kings and lords, prime ministers and presidents determined where as a people we might live and how as Jews we would operate within the world.

If Jews have negotiated their status based on Christian attitudes and Western political behavior for the past 2000 years, we can now mark the end of that era. Today, neither Christianity nor Western Civilization serves as the only actors that will impact the future of the Jewish people. A new religious and political order is emerging. Our past will not be our future.

At this moment in time Jews are the central players in their own story. Our liberation and national renaissance represents a historic transition both with reference to our political power and religious standing. We now can more readily articulate our own destiny as a people.

Yet, a new set of external forces now contend for influence in shaping the Jewish future. As Asia, Africa and the Americas emerge as the centers of economic and political power, Jewish interests will be increasing tied to this changing and emerging global system. None of the 50 fastest growing economies in the world include the traditional Western societies but rather reflect the changing character of the global market. Among the top twenty, ten are situated in sub-Saharan Africa, eight are located in Asia and two are found in North Africa and the Middle East. Beyond the presence of China and India as competing international powers, Jews are increasingly connected to other emerging nation-states across the Third World. A different political mantra and economic order are at hand.

If Christianity defined the Jewish past, Islam will play a major role in the shaping of the Jewish future. Such a geo-religious transformation is not only limited to the Arab-Israel scenario but will have a profound effect on shaping Muslim-Jewish relations across the globe. As Christianity struggles to redefine its status and reclaim its mantel of influence, Islam and other faith traditions are increasingly asserting their presence as global faith traditions and as political forces. Today, Islam represents one of the fastest growing religious traditions within the world, joined by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in competing with Christianity to expand their presence and influence, especially among the emerging societies of the global South. If the world of Islam was seen as only a marginal factor within the Jewish past, it represents a vital player for its future.

Jews have been swept up by the changing realities of the marketplace, as one finds the growth of Jewish communities across south Asia and the strengthening of Jewish communal life among the emerging industrial and business centers of the Southern Hemisphere.

As such, a whole different paradigm will be a part of the Jewish political and religious future. This transition from West to East and from Christianity to Islam implies a fundamental shift in how Jews will understand their political and religious character. The strategy ahead for Jews requires the need to grow connections with key stakeholders in this changing market environment.

Negotiating our place amidst a changing political, religious, and economic order will require the re-engineering of our communal agenda. This must be seen for world Jewry as a cultural and structural transformation determining our understanding of the shifting sands of power and religion within a 21st century context.

This brief article is drawn from a more extensive set of writings that seek to frame the changing status and role of Jews in the world and the corresponding need to construct new models of Jewish organizing that will serve the Jewish people.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. You can find more of his writings at: www.thewindreport.

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  1. says

    Dr. Windmueller is talking in theoretical phrases. I don’t see concrete evidence in his writing of shifts of the Jewish communities of the world to non-western countries. In my readings in the past year I found that the Jewish communities of the world have condensed into a few dozen countries of the world from over 100 in less than 2 generations. Dr. Windmueller is implying that that trend is reversing, without concrete evidence.

  2. Alan Ronkin says

    Elliott, I don’t read his comments that way at all. What I hear is Steve talking about how the geopolitical influence of non-Western cultures will take Judaism and Jewish life in another direction. I think it’s kind of like the difference between Maimonides formative culture and that of the later halachic masters that lived in Christian Europe. A lot to think about here. I’ll have to look at the additional articles.

  3. bob hyfler says

    The thesis of this article is well taken. Half of world Jews now live in a Jewish state in the Islamic middle-east and 40% or more of their numbers have had no experience living in the West. American society is increasingly multi ethnic and the myth of a Judaeo – Christian culture has no currency in the 21st century. Truth be told we have been there before. The first millenium following the destruction of the temple was a period where rabbinic Judaism developed under decidedly non – western Influences. Rashi and the tosafot did not appear till the 11th – 12th
    Century. Our Ashkenazi centicism aside we can adjust, evolve and
    prosper in the century to come.