by Donniel Hartman
The Jewish people have perfected a new weapon in our crisis arsenal, a weapon guaranteed to marshal the prerequisite quota of fear and concern needed to fuel Jewish communal life – demography.
As a people we have replaced vision with crisis as the central force and motivation for identity, philanthropy, and unity. We have found amongst the plethora of demographic studies an inexhaustible gold mine. We now have an unending source to feed our fear.
As the so-called “ever-dying people” we can bask in statistics that either point to accelerated assimilation, lack of affiliation, intermarriage, alienation, decreased commitment, and distancing from Israel, or the ever-increasing size of the ultra-Orthodox community, be it in Israel or New York City with the crisis to the Jewish future that such a growth may portend.
If the numbers aren’t sufficiently alarming, then we can combine two groups, such as Arabs and haredim, in order to achieve the desired gloomy prediction of a non-Zionist majority in Israel in the very near future.
While some demographers benefit handsomely from the demography of fear, I do not mean to attack the messenger. Demography can play an invaluable role in empowering, shaping, and guiding the vision of our people. The problem lies neither in the demographers nor in demography, per se, but in its crisis celebration, which is manipulating Jewish social life.
At its core, the purpose of demography is to alert us to shifts in the status quo and to new currents within our individual and collective identities, so that we can adapt and respond effectively and intelligently. The demography of fear, however, works in the opposite direction. It paralyzes and creates a sense of helplessness, as the Jewish community or Israel are portrayed as forever spiraling out of control into a self-destructive future of differing forms. As the ever-abused child of history, it seems that without an ongoing dose of fear we cannot arouse from our slumber, see ourselves or connect to our reality.
We are not an ever-dying community. We are, however, an ever-changing one. The one consistent feature of Jewish life is that Judaism is a source of disagreement, rather than cohesion. That whatever boundaries we pick in order to define our core identity will invariably be crossed before they even take hold. The primary defining feature of 21st-century Jewish life is that the differences are more extreme, and the crossing of boundaries more accelerated.
We can’t afford pessimism
Jewish identity does not begin with a system of values or practices but with a commitment to a particular people and collective identity. As a result, a new convert must first declare, “Your people is my people,” before they declare, “Your God is my God.” In every generation, identity with the Jewish people carried with it differing baggage. For much of our history this baggage entailed persecution, discrimination, and alienation from the surrounding political and religious communities.
To be or become a Jew required one to internalize the reality of Jewish collective identity, to carry its burdens and challenges on one’s shoulders as one participated in the journey of Jewish life, and contributed to its growth and value.
While some of the old challenges still remain, we face new ones, challenges of identity, continuity, and moral and spiritual excellence. But our response must remain the same. Who the Jewish people are is not a neutral question of statistics but a blueprint for the parameters of my loyalty. To love the Jewish people means not merely to save them from impending death but to make room for them around the table in their ever-changing personas. As a member of a people, I must accept that who the Jews are also shapes what Judaism is, even if that Judaism may differ from my own.
Who the Jewish people are is not a crisis or a tragedy or a “cancer” growing in our midst. It is simply who we are, the identity of my community without whom I am not “I,” without whom there is no meaning to Judaism. In theory, I might fantasize about belonging to a different team or a different team makeup. That fantasy, however, can only impact my work, not my loyalty.
Who we are is not necessarily who we ought to or can be. And in the open marketplace of ideas we can all strive to shape who we will be. The great benefit of demography is that it allows different visions and ideas to tailor their educational strategies to maximize their potential effectiveness in shaping our future. We don’t need a demography of fear; we need a demography of aspirations and responsibility.
For example, if one is concerned about a Jewish community, whether in North America or Israel, with an ever-shrinking number of liberal voices and in which Jewish seriousness is carried by an ever-growing, financially disadvantaged and insular Haredi population, instead of fear and despair one must get to work.
Pessimism is a luxury that we cannot afford. We need to marshal our talent to create a different reality, to remove self-destructive policies, and through the power of ideas offer an alternative and compelling vision, all the while never succumbing to demonization, de-legitimization, and bifurcation.
In demography we find an ally who places a mirror before us, teaching us what is. As Jews, our task is neither to mourn the present nor hold on to it; our task is to hold on to our loyalty to our people and to a vision of its future, to dispel despair and get busy.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute.