Preparing for the New Year: Thinking Near and Projecting Far Measuring the Jewish Future

Jewish history may provide an interesting roadmap for us toward envisioning the future.

by Steven F. Windmueller, Ph.D.

At this season of the year we are asked to reflect on our lives, as we prepare for an accounting of our deeds. In the course of such a self-assessment, it is not only about the year just completed or the one before us, 5774. I try to project not only my standing as a Jew and as citizen of the world but seek as well to unravel the larger journey of our people. As an ancient people, I think of us as on a timeless journey. Rather than limiting our projections to our current timeframe, how might we see ourselves in one generation, or some 35 years out?

As a colleague of mine suggested, we know how difficult it is to unpack the Jewish past, how much the more so to be able to speak about the future of the Jews. What may be a possible first-step is to begin to identify the questions we ought to be asking as a means of “measuring” the Jewish future. Toward that end I have identified a number of “categories” that might be employed to evaluate the health and vitality of the Jewish people as we move forward as part of our collective experience. So, what are the elements that we would need to consider in exploring our pathways over the next three decades?

Transformational Moments as Social Indicators: We can not predict social trends, yet by all indicators, if we took the 35 year period between, let us say, 1940 and 1975, it would represent one of the most significant time segments within Jewish history. One could hardly have predicted such transformative moments, as represented by Hitler’s “final solution” (1942); the atomic bomb (1945); founding of the State of Israel (1948); and the Six Day War (1967), events that can be described as both traumatic and exhilarating. Indeed, we would witness the demise and rebirth of the Jewish people, all within one short period of time. We can only imagine what will be possible or probable as the decades unfold.

Global Environment: The pace of change has rapidly altered our world; this represents an important barometer in understanding the human condition. Three factors have dramatically impacted our lives: the communications revolution, the advent of new technologies, and the range and volume of new inventions. Here are but a few of the remarkable outcomes. Civilization is doubling its knowledge base every five years. Currently, the world is producing one million new books and publications each year. In 2001, just twelve years ago, there were 625 million computers in the world; today there are more than 2 billion. But just as we identify those who are seeking to expand the realm of knowledge involving the sciences, medicine, and the universe, there are countervailing forces engineering new weapons designed to destroy our very existence. So what might this array of intellectual, social, and physical changes mean for the Jewish people?

Jewish Political Index: Moving forward into the next time frame how might we define the essence of “power”? What will mid-century Jews be concerned about, and how will they be expressing or carrying out their political interests? More directly, what roles will Israel play within the Middle East and beyond? Can we even image over the next 35 years the reshaping of world events, the impact of new instruments of war or the possibilities of peace?

Israel in the World: In light of this week’s tensions around Syria’s use of chemical weapons, what will be the tenor and focus of future challenges to the general welfare of our civilization and more directly to Jewish security? What will Israel’s role in the world be over the coming decades, and more directly within the Jewish world? How will we collectively handle the growing threat of terrorism and the presence of fundamentalist ideologies that seek to marginalize Western culture, minimize religious liberty, and more directly, eradicate the Jewish State?

Intra-Jewish Condition: What will be the patterns of denominational and institutional connections? Which organizations will cease to be operational and will other organizations or models of organizing replace the current ones? What will be the role of religion in this new era? What will be the racial/ethnic diversity of our community? What will be the primary languages of the Jewish people? Can we identify the educational/literacy patterns (secular and religious) of Jews? Will we need to ask what are the criteria or measures for being Jewish; so “who is a Jew?” may continue to be a major issue in light of the changing social characteristics of our population. Correspondingly, what great ideas found within our tradition will empower Jews to think and act in different ways that may also change how others see themselves and ultimately view us? Finally, so what will be the composition of Jewish population of the world in 2050?

Inter-group and Inter-religious Relations: How will Jews be seen by others and how will Jews be involved with other communities of people? Within the Diaspora Jews have historically been depended on the condition of their relationships with other groups as a barometer of how well Jews were able to operate within a society, what changes are we likely to see over the decades ahead in ethnic, racial and religious relationships? As we decrease both in size and influence across the world, what impact will our presence make on a more diverse and complex world order?

Jewish Economic Index: What will be the financial health of the Jewish community? What distinctive trends will impact Jewish life? In a global economy with the expected advances in technology and communication, are we not likely to see the continued re- distribution of Jews to various “knowledge” centers and new economic hubs. How will Jews in turn impact the global economic picture?

Some General Historical Insights:

If nothing else, Jewish history may provide an interesting roadmap for us toward envisioning the future. What then are some of the key markers that hold value and meaning to our story?

  • Throughout our history Jews have experienced periods of political uncertainty. The extraordinary learning curve has been our capacity not only to survive but to creatively operate in conditions of powerlessness and within the contours of having power. What will be our fate in this century?
  • In every period of our people’s existence, we can identify a mix of threats and opportunities that would alter the course of Jewish life. What are we likely to encounter over the course of the first half of 21st century?
  • At different points in time Jewish personalities have inspired and given leadership to the Jewish people and to humanity as a whole. Who might emerge in the generation before us to inspire and lead our community?
  • Jews would create and maintain internal networks of communication and systems of social invention that have allowed us a people to retain a shared sense of our identity and collective vision. In what ways over the decades ahead will we be able to move forward our passion for social justice and our commitment to the Jewish national experience?
  • Jews have monitored their past as a way to memorialize special moments, sanctify their losses, to pay tribute to their heroes and teachers, and above all to acknowledge how we have survived threats to our survival. How might we commemorate the next 35 years of our history?

Over time and physical space, how would Jews understand and deal with their condition? As the historian Heinrich Graetz has noted, during periods when Jews held power and lived within their own nation, the political focus of their tradition would be the dominant element of Judaism; in contrast during periods of dispersion, the religious elements would be more prevalent, as Jews sought to draw upon theological and spiritual sources to sustain them. Yet we would also learn that internal divisions compromised Jewish nation-building and ultimately undermined their security and well-being.

Likewise, historian Salo Baron has suggested that “political powerlessness has often been mistaken by foe and friend alike as the equivalent of the Jews’ utter despondency… throughout the history of dispersion.” He concludes, “Justice, and especially social justice, remained throughout the ages the corner stone of Jewish public life and theology.”

In light of their tumultuous story of exile, Jews would become accustom to political change and social upheaval that would in the end prepare them better for the uncertainties of modern politics. This adaptability would serve them well while living under different types of political regimes and economic conditions.

Baron also noted that “Jewish history has increasingly become a rare combination of national and world history. The Jewish faith also represents a peculiar synthesis of a national and a universal religion.” This creative interchange between constructing a national identity and fostering universal social values represents the duality of the Jewish political experience. The tenacity of the Jewish people is reflected on the one hand by their commitment over the centuries to their covenant with God to be a “holy nation” and on the other by their engagement with humanity in fashioning a messianic vision.

At this moment within cycle of our collective journey, may we have the insight to step back and examine our march through history, as we move forward at this season of our renewal to embark on yet another chapter in the saga of our people.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service 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.