Reflections on the New Year: Defining a Jewish View of the World

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

As we enter 5775, the world is in a different place, and for certain Jews find themselves in a complex and challenging environment. The global picture might best be defined as one of social displacement, where the core axioms and norms of the social order seem to be shifting. While such rapid and radical changes have profound and problematic implications for world Jewry, this also affords an opportunity for Judaism to be understood as an ideology committed to the idea of human perfectibility.

Two competing views of humankind appear to be at hand. On the one hand there is a commitment to the scientific “possibilities” of “re-engineering” the perfectibility of the economic and social conditions of society. Collective action and shared engagement have framed this perspective on the state of the international community. This view of humanity and its possibilities however has been offset by a return to tribal instincts and separatist passions. This re-emergence of racist, xenophobic and nationalistic behaviors has led to a rejection of “modernity.” The collective model is seen as corrosive and contrary to the human instinct for self-preservation. Against this backdrop one sees many of the key elements of society being challenged and threatened:

Global Order: The collapse of the nation-state system in various parts of the world is leading to the rearrangement of the global map. The return to regional, religious, and cultural claims of authenticity is contributing to this redefinition. War is seen as an acceptable option as evidenced by the up scaling of conflicts, within Africa alone there are 25 countries engaged in some form of military action involving over 150 armies, militias, separatists or guerilla fighting forces. Similarly, in Asia there are today 15 nations in war-settings with some 128 battle groups. In the Middle East today 8 countries are facing military conflicts that involve as many as 180 different military units. As an outcome, civility and the rule of law in many of these areas has given way to the politics of terror and an environment of hate.

As long as Euro-American political establishment could define the rules and influence the conduct of international diplomacy, a specific constellation of order was apparent but such norms concerning democracy and liberty are not necessarily reflected in the political culture of the emerging new national and regional actors. Today, the Western political formula appears to be collapsing. A global political framework that operated around a balance of power system, the rule of law, and the presence of shared democratic norms is no longer the only contending international model of how power will be understood or utilized.

Economic Stability: New financial realities appear to be at hand, and these include the growing disequilibrium in income, the changing notions about “work,” and the absence of sustainable jobs and occupations to meet the needs and expectations of 21st century citizens across the world. In the absence of a thriving and viable global economic order, we are seeing the seeds of economic and social unrest.

One of the outcomes of an uncertain economic order has been the creation of a tiered social system. The disparity in income must be seen as a direct outcome, as the divide between the wealthiest amongst us and the rest of society is the greatest in modern history. A Federal Reserve report suggests that the richest 10% of Americans were the only group whose median incomes rose in the past three years. The report acknowledged that incomes declined for every other group from 2010 to 2013, widening the gap between the richest Americans and everyone else. The analysis, when adjusted for inflation, finds that median income for the top 10% rose 2%, to $223,200 from $217,900. Median income fell 4% for the bottom 20%, to $15,200 from $15,800. For the middle 20%, incomes dropped 6%, to $48,700 from $51,800. The average household income of the top 5% of Americans is 6.5 times the median national household income. In the wake of what some perceive as a failed economic system, anger has replaced hope, and despair and blame are introduced as substitutes for constructive alternatives.

Political Dysfunctionalism: Political scientist Samuel Huntington has argued that “Political decay was caused by the inability of institutions to adapt to changing circumstances.” Political analyst Francis Fukuyama argues that “In an environment of sharp political polarization, a decentralized system is less able to represent majority interests and provides excessive representation to the views of interest groups…” As American political institutions struggle and often fail to perform well, there is a corollary growth in the level of distrust in government and other institutions of authority, leading to a paralysis of social structures. This loss of confidence must be seen as being most problematic to the health and vitality of a democracy.

Radicalization of Religion: The growing presence of extremist religious communities has produced a level of triumphalism and new forms of tribal fanaticism. The fundamentalist posture that defines elements of Islam, as an example, is creating a corresponding response among other religious traditions, leading to a further balkanization of society and social discourse.

Social Networking: Social networking impacts today all levels of communication, and as such has fostered a level of isolation, resulting in a decrease in personal communication. The degrading of our society through the loss of personal connection represents a threat to our social order. In the end even our own sense of humanity is compromised.

The nature of “truth” has shifted from the established ranks of the news media and the collective wisdom of institutions to the power of the individual to construct, even invent perspectives on what truth is or ought to be.

Personal Behaviors and Loyalties: The collapse of social consciousness and collective responsibility has resulted in a decline in civic engagement as demonstrated by the collapse of many community institutions. The politics of self has replaced the focus on a shared view of the world.

In a complex world, people are striving for concrete outcomes; unhappy with “shades of gray,” they long for quick fixes and ultimate solutions.

Framing a Different Social Order: All of these social trends have a direct and profound impact on the “state of the Jews.” Minorities in general, and Jews, in particular, thrive in open societies where diversity is acknowledged and the lines of communication remain open and valued. Where rapid nationalism, economic stagnation, cultural rigidity, social isolation, and religious triumphalism appear to be dominant themes, the quality and context of Jewish life has been compromised, even minimalized. These conditions must be seen as both dangerous and destructive not only to the well-being and status of Jews but to the general tenor of our society.

In this, our hour of renewal, may we join with others as we enter upon a New Year, in reimagining a world constructed and governed by a moral code of civility. This task of renewal must be launched within our communal orbit. The dignity of the individual begins with the regard with which we hold each Jew. Our obligations also require that we embrace the principles of civil discourse permitting us the opportunity to promote a conversation around Israel’s destiny and place in the world. Our focus will be directed as well on helping our communities and institutions to frame their collective message and mission.

Drawing upon our tradition with its focus on the ethical imperatives of social responsibility and ethical conduct, can we again re-envision a humanity that is bound up in the perfectibility of the human condition, and as Jews can we model such commitment and behavior? At this season we are reminded that Judaism articulates a message that transcends time and place, calling upon us to rebuild the world.

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, Los Angeles. Portions of this article are based on Dr. Windmueller’s recent book, “The Quest for Power.” See www.theWindreport for a list of other articles written by Dr. Windmueller.