It’s hard to believe that soon we will be reading in the cycle of Torah readings the story of Abraham.
The past Hebrew year, even with an additional month, has flown by. We look at the year ahead with apprehension but also with a modicum of hope. But with 5776 behind us, I want to return to the Torah readings of only a few weeks ago.
I especially want to focus on the passing of leadership from Moses to Joshua, a remarkable act of humility and responsibility. Moses, despite yearning to enter the Promised Land, summons up the courage to realize that his mission is completed and it is time for a new generation to take over. The slave generation was dead.
The generation of their children were poised to make the Land of Canaan their possession.
An important reason for the ongoing existence and continuity of the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years has been the reality that there is always a generation of Joshua to lead after the decline of the generation of Moses. After the decline of Eretz Yisrael during the later Roman period, the rabbis of Babylon picked up the slack and produced the gold standard Talmud.
When the Babylonian community began to weaken centuries later, new centers of Jewish life arose in Germany and Spain. Persecution and exile produced new generations of Sephardi life in Amsterdam, Italy and the Ottoman Empire, while the Ashkenazi Jewish community thrived in Poland.
With the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis and their collaborators – and the increasing anti-Semitism in the Arab and Islamic world – both the United States and the State of Israel took over as centers of Jewish life. That seems to be where we stood only a few decades ago. We must acknowledge that the situation has gone through a radical transformation.
The question that I now pose is: where do we go from here? The generation of Moses – the greatest generation, that fought World War II, survived the Shoah and gave birth to the State of Israel – is on the wane.
While the situation of Jewish continuity in the Jewish state has stabilized, I wonder about the situation in the Diaspora. Will there be a Joshua generation outside of Israel to carry on Jewish religion, culture, history and identity?
Simon Rawidowicz, a great 20th-century Jewish thinker, Hebraist and educator called our people “the Ever-Dying People.” In other words, in every generation the alarm was sounded that Judaism was in jeopardy yet the Jewish people kept on going and surviving, outliving the empires that were their enemies.
At the time Rawidowicz was speaking in such glowing terms of the Diaspora 60 years ago, it seemed that he was correct. American Jewry was flourishing and, in some ways, could claim dominance over the State of Israel financially, religiously and intellectually. But half a century has passed and those days are over. Rawidowicz was positive that he could produce a flourishing Hebrew-language centered civilization in America but that has failed.
Fifteen years ago, for the first time since the colonial period, the American- Jewish population declined.
The more recent Pew Research Center Study poll indicates accelerated assimilation and marriage out of the faith among American Jews, especially outside the Orthodox world. One must add that the population of Jews in Israel is now larger than the Jewish population in the US.
Finally, many of the great figures who made American Jewry vibrant and great are now dead. Of course, there is a new Joshua generation in America that will inherit the mantle of the Moses generation. But there is doubt that they will be able to stave the decline of this Jewry. For some Jews, this news will be a welcome confirmation that the Diaspora will be negated in the modern world. For other Jews, this decline will be a reason to sit shiva and lament the passing of a great Jewry that contributed so much to our people.
Will Progressive Judaism’s “Big Tent” approach work? Inviting interfaith couples into the synagogue is a gamble. I am skeptical that it can succeed, especially with a Reform agenda that relies so heavily on social justice as the key to continuity.
Young Jews can go to many different religions and political ideologies that embrace an ideal much like “tikkun olam” (repairing the world). As for Orthodoxy, its growing self-confidence in America is premature. No Jew in America should be doing a victory dance. Modern Orthodox Jews make up the bulk of American aliya to Israel and the assimilation of most of American Jewry into oblivion will leave the Orthodox Jews of America – no matter how religious – vulnerable and tiny in a nation of more than 300 million citizens.
So far, American Jewry’s alphabet soup of advocacy and defense organizations has only been partially successful at opposing the boycott movement on campus. American universities are no longer institutions hospitable to Jews who want to support Israel and speak freely as proud Jews. In a generation, the diminishing of American Jewry will lead to less influence in the corridors of power and increasing insularity.
I am not about to declare American Jewry a failed experiment today. But two centuries and change is not the longevity of Jewish communities in the Diaspora for thousands of years, especially in the ancient, medieval and early modern worlds. Quasi-national autonomy and self-rule that sustained Jewish communities for many centuries is now gone.
We have two models now: Jews living as citizens in modern nation states in the Diaspora and Jews living as Jews in a Jewish state. From a systemic point of view, despite the dangers the State of Israel faces, Jewish continuity only seems sustainable in a Jewish nation state. The modern Diaspora is truly a failing Exile.
The Bavlim, the Jews of ancient Babylon and later Iraq, maintained a thriving community for 2,500 years.
In America today, the third and fourth generations after the major mass immigration to the US of Jews from Eastern Europe – a period of a little more than a century – are assimilating. The Jewish people will never die. But the configuration of the Jewish people 30 years into the future will look very different.
Jewry in the Diaspora, if it does not disappear, will finally defer to the Jewish state as the center of world Jewry. There will be no talk of an “American Judaism” independent of a center in Eretz Yisrael. “Minhag America” is a memory. Without Joshua, Moses remains not a powerful and relevant prophet, but a memory of a dead and ossified past.