When times are hard, hatred fierce and persecution deadly, Jews leave.
When times are good, hatred subdued and persecution dormant, Jews leave.
When times are as they are now, some sort of transitional era that might be described as neither meat, fish, nor good red herring, Jews leave.
The numbers are astonishing.
The year 33 of the Common Era: maybe nine million Jews from Gaul to Persia to India, amid a couple hundred million other souls.
The year 1933 of the Common Era, out of a global population of rough-guess 2.5 billion: 18 million Jews.
And today, with 7.2 billion people on the planet . . . 18 million Jews (depending on criteria).
Jews leave for many reasons, not all of them venal, treacherous, crassly self-seeking or invalid. Perhaps the greatest of these reasons nowadays: an indifference that cannot be remedied by more of the same, whether that more-of-the-same be Orthodoxy or any other established denomination or trendy/freaky experiment.
But most of all, as Jews have admitted for for centuries, it’s indifference to participation in the totalitarian world that rabbinic Judaism has crafted, and which not a few among the ultra-Orthodox would love to impose upon all.
Indifference to Israel, its situation, its conduct, its fate.
And indifference to that which for three millennia and more, has been proclaimed Judaism’s special mission as a nation of priests, a people that dwells apart, and a light unto the nations.
In more secular terms: “We want the goyim to honor and admire us while we have nothing to do with them.”
Thanks, but no.
For all these centuries, despite, occasional non-Jewish fascination with Judaism and sporadic episodes of Judeophilia, few among all those billions have bought it. Rather the opposite, and today the world shows scant enthusiasm for Jewish wisdom or lecturing. But again, our concern here is not with anyone’s private beliefs and practices, nor with theological truth, falsehood and pretensions. It is with the secular, the obvious, the mundane.
Today, the vast majority of Jews, including a clear majority of Israelis, have no interest in living under any aspect of totalitarian religion, or of providing light and priestly services unto the world. And more and more Jews evince no desire to live under any form of binding Judaism whatever. Civil religion, religion as an accepted part of the culture is one thing. Submission to theocratic power, as enforced by the state, is quite another. And so, in its way, is aggressive public admiration of the dogmas behind it.
And yet, the more I ponder it, the harder it becomes to escape the notion that Jews and Judaism and Israel do have a special mission in the 21st century, as this world is today and as its needs are defined.
Should the world’s Jews choose to define and accept it.
A mission (as this blog has suggested many times before) that involves Israel confronting, as one nation among many, the twin existential perils that now threaten civilization and species: global climate change and global Islamist savagery. And providing the necessary weapons of science, war, politics and spirit.
But to do so effectively, and to lessen or reverse the growing pandemic of Jew hatred – in order to become more of what we always thought we might be – it may be necessary to abandon a lot of old notions of specialness, of chosenness, of superiority . . . along with the desire to be just like everybody else (whatever that is).
Berl Katznelson, a wise Zionist ideologue, once wrote that it’s not enough to rebel against the past. We must also rebel against some of the rebellions of the past. He had a point. But he didn’t go quite far enough.
So who might define the Jewish/Israeli mission in the 21st century? Anyone. The floor is open. Anyone who can enunciate it clearly and make it compelling across much of the spectrum of belief. And then, make it work. Or at least, motivate those who can.
Today, Israel needs nothing less than a new Herzl. And Judaism could use some leaders who’ve gotten beyond both rebelling against the past and rebelling against past rebellions. The crises are real and Israel has to choose whether to join the world or continue on its current path, ever more isolated and despised.
Diaspora Jewry, especially America’s Jews, has a somewhat more complex choice. They may opt to participate or evade as citizens of their own countries. But they may also opt to renew their relationship to a renewed Israel, in ways that might now seem outlandish, even impossible.
But it may not be wrong to suggest that before the Diaspora can do so, both Israel and Judaism must be made interesting again.
Odd thoughts as Yom Kippur approaches. Our minds are supposed to be elsewhere. But today, five years into diagnosed cancer and as threescore years and ten approach, I’d rather ponder the future. In a sense, I have the luxury of doing so. I didn’t wait until this season to tend to my personal affairs of the spirit. That frees me for other speculations.
Perhaps there are people out there in the same situation. Try thinking about the world this Holy Day. But even if your situation is quite different – and especially if it is – a few thoughts on Nu? what next for Judaism, Israel and the Jews, might not be either inappropriate or unavailing.