A few years ago, I prepared an essay entitled, “The End of the Jewish Century, 1918-2018.” In that article, I raised the question of whether this moment might signal the beginning of the end of Jewish peoplehood? As I catalogued the reasons for this profound change, along with what new possibilities might lay ahead. I noted that “Jewish coherence appears to have come undone.” If at one time we saw ourselves, as Abraham Joshua Heschel had suggested, as God’s stake in human history, we are today in search of our collective identity.
Jewish peoplehood is ending; a mythology of the Jewish experience is giving way to a new construct of a personalized, individualized, virtual and privatized Judaism. The last one hundred years, at one moment, served as a defining chapter in the collective Jewish story, but most likely it may also represent the last such great expression. If we could describe ourselves over the past centuries as “one people, sharing one destiny” then today we are multiple peoples in search of their individualized identities and personalized Jewish and human expressions. This past century indeed has indeed transformed our story from the collective to the personal.
Community requires a shared sense of destiny, a common understanding of our past, and a commitment to acting mutually on a core set of outcomes. Continuity has historically been framed by the collective and was its end product. The conscience of the individual Jew and the collective conscience of the Jewish people were seen as mystically bound together.
Jewish conscientiousness suggests a distinctive Jewish destiny where our memory allows us to meld faith, culture, tradition and history into a common story about our fate. The elements of survivability include a set of agreed upon themes, about who we are, what we represent, and how we see ourselves in the world.
We would remind ourselves that throughout much of our story, we were defined and labeled by popes and kings, our collective destiny and identity were theirs to construct. In modern times, we claimed our own titles and asserted our national and personal rights. But even in this moment, there is a renewed collective push-back by our enemies to again define and marginalize us as a people, seeking in the process to deny our right to self-determine our status. It is as if we have returned to 1789, when as a people we were told, “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.”
More recently, there has been a particular focus on the psychological as binding Jews together. French philosopher Georges Friedmann proposed that antisemitism would represent the common binding denominator of Jewish solidarity. But do terror and fear produce or build community? They may create a momentary alignment of individuals and institutions, acting in the defense of a people, but there is no sustaining power or message in this moment.
If in the past individual Jews were limited in the ways by which they could identify and express themselves, today there are no such restraints. Today, the power of choice, most certainly evident in the American Jewish context, has given each of us the opportunity to redefine his/her place in society.
We would note that the demise of the collective Jewish experience aligns with the broader decline of religion across the Western world and the correlary loss of trust in leadership and established institutions of state and faith.
In our times, competing identities and differing perceptions of what it is to be a Jew and how one is to negotiate the Jewish experience are allowing us to rewrite our narrative. Assimilation and intermarriage are contributing to this undoing of the communal storyline. We can no longer identify ourselves as part of a single community, as we have become a community of communities.
Division and dissent have replaced the mutual bounds focused on building the Jewish national enterprise. Correspondingly, there is a paralysis of leadership that defines many of our institutions, stuck in time and held hostage by the same cadre of entrenched actors, their relevancy becomes questionable and their roles increasingly minimal.
But many of the seeds of our collective demise can be seen in the wars raging amongst us. How some of us live or pray is being questioned? Whom some of us chose to love has come under attack. We are labeled “anti-Zionists” should we criticize the Jewish state, while others of us are defined as “not Jewish” as our halachic credentials appear wanting.
Many folks have simply walked away, finding the contemporary Jewish experience problematic and unwelcoming, even dysfunctional.
Today, the power of the collective story of a “kingdom of priests and holy people” is giving way to sets of personal tales. If we were about the communal as both defining our identity and giving meaning to our personhood, now we are about the celebration of the individual. The sovereign self has replaced the collective Jewish message, most certainly this is the case for many Gen Z and Millennials.
Who inspires each of us in this current environment? Where do we draw our heroes and heroines? No longer are we bound only to the pages of Jewish history to find our inspiration but now the images of courageous leadership come from social media and more. What ignites us to do social justice, once such motivations were drawn exclusively from the prophetic tradition, today other voices are bringing us to these platforms of action.
Nor should this undoing of the collective Jewish experience necessarily be seen as problematic. In its wake we see the unleashing of an extraordinary reservoir of Jewish creativity. We may be in the midst of one of the most productive, constructive periods of personal Jewish inquiry. The power of this Jewish moment rests with each of us.
We build today from the bottom up, in contrast to the top-down model of an earlier moment in time. The opportunity here is to encounter each person within his or her place. In this new emerging reality, everyone represents a potential Jew. Judaism has now become a part of the marketplace of ideas, with an array of themes, experiences and platforms transforming the Jewish brand. The seekers are our potential consumers, the unchurched, our new audiences, just as the alienated Jew has the capacity to uncover his or her personal Jewish journey. In this altered scenario, Judaism can play a profound role in the shaping of our society and informing our lives.
Now, one hundred years later, we are possibly moved by Buber’s words, “Man has been appointed to this world as an originator of events as a real partner in a dialogue with God.” Now we are operating as individual actors on the global stage, inspired by Jewish tradition and history but nonetheless acting as solo practitioners, yet still seeking in the end to perfect the world!
*Excerpts of this paper were presented to the 32nd Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Strasbourg France, June 2022.
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
Interim Director of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management and
Professor Emeritus of Jewish Communal Studies
Jack H. Skirball Campus: HUC-JIR, Los Angeles