By: David M. Weinberg
Dec 26, 1999
Published in The Jerusalem Post on December 26, 1999
The much-ballyhooed rollover into the next millenium is not a Jewishly-important turning point. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to compare the Jewish people’s fortunes and challenges of one thousand years ago with ours today.
Indeed, it is quite incredible how little things have changed over the course of the millenium when looking at the *intellectual* challenges to Judaism as a belief system and to Jewishness as a peoplehood.
Firstly, the integrity and soul of Judaism is today threatened, as in the days of our ancestors, by movements who challenge the relevance of authoritative texts and received tradition.
A millenium ago, the Karaites hotly disputed the authenticity of rabbinic tradition. Fierce debates persisted through the twelfth century, drawing-in philosophical giants such as Saadia Gaon and Maimonides.
Similarly in modern twentieth century thought, very little is accepted as authoritative; every text and belief is subject to proof and disproof; to choice and disregard. And sure enough, the latest Jewish reform movements largely reject rabbinic/halachic tradition as valid or binding. The Reform Movement has even gone beyond the Karaites, rejecting the divinity and authority of the Bible itself.
Second of all, the millenium witnessed the closing of a historic debate over how Jews should relate to surrounding cultures and civilizations. Even when studying and debating Greek and Arabic philosophy 1,000 years ago, the Jews of yesteryear never dreamed of assimilating into non-Jewish society.
Jewish history of the past two hundred years, however, clearly has decided in favor of almost complete cultural and societal engagement with the non-Jewish world — for better or worse. With the exception of limited haredi factions, Jews have become radically much more involved in, and affected by, world cultural trends. The result is that we have become a significantly more diverse and confused people, with all the problematics this poses for Jewish cohesiveness and identity.
Having opened to the world, Judaism also has been profoundly affected by the complete disintegration of the hierarchical structure of pre-modern society. In the civilized world, fathers and teachers are no longer masters; women and children are no longer subordinate and obedient.
We all endorse the democratization of society. But this monumental societal shift has undercut the muscle tone of religious heritage. Any discourse, such as Jewish tradition, that builds on “authority” and “responsibility” is politically incorrect. Instead, “rights” and “personal freedoms” are paramount, even when taken to the most extreme degree.
Which brings us to Major Challenge to Judaism Number Three, at the end of this millenium: the onset of existential nihilism, a danger to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood the likes of which our ancestors never faced — not 1,000 nor 2,000 nor 3,000 years ago.
In Talmudic or medieval times, you could abandon Judaism for another religion, or trade-in one national allegiance for another. However, dropping out of any and all belief systems was unheard of.
Today, you can have a spiritual or national life and a set of moral commitments — or not. You can belong to a community, or to many communities simultaneously — or to none. You can, in fact, live in absolute pursuit of pleasure and success – as a “free-thinker” – which means that you don’t really have to *think* about anything at all.
For all its incredible advances in science, the materialistic and technological world in which we live at the turn of the millenium is overwhelmingly superficial and self-centered. There is little space for spirituality; little patience for history; and very little nostalgia for the more reflective, and thus more redeemed, intellectual zeitgeist of epochs gone by.
It is no wonder, then, that Jewish tradition, whose organizing principle is conscious commitment to a fixed code of behavior and belief, is having its troubles.
Fortunately, this gloomy picture is offset by the overwhelming improvement of the Jewish physical condition over the past 1,000 years, and the revolutionary reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in Israel.
One thousand years ago, there were no more that 1-2 million Jews in the world, mostly in the Mediterranean basin, with small pockets of community in Ashkenaz (central Europe). Generally speaking, the condition of Jews was better in Moslem lands; worse, in Christian-controlled countries.
Even after the crippling Nazi Holocaust, we Jews now number about 13 million, spread across the globe, and we benefit from boundless opportunity. Jews resident in the predominantly Christian West live in relative security; only the minority of Jews who live in Moslem/Arab lands are at peril. The establishment of the modern State of Israel has concentrated close to a majority of global Jewry in the Promised Land and revolutionized for the better the security and personal status of Jews everywhere.
This is a historic, uplifting development whose impact will be measurable only in a century’s time or more. Despite current trends, Israel can still become the repository of Jewish spirituality, morality and social consciousness mandated by the Torah and dreamt of by the prophets.
I’ll leave it to a columnist 100 or 1000 years from now to draw-up that reckoning.