What is the future of the Jewish people and Jewish identity as we advance into the 21st century? What unites us as a people? What changes will we need to make socially, psychologically, and religiously to adapt to the challenges that this century will bring? Tsvi Bisk has some answers.
This is the fifth post in the Bronfman Big Idea Series.
About the Author
Tsvi Bisk is the director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking and the author of a new book, The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century, as well as Futurizing the Jews: Alternative Futures for Meaningful Existence in the 21st Century.
Tsvi is also this week’s featured guest on Ha’aretz’s Rosner’s Domain, where he answers questions about Jewish identity and continuity. After reading his proposal here, head over and check it out.
Covenant with the Future by Tsvi Bisk
Two polls have justifiably alarmed the Jewish people.
- In Israel, about 50% of young people polled identified themselves as primarily Israeli rather than Jewish
- In the United States, close to 50% of Jews under the age of 35 indicated that they would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy
These two indicators taken together cast doubt on the very future of the Jewish people. This being the case the formulation of concepts and practical programs dealing with how Jewish life might look in the future must be our top priority.
The project I envision– Covenant with the Future– will attempt to do just that. That Jews need a covenant with their future if we wish to survive and flourish. We must “futurize” Jewish civilization and in order to do that we must “futurize” Jewish thinking.
The working assumptions of this proposal are that:
- The Jewish past and Jewish tradition are no longer identifying elements of Jewish identity and might even be divisive for ever-growing numbers of young Jews in Israel and other communities around the world
- Two objective trends are serving to exacerbate Jewish identity: globalization and ever increasing rates of change (where real time change constantly erodes the unifying force of tradition)
- Only visions of a common Jewish future can be a unifying force– visions that contain practical projects (modern mitzvot) that enable young Jews from every part of the Jewish identity spectrum to work together on projects that have universal human consequences, but are yet unframed within a Jewish value system. This would be our Covenant with the Future
The Challenge: Judaism– From Civilization to Space Age Civilization
By the end of the 21st century, it is probable that humanity will have explored the entire solar system either directly or by robotics. Small scientific outposts will probably have been established on various planets and moons on larger planets. Substantial portions of human economic activity– from mineral extraction to tourism to new methods of generating energy– will have become extra-terrestrial.
If historical precedent is any indicator, we must assume that a disproportionate number of Jewish individuals will participate in these developments.
This transformation of human life– from being limited to the crust of the planet earth to being integrated into the entire solar system as its new “natural” environment– will have profound cultural, psychological, and spiritual consequences. Every legacy civilization, religion, philosophical system will be challenged as never before by this new reality. Some will adapt, integrate into and contribute to its development. Others will fail and pass from history.
What will be the fate of the Jews? How will we adapt? What survival strategies must we develop– socially, economically, politically, and spiritually? What will it mean to be Jewish as human civilization begins to settle and explore our solar system?
Why should one even care about the continuation of the Jews as a civilization? What will this new Jewish civilization contribute to humanity– to the Jews? Can it even contribute to the Jews if it does not first contribute to humanity? What will be the interim stages and how will they be manifested?
We can rise to this challenge through an “imagineered” overview of possible futures of human history and the place of the Jews in those possible futures by applying with the most stringent standards of futurist and policy making research. It will be informed by Mordechai Kaplan’s approach of Judaism as a civilization coming to terms with the new human reality being created in the 21st century.
Creating a Unifying Meta-Identity in the 21st Century
The project will relate to Judaism as a practical life system rather than an abstract theology. On the basis of the above-mentioned future analyses, it will suggest practical strategies and mitzvot for living in the new emerging global reality. It will be an attempt to formulate a unifying meta-identity for an increasingly diverse Jewry on the background of ever growing identity differentiation.
Sixty years ago you might have lived in New York, Paris, Tel Aviv, London, Buenos Aires, or Antwerp, but you or your parents were from Pinsk or Warsaw or…! And even if you weren’t, when you met Sephardic or Yemenite Jews, you had enough knowledge of synagogue procedure and Jewish tradition to develop mutual empathy.
In Israel today, what do Ethiopian, Haredi, Russian Jews, and 3rd generation kibbutz sabras and development town residents have in common? In the Diaspora, what do Jews from Argentina, San Francisco, and Paris have in common? What do agnostic Jews have in common with the Haredim? What is the force unifying gay Jews, children of “Yordim” [Israelis living outside Israel], and Jewish children of mixed marriages, such as the 45% of those on college campuses who still identify as Jews?
I believe that only inspiring visions of the future can provide the unifying bond of Jewish identity. Like Zionism in the first decades of Israel’s existence, these visions must be capable of uniting the varied and diverse elements of the Jewish people around practical/actionable projects to create a new sense of Jewish citizenship that spans the globe.
Such projects must coincide with world trends and contribute to all of humanity. They must be concrete, doable projects, each of which alone can have a transformative potential, and each of which alone could justify this proposal.
Fixing the Present Situation is Not Enough
Mordechai Kaplan’s approach had significant influence on the course of Jewish history in the 20th century. But it was facilitated by two objective historical realities:
- The reality of America’s dynamic non-sectarian civil society which after World War II almost compelled inter-ethnic and inter-religious cooperation. This essentially forced the intra-ethnic and intra-religious cooperation of the Jewish people
- The unifying project of developing Israel, which after the Holocaust became of almost transcendent importance to the vast majority of the Jewish people
These two historical realities– intra-Jewish group cooperation and Israel as a unifying force– are in an advanced stage of erosion in the first decade of the 21st century.
Israel has become increasingly divided internally (for both religious and political reasons) and this is reflected in growing divisions with the Diaspora (both in regards to feelings about Israel as well as their own internal divisions).
American society is more divided than at any time since the end of the Jim Crow era. This divisiveness has divided the Jewish intellectual class into neo-cons[ervatives] and traditional liberals. This divisiveness along with evangelical support for the right wing in Israel has contributed to the erosion of traditional liberal Jewish support for Israel (as militant evangelicalism has become a major player in American divisiveness in general).
As a consequence, Israel is no longer a unifying force for growing numbers of young Diaspora Jews. And given the internal divisions within Israel regarding Haredi entitlements and the settlements it is less and less a unifying force for itself.
There is also a growing generational differentiation regarding the Holocaust. Within the next 10 years, the last survivor and the last murderer will have died. The Holocaust will increasingly become a symbolic event like the Exodus from Egypt or the Inquisition and expulsion from Spain.
Its gut wrenching immediacy will fade. Generations will arise “who knew not one survivor.” As with Israel, Holocaust remembrance will not have the unifying power it once had.
Products of this Project
In light of all of the above, the Covenant with the Future would be a multi-dimensional project with the following objectives:
- Design possible models of Futures Studies to be introduced into existing Jewish Studies Programs and make it a core theme of Jewish policy making it a core theme of Jewish policy making. One of the great ironies of modern Jewish life is that some of the foremost pioneers of futurology were Jews– Kahn, Toffler, Polak, and others– yet futures thinking has not penetrated Jewish policy making. This is despite the fact that Zionism was the quintessential futurist political/cultural movement. Herzl’s The Jewish State and Old New Land were futurist scenarios. Ben Gurion, Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Rabbi Bar Ilan were all “futurists” in that the full force of their intellect adn imagination were focused on the future. Yet in recent years, we seem to have turned our back on the future
- Design a new model of interaction between Israel and non-Israeli Jewish communities. What I call multi-node interactions, as opposed to the two node concept of Israel-Diaspora– a multiplicity of Jewish centers (not Diasporas) interacting across a global network of constructive Jewish activity
- Develop a menu of Jewish/universal projects that take the concept of leveraging from the private sector– what I have termed multi-dimensional/multi-purpose projects. The Jewish Energy Project (described in a chapter of my recent book, The Optimistic Jew, as well as several articles) would be an example of this. These national-universal projects should be “sold” as modern manifestations of the biblical injunction to be a “Light Unto the Gentiles”
- NOTE: To learn more about this concept, read: “Guest Author Tsvi Bisk Asks, ‘What if One Billion Dollars a Year Were Used to Buy Israeli Alternative Energy Technology?'”
- Such projects would strive to involve previously disinterested Jews in Jewish activity and to serve as a platform for cooperation with non-Jewish groups, including ones that are at present not friendly to Israel or to the organized Jewish community. Here I would try to formulate pilot projects during my two-year tenure using Brandeis students and faculty as starting points. The aim would be to reconstruct ground-up movements (much like the Committees of Correspondence during the Revolutionary War– but this time based on the internet)
- Mining the tradition: searching the sources for those nuggets of wisdom that implicitly contain some of the building blocks of our new “imagineered” future– or which could be so reinterpreted by the imaginative mind, perhaps even sowing the seeds of a “Philosophy of Jewish Futurism,” derived as much as possible from the Jewish tradition
- A practical strategy of how current Jewish organizations (legacy and internet-based) can help construct a new futures oriented reality and develop a cadre of Jewish futurists to develop and expand the field through the “fan effect”
- All of the above elements will appear as parts or chapters of the final product, a book entitled Covenant with the Future
- Young– from hi-tech to new age to atheistic to religious– Israeli and Diaspora alike
- Jewish organizations and policy makers
- The new “under the radar” virtual Jewish communities and alternative Jewish organizations
- Disaffected Jews on college and university campuses
Just as Birthright celebrates and encourages an appreciation of the Jewish past, so will Covenant with the Future strive to stimulate enthusiasm for potential Jewish futures. Without positive visions for our future, we wander blindly– with our past as a burden rather than an inspiration.
So what do you think of these ideas? Are they valuable? How could these plans be further developed to meet your needs more fully? What are your reactions and thoughts?
We can’t wait to hear your comments.
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