Jewish Futures

Originally appeared in the December 2014 “Shofar”
newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

What does the future fold for the Jewish people? The best answer is: who knows?

According to Jewish tradition, the last prophet was Malachi, who lived and prophesied in the 400s BCE. And since that time, though one could study the revelations already given for hints and signs of what was to come, it was nothing like a prophet with a direct line to the Hebrew god. Even Biblical books that were written after 400 BCE, like the Hellenistic philosophy-infused Ecclesiastes or the Book of Daniel which responds to pre-Maccabean persecution in the 2nd century BCE, had to be ascribed to figures living before Malachi. Thus Ecclesiastes was attributed to Solomon, Daniel set during the Babylonian Exile (mid-500s BCE), and countless other works in this period not included in the Hebrew Bible appear as “pseudepigrapha,” or “by fake authors.” The point is, we do not know the future; to recycle one of my regular jokes, for centuries Judaism has been a “non-prophet” organization.

That has not stopped us from trying to make predictions, of course; just as rabbinic prohibitions on gossip (lashon ha-ra) are in place because everyone loves to do it so much. We certainly have our modern prophets of doom, predicting that if we don’t straighten up or change everything, disaster will strike and Judaism will vanish in the United States, or even the world.  Simon Rawidowicz commented dryly in 1948 that we are the “ever-dying people,” always predicting disaster and imagining that this generation will be the last. But every time the next 50 or 100 years roll around, we are still here. Different, but still here.

I am always heartened looking at the Jewish future by considering the Jewish past. 100 years ago, who could have guessed where we would be today? Jewish settlement in Israel was tiny, and an independent state of Israel was a pipe dream. The large majority of Jews in America were poor, Yiddish-speaking immigrants, slaving away in garment factories or peddling – and they were predominantly traditional-Orthodox or else labor union-Socialist. The Jewish intermarriage rate in New York City was less than 2%. The largest Jewish city in the world was Warsaw, and there were millions of Jews living in Arab lands, where they had been for countess generations.

No one could have guessed that a century of mass migration and Holocaust and Israel and affluence and acculturation and evolution would produce the Jewish world we live in today. So I don’t put too much stock in predictions for the Jewish future, given how hard it is to simply understand the Jewish present and how we got here.

The truth is that there is no one Jewish future; there are Jewish futures that will be simultaneous. 50 or 100 years from now, there will be traditional Jews, and secular Jews, and liberal religious Jews, and intermarried Jews, and in-married Jews, and unmarried Jews, and children from all varieties of parentage and heritage who will be part of the Jewish family.  What will be, will be different, and that is as it always has been.

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