STUDYING THE JEWISH FUTURE
When I began to read and think systematically about how people have studied the Jewish future, I discovered that conceptions of the future were intrinsic to many studies of contemporary Jewish communities. Ideas and ideologies of the future appeared to me to be inherent in many studies of Jewish history as well. General, underlying theories about futures, conceptions of futures, and orientations toward futures often teach us how the past and the present have been interpreted. The identification of these implicit theoretical systems is fundamental to the study and exploration of futures.
In the introduction to his provocatively titled A History of the Future
, the historian Warren Wagar wrote: “It was never my intention to predict the future. I cannot predict the future. Neither can you. I have placed my bets on a variety of outcomes. The future unveiled is not the
future but an array of possibilities. Some are offered as warnings, others as utopias. Still others are projections of observable trends.”1
The elements of the future that Wagar noted—that studying the future does not mean making predictions, that there are many possible futures, and that whereas some of these are projections of past trends, many are simply utopias or warnings—serve as abstract guidelines for my own explorations of the Jewish future. I do not predict the future of Jews and their communities but try to think through the range of issues that inform the future as it has unfolded over time and is likely to unfold in the decades ahead.
What does it mean to study the Jewish future? Studying the future means to examine the ways scholars have envisioned it, to ask how they have used their conceptions of the future to interpret past and contemporary Jewish communities, and to uncover the ideological assumptions underlying these conceptions. Studying the future requires outlining an array of possibilities and identifying some futures that are more likely than others. We cannot know with any certainty the direction in which the Jewish community is going. Even a casual acquaintance with modern Jewish history should warn us to modify our perspectives about accurate prediction. Yet Jews can steer a little better if they know where they would like to go and what hazards may be waiting during the passage. As a historian, Wagar emphasizes the futility of trying to reconstruct an “accurate” or “true” history. He reminds us that we cannot even fully “predict” the nineteenth century retroactively. All our histories are nothing more than models of a reality more complex than any human mind can encompass. Historical reconstruction is not the past itself but paintings of selected scenes of the past. So it is with the future.
Because none of us can know the full details of the past or even the present, we cannot, a fortiori, know the future. We are always in the process of rewriting history and reinterpreting the present. The unknowns of the future will be filled in by the next generation. Nevertheless, our explorations and reinterpretations of the past and the present lay the groundwork for thinking about the future. These cautions about our ability to understand the past and the present are important guidelines—indeed, humble reminders—as we think through the possible futures of Jewish communities. We are in a better position to know which futures are unlikely than to predict actual future patterns.
One theme that relates to studies of the future is the orientation one has to studying the past and the present. A central theme in my own orientation is to stress the value of comparative analysis. Most social scientists share the view that comparisons—over time, among groups, and between nations—are central to moving social science toward analysis and away from description. Our goals have been analytic and interpretive, although we often build up our analyses through rich descriptions. In studying the past, present, and future of Jewish communities, I have followed the comparative ideal. This orientation requires comparisons
among Jewish communities, between Jewish and non-Jewish communities, and within communities over time. The ideal set of comparisons involves all three—comparing Jewish and non-Jewish communities over time and in relationship to one another. Not everyone has shared this research goal. Even among those who have argued for comparisons, few have been able to meet the challenges of a comparative agenda.2
Nevertheless, I hope to demonstrate the value of such comparisons in studying the Jewish future. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Jewish communities were concentrated in the United States, Israel, and several European countries. I focus on comparing these communities, past and present, as a basis for understanding the future.
A further introductory point relates to the importance of values in my assessment of the Jewish future. My major arguments about studying the future of the Jewish communities in the United States, Israel, and Europe focus primarily on the structural conditions of people's lives. These conditions shape, first and foremost, what people do—their behavior, the families they form, the networks that define their communities, the institutions they build and sustain. Yet I also incorporate an examination of the values Jews share as part of the cement that binds them to one another and to Jewish culture. I explicitly examine some of the sources of these cultural forms in religious texts and in the context of biography. I argue that the quality of Jewish life has become the key to the future of Jewish communities. Therefore, I explore Jewish values and hence the quality of Jewish life in the contexts of Jewish communities. The multiple meanings of Jewish culture emerge in the analysis that follows. But whatever we mean by the quality of Jewish life and by the culture or values that characterize Jewish communities, those values are always anchored in the structure of social life—in its institutions and social networks. Whatever is selected, constructed, and transmitted from the total array of Jewish cultural traditions will emerge from the contexts of Jewish life in families and community institutions.
I have a set of biases about how the past and present should be understood, and therefore about what is the likely future of Jewish communities. These are largely the biases of one form of social science; they do not reflect a Jewish ideological position. Certainly I care deeply about the Jewish community. I am committed to its future in constructive ways.
But I am less attached to a particular form of Zionist ideology or a uniform religious imperative or a secular humanist tradition. I have no particular ideological ax to grind, and I have not argued that others should follow a particular theme or philosophical agenda. Indeed, I have few prescriptive policies for others, since I think each of us should find his or her own way. And the diversity of paths taken by Jewish communities should be encouraged, not lamented or neutralized through attempts to culturally construct one worldwide Jewish community or nation. I have neither a utopian vision of the Jewish future nor a particular set of policy recommendations to ensure continuity or diversity. The details of my social science biases will become obvious as my argument unfolds, but it is primarily the bias of a researcher who can take “yes” as well as “no” for an answer to the question of whether there is a future for Jewish communities in open, pluralistic societies. It is a view based on the increasing interrelationships among Jewish communities generated not only by relocations and migrations but also by diverse and symmetrical exchanges in all directions. It is a bias founded on the interconnectedness of independent communities within an interrelated, more global community. My bias within the social sciences is that of a demographer, a sociologist, and a researcher who is committed to the centrality of theory and the critical value of empirical methodologies.
Most existing analyses of contemporary Jewish communities, their histories, and their futures are guided by one of three orientations. First, there is the Zionist framework, which views Jewish communities outside the State of Israel as eroding or declining. It emphasizes the role of anti-Semitism and discrimination in worsening the quality of Jewish life and the powerful impact of assimilation in reducing Jewish commitments. The Zionist bias focuses on Jewish nationalism as a source of Jewish continuity and as a solution to the Jewish condition in the “Diaspora.” History and contemporary Jewish life are interpreted within this framework, and the Jewish future is clearly tied to the conditions of a Jewish-dominated, secular nation-state.
A second orientation emphasizes the religious basis of Jewish continuity. Judaism was the source of cohesion and values in the past and, it has been argued, should be the basis of a Jewish future. Secularization is among the many causes of a deterioration of Jewish communities.
The renewal of Jewish life therefore depends on rediscovering traditional religious values. Returning to Judaism—rediscovering or redesigning religious values—becomes, in this perspective, the challenge for a Jewish future. Spirituality and ritual observances become the protection against secularization and assimilation.
A third set of biases postulates that there is no future for Jewish ethnic values and community in the absence of discrimination. In this framework, religion is the past, and Zionism is ethnic nationalism, which will have no long-term impact on the future. Assimilation and universalism combine with individualism to cast the future without ethnic or religious distinctiveness. Rejecting both Judaism and nationalism, this orientation views (and celebrates) the Jewish future in the context of assimilation and cultural homogenization.
Selected parts of each of these three orientations inform my own orientation in studying the Jewish future. However, I reject all of these perspectives as sole guidelines for analysis. Instead, my presentation combines demographic and sociological analyses in historical and comparative perspectives. I have gone beyond the methodologies of both disciplines to search traditional Judaic texts and, in one case, an individual's biography for insights into Jewish values. These excursions border on the heretical, because I have crossed over into the humanities and beyond my competence as a social scientist researcher. I have done so cautiously and with intellectual uncertainty and discomfort. I am concerned that some of my social science readers will not appreciate this excursion into texts and biography, being fixated on empirical verification, hypothesis formation, and representativeness. I am even more concerned that historians and humanists will be dismayed by my social science empirical biases. Nevertheless, I have found these combined emphases engaging and helpful in shaping my thinking about futures.
I am sensitive to the issues of reading history and texts through the prism of the present—what some have called “presentism” or “reading history sideways.”3
So I have used texts and a biography in somewhat different ways from those who are experts on texts or ethnography, in order to highlight how these pieces of evidence might help us to understand the present. I do not study the texts and the biography as a way to understand them in their own contexts. My unease about these excursions
relates to the fundamental argument, which I have made repeatedly, that contexts count in understanding contemporary communities. How can I not place the texts and the biography in their contexts? The short answer is that I treat them not as objects to be studied in their own right but as bases for understanding core Jewish values. At a minimum, these methodological and substantive insights should pave the way for a broader understanding of the use of sacred texts and biographies in the social sciences.
My basic argument is that demographic and structural analyses are, paradoxically, essential to dispel the notion that quantitative issues lie at the heart of the challenge of future Jewish continuity. Numbers are clearly the building blocks of community. But interpretations of demographic issues are often confusing and biased by ideological preconceptions. I raise these questions first in chapter 2
in the context of broad arguments about population size and the demographic erosion associated with Jewish intermarriage. I attempt to show that intermarriage need not be a demographic threat to the Jewish future, not because it should be encouraged but rather because we need to understand the process associated with marriage and family formation in different ways. From a demographic point of view, the negative assessment of Jewish intermarriage is, I argue, misdirected and premature.
Population projections are one form of a contextualized vision of the future. Social scientists and historians have used them as a basis for estimating future population sizes and structures. The goal is rarely to estimate population size for its own sake, but to suggest possible futures. The assumption is that the size of a population has importance for families and communities, for different groups’ power and influence. Hence, the projection of the size of a population into the future becomes a basis for thinking about a changed community. Often the assumption is made that Jewish communal consensus is more likely to be generated by the “hard facts of demography” than by the more contentious areas of religion, ethnicity, and Jewish culture. I argue in chapter 3
that population projections are severely limited as a basis for studying the core themes of the Jewish future. More importantly, I stress that the “hard facts” are less “hard” and less “factual” than interpreters have made them out to be. Population projections are limited by the vision of those who
prepare them. Some projections are limited by the way people use projections to bolster their ideological arguments about the future and the present. Numbers are often intimidating to the uninitiated. I try to provide an assessment of the bases for Jewish population projections so that we will better know how they are used and can better assess their strengths and limitations.
Individual biographies inform us not about the future but about how context shapes our sense of the future. In chapter 4
, I present a biographical sketch to suggest how one person's conceptions of the future were shaped by his life course and experiences. This man's story should not be viewed as typical of Jewish biographies in the twentieth century; none of them is representative. Rather, individual biographies reveal in their details and in rich description how perspectives change as the community itself is transformed. I also think this particular biography is interesting and captures some of the central themes of Jewish history in the twentieth century. Many lessons can be drawn from this excursion. One abstract lesson is that our views of the future are powerfully influenced by the communal contexts of our changing lives. It is important to reiterate that how we think about and study the future is not fixed and inevitable. Our conceptions of the Jewish future are influenced by our framework of analysis and our experiences and are likely to change as the future unfolds. The future is not scripted and predetermined.
Texts—however esoteric—that have been defined as sacred in Judaism can help us build constructively in defining and applying Jewish values. In chapter 5
, I attempt to illustrate this process by briefly examining animal sacrifices in the Hebrew Bible and reviewing how the prophetic tradition can be used to provide new insights into the quality of Jewish life in the twenty-first century. I stress that I am less interested in the text per se than in how it can be used to reflect on contemporary Jewish values. Grounding such values in Jewish texts legitimates their use for understanding the future of Jewish communities. My emphasis on sacred texts does not necessarily mean that I am arguing for the belief in their sacredness. Rather, historical and contemporary Jewish communities have treated, and still treat, the texts as “holy.” By using biblical texts I do not want to imply that Judaism or its observance should be the primary basis for strengthening the Jewish future. That may be the case for some Jews.
But most Jews everywhere are secular, and for them religion is unlikely to be the sole or primary source of Jewish culture. Rather, I use the texts to show the value of Judaism in its ethnic and Jewish cultural context. The Hebrew Bible reveals what we read into it. That seems to me always to have been the case. My examination of its texts, therefore, is not intended to interpret them in context but to read back into them the values that Jews think are important. I read the texts sociologically. Others have read and studied the textual tradition differently. I think that is what midrash, or exegetical commentary on the Hebrew Bible, is about. Perhaps my reading can be considered a sociological midrash.
In the final chapter, I return to the themes of the Jewish future by emphasizing the emergent ethnic and cultural foundations of contemporary Jewish communities in the United States, Europe, and Israel. My objective is to move from population numbers to other patterns of distinctiveness and to argue for the salience of Jewishness in addition to, or in lieu of, Judaism. In short, I want to show the power of Jewish culture, broadly defined. My goal is not to exclude Judaism from or replace it in studies of the future, but also not to limit the future to one of religion alone. The argument and analysis are my vision not of what should be but of what I understand as the contemporary pattern and its likely future trajectory.
Having reviewed and evaluated predictions of the futures of Jewish communities in the United States, Israel, and Europe, I suggest that these predictions or assessments are part of a set of theories about the end of the Jewish people in communities outside the State of Israel—the so-called Diaspora Jewish communities. I reject the lachrymose conception of Jewish history and its application to the social scientific study of contemporary Jewish communities.4
In contrast, I present a more cheerful view of Jewish history and of the future of these communities. I am convinced that the evidence available on contemporary Jewish communities is more consistent with the latter view than with the former.
On the basis of an array of evidence, I conclude that the futures of these Jewish communities are much more secure than has been forecast in scholarly and popular publications. Not all Jewish communities, to be sure, have a positive future, but many do, and the largest are likely to have creative and distinguished futures. The key issue, I argue, is not
the quantitative survival of the Jewish people, which I assess as being secure, but the quality of Jewish life. This assessment leads me to redefine Jewish quality. I reexamine the transformation of the Jews from a community defined along religious lines to a community that is primarily ethnic, defining ethnic in broadly structural and cultural terms. I argue that it is critical to study the broader cultural anchors of the Jewish community that have become critical in defining its future. I also suggest that an examination of culture forces us to examine the structural underpinnings of community. In particular, I emphasize the contexts of interaction and communal cohesion as the bases for Jewish continuity and cultural transmission. An examination of the forms in which the networks and institutions of the Jewish community operate suggests powerful bases of communal cohesion in transformed Jewish communities.
Throughout my research on the Jewish future I have been impressed by the increasing quality of the studies being carried out on Jewish communities. Such high standards have not always been the case. When Louis Finkelstein published his monumental collection on the Jews, and when Marshall Sklare prepared the first collection of materials on the sociology of the Jews, the study of contemporary Jewish communities was the stepchild of Jewish scholarship.5
The last several decades have witnessed the publication of an enormous and rich set of studies of Jewish communities. I draw freely from these research efforts in my assessment of the Jewish future.
I have also been continuously disturbed by the uncritical uses of this research in its applied form. Policy planning is one way in which futures are manifested in the present, and the policy themes emergent in the Jewish community have been distorted by misunderstanding and ideological biases. My hope is that an alternative understanding of these patterns will generate new...