The statistics for a long time now have not been in our favor. For decades, as we all know too well, the Jewish people have been witnessing increased levels of assimilation and decreased levels of knowledge, commitment, and affiliation. This is true both with regard to the “religious” aspects of Judaism as well as toward its communal institutions and Israel.
In the past, we could always count on a regular stream of anti-Semitic events to maintain Jewish affiliation and identity. Today, “they” aren’t hating us enough, or at least consistently enough, to generate on their own a Jewish identity and sense of belonging.
One of the primary factors for the increase in intermarriage is not to be found only in a weakening of Jewish identity, but in the fact that today, for the first time in two millennia, non-Jews are open to considering marrying a Jew. In prior generations, this itself would have been an act of near insanity, something akin to saying, “I want to marry a Jew, so my children can experience a pogrom from the inside.”
In a world which is open and respectful to both Jews and Judaism, we have lost an invaluable safety net which would ensure Jews’ connection to Judaism, our people and Israel, even in the face of a lack of a positive commitment and motivation on their part.
As the numbers aren’t on our side, this has inspired many to believe that the battle is one of numbers. How do we make sure that we reach the largest number of Jews possible, with “something,” “anything”? “Something” and “anything” are better than nothing. They have the potential to create entry points and access points, which hopefully will be the beginning of new Jewish journeys.
I applaud these efforts, but I am deeply troubled at the same time. Too many of the “something and anything” programs do not fulfill their potential as the beginning of a journey. We have begun to master the art of condensing the Jewish message, so that it is communicable through a narrow bandwidth, short-term experiences, and brief social media exposures. The problem, however, is that the message, even if received, is not significant enough and compelling enough to attract ongoing interest and generate long-term commitment.
Herein lays the new Catch-22 of contemporary Jewish life: In order to reach the numbers we need, we have to dumb down our message and water down the experience. A dumbed-down and watered-down Judaism, however, cannot compete in an open marketplace of ideas. Therefore, our successes lay the foundation for our failure. At the same time, when one deepens the message and intensifies the experience, one seemingly loses the numbers game.
The Jewish people have, since our inception, been the carriers of ideas. We changed history, not as a result of our economic or military power, nor by the enormity of our numbers. It was by the depth and significance of what we stood for – a way of life permeated by important ideas and values held together and conveyed through powerful and meaningful experiences – which placed Jews and Judaism as a transformational force in human culture.
This content is not Twitter-able. The journey of a meaningful Jewish life needs a wide bandwidth. It requires knowledge, time, and commitment. If we want Judaism to have a great future, and not merely a great past, we need to set our sights higher and deeper.
How do we solve the Jewish Catch-22? Part of it is not solvable, and we have to recognize that Jewish life was not in the past, and will not be in the future only a numbers game. However, there need not be a zero-sum game between short-term programs aimed at teaching “something,” and those that give content and meaning to a more extensive Jewish journey.
The problem we face is conceptual. Too many of us, in particular those in leadership positions, have stopped thinking about the requirements of a deep and meaningful journey, relegating it to the domain of a luxury item to be nurtured when the crisis of Jewish continuity is resolved.
While catering to the unaffiliated and communicating a message which they are capable of hearing, we need also to work to increase their capability. We need to continuously increase our demands, so that Jews will increase their demands from themselves and what they demand from their tradition. We need to ensure that there is no corner of Jewish life in which an individual, regardless of their denomination, is not able to engage a Judaism of depth and experience its vitality.
In short, if we want Jews to embark on a meaningful Jewish journey, we need to ensure that such a journey is possible.
In addition, it is important to remember that throughout Jewish history, this journey was sustained by the few. The masses came and went, but what Judaism stood for was the expression of the work of an elite and the result of their commitment.
This elite was constituted by professional and lay Jews alike, numbering only in the tens of thousands, who generated ideas, modeled commitment, and built and sustained our Jewish communal institutions and organizations. They set the tone. They created the “there” of Jewish life to which the less committed could visit and receive nourishment. They are the real secret behind Jewish continuity. They both sustained the journey and served as its guides.
If we want to win the numbers game we need to stop thinking exclusively about the numbers. We need to ensure that our community continuously pushes for excellence, demands more of everyone, and provides a Judaism which can inspire the elites. Unlike others, they are willing to give us the time. For them, Jewish continuity is dependent on the quality of Jewish content. When we learn not only to act but to think in this multifaceted way, we will be laying foundations for a strong Jewish future.
We yearned for an era in which Jews would be accepted as equals; we now need to learn not to fear it. We can compete in an open marketplace of ideas. We can survive in an era of choice and develop and provide a tradition which can inspire that choice. It is dependent now on the choices we make as a community and the level of aspirations to which we strive.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Israel