Does the Future of Judaism Lie in Israel?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, is correct in pointing out that never before in Jewish history has there been a thriving Diaspora and a sovereign Israel at the same time. We live in a unique time, and there is a great deal to be thankful for.
In Europe, in spite of serious physical threats in some places, there is a lively religious and cultural Jewish life. However, many have decided to leave Europe because of increasing antisemitism that — in some cases — has proven fatal.
In North America, the main problem is rampant assimilation. Incredibly vibrant Jewish communities in many major cities cannot mask the fact that Diaspora Jews are shrinking in numbers compared to the general population and in absolute terms. The large and growing Orthodox community, with its large families, does not change the overall picture.
The former chief demographer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Sergio della Pergola, used to say that all predictions are based on the idea that present trends will continue — and present trends never do continue. That makes predictions basically futile.
The Diaspora may change, for good or ill. There could well be an awakening, in which Jews decide to affiliate in some serious fashion and re-energize Jewish life here. Jews have always been good at reinventing themselves and disappointing their enemies. Alternatively, rising antisemitism could serve as a forceful reminder that assimilation has never protected Jews, and that assuming their historical identity is the only way to live with integrity and dignity. Everything is possible in a world where the unanticipated is a governing principle of history.
At the rate that European Jews are leaving and North American Jews are assimilating, however, the inescapable conclusion is that the long term Jewish future appears to be in Israel.
Israel has grown from 600,000 Jews to six million in 70 years. Jews are marrying Jews there and raising Jewish children in a state that runs on the Jewish calendar, with Jewish festivals celebrated universally. “Shabbat Shalom” is even said by secular Jews. The Hebrew language has been reborn there and streets are named after famous Jews of history.
There is an energy and confidence in Israel, born of the miracle of a people that has returned after 2,000 years to create anew, and to build a society that is distinct and unique. It is impossible to know how this extraordinary story will develop, but for the moment there is a dynamic there that is undeniable.
The striking population growth in Israel — not just from persecuted groups, such as Ethiopian Jews, but Jews originating in North America and Europe — suggests that Jews everywhere sense that the Jewish future lies in the Jewish state.
It would be foolish to write off Diaspora Judaism. There have been Jews around the world throughout most of Jewish history, and North American Jewry at the moment is still vital and spirited in many places. But there is a feeling that we are in a period of transition, a moment when history is once again being made, or perhaps remade, in the never-ending voyage of a people perpetually renewed in unforeseen ways.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The darkness of history conceals a light. Beyond the mystery is meaning. And the meaning is destined to be disclosed.”
Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo.