There is a passage in our Reform Jewish liturgy that states: “We are an ancient people well acquainted with sorrow.” The last part is, sadly, an understatement. But is the first phrase accurate? I am not referring to those revisionists who claim that modern Jews are unrelated to the Biblical Israelites; rather, I question whether 4,000 years of history constitutes an ancient legacy (I remind you that the year 5768 is a Biblical reckoning of the time since Creation, not precise Jewish history).
It is true we are one of the oldest religions extant: 2,000 years older than Christianity, 2,500 years older than Islam, and even older than Buddhism, by more than a millennium. But if we consider the age of the universe, the earth, or even the human species, we have barely begun. To our credit, we do not claim to have existed from time immemorial. Our own history (the Torah) traces our beginnings to Abraham (about 2,000 BCE). In the scope of human history, we really are Johnnies-come-lately.
So what’s the point? It’s really too early to say anything definitive about our relative success or failure as a people or as a civilization. We are very much in the experimental stage of our development. As such, we should proceed cautiously in making sweeping statements about what will be the best path for future survival.
As someone who believes deeply in the existence of the One and Only God and the inscrutability of that Entity, I am very reluctant to deem what is the ultimate Divine purpose. Does God want the Jewish people to continue? I dare not say.
But I do.
Indeed, that is one of the chief goals of my life: to contribute to Jewish survival and continuity. The problem, however, is I don’t know exactly how to succeed. No one does. We all have to do our utmost. That is one reason I can find potentially redemptive elements in virtually all approaches to Jewish survival: Zionism, Orthodoxy, Reform, federations, university Jewish Studies departments, Chabad, and Jewish hip-hop. Maybe one or more of these movements will be the key to our future. Or perhaps Jewish continuity depends on all of them and others.
I am, conversely, very skeptical of those who would argue that any one thing is central to Jewish success. For example, I love the city of Jerusalem on practically every level. I hope and pray it remains the capital city of Israel, and that the State of Israel will reach 60 this May and will thrive in prosperity and peace for millennia to come. But I cringe when people call Jerusalem “the Eternal Capital of the Jewish people.” Only one Entity is eternal, and that is God. Everything else partakes of finitude. The fact is that Jerusalem was not originally a Jewish city (it was captured from the Jebusites by David), and has been in Jewish control only a fraction of the 3,000 years following.
I know that Judaism has survived in exile and could again. It would, indeed, be tragic — but not fatal. There is a deep irony that one of the most often recited lines of Jewish poetry is: “How can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalms 137). That rhetorical question was part of a song of exile and it has been sung in the Diaspora and in Israel millions of times. We can sing God’s song anywhere.
Having said that, I am a dedicated Zionist and I pray and work for Israel’s survival; however, I am also open to creative solutions to the conflicts she faces. Those, as well, are yet to be determined.
It is also ironic that our daughter religions — Christianity and Islam — now each claim over a billion adherents while we have, at present, 15 or so million. Still, it is early in the game. Large numbers have never been our goal, but I would predict that over the next thousand years we might become a religion of a billion or more. Indeed, one could envision a mass conversion, for example, of liberated Chinese. Nothing need be seen as impossible.
We Jews are, at present, at the very beginning of our journey; at least that is my belief and prayer. I do not know what the Divine Plan is — I don’t think anyone does. But each of us makes decisions based on ideals and perceptions. Let us pray for the welfare of all sincere Jewish adherents and proponents of Jewish continuity. Some approaches will fail and fall to the side, but we do not know as yet which these will be. For the present, let us reach out our hands and hearts to each other — even those with whom we strongly disagree — and say to one and all: “yasher koach” — Increase strength, and “hazak uvaruh”— be fortified and blessed.