Sunday, August 07, 2005

The end of Jewish history

Strange column from Andrew Silow-Carroll in the NJJN, in which he argues that
we have entered an uncertain era in which most if not all of the major Jewish agenda items have been resolved. Or, as I put it, “What’s the Jewish agenda for a people who lack an agenda?”.... I [am] merely pointing out that the organized Jewish world seems in search of an enterprise around which the majority of American Jews could rally.... When I say Jewish agenda — at least in these secular, post-assimilationist times — I mean the kinds of movements that have inspired Jews en masse. Such movements — Zionism, the absorption of immigrants in America and Israel, the fight against anti-Semitism, or the redemption of Jewish captives the world over — energized and rallied Jews without regard to their particular commitment to Torah.
Hold on -- all the major Jewish agenda items have been resolved??? How about that little item about our very survival -- whether, in 50 years, thanks to intermarriage, assimilation, lack of education and involvement, etc. there will even be a major Jewish community to set an agenda?
To support this question (although in my mind, confusing the issue), Silow-Carroll asks an even more dubious -- but rather more interesting -- one: is this the end of Jewish history?

There is barely a Jewish population in need of rescue, perhaps for the first time in history. The big social issues — the role of women and gays, reactions to the intermarried, and the need for dialogue among the denominations — have been largely resolved, or at least the vast majority of Jews are able to find communities in which those issues have been resolved to their satisfaction.
Despite talk of a “New Anti-Semitism,” few if any Jews in the West meet the kinds of impediments that blocked generations of Jews in education, the professions, housing, and social life. If anything, according to foes of intermarriage, gentiles are loving us to death.
I’ve compared this resolution of the big Jewish issues of the 20th century to political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s famous pronouncement of the “end of history” — the idea that liberal democracy had ultimately triumphed over all the other isms. Fukuyama did not assert that the world would be free from conflict, but rather that “there would be no further progress in the development of underlying principles and institutions, because all of the really big questions had been settled.”
The obvious contradiction to the idea of the “end of Jewish history” is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which feels never-ending. But even there, the two-state solution has become a consensus position in Israel and beyond. (Put it this way: When was the last time you read an essay that staked out a new position on the conflict?) What’s going on in Israel is no longer a clash of ideas — it is a showdown between the will of the majority and what Fukuyama has called a “series of rearguard actions from societies whose traditional existence is indeed threatened by modernization.”
To my mind, the end of Jewish history (in the sense Fukuyama talks about the end of history) was declared some 2,000 years ago, when Rabbinic Judaism came into being.
But, to approach this question on Silow-Carrol's terms, I question whether, as a nation, we really have settled the big questions and whether there really will be "no further progress in the development of underlying principles and institutions." Sure, at the moment there is a place somewhere on the spectrum for everyone -- but there are significant doubts as to whether one, possibly two of the major denominations, Reform and Conservative, are even viable in the long-term (demographically -- as a result of their own internal contradictions). Can movements which still have to prove whether they can even survive possibly be said to have 'triumphed' over anything else?

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