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On its face, the subject of Judaism and Jewish identity should not count for much in the world. There are worldwide some 1.9 billion Christians and 800 million Muslims, as against a mere twelve million Jews. Throughout the Diaspora, Jews are a tiny minority surrounded by large non-Jewish cultures. In the Middle East, Israel is a tiny country surrounded by a vast constellation of Arab states. We are less than a quarter of a percent of the population of the world. In terms of numbers our influence should be minimal.

Yet I dare to say that Jews and Judaism are of interest and even influence in a way that cannot be accounted for in terms of numbers alone. No one put this better than the American writer Milton Himmelfarb, who said: “Each Jew knows how thoroughly ordinary he is; yet taken together we seem caught up in things great and inexplicable. . . . The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers. Big things seem to happen around us and to us.”

Let me begin my account, if not at the beginning of Jewish time, at least at the beginning of modern Jewish time: 1789, the year of the French Revolution and the birth of the modern secular nation-state. On August 26 the French National Assembly issued its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, with its ringing opening assertion, “All men are born, and remain, free and equal in rights.” The question was: Did that include Jews? Were Jews free? Were they equal? Were they citizens? Were they men?

The questions were real. At the very time of the Declaration anti-Jewish riots broke out in Alsace, the first and ominous indication that the secular nation-state might not end anti-Jewish sentiment, but merely secularize it into a new mode, to be given (in 1879) the name “anti-Semitism.” Later in 1789, speaking in a debate on the eligibility of Jews for citizenship, the Count of Clermont-Tonnerre spelled out in a fateful sentence the terms on which Jews could be included in the new political dispensation. “The Jews,” he said, “should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.” “It is intolerable,” he continued, “that the Jews should become a separate political formation or class within the country. Every one of them must individually become a citizen; if they do not want this, they must inform us and we shall then be compelled to expel them.”

Thus was born what eventually became known as der Judenfrage, the “Jewish question,” whose relatively innocent formulation gave rise, in 1941, to the Endlosung, the Final Solution. The theory and terminology came from Germany. Some of the mythology, specifically the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, came from Russia. But it was in France, a century after the Revolution, that a Viennese journalist, Theodore Herzl, covering the Dreyfus trial, came to the conclusion that there was no future for the Jews in Europe and that the secular nation-state, far from ending anti-Semitism, had in fact given it a new and potentially terrible rebirth; and that there was no future for the Jewish people unless they constructed a nation-state of their own.

I go back to 1789 because contemporary discussions of Jewish life—issues like outmarriage, Jewish continuity, and Israel-Diaspora relations—often seem to me to lack depth because they lack a sense of historical background. And there is an historical reason for this, namely, that the world’s two greatest Jewries, Israel and the American Jewish community, are themselves relatively recent phenomena. Until 1840, almost 90 percent of the Jewish world was to be found in Europe. Even more significantly, the Jews who made the journey to America or Israel did so precisely to forget Europe, to break away from its prejudices and disabilities, and to discover, or make, a new life in a new world. The strange contemporary blindness to Jewish history was born in a specific rebellion against Jewish history—a history that could be written in terms of wanderings and expulsions, inquisitions and pogroms, martyrdoms and exclusions, the powerlessness and homelessness of “the wandering Jew.”

It is for this reason that we cannot understand where we are unless we first understand how we came to be here. Israel cannot be understood as simply a secular democratic state on the European model, or American Jewry as a typical version of American pluralism and denominationalism. These are part, but only part, of the Jewish story. The Israeli and American Jewish communities still carry within them the pains and tensions of the European Jewish experience, and even today they are shaped by what they were created to forget.

The modern Jewish experience was characterized by two phenomena. The first is that Jews were, to use John Murray Cuddihy’s phrase, “latecomers to modernity.” There was no long pre-history, such as occurred in Christian Europe, of Renaissance, Reformation, the Wars of Religion, and the birth of Enlightenment. Jews were thrust late into a complex set of challenges—the intellectual challenge of Enlightenment, the political challenge of Emancipation, and the social challenge of integration. What Jews believed, how they lived, and how they organized themselves came under sudden and concerted attack—sometimes in the name of progress, sometimes in the form of prejudice”and after centuries of exclusion from the mainstream of European culture they were radically unprepared for it. This alone would have constituted a crisis of massive proportions for the continuity of Jewish faith.

It was, nonetheless, the lesser of two crises. The other, whose significance it is impossible to overstate, was the double bind modernity itself placed on European Jews, giving rise to the phenomenon eventually termed “Jewish self-hatred.” The results were summed up by Max Nordau in his speech to the First Zionist Congress. The “emancipated Jew in Western Europe,” he said, “has abandoned his specifically Jewish character, yet the nations do not accept him as part of their national communities. He flees from his Jewish fellows, because anti-Semitism has taught him, too, to be contemptuous of them, but his Gentile compatriots repulse him as he attempts to associate with them. He has lost his home in the ghetto, yet the land of his birth is denied to him as his home.” Much has changed since those words were spoken a hundred years ago, but we still live with their consequences.

The Enlightenment presented European Jews with a messianic promise and a demonic reality. The promise was a secular and rational order in which anti-Jewish prejudice would be overcome and Jewish civil disabilities abolished. The reality was that the more Jews became like everyone else, the more irrational and absolute became the prejudice against them: they were capitalists, they were communists, they were too provincial and parochial, they were too rootless and cosmopolitan, they kept to themselves, they got everywhere, they were disloyal, they were suspiciously over-loyal. The more assimilated they became, the more anti-Semitism grew.

The history of nineteenth-century Jewry is the tale of a dozen different attempts to find a way out of this trap from which there was no way out. The extreme response was a flight from Jewish identity through outmarriage, conversion to Christianity, or, wherever possible, the declaration that one was religionless. Among those who shrank from the conclusion that Jews could survive only by ceasing to be Jews, there was significant difference between Western and Eastern Europe. The Count of Clermont-Tonnerre had asked Jews to decide whether they were individuals or a nation”in other words, whether Judaism was a private religious confession or whether Jewry was essentially a collective entity, a people. Historically, of course, the answer was both; but the new European nation-state no longer permitted that reply.

In general, the Jews of Western Europe decided in favor of Judaism as religion-without-peoplehood, those of Eastern Europe in favor of Jewry as peoplehood-without-religion. Hence there emerged in the nineteenth century a set of entirely new constructions of Jewish identity: in the West, Reform and Conservative Judaism, in the East, the movements for Jewish culture and even political autonomy in the Pale of Settlement. As these failed in their aims of normalizing Jewish existence, there emerged perhaps the greatest revolution in modern Jewish life, the Zionist movement, less an ideology than a collection of conflicting ideologies, some secular, some religious, some political, some cultural, some attempting to restore ancient traditions, others determined to destroy them completely and build a totally new kind of Jew.

The First Zionist Congress took place in 1897. A century later, we inhabit a Jewish world in which in one sense everything has changed, and in another, nothing has changed. During the twentieth century, some of the most epic events in Jewish history have taken place: the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel, and the transfer of Jewish life from Europe to Israel and America. But the divisions in Jewish life today are almost exactly what they were a hundred years ago—between religious and secular, between Orthodoxy and Reform, and between those who see a Jewish future only in Israel and those who see a continuing role for the Diaspora. Between the first and the eighteenth centuries, with very few exceptions, a single Judaism prevailed—the Judaism of the Mishnah and Talmud that today we call Orthodoxy. In the twentieth century, there has been no new Judaism. Even the apparent exception, the Reconstructionism of Mordecai Kaplan, was only a translation into the American context of the earlier ideas of Ahad Ha-am. So the immense diversity of answers to the question “Who and what is a Jew?” all had their origin in a single century and continent: nineteenth-century Europe.

In 1897, Orthodox Jews believed that Reform would disappear: it was only a way-station on the road to total assimilation. Reform Jews believed that Orthodoxy would disappear: it was wholly incongruous with the modern world. Zionists believed the Diaspora would disappear: it was threatened equally by seduction and rape, assimilation and anti-Semitism. The non-Zionists believed that the hope of Jewish nationhood would disappear: the task of reviving an impulse buried for eighteen centuries was simply too great. We now know that every one of these predictions was wrong. Reform Judaism still exists. So does Orthodoxy. The state of Israel has been born. The Diaspora survives. Every option in Jewish life then exists today, and history has not yet delivered its verdict on any of them. The conflicts that, it was believed, would be resolved in the course of time have simply persisted and if anything grown in their intensity.

It is difficult to predict which of the conflicts will be the most damaging—between Israel and the Diaspora, between secular and religious Israelis, or between Orthodox and Reform Jews outside Israel. Each of these groups denies the other’s definition of reality; and the possibilities of dialogue are severely limited. Each rift has the potential of dividing Jewry irreparably into two. Four years ago I published a book on Jewish unity entitled One People? Several friends in the United States wrote to me to say that it was a brave analysis but already too late. In America, in their view, Jews were no longer a single people. That has been the view of many Israelis about their own society for some time.

I am deeply concerned about these divisions, especially in Israel, for an obvious reason. The Jewish people has often been threatened by hostile civilizations, from ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome to the Third Reich and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. But the most fateful injuries have been those the Jewish people has inflicted on itself: the division of the kingdom in the days of the First Temple, which brought about the eventual defeat of both halves and the loss of ten of the twelve tribes; and the internecine rivalry in the last days of the Second Temple, which brought about the destruction of Jerusalem and the longest exile in Jewish—indeed, in human—history.

There have been only three periods of Jewish sovereignty in four thousand years. Two ended in and because of internal dissension. The third age of sovereignty began in 1948, and already Israeli society is dangerously fragmented. Israelis themselves tend to downplay the danger, and even after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin there has been too little effort at the highest levels to bring secular and religious groups together into some mode of mutual understanding. I believe this is a grave mistake, and I have said so to successive Israeli Prime Ministers and Presidents. To survive, Israel must be not only a medinah but also a chevrah, not only a state but also a society. The democratic process alone does not guarantee the existence of the body politic; it needs in addition some minimal shared culture and identity. Israel at war is defined by its enemies. Israel in pursuit of peace is less easily defined, and more difficult to govern. That surely must be one concern for the future.

Beyond the question of Jewish unity there is another contemporary anxiety, namely, Jewish continuity. Jewish continuity is seen as a problem, first, in demographic terms. Jewish communities in the Diaspora are in decline, relative to Israel, relative to the larger societies of which they are a part, and even in absolute numbers. Continuity is seen, second, as a problem of outmarriage, most notably in the United States, where the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showed that of young Jews who had married since 1985, 52 percent had been outmarriages where the non-Jewish spouse failed to convert. It is seen, third, as a problem specifically of the Diaspora, for the obvious reason that Israel has grown and outmarriage is not a significant problem in a country where Jews form a majority of the population. The problem is seen, fourth, in terms of the classic theory of the nation-state, whether in its American or Israeli version. The American version is called the “melting pot,” for the United States is the place where immigrant communities inevitably assimilate. The Israeli version is called shlilat hagolah, negation of the Diaspora, which maintains that Jews can survive only within a predominantly Jewish society and culture.

I find these characterizations inadequate. The problem of Jewish continuity is not first and foremost demographic. There were times, most notably after the Spanish expulsion, when the Jewish population fell to one-sixth of what it is today, yet the same concerns were not expressed about the future survival of Jews and Judaism. Nor is it simply a problem of outmarriage. It is a problem also of non-marriage, late marriage, and low birthrates. Nor, as recent research by Charles Liebman and Steven M. Cohen has shown, is outmarriage evenly distributed within the Jewish community. Reanalyzing the data of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, and categorizing Jews as actively, moderately, loosely, or disengaged, they discovered that the outmarriage figures in these four sectors were as follows: among the actively engaged, 5 percent, among the moderately engaged, 10 percent, among the loosely engaged, 19 percent, among the disengaged, 49 percent. Outmarriage is thus only a symptom of the larger problem of disaffiliation.

More controversially, I would argue that the problem of continuity is global and affects Israel no less than the Diaspora. In the past few years, several surveys of young Israelis have shown an alarming lack of knowledge of and interest in the Jewish heritage. This has translated itself into a significant body of Israeli thought known as post-Zionism, which would see Israel not as a Jewish state but as medinat kol ezrachehah, a “state of all its citizens,” requiring abandonment of the Law of Return, rewriting of the national anthem, and severing links, not only with Jews worldwide, but also with Israel’s biblical past and Judaic culture. There is collective as well as individual assimilation; and what appears in the Diaspora in the form of outmarriage appears in Israel in the form of secularization.

If therefore the problem is global, it is not to be understood in terms of the dynamic of the nation-state. Jews in the Diaspora do not inevitably disappear. Even a moderate degree of religious observance or communal affiliation guards against outmarriage. And even a state in which the majority of inhabitants are Jews does not of itself ensure the continuity of Judaism. I therefore come back to my earlier analysis. The problem of Jewish continuity was born, not recently, but in the early days of the Jewish encounter with modernity. The most acute remark was made by Mordecai Kaplan in the opening sentence of his 1934 book Judaism as a Civilization: “Before the beginning of the nineteenth century all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden.” I would put it more pointedly still. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jews defined themselves as the people loved by God. Since then most Jews, wittingly or unwittingly, have defined themselves as the people hated by Gentiles. No burden, especially the burden of being hated, is something decent people want to see handed on to their children. That is why we have had so few Jewish children.

Consider the most salient definitions of Jewish identity today. In Israel, as expressed by writers such as Amos Oz, it consists in living in a secular democratic state guided by the principles of the Enlightenment. In the United States, in a famous survey conducted in Los Angeles in 1988, in answer to the question, which qualities do you consider most important to your Jewish identity, 59 percent replied “a commitment to social equality.” A mere 17 percent chose “religious observance.” Nothing could be more striking than the fact that a people whose very reason for being in the past was to be different, chosen, particular, should today define itself in purely universalist terms, forgetting—surely not accidentally—that it is precisely in our particularity that we enter and express the universal human condition. I am reminded of the remark of the late Shlomo Carlebach after a lifetime of visiting American campuses: “I ask students what they are. If someone gets up and says, I’m a Catholic, I know that’s a Catholic. If someone says, I’m a Protestant, I know that’s a Protestant. If someone gets up and says, I’m just a human being, I know that’s a Jew.”

The seminal Jewish experience for the past two centuries has been the flight from particularity, and both the Israeli and American Jewish communities are its heirs. Most Jews did not set themselves the self-conscious goal of ceasing to be Jews or ensuring that their children would not be Jews, whether through conversion or outmarriage or other forms of disaffiliation. But they set themselves two other goals, one more modest, the other more radical. The first was to be less conspicuous as Jews. Hence Sidney Morganbesser’s wonderful definition of Jewish identity as incognito ergo sum. In the Diaspora that involved lowering the ritual content of Jewish life. In Israel it involved the pursuit of a new identity kechol hagoyim, “like all the nations.” The second was to work for a world where religious differences no longer made a difference. Hence the essentially antireligious liberalism that runs like a thread through Jewish intellectual life from Spinoza to Amos Oz and Alan Dershowitz.

What is remarkable about both the Israeli and American Jewish communities is that in both countries Jews are markedly more secular than their Christian or Muslim neighbors. For four thousand years Jews were a people in search of God. Today Jews, more than any other group in the Western world, are a people trying to escape from God. Given the pain and tragedy of Jewish life for the past two centuries, indeed the past two millennia, that is not surprising. But it suggests that the crisis of Jewish continuity is due not to the failure, but precisely to the success, of Jewish strategies. As the Talmud records of a much earlier crisis in Jewish life, during the Hadrianic persecutions, “By rights we should issue a decree not to get married and have children, and let the seed of Abraham come to an end of its own accord.” What Jewry faces today is a failure of the will that sustained our ancestors across the generations: the willingness to be human by being different and thus testifying to the dignity of difference.

What is likely to be the outcome? I don’t know. There is a difference between prediction and prophecy, just as there is a difference between optimism and hope. Certainly in the immediate future the Diaspora will decline in numbers. In Israel and America, Orthodoxy will grow. Other groups will feel threatened by this growth, and there may be angry confrontations. Israel’s dependence on financial and political support from the Diaspora will diminish, but it is already minimal, and rightly so, because no sovereign state should have its domestic policies determined by those who do not live there. It may well be that Israel and the Diaspora will drift apart politically. That will worry those who see the relationship as primarily political. It will give less concern to those who do not.

Speaking personally, though I am not an optimist, I am nonetheless full of hope. I see a new generation of Jews emerging, for the first time in many generations, with an undamaged, uncomplicated sense of Jewish identity. They recognize Judaism’s spiritual power and moral grandeur. They are searching for personal meaning, moral guidance, and stability and structure in their lives. They have been touched by the outreach movements, and they are beginning to reconnect with Jewish observance and talmud Torah, the study of Jewish texts. Almost every adult education program we run in Britain is today oversubscribed, and there is a huge demand for new Jewish day schools.

This new generation, though personally committed to Orthodoxy, is far less interested in waging war with Reform”it is more secure, less easily threatened, more interested in opening the source of Judaism to everyone than in building defensive walls. At long last it has moved beyond the vicarious sources of Jewish identity—anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and support for Israel—toward a genuine personal encounter with the elements of Judaism that made it a source of inspiration for a hundred generations: its love of family, community, education, and philanthropy, its way of translating abstract ideals into simple daily practices: kashrut, Shabbat, the sanctity of family life, the choreography of kedushah, of Jewish holiness and difference.

Demographically, Diaspora communities will continue to decline for a while, but they will reach a plateau and then begin to grow again. We know from all recent research that the single greatest influence on whether we will have Jewish grandchildren is religious observance in the home: our British data suggest that this outweighs any other influence by a factor of at least five to one. Even a simple act like lighting candles on Friday evening makes a difference. There is a core of committed Jews in all major Diaspora Jewries, and they will not decline in numbers. The Diaspora is not about to disappear.

The Jewish community in the United States, however, may have to rethink its approach to politics. The American Jewish community is unusual in that it has predicated its influence, whether on Washington or Israel, on demographic and financial power. Politically it has acted as a pressure group. The European Jewish model was quite different. It used the instrumentalities of shtadlanut, personal relationships and informal influence, neither of which depends on the numerical size of the community. American Jews may have to relearn this style.

The American Jewish community will continue to have an influence on Israel in the way it has in the past, which is not always the way it thinks it has. Its real contribution has not been money, or the sway it has exercised over American foreign policy, but the people who have gone to live there. Two of the most significant developments in Judaism this century—the Hesder yeshivot and the Ba’al Teshuvah yeshivot (religious seminaries for those who serve in Israel’s armed forces, and those who are returning to tradition)”have largely been led by American rabbis who live and work in Israel.

What all of us will have to relearn is the fundamental truth with which I began. Jewish influence has never been predicated on numbers. In the last year of his life Moses told the Israelites, “God did not set His love on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7). Jews have had an influence out of all proportion to their numbers because of their loyalty to God, their commitment to a morally ordered society built on justice and compassion, and their courage in being true to their heritage while enhancing the lives of others. That, said Moses, was our “wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.” It still is.

The idea that nearly destroyed us as a faith in the nineteenth century was that Jews could solve the problem of anti-Semitism. The truth is that only anti-Semites can solve the problem of anti-Semitism. We can be vigilant against it; but we must never internalize it and let it affect our self-identity. It is time for us to stop defining ourselves as the people hated by Gentiles. Perhaps it is even time for us to re-establish our dialogue with God.

The Holocaust and the birth of Israel, the two most significant Jewish events of the twentieth century, both had their origins in a single concept—the nation-state. It was the nation-state that gave rise to the “Jewish question,” and it was the nation-state that gave rise to the most powerful Jewish answer, namely, that Jews must have a state of their own. There is every indication that the twenty-first century, with its worldwide communications, multi national corporations, and international lobbies, will be one in which identities will no longer be defined by the nation-state. They will be both more local and more global—built around communities on the one hand, international communication on the other. Historically that is what the Jewish people has always been: a global people built around strong local communities. The Israel-Diaspora relationship will be transformed by this change. If the focus of the twentieth century was the Jewish state, in the twenty-first century it will be the Jewish people.

Just as Jews were latecomers to modernity, so we have been latecomers to postmodernity. Alone among the faith communities of the world, Jews welcomed secularization. It seemed to promise an end to religion, and therefore to religious persecution. In a sense it did—but persecution persisted, only now without the restraints of religion. Jews have been living for some time in a condition of ambivalence and trauma, ambivalence about themselves, trauma about their relationship with the world. But time heals. And the Jewish people has never failed to recover from catastrophe. We are an ancient people, twice as old as Christianity, three times as old as Islam. And if history teaches us anything it is this, that Judaism survives not by numbers but by the quality and strength of Jewish faith. We always were an obstinate people, too obstinate to let go of God, too obstinate to be defeated by history. 

Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth and author of Faith in the Future (Mercer University Press).

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