What Will Become of the Jewish People?

What will become of the Jewish people of today? A new slogan, a new cry, a new point of interest is being expressed world-wide: continuity. Although it is a slightly nicer term, continuity really means a fight for survival. When one is fighting for survival, one is in very bad shape and seeks only to survive. If you are on the up-and-coming, you don’t fight for survival and you don’t speak of continuity. You are on the rise. Only when you are on the verge of death do you speak about survival and about some kind of continuity. We understand that a person who is promised by his doctors that he will survive is in a really dangerous state. You wouldn’t make such a promise to a young, vibrant person. You make it to someone who is in very bad shape, indeed.

Although we are fighting to survive, we are living in a way that shows we are losing. Not very fast – there are still too many of us to disappear completely in a short time – but we are on the way out as a people, not as individuals. I know that some people try to change this picture by juggling numbers. You can always add some numbers to the Jews. You can always say that intermarriage adds people to the Jewish nation. If someone would do such juggling with numbers in a financial report, he would land in jail. All in all, this is just a play, a scam, a fake report. To put it in a different way, we are, indeed, an endangered species, on the verge of disappearing, for all our numbers. And therefore, there is this cry for continuity.

Now, just imagine that someone has an important document which can open the gates of heaven. He takes this document and runs with it to the end of the world. When he finds he is unable to reach Heaven, he gives the document to his children. And his children go on running with it and keeping it safe, generation after generation. But with time, the words – with all the wrappings and the beautiful boxes in which the document is safeguarded – are rubbed off. The people who carry this document are no longer able to read it and the document itself becomes a faded manuscript. Later on, it is reduced to a mere piece of paper – and even this piece of paper is rotting. And the generations still take this heritage and try to carry it on.

Now, just imagine, after some time, the people who carry this empty box that had once contained that very precious manuscript will discover that they are running very hard and very fast carrying nothing. And so they will stop running.

Now, in one way or another, this is what is happening to us. The inscription has faded from our lives. Some of us still speak about the “message.” But we no longer know what it is. Not only are we unable to read it, the message is obliterated entirely. We just have an empty shell, and even this shell is no longer intact. So we go on, but for how long does it make sense to run with such an empty thing?

We speak about continuity and about passing on our Judaism to the next generation. What is this Judaism? In many cases, it is an empty word that doesn’t contain anything at all. It is what we call in mathematics a zero group, a notion that contains nothing whatsoever. So, why and for how long can one run carrying it and trying to transmit it to others? That is the essence of the problem – the loss of the inner sense. But there is something else I would like to address, not in a more optimistic vein, but possibly in a more challenging one.

A people cannot “just go on.” Individuals can struggle for personal survival. But for a people that knows that it has lost, a struggle for mere survival seems just silly. Survival for what? If I am going to lose anyway, if I am going to die in a generation, or in two generations – there are all kinds of demographic calculations – why go to the effort of trying to make my own children miserable when my grandchildren will already forget all about Judaism? Why go on? If you lack not just hope for survival, but hope for something greater in the future, you cannot go on fighting. With only a past and no future, you cannot go on.

I know that for many people, the State of Israel is a vicarious answer for unsolved problems. But you cannot go on living vicariously; it makes no sense. Just as I cannot eat for someone else, I cannot sleep for someone else – and no one wants me to beget his children for him – I also cannot pray or study for anyone else. You cannot live for others, and you cannot live vicariously. Life is something that you have to do on your own.

Parenthetically, don’t depend on the State of Israel to save everything. The State of Israel has its own problems, not as a state, but as a center of Jewish existence. It is struggling very hard to survive in that sense. It is not able, now, to do much to save others.

Now, I want to speak about Jews in the Diaspora. There are basically only two choices. Either we can give up, close shop, and say “we are defeated.” Or, we can create a new way, a new hope. If we want to survive, we cannot do it by simply surviving.

There are more Jews, of one description or another, living in the United States than anywhere else. They did, all in all, quite well for themselves. But what they did not do was to create a communal future to look forward to. As individuals, some are very successful, perhaps as successful as Jews were in any other place ever in history. As a community, as a people, they are second raters, third-raters or less. One cannot go on living with the knowledge that you have to be a third-rater forever. It cannot be done. You cannot have a people striving and struggling, fighting and working only for that.

So, if people want to go on – if there is a feeling that there is something in it – if the memory of the half-obliterated document still possesses some compelling power, then Jewish life in this country must be rebuilt. People cannot go on living in the past, even if the past was nice – and it wasn’t completely so. You see, the shtetl, wherever it was, cannot be recreated. There is no need and no use for it.

But – let me just say something full of chutzpa – there is a need, a use and even a possibility of making this place something like Galut Bavel, the ancient Jewish exile in Babylonia. One can create a second center, comparable, sometimes better than the main center in Israel. To do that, one has to do much more than survive. However, if you cannot do it well – if you cannot rebuild here something that will be worthwhile spiritually or intellectually – then it is not worth doing it at all.

Now, such an effort would require massive change. Not just in priorities, but also in the way people want and can do things. It means a different plan and a different way of planning. There are, roughly speaking, six million Jews in this country, meaning that there are six million people here who can claim, at least, to possess Jewish ancestors. But how many of these people can claim to have Jewish grandchildren, or can be sure that their grandchildren will be Jewish? That is the real question. The main point is to ensure that every grandchild of every Jew remains a Jew.

To do this means making big changes – in what people invest here and in what they are interested in rebuilding. Jewish education is not just for children, but for the parents of the children and for the grandparents of the children. People have to make moves and changes in their own lives. You cannot just be a perpetual, continuous salesman. And you cannot go on as you have been, creating a whole culture on the reselling of shmattes. You need a new creativity. And a new creativity means far deeper involvement of a much broader base of people. This is really survival. This is survival with the understanding that if you cannot become bigger and better tomorrow, it is senseless to exist today.

The recreation here of a significant Jewish culture – even if it is different from that of Israel – does not mean counting how many doctors, lawyers, and accountants we have. Rather, we must ask ourselves, “Are we contributing to a Jewish heritage as it will be remembered two or ten generations from now?” This is the true measure. It is not counting how many rabbis will emerge from America; that is a small and partial count. Rather, how many people here will feel distinctly and inherently Jewish and what will their contribution be to the future?

Now, to do something like this needs an enormous input, one far larger than was made before. Whatever has been done so far was done with a sort of indulgence money. People paid to get rid of their guilt over discarding their Jewishness. But if they want to enhance some kind of future – not just survival, but also survival with hope – then this effort will require a much larger investment. I am not speaking just about money, which is the way everything is measured here, but about something which is even more painful – an investment of life. There is an expression here, “put your money where your mouth is.” Instead, I would say, people have to put their lives, their souls where their money is. This is much harder. I know it is harder.

Now, let me just finish, not with a note of prophecy, but with, at least, a note of hope. There are still enough people here. Many of them, even those very estranged from anything Jewish, are nonetheless very good people. We have here, all in all, a fair number of people who are first-raters. These people can become a foundation for building a different, better future. We cannot expect this building to be done on its own – it has never been.

In our future, there can be a hope, a promise, something to reach for. If we want to have such a tomorrow – a real tomorrow, and not just a bleak continuation of a past, which means putting off death for another half-generation – then it will require lots of effort. But even if this large an undertaking is unprecedented, still, it can be done.

This essay was first published in May, 1995.