Future of Judaism
American Jews in the New Millennium: Transformation and Uncertainty
Today, no serious student of American religion adopts the Protestant-Catholic-Jew model. We recognize that Herberg excluded a great many significant players from his account, and we pay enormous attention to religious outsiders -- and well we should: their numbers are growing fast. The result, for Jews, is a decline in status in the world of American religion, one that will only become more evident in the years ahead. Where once most Americans viewed Judaism as the "third faith" in the United States, as well as the nation's largest non-Christian faith, now Judaism is viewed as one of many American "minority faiths," and in many circles it is treated accordingly.
As if this change were not enough, 21st-century American Judaism will also have to come to terms with its diminished significance on the world Jewish stage. Within the next few decades, Israel is poised to overtake the United States as the largest Jewish community in the world. From an Israeli point of view, Israel's demographic rise marks the ultimate triumph of Zionism: the first time since the days of the Bible that Israel will truly be the single largest population center of world Jewry. For American Jews, though, the impact of downward mobility, of moving from being the greatest Jewish community in the world -- the center of world Jewry -- to merely second best may well prove sobering. It will surely affect the self-image of American Jews, their fundraising, their relationship to Israel, and their sense of responsibility to the Jews around the world.
The third transformation is related to this change: in the 21st century, Jews, especially American Jews, will view the diaspora differently than they view it today. Currently, there is an enormous disjunction between the image of the diaspora in the contemporary Jewish and Christian mind, and the reality of the diaspora as it now exists and likely will continue to exist in the new millennium. Jews and Christians still imagine Jews as being a global people spread from one end of the world even unto the other, a people that is, as the late Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus used to say, "omniterritorial." The reality, however, is that the combined forces of persecution, on the one hand, and Zionism on the other have redrawn the map of world Jewry completely. The diaspora has shrunk by more than 40 percent since 1939, and Jews in the diaspora are more concentrated today than ever before. Ninety-five percent of the diaspora Jewish population is confined to just fourteen countries today. A mere thirty-nine countries can boast communities of 5000 Jews or more. Most of the 200 or so countries of the world, including several where Jews had lived for millennia (Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia) are now completely barren of Jews or show tiny communities that are unsustainable. Indeed, huge areas of the world show no Jewish presence whatsoever (American Jewish Year Book 97). Where other peoples are preaching the gospel of globalism and spreading their diasporas north, south, east, and west, Jews who invented the very concept of a diaspora are reducing their exposure to the larger world and practicing consolidation.
That brings me to the fourth transformation to be discussed, which concerns the changing nature of general American religious life, and its impact upon Judaism and Jewish life. American Judaism, of course, has always operated within the context of American religion, and has always been deeply influenced -- some would say too deeply influenced -- by its norms and values, even when, as frequently happens, these run counter to millennia of Jewish tradition. This accounts for the extraordinary variety of Jewish religious expressions in the United States, parallel to what we find in Protestantism, and also accounts for such much-discussed phenomena as Jewish feminism, gay/lesbian synagogues, the growing interest in Jewish spirituality, and even the rising tide of intermarriages -- all of them developments that parallel, albeit with elements of uniqueness, what we find in contemporary American religion as a whole.