Future of Judaism
American Jews in the New Millennium: Transformation and Uncertainty
In the 21st century, American Judaism is likely to resemble the Protestant denominational structure ever more closely, with the result that in Judaism, as in Protestantism, there will be burgeoning pluralism, greater focus upon the individual than upon the group, more permeable denominational and even interfaith boundaries, and greater emphasis on the value of consent, as against the more traditional Jewish emphasis on descent. Most immediately, we see many new movements in Jewish religious life, including New Age Judaism, Havurah Judaism, Humanistic Judaism and more.
Similarly, I suspect that we will see a growing number of one-generation Jews: Jews (converts to Judaism) who have neither Jewish parents, nor Jewish children. The cultural emphasis on "consent" rather than "descent" (free choice rather than automatically following in the ways of one's ancestors) makes this well nigh inevitable. A great many converts today assume that their children will freely choose their faith, just like they did.
Intermarriage reflects a similar emphasis on consent (marry whomever you choose) as opposed to descent (marry only a member of the tribe). Americans of all faiths are marrying across religious lines today in record numbers. It seems very unlikely that Jews will form an exception to this pattern. Indeed, it seems to me likely that American Judaism will come in the years ahead to resemble the pattern familiar to us from studies of Protestant denominational switching. A substantial amount of population "churning" will characterize the American Jewish community as eager newcomers enter the Jewish fold and dissatisfied veterans seek out greener religious pastures.
So much for transformations. Let me now turn to areas of uncertainty, where it seems to me that the future is still very much up in the air, and significant questions remain. The first of these questions is whether the 21st century will be marked by assimilation or revitalization? Signs of assimilation, of course, abound; witness widespread ritual laxity, disaffiliation, and intermarriage. Most Jews have friends whose children have either married out or are less religiously observant than their parents.
At the same time, however, anybody even remotely connected with Jewish life is aware of strong elements of revitalization and renewal within the community. Jewish educational institutions and programs of every kind are flourishing, including Jewish day care centers, private Jewish day schools (equivalent to parochial schools), Jewish high schools, Jewish studies programs at the university level, Jewish summer educational programs, Jewish summer camps, intensive talmudical academies (yeshivot), educational institutions for women, and an array of programs of adult Jewish study. There has also been a perceptible return to religion among young people. Every Jew today knows somebody whose children are far more religiously observant than their parents. Even in terms of synagogue attendance, figures point upward.
The question as Jews witness these two contradictory trends operating simultaneously -- assimilation and revitalization -- is which one will turn out to be the dominant trend, and which will be looked back upon as an epiphenomenon, an historical side-show, "static on the screen"? The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. The question is being decided day by day in the hearts and minds of contemporary American Jews.
A second area of uncertainty concerns the question of whether Judaism in the years ahead will be characterized by religious polarization, or whether there will be a return to the "vital center" in Jewish life, isolating extremists on both sides? The case for religious polarization is easy to make because there are some seemingly unbridgeable issues that divide left and right, chief among them the hundreds of thousands of Jews whom the Reform movement accepts as Jews and traditional Orthodoxy does not (including converts and children of intermarrieds where the mother is not Jewish.