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Future Tense – The World has Changed; So Must We

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Here is an excerpt from Future Tense by Rabbi Sacks


Towards the end of 1999 I received a strange request. A professor of medieval history at Boston University, Richard Landes, asked to see me. He had, he said, something urgent and important to communicate. I was intrigued. What, I wondered, could be urgent and important about medieval history? We agreed to meet.

The story Landes had to tell was enthralling. It turned out that he was a specialist in millenarian movements, what we might call ‘Mashiach now’ campaigns. There were many such movements in medieval Christianity, among them the Ranters, the Hussites and the Levellers. Their story is told in Norman Cohn’s classic In Pursuit of the Millennium. They were not always associated with a specific calendrical date, but the approach of a new millennium made their history relevant to the present.

Landes’ thesis was that every ‘millennium’, each ‘dawn of redemption’, was preceded by a wave of philosemitism and followed by a surge of antisemitism. He knew that at that moment Anglo-Jewry was a beneficiary of the prevailing philosemitic mood. Jews were basking in the sunlight of favour and success. That, he said, was about to change.

As to how and why it would happen, he was not sure. His best hypothesis had to do with the widespread fear of Y2K, the ‘millennium bug’. In 1999 it was widely predicted that with the turn of the calendar into the year 2000, computers would crash. There would be chaos, and somehow, Landes believed, people would blame the Jews. Well, 1 January 2000 came and went, and the world continued revolving on its accustomed axis. There was no crash, no chaos. I concluded that Landes had got it wrong.

Then came 29 September 2000, the collapse of the Middle East peace process and the birth of a new Intifada. Within weeks it became clear that Israel was being blamed. Not the seven years of Oslo, nor the courage of Yitzhak Rabin, nor the unprecedentedly generous offer of Ehud Barak to the Palestinians at Taba counted in its favour. Israel’s efforts to make peace were as if they had never been.

Then, at the end of August 2001, came the notorious United Nations Conference against Racism at Durban, which turned out to be the launchpad for a new and vicious assault on Israel. Barely a week later came 9/11, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Within days, conspiracy theories appeared, blaming Israel. Either the attack had been carried out by the Mossad, or it was in response to American support of Israel. Combined, these phenomena bespoke a new and ominous mood. That was when I began to suspect that Landes had got it right.

Less than two years into the new millennium the Jewish situation had been transformed. At the end of 1999, Israel was enjoying a rare moment of international favour and uninterrupted economic growth. Diaspora Jewries were flourishing. On 27 January 2000 the political leaders of Europe gathered in Stockholm to commit themselves to continuing Holocaust education and the fight against antisemitism. The biggest problem on the horizon was outmarriage – itself a symptom of acceptance, integration and success.

Today we are witnessing a new kind of antisemitism, different from yet continuous with the old. I will analyse what makes it new in the next article in this series. Israel too is facing new challenges. The current campaign against Israel is focussed not on the battlefield but on the buses of Haifa, the restaurants of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and the civilian populations bordering Gaza and Lebanon. It is being fought not by nation states but by their proxies, terrorist groups like Hizbollah and Hamas. It is a war not just of weapons but also of images and words, and it aims less at the physical destruction of state than at the demoralisation of its people and the delegitimisation of its right to exist as a Jewish state. Opposition to Israel, from Iran to Al Qaeda, has shifted from politics to religion, from Arab nationalism to Islamist radicalism.

The Jewish world has changed. Looked at from one perspective, that of the past half century, it is the worst of times. But from another vantage point, that of Jewish history as a whole, it is the best of times. Rarely if ever before in the four thousand years of our history have Jews simultaneously had sovereignty and independence in the land of Israel, and freedom and equality in the Diaspora.

This raises questions of the most fundamental kind. Historically, Jews have learned how to handle oppression. Do we know how to handle freedom? We know how to cope with poverty. Do we know how to cope with affluence? We have unrivalled experience in living with powerlessness. Do we know how to live with power? The whole of Jewish history has been a journey towards Israel, acceptance, the freedom to live our faith without fear. We know how to travel. Do we know how to arrive?

These are the questions that must now frame a global Jewish conversation. Antisemitism, Israel, and the place of Jewry within the world raise political questions, and these are not my concern. But they have a spiritual and moral dimension, inevitably so. Jews are historically the only nation defined and held together in dispersion by a faith. We are the people who know in our bones the truth of Zechariah’s statement: ‘Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, says the Lord’.

This is especially relevant in a world that is rapidly de-secularising, in which religion, and arguments about religion, have returned to the centre stage of national debates and international conflicts. To answer the long term questions facing world Jewry, we need some ethical-spiritual point of departure. Our situation in the twenty-first century is new. Therefore we must engage anew with our heritage and destiny.

There are two phenomena in Jewish life whose potential we must now exploit. The first involves the buzz-word of the twenty-first century: globalisation. For most cultures this is the newest of the new. For Jews it is the oldest of the old. Since the time of the Babylonian exile, twenty six centuries ago, Jews have been scattered across the globe, yet they saw themselves and were seen by others as one nation. We are the world’s oldest global people.

The other is the uniquely Jewish idea of ‘argument for the sake of heaven’. Tanach is the only sacred text in which human beings – Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Job – argue with God. All of Judaism’s canonical texts – Midrash, Mishnah, Gemara and halachic codes – come surrounded by commentaries and counter-commentaries. They are essentially anthologies of argument. Judaism is less a creed than an extended conversation, scored for many voices. Conversation and covenant are the Jewish way of channelling conflict into a polyphonic symphony: our dialogue with heaven for the sake of heaven.

Hence this six part series, Future Tense. I hope it will be part of what now needs to become a global Jewish conversation about the future, using the new global media to invite responses from around the world and from many different perspectives. The logical place to begin is to ask afresh, in the context of the twenty first century, secular time, who are we and why?

* * *

Judaism was the world’s first monotheism. But it is not the only one. In the course of time it gave rise to two other faiths, Christianity and Islam, which count among their adherents more than half of the six billion people alive today. Yet though Christianity and Islam both trace their descent, literally or metaphorically, from Abraham, and though both borrowed heavily from Judaism, they did not adopt its single most striking feature: its combination of particularism and universalism.

To put it at its simplest: we believe that the God of Israel is the God of all humanity, but the religion of Israel is not the religion of all humanity. You do not have to be Jewish to have a share in the world to come. The universality of the Jewish God stands in counterpoint to the particularity of Jewish life. No other religion of revelation embodies this tension. It explains our relative smallness and our reluctance to proselytise. It also explains why Jews have had an influence on the world out of all proportion to our numbers. Despite our particularity, our message – the human person as the image of God, the story of the exodus, and the idea of a covenantal society – has often been felt to hold universal significance.

Yet it is just here that we confront the surpassing irony of Jewish history in the modern world. Beginning in the 19th century, a fateful rift opened up within Jewry. I refer not to the obvious divisions between Orthodox and Reform, religious and secular, Zionist and Diasporist, Ashkenazi and Sefardi. I mean the distinction between the universalists and the particularists. The universalists focused on saving the world, even at the cost of losing their Jewish identity. The particularists concentrated on saving Jewish life, even at the cost of disengaging from the world.

What giants the universalists were: Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, Mahler, Kafka, 39 per cent of Nobel prize winners in economics, ten winners of the Nobel prize for literature. The list is huge. Collectively they were shapers of the modern mind, yet their connection with Judaism was at best minimal, at worst hostile.

The particularists, too, were heroes. They include the great heads of yeshivot and leaders of Hassidic sects. Collectively they have rebuilt the citadels of Jewish life, ravaged by the Holocaust. Sixty years ago they seemed headed for extinction. Today they are the most rapidly growing sector of Jewish life, in Israel and outside. Yet their success has been predicated on disengagement from the wider world. There are notable exceptions, but that is the norm.

Yet the split is deeply unJewish. To be sure, there were always Jews (in biblical times the priests, today the charedim) who lived holy lives in isolation from the world, and this has an honourable place within our tradition. But the Jewish mainstream was both universalist and particularist. The two cannot be separated without losing what is most distinctive about Jewish life, making Judaism different from Christianity and Islam on the one hand, and tribal or nationalistic cultures on the other. Not only is it unJewish. It risks compromising the single greatest contribution Judaism has to make to humanity as a whole in the 21st century.

For what the world faces today is an epic clash between the universal and the particular, in the form of the global economy on the one hand, and resurgent ethnicity on the other. Rarely if ever before have we needed more urgently the classic Jewish imperative: to be true to our faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith.

This is how the Torah tells the story of Abraham. He fights a war for the sake of his neighbours. He pleads with God on their behalf. Yet he does not adopt their way of life. He is in, but not of, his time and place. His faith is singular, his moral concern universal. That is what makes his contemporaries say of him, ‘You are a prince of God in our midst.’

To be of relevance to the world, we must keep faith with what is distinctive about ourselves and our faith. We must be prepared to mitigate the split between the universalists and the particularists, asking the former to re-engage with Judaism and the latter to re-engage with humanity as a whole.

To heal a fractured world, we must first heal the fractures within the Jewish soul.

(Published in The Jewish Chronicle)