Friday, September 07, 2007

The Futurists

The future is very much present in the present of Jewish life. During the summer, I attended the Conference on the Future of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, sponsored by the Jewish People Planning Policy Institute, an impressive think tank established by the Jewish Agency. During the same period, I contributed to a symposium on the future of Orthodox education in North America. We are awash in conferences, meetings, papers, etc., dealing with this or that problem area in Jewish life and implicit or explicit in this activity is the goal of projecting or improving the Jewish future. The pessimistic demographic data on Jewish life in the U.S. and elsewhere in the diaspora has created the imperative to better understand what is happening and to figure out how the Jewish future can improve on today’s reality.

One obvious problem is that we are not prophets, a good thing in view of the Talmudic observation that since the destruction of the Temple prophecy has been given over to fools. The more immediate difficulty is that inescapably we are in the present, in our thoughts and activity and in our attitudes and commitments. As much as we may want to be creative or visionary – that is, to offer and improve on what is – what we want for the future is predicated on what we now see and feel.

This is why any conference of futurists begets wildly diverse wish-lists and why upon quick examination, there is a high correlation between what people prefer for today and what they prefer for generations yet unborn. Religious Jews want a world that is more religious while secularists want the role of religion to be diminished, if not obliterated entirely.

We are people who have been around for a very long while and who have truckloads of traditions, obligations and memories. It should be axiomatic that the Jewish future needs to be organically linked to the Jewish past, with the present serving as a connection point between what was and what will be. There is a Conference on the Jewish Future only because there was a Jewish past. This fundamental truth escapes or is deliberately cast aside by a great many Jews, especially in the diaspora, including persons in leadership positions.

During the summer, as well, I read a lengthy working paper called “Redesigning Jewish Education for the 21st Century,” the first fruit of the newly-established Lippman Kanfer Institute, a think tank on Jewish education located at Jewish Educational Services of North America. JESNA has been touted as American Jewry’s main educational agency, although its services are scarcely known to nearly all who toil on behalf of day schools.

Think tanks are the new darling of the Jewish philanthropic world, a development that demonstrates once more our proclivity to regard organization-establishment as a vital activity. It also coincides with mounting and continuing Jewish loss. Each day when the sun sets we likely have fewer Jews than there were when the sun rose, yet we take comfort in having more organizations. If Lippman Kanfer’s working paper is a guide, the intellectual state of American Jewry has suffered a further decline. The paper is an embarrassment. Cliches abound and they are accompanied by proposals that will have no impact on American Jewish education. This is a paper that literally is dead on arrival.

It is a puzzlement how experienced people who have some accomplishments under their belt could have produced a total dud. Some of the explanation may be found in the introduction where we are told that “for many weeks the paper lived on a wiki – a web-based tool for collaborative writing and editing.” Thanks to technology, we have now advanced significantly beyond the many cooks spoiling the broth stage of intellectual confusion. May I respectfully suggest that our think tanks outlaw wiki-ing. Inevitably, the process leads to a mishmash of ideas that are going nowhere.

Another clue to what went wrong is provided in the first word in the report’s title – “Redesigning.” The aim was not simply to improve Jewish education but to make it over. Brief homage is paid to what exists, yet the thrust is to create a future in Jewish education that is profoundly different from what we now have. The final page of the text consists of a brief quote from Alan Kay, a luminary whose achievements I confess to be unaware of, who imparts the following bogus wisdom: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” This is nice-sounding nonsense. It is also fundamentally anti-Jewish, for our people have a past, as do our educational enterprises. This is a past that we ought to be proud of and build on.

Relying on the vapidness of much of their Jewish present, our futurists want their abandonment of the Jewish past to become our community’s norm. They cannot incorporate into their fantasies the glorious heritage that has kept the Jewish people alive, despite our small numbers and despite alternating severe losses resulting from persecution and advanced assimilation. Our future must be redefined and much of our past discarded.

If we are still here to discuss our future, it is because there are those who have been faithful to the past. Our futurists will continue to conference and write papers. The great expansion of Jewish wealth assures that our philanthropists will fund new think tanks. Heaven knows how many there already are. The result of all of this babel will be additional calls to invent the future.

This is the bad news. The good news is that for all of the money and exertion invested in these initiatives, the future of the Jewish people will not be decided by them. The eternity of the Jewish people will not be denied. We exist today because we are faithful to our past and it is this past that ensures our future.