During the course of the next few decades, I see some sort of non-denominational or even interfaith entrepreneurial conveners/ritualists/community organizers/healers taking the place of rabbis (though some ordained rabbis might indeed embrace this new role as well, especially if rabbinic schools are able to change the way they educate my future colleagues). These conveners or “gatherers” as Jillian Richardson calls them, who will creatively draw on Jewish spirituality as well as the faith practices of numerous traditions, will serve at life cycle transitions and will be engaged to do so in much the same way people find physicians, attorneys, and therapists to help them navigate their lives. Replacing regular prayer or worship services will be a variety of embodied spiritual disciplines—meditation/yoga/ movement/singing and chanting/blessings—plus good music, healthy food, alcohol or other legal mood altering drugs, and plenty of time to meaningfully connect to one another. And instead of synagogue buildings per se, though some may retro fit to do so, I predict shared, flexible communal as well as public spaces, much like the new work environments, which are easy to join (i.e. low barrier entry) and in which everyone feels welcome. Numerous experiments like these in a variety of environments are already occurring especially in large urban centers and will, no doubt, continue. Why? Because they reflect the lifestyle and values of this millennial generation. All our complaining and name calling will not change that. The organized Jewish community will either adapt or find itself increasingly irrelevant.
All in all, spirituality (with or without God) that can be both individual (i.e. done at home or work) as well as communal will take the place of formal religion; Shabbat and holy days, when practiced at all, will focus on personal and family spiritual growth, as well as rest and renewal and community connection; life cycle will grow in popularity as moments of transition and transformation, and there will be more of them (like “reveal parties”) to celebrate or commemorate; the national denominational movements will continue to shrink as most Jews are indifferent to the differences between them; most secular organizations will either disappear (as their missions, originally created for an outsider/oppressed population, have been fully realized and are no longer relevant to most of us); or they may take on a more universal, values-driven agenda with a focus on meaningful, hands-on social and/or political action as opposed to strengthening “tribal connection” ( a la American Jewish World Service and HIAS, just to name two notable leaders in this trend); JCC’s and other cultural venues (like the Skirball in Los Angeles) that can transform themselves from spaces for Jews to gather to places that people gather to live out Jewish as well as universal ideals will be particularly well-suited to take the lead in this, the second great paradigm shift in Jewish history.
Will it still be Jewish? Well, it will not be our bubbe’s and zayde’s Judaism, that’s for sure. But would a person, time transported from the Galilee in the year 50 CE to a shtetl in Russia see those fur-hatted men shukling while davening think they were witnessing Judaism? I doubt it. In fact, in a famous Midrash, Moses is transported into the future and is sitting in a learning academy where the rabbinic students are discussing Jewish law and he is dumbfounded, totally lost. He is just about to get up and complain to God that these people have totally distorted Judaism when the teacher is asked, “How do we know all this?” and he responds, “We received it from Moses, rabbenu/our rabbi!” And Moses is mollified. Clearly, the author of that Midrash understood that it has been Judaism’s ability to creatively adapt and change more than anything else that has kept it alive and vibrant. Over time, the shifts we are in the midst of witnessing today, like Christmas trees decorated with Jewish symbols being called “winter holiday décor”, will become the new Judaism; that is, if there are enough people who are committed to its future. Like everything else in our fast-paced world, there are absolutely no guarantees that anything will last.
But what about the ultra-Orthodox? Aren’t they preserving traditional Judaism and growing in numbers? Not really. Every time there is rapid societal change there have been movements that attempt to stop the clock, harkening back to a previous time that seemed more stable and secure; the so-called “good old days,” declaring that they, and only they, are the true voice of authenticity. This has happened within Judaism as well. The Essenes, the Samaritans, and the Karaites are the most notable examples. If you have never heard of them it is because though enormously popular in their own time, ultimately the Jewish community coalesced, adapted to societal change (i.e. assimilated/ ”modernized”) and wrote those groups out of the Jewish people.
Today’s ultra-orthodox have successfully created pre-modern enclaves which basically have the look and feel of the 18th century Eastern Europe shtetl with one major difference. Back then, there were no options. Today it is totally by choice! Though there is enormous peer and sociological pressure to remain within the community, anyone can drop out, and as difficult as it is, many do. We just don’t hear about them. While currently romanticized and supported by the larger Jewish community, this way of life has no chance of garnering the fidelity of the vast majority of world Jewry. That ship has left the dock and it’s not coming back, no matter how many nostalgic revivals of Fiddler on the Roof sell out on Broadway.
Additionally, as they move further and further to the right, as these movements inevitably seem to do, like declaring that their rebbe is THE Messiah, they run the risk of the aforementioned movements of being written out of the Jewish people altogether. Judaism abhors extremes but loves the middle ground. Far left movements (like early European Hasidism or Reform Judaism) over time get co-opted and move closer to the center; far right movements, on the other hand, get marginalized or dismissed. Those are the facts of Jewish history.
As for Israel, once the darling of worldwide Jewry, especially secular Jews, it needs to sever the move towards theocracy currently being cynically tolerated and live up to its stated principles of democracy (especially toward its Arab and other minorities, as well as the Palestinians) or risk becoming irrelevant to most Jews as recent surveys of millennials are starting to demonstrate. We might want to fantasize that “we are one” people forever united; however, Jewish history is replete with schisms between the Diaspora and the community living in the Land of Promise. Right now, though most Israelis live and think like their Diaspora cousins in America, or at least aspire to do so, Israel is a divided nation with compelling arguments (security vs. democratic inclusion) on both sides. What the future holds, only time will tell and it will be Israelis who will decide. Either this tiny nation which has made us proud will truly become the physical/spiritual home of ALL Jews everywhere; or it will be a curiosity at best, or worse, a failed experiment. Like many of you reading this, I hope and pray for the former.