Two intriguing sets of opinion polls came to light this week. One was part of a series of troubling news reports on Israeli Jews who are leaving the country. The other was a major survey of American Jews, highlighting a growing number who appear to be leaving Judaism.
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Both studies sparked alarm. The results appeared to stomp on some of the more sensitive nerve endings of two very sensitive Jewish communities – American Jews and their fears of extinction through assimilation, and Israeli Jews, with their fears of extinction through demography.
Taken together, though, the studies may be pointing to something else as well. At long last, we may be learning what Israelis and American Jews – in many ways, perfect strangers to one other - have in common, and what the future may bode for both.
To an ever-increasing extent, these two Jewish communities may be said to be exponents of a new stream in the long history of their people: Post-Rabbinic Judaism.
And this might just be good news.
First, a look at some of the figures:
A poll commissioned by Israel Channel 10 television for their news series this week "Hayordim Ha-Hadashim" (loosely, The New Outmigrants, or The New Defectors) asked a cross-section of Israeli Jews "Have you recently considered moving abroad?"
A majority of respondents, 51 percent, said Yes. Another 11 percent answered that they had no possibility of moving. Only 38 percent of respondents answered with a flat No.
Just as the series on Jews leaving Israel was screening, a study billed as the first major survey of American Jews in 10 years, sparked alarm over the future of the largest of Diaspora communities.
Headlines decried rising intermarriage rates, and the finding that nearly a third of American Jews born after 1980 describe themselves as having no religion.
“It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, told The New York Times.
But is it really?
In both Israel and the United States, the figures may be describing not extinction, but adaptation and change. Maybe even growth.
What they may be telling us, in part, is that the model for preserving Judaism throughout a 2,000 year exile, with its emphasis on the community spiritual leader, the Rav (literally, the Great Person, the role model, the master and memorizer and ambulatory data base of the ancient texts, the teacher, the guide, the comfort and the spearhead of the Jews in his care), may no longer be working – either in Israel or in the States.
To be sure, in many communities in both America and Israel, there are rabbis of character and charisma and moral vision, of great heart and wisdom.
But in all too many cases, rabbis are not the leaders that rabbis need to be. They are not providing what many members of the community need. Perhaps, in a world where the meaning of communication and the communication of meaning are changing, many have ceased to be needed at all.
"What does being Jewish mean in America today?" the Pew Research Center report asks. "Large majorities of U.S. Jews say that remembering the Holocaust (73%) and leading an ethical life (69%) are essential to their sense of Jewishness. More than half (56%) say that working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them. And about four-in-ten say that caring about Israel (43%) and having a good sense of humor (42%) are essential to their Jewish identity."
In Israel, meanwhile, the concept of the Rav as a spiritual leader has long since given way to the officially sanctioned and subsidized figure of the Orthodox rabbi as political hack, as the arbiter of whether a couple is Jewish enough to get married, as the on-the-dole bureaucrat, or worse, as the lobbyist for racism, for settlement at any cost, for trampling the rights of Palestinians, for curbing the religious rights of women, for disrespecting the religious rights of Reform and Conservative Jews.
And the list only grows, alienating Israeli Jews from their own tradition. Take, for example, the case of Rabbi Yoram Abergil of Netivot. The daily newspaper Maariv reported Wednesday that Abergil, backing Netivot Mayor Yehiel Zohar's reelection campaign, distributed announcements in which the rabbi personally promised that everyone who votes for the mayor would have his sins and transgressions absolved by God, "will be saved from all manner of calamities, and will be granted every joy, as well as wealth and happiness and respect."
Post-Rabbinical Jews may have come to believe that they simply don't need rabbis like these in their lives. They can be Jewish on their own, with other like-minded people.
Who knows? Most of us may be Post-Rabbinic soon. And better off.