A Futurist Looks at the Jewish Future

What a rational optimist writing in the 1980s thought the Jewish world could look like in the year 2200.

Marc Chagall’s Self-Portrait with Easel, 1919. Jewish Museum.

Marc Chagall’s Self-Portrait with Easel, 1919. Jewish Museum.

Observation
Max Singer
April 17 2020

When Max Singer died of cancer in late January at the age of eighty-eight, the world of ideas lost a vanishingly rare human specimen: the rational optimist.

The author of such landmark books as Passage to a Human World (1989) and The History of the Future (2011), Singer trained as a lawyer and worked for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission before joining Herman Kahn in 1961 as a cofounder of the Hudson Institute. Over the decades, his essays on matters social, political, and geostrategic appeared in magazines ranging from Reader’s Digest to Commentary, the Public Interest, the New York Times Magazine, and the Atlantic Monthly.

Indivisible from Singer’s life as a policy intellectual was his life as a Jew. In Israel, where he and his family spent much time in the 1970s and would later move permanently, he became affiliated with the BESA Center for Strategic Studies and the Institute for Zionist Strategies.

As a writer, Singer combined a keen observing eye and an acute analytical mind with a stubbornly hopeful outlook. That outlook, sorely tested in September 1987 by the loss of his son Alex, an IDF officer killed in a terrorist ambush in Lebanon, was eloquently reaffirmed only three months later in the remarkable essay below, originally published in Moment magazine.

In this essay, Singer foresees a world of increasingly wealthy, highly educated people starved for spiritual meaning and turning inquiringly to Judaism for enlightenment and fulfillment. Will the Jews rise to this challenge? If so, he predicts confidently, their own global numbers will swell in time from the then-level of about 12 million to “tens or hundreds of millions” more.

So far, history in its own stubborn way has declined to conform with Max Singer’s upbeat projections. It’s unlikely that, ever the equable and rational optimist, he would be in the least perturbed.

—The Editors

 

Generally, when we think of the future of Judaism, we think of growing to as many as five to ten million Jews in Israel, another five to ten million Jews in the United States, and maybe another five to ten million in Russia, Europe, and South America. But at the outside this would be less than a third of 1 percent of the world population a century from now.

Contrary to the way we are accustomed to thinking, I believe the future number of Jews—and the future of Judaism—depends not so much on Jewish birthrates as it does on how attractive Judaism and the Jewish people will be. Will the Jewish way of life be one that people wish to adopt? Only if Judaism doesn’t have much to offer, if Jews and Judaism aren’t appealing to people, will the number of Jews be limited by Jewish birthrates to a few tens of millions.

Everyone knows that world population is growing rapidly. In fact, it will probably double to about ten billion people before it more or less stabilizes in a century or so. But the bigger and less appreciated change will be in the character of the future population. The fraction of people who are literate and wealthy by historical standards will increase at least twice as much as the total population—it will grow from a small minority to the vast majority of people of the world. This means that in about a century, the civilized, modern population within which Judaism will be living will be about ten times as large as it is today.

Three other striking characteristics of this world of tomorrow can be identified. First, education and communication will make all humanity much more nearly a single market—not only for goods, but also for ideas or models of how to live.

Second, since most people will be living what must be considered, in historical terms, wealthy lives, they will not be completely dominated by survival demands; they will be searching for meaning and purpose in their lives; and they will be free to make choices based on their search. In 100 or 200 years, this will be true of the great majority of people.

Third, urbanization and the continuous and rapid change that characterizes modern life undercuts traditions and ties. In short, modernization breaks bonds; it makes people either more rootless or more available, depending on your point of view.

Before looking at the implications of these changes for Judaism, we should note one more change. In most of the second half of the nearly 4,000 years of our Jewish history, we have had to be fearful of the idea of large numbers of people converting to Judaism. We were weak, and the strong did not hesitate to destroy those who threatened or annoyed them. It would be naive to think that the world has completely changed—maybe it never will. But already, ruthless power determines much less than it used to, and, more importantly, we Jews have much more power to defend ourselves than we have had during most of the last 2,000 years. We no longer need be dominated by the fear that if we attract attention we will be attacked and destroyed.

This all adds up to a tremendous opportunity for the expansion of Judaism. If classic Judaism represents a superior way of life and/or the way God wants people to live, why shouldn’t tens or hundreds of millions of people choose to become Jews? By “choosing to become Jews” I mean deciding to join their fate with and to love the Jewish people, and to live a Jewish life with the Jewish people according to Jewish law—as best they can—after a conversion according to that law.

How can Judaism be good for us but not for others? And if it is not eventually good for us, why have we been called on to keep it alive? Judaism must be more than a cruel burden for a chosen people. If we can get away from the thinking that characterized our “survival period,” we will remember that Judaism can be—as it was meant to be—a joy.

 

This view of future Jewish possibilities tells us something about our role as Jews today. We, and especially the Jews of Israel, are determining the future of Judaism by showing the world what kind of life, what kind of people, and what kind of state Judaism produces.

Unfortunately, much of the Jewish community has forgotten the meaning and purpose of the Jewish laws and traditions that have enabled us to survive so long. And the quality of the lives of many Jews today does not reflect the beauty and strength that Judaism can provide—and that we see it providing today to increasing numbers of Jewish families.

But we shouldn’t think of Israel—the land and the people—as fixed. There is no reason that the Israel of tomorrow has to be the Israel of today. One should not say that Israel “is” anything; Israel is becoming. Those things that are not right about Israel now should not be thought of as defects, but as tasks, that is, as items on our agenda. We are just beginning to build our state, and its character and qualities are not yet determined—they depend on what we do. Similarly with the people of Israel.

Nearly two millennia of vulnerability and persecution have made us so defensive in our thinking that we cannot imagine large numbers of conversions to Judaism—it seems, well, un-Jewish. But Judaism did not grow to what it was 2,000 years ago only by natural growth. Judaism expanded by conversion. That was the pattern of the first half of Jewish history. Why should it not be the pattern of the future?

Not only did Judaism grow by conversion, it also contracted by conversion—that is, assimilation, which is conversion out of Judaism. The size of the Jewish population today is the result of choices—Jewish choices and Gentile choices—throughout Jewish history, not just of Jewish birth and death rates.

So if Judaism is to survive, it has to be attractive at least to Jews. And there is good reason to think that if Judaism is attractive to Jews, it will to some lesser degree be attractive to others. Which is the same as saying, if it is not attractive to others, why should we assume that it will be attractive enough to Jews?

Three further points. First, in the future it will be much less common for rulers to choose the religion of their people than it was in the past. Second, success and self-confidence always attract people. Third, many people will not have a meaningful religion or other value system well adapted to the modern world. Therefore, many people will be ardently trying to find and join—or copy—a society with a religion that provides strength and values.

One of Judaism’s great strengths is that it is so strongly tied to the past. But we should not forget that the static and inflexible qualities that some believe have dominated our last few centuries do not describe the whole history of Judaism; we need not assume that the future will be like the recent past rather than like our more distant past.

The Judaism of the Temple, of the millennium between Solomon and Bar Kokhba, is gone. It gave birth to two very different religions: its lineal descendant, rabbinic Judaism, and its more popular variant, Christianity (and perhaps as well to Islam). Many Jews believe that Judaism as we see it today cannot adapt sufficiently to become an attractive example in the modern world. But the amount of change that even quite dissatisfied Jews believe to be necessary is much smaller than the change in Judaism following the destruction of our Temple and our state nearly 2,000 years ago. Since Judaism was able to change successfully in response to the disaster, why shouldn’t it be able to make smaller changes—for example, reflecting non-traditional roles for women—if necessary, to respond to the challenge and opportunity created by what is happening in history now, the process of spreading wealth, which is producing the biggest change in human life since it began?

 

It is commonly assumed that science, education, and the freeing of the shackles of tradition will make religion a dying relic of the past. But while the forces and evidence of secularism are clear and strong, another major trend now taking place in many parts of the world is a return to religion, a search for faith or transcendent commitment.

There is reason to believe that this second trend may accelerate as modernity—that is, wealth and change—spreads through the world. Certain essential characteristics of the modern world, such as urbanization and continuous change, create a strong need for faith, transcendence, commitment, belonging, structure, values, guidance, and perspective. Religious responses to the hunger for values and faith may not only survive along with, but may even surpass, secularism. Indeed, secularism may turn out to be only the first innocent response to modernity.

Now look at Judaism as a competitor in the marketplace where people decide how to live and what to live for. Pride is not the only basis for thinking that we have a product good enough to gain a serious share of the market. Judaism is intended to teach a way of life that fulfills basic human needs. It is an extraordinarily wise and sensitive system for making the world better by helping people to be good. It is also an expression of idealism that can attract and harness the determination of young people to improve on their parents’ world with methods that build on rather than destroying what has been created before.

We have already seen that one of the great weaknesses of modem societies is that they spawn reckless idealism or extreme boredom, both of which can lead to extraordinarily harmful behavior. Judaism’s relentless realism, devotion to human life, commitment to the past, to law, and to reason, all work to harness the idealism that is at the heart of Judaism—to make it more effective and less dangerous.

On a rational basis, Judaism should be an attractive choice in modern people’s search for values and for a social system that gives life purpose and meaning. But few people decide such things by theoretical analysis. Judaism’s appeal to the millions will depend on the example of how Jews live.

Our third chance to control our own independent state comes at just the point in the world’s development when our example might lead hundreds of millions of people to Torah and to join our people. If we don’t get our share during this period, it is not likely that we will have another such chance to fulfill our task. Those who see purpose in history may say that Israel was reborn just in time to be ready for what is coming.

 

I believe we should shift to an expansive view of Judaism’s future primarily for the affirmative reasons outlined above. But the argument of necessity—that our survival requires us to take an expansive view of our future—is also compelling. It does not seem likely that Judaism can survive, either in Israel or in the Diaspora, on the basis of the numbers that we have customarily accepted.

The Arabs will eventually enter the modern world—probably in a few generations. If Israel is then just a small, low-spirited remnant, concerned only with its own survival, with no significant role in the world—either in its own eyes or in the eyes of the world—it is not likely to be able to withstand the growing moral, military, and political power of the Arab/Muslim world.

If Diaspora Judaism has no mission and no future—if Judaism is not giving Diaspora Jews a visibly better life, in terms of fundamental values (as it does for many today)—then it seems to me likely that in a rich, free world, assimilation will shrivel or destroy Diaspora Judaism, too. Therefore it is possible that our survival as Jews, and our success in accomplishing the task that Jews were given to do, both depend on the same thing: the quality and character of the Jewish lives we live.

The facts of future demography are clear. In a century or so there will be about ten billion people in the world—at least eight billion of whom will be wealthy by historical standards. If Jews are to constitute even 1 percent of this population—and we have never been such a small fraction of the civilization of which we were a part—there will be at least 100 million Jews (many of them converts or descendants of converts).

This means that there will be plenty of Jews to be a majority in Israel—whichever line eventually becomes our eastern border. And even if there are 20 or 30 or 40 million Jews living in Israel, the Diaspora will contain more Jews than Israel. And it will be a Diaspora of “choosing Jews,” not a remnant Diaspora.

This does not mean that Judaism need be overwhelmed by a rush of new Jews. We can be 100 million in a century and a half-billion in two centuries, even if there is not a single year in which new converts are as many as 1 percent of our population.

To get a perspective on how much change can happen in only two centuries, think back to the United States 200 years ago, when we wrote our Constitution. There was already an American people, but they were few, poor, uneducated, part slave, and relatively unimportant in the world. Now all those things have changed, but we are still Americans (and as a committed Jew whose two grandfathers were immigrants—and two of whose sons are Israelis—I still can comfortably say “we”).

The United States grew so big and powerful primarily because of the immigration of people who were not American and didn’t speak English, but became American. (And the United States never sought, or even desired, large numbers of immigrants.) While there are obvious differences between the United States and Judaism, American history does teach us how much can happen in 200 years—and how much continuity can be combined with so much change.

 

The surprising implication of the approaching demographic reality is that although we generally think that Israel will be successful if most Jews come to live there, the fact is that if 200 years from now most Jews live in Israel, Judaism of this era will have failed. That is, even if there are 30 million Jews filling our ancient borders, if there is not a much larger number of Jews living outside of Israel we will have failed to achieve our task of living lives that witness God’s hope for the peoples of the world.

Many scenarios for the year 2200 are possible. One realistic possibility is a world of ten billion people, of whom 500 million are traditional Jews, 50 million of whom live in Israel. I don’t believe that Jewish proselytizing, or missionary work, is necessary to bring about such a Jewish future. What seems clear is that, if it happens, the primary mechanism will be the power of the example given by the ways Jews live—in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Our present problems and failings make it easy to be dispirited as we focus only on the present. But we can more easily surmount our weaknesses if we use a longer time perspective and realize the character of our task, the strength we bring to it, and the opportunity we have at this unique point in human and Jewish history.

According to the traditional view, Judaism was created to serve as a witness to people of how God hopes that they will choose to live. The next century or so will see eight billion educated wealthy people added to the world—more people with the potential to choose a religious identity than there have been in all of history.

To me, all of this says that Judaism up to now has all been prologue, and that the real show is about to begin. The actors are about to come on stage in great numbers for the first time. What are we if we do not believe that we can live so that a fair share of them will choose our way?

Reprinted from Moment magazine, December 1987, by permission of the editors and the family of Max Singer.

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