What the Current Situation Requires

We’re living in a period of disintegration in which the cultural and political bedrock is shifting beneath us. How should a magazine like Mosaic meet this moment?

A rally against anti-Semitic violence on May 27, 2021 in Cedarhurst, New York. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images.

A rally against anti-Semitic violence on May 27, 2021 in Cedarhurst, New York. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images.

June 4 2021
About Jonathan

Jonathan Silver is the editor of Mosaic, the host of the Tikvah Podcast, the Warren R. Stern Senior Fellow of Jewish Civilization, and the Chief Programming officer of Tikvah.

It happens rarely in history, but there are sometimes intellectual labors of such extraordinary significance that they influence public affairs on a mass scale. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract was such a book. So was Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and so was Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State. Their impact wasn’t immediate, but without the ideas in these books the world would not have suffered the French or Communist revolutions, nor would it have been blessed by the Zionist one.

Other intellectual expressions do not envision a new historical moment but instead react to the present one. The political scientist Eric Voegelin once wrote that “in an hour of crisis, when the order of a society flounders and disintegrates, the fundamental problems of political existence in history are more apt to come into view than in periods of comparative stability.” So it was that the prophet Ezekiel looked from the exilic rivers of Babylon upon Judean sovereignty lost. Plato and Aristotle uncovered elemental truths of politics in the smoldering embers of the Peloponnesian War. And, caught in Rome’s decay, Augustine formulated a way to order man’s competing loyalties to civic authority and to God.

We’re living in our own period of disintegration, in which the cultural and political bedrock is shifting beneath us. I doubt we stand before a crisis as momentous as the one that stirred Augustine; but, of course, one never knows. At such a moment, what is the purpose of a little magazine of ideas such as Mosaic? Without pretending to approach the likes of Herzl or Ezekiel, it is worth asking what this hour requires of us.


The answer to that question depends, of course, on how one sizes up the moment. For the last year, the central fact of life has been the coronavirus pandemic, from which the wealthy nations of the world are finally beginning to emerge. All of the social and civic troubles—from family formation and loneliness to the rule of law and public order to religious liberty and our relation to technology—that preceded the pandemic remain. Some were temporarily obscured and are bound to reemerge, while others have gotten obviously worse. Looking at the mood of the country, Americans across political and social divides seem to feel as if we live in a nation that has, each year for the last many years, seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It’s precisely when that cultural mood is pervasive that we should remind ourselves just how good we have it.

American Jews today are able to form, join, and sustain communities of meaning and purpose, and to raise our children free from many of the fears that haunted our ancestors. The growing intolerance toward religion of America’s secular elite sometimes makes this harder than it should be, but still, for most committed Jews it is possible to study and worship and pursue the good life as we see it without forms of egregious anti-Jewish discrimination that were normal in other Diaspora communities. And of course, we have something more than a Diaspora. The Jewish people today also has, in Israel, political sovereignty, thanks to which Israelis can govern and defend their own land, in their own language, and shape their own national destiny. If you could live your life at any moment in Jewish history, there’s a good argument for choosing this moment; it is still one of the most blessed ages in the long and intricate history of the Jews.

But it doesn’t always feel that way. This one can feel demoralizing, as blessed ages go. In the two centers of Jewish life, the accelerating civic discord, the virus, the lockdowns, the incompetence or mendacity of major institutions, novel technologies that encourage us to trade our innermost privacy in exchange for idle entertainment are all making us miserable.

Even the achievements of our age expose underlying instabilities. That Israel has secured new relationships with Muslim nations is good, even great; but those former adversaries are now allies mostly because a threat from Iran imperils them too. And that threat only grows more dangerous, for Iran stands on the threshold of producing nuclear weapons, and, having passed through years of sanctions, it can now expect a significant infusion of capital and confidence. The Iron Dome missile-defense system performed wonders in Israel’s latest confrontation with Hamas; but it faces a threat it may not be able to counter in the even better-equipped Iranian proxy in Lebanon, Hizballah, which will have updated its tactics and weapons in its next effort to overwhelm the system. The same is true inside Israeli society. It performed better than any other in the world in its endeavor to vaccinate its citizens. At the same time, its domestic politics are in disarray. Sure, as of this writing, a fragile anti-Netanyahu coalition seems to have formed, but not even its most ardent supporters believe that it will long endure and no one would be surprised if in a few short months a fifth election is called.

In America, the most alarming development for the Jews has been the resurgence of anti-Semitism in ever more direct and public fashion. A few years ago, we worried—rightly—about graffiti on gravestones. Then came the bomb threats to synagogues and Jewish centers, then the alt-right march in Charlottesville, then gunmen visiting synagogues in order to murder Jews at worship. And for several years now, Jews have been physically assaulted on the streets of New York City for no other reason than they are Jews.

What makes this so disturbing to many contemporary American Jews is the complicity of the prestige media and elite institutions. Jews to the left of center—the vast majority of Jews in this country—don’t like to look at the fact that congressional Democrats cannot muster the votes to condemn anti-Semitism on the House floor (as happened in the spring of 2019), or that certain of their favorite celebrities actively cheer Hamas, or that craven university administrators find it necessary to apologize—as the chancellor of Rutgers recently did—for condemning Jew-hatred, or that six years ago, speaking on a panel at the Harvard Law School, Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, the organization at the very center of the progressive coalition, called on her allies to “step up boldly and courageously to end the imperialist project that’s called Israel.”

In ignoring or acquiescing to all this and more, American Jews reveal a reluctance to extract any political cost from public officials that take us for granted—and worse. It is an example of our special capacity for self-delusion. Ruth Wisse, borrowing a phrase of Nietzsche’s, calls this the Jewish will-to-powerlessness. Still, Jewish communities endure, precious but fragile.


How fragile are things now? Perhaps a comparison is in order. Each summer on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, we mourn the truly dark times in Jewish history, including the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BC and then by the Romans in 70 CE. We read Jeremiah’s lamentations after the fall the First Temple, the Temple of Solomon.

To us it seems overdetermined that our history should have happened the way that it did. But history did not have to unfurl in that way. Think about this: the Temple that David dreamed of and that Solomon built stood in Jerusalem for over 400 years.

The United States is now 244 years old, and Solomon’s temple stood for 400 years. The Second Temple, the one renovated by Herod, stood in Jerusalem for almost 600 years. A lifetime from now, when the boys and girls who are celebrating b’nei mitzvah are getting ready to celebrate the b’nei mitzvah of their grandchildren—then, in those years, the United States will have existed for just half the time that the Second Temple stood in Jerusalem.

Now, despite the disintegration mentioned above, and the fraying of our social fabric, despite all of that, it still feels to us as if the United States is veritable fact. It is the most powerful nation on earth, with the largest economy, the longest-lasting democracy. America, nigh two-and-a-half centuries old, seems permanent. But to our ancestors, living in Jerusalem, the 400-year-old temple must have seemed permanent. The 600-year-old temple must have seemed permanent. But countries are not permanent.

A more recent example: in 1991, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time. Three years before that, in 1988, the Soviet Union had five-and-a-half million active personnel in its standing army. The American military that year had fewer than half that number. The largest empire in the world, with the largest standing military force in the world, vanished from the face of the planet three years later. Sometimes such things happen by physical force—conquest and war. Other times nations collapse on their own—from a loss of belief in themselves.


Now I can ask again: what can a little magazine of Jewish ideas do to rise to such a moment as this? We can work to rearm the moral confidence of the Jewish people so that we don’t collapse from a loss of confidence in ourselves and who we’re called to be.

How does one go about that? One function of a magazine like ours might be to cover the news—breaking stories, reporting on the latest developments in the public arena, running outraged op-eds. There’s a compelling argument to proceeding that way, because the house seems like it’s always on fire. There are rocket attacks and culture-war salvos and any number of foolish and wicked statements that come to light each day. It would be impossible and wrong to ignore these things. The late Charles Krauthammer once wrote that “in the end, everything—high and low and, most especially, high—lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away.”

He was right. We’ll continue to analyze the geopolitics of the Middle East and the fight for religious freedom in America, and the crisis of the campus, and much else, but tracking the news is not Mosaic’s ultimate purpose. For one thing, there now exist news sources for just about every point of view, including quite a few that focus exclusively on Jewish affairs. Every informed Jew should read them, and not only them. But reporting—even great reporting—of the news cannot alone restore cultural confidence. Let me suggest a few ways that a little magazine of ideas can.

Writing that explores the moral vision of the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic and religious traditions of Jewish life, and that looks at how Jewish ideas have inspired Western culture, can play a role in revitalizing Jewish religious life, and in strengthening some of the organizing ideas of our society. America and Europe are now engaged in a generation-long experiment to see if those ideas—human equality, ordered freedom, the rule of law, and the special relationship of loyalty and love that makes husbands and wives into parents of children—can persist if they are severed from the nourishment of their biblical roots. Likewise, the commentary and criticism of Jewish culture is an invitation into the depth of Jewish ideas. Musical traditions, visual art, poetry, and literature are the media through which the vital energy of the Jewish people has been expressed, and one cannot attentively read literature of exceptional quality—such as the work of, to name just two living authors working in English, Cynthia Ozick and Dara Horn—without feeling oneself a part of a distinguished intellectual culture.

American Jewry can likewise draw cultural confidence from not the fable of Israel but the actual nation of nine million citizens on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. Let me present one example. In America, the young tend to be less religious and more progressive than their parents; in Israel, however, there is a relatively large and energetic population of young Israelis who are more religious and more conservative than their parents. Part of portraying Israel-as-it-is includes analyzing how and why that population exists. And American Jewry can draw similar confidence from a simple expression of pride in America, in gratitude for all that the United States has been and remains, and by asking in a sustained and serious way what moral and social resources we can offer to our neighbors. As American Jews, we should be oriented toward serving the country where it is most needed. Through this service, we will strengthen ourselves.

Finally, little magazines can push against cultural disintegration by keeping alive traditions of thought and inquiry that are no longer at home in the universities. Jewish academic writing—like virtually all academic writing now—has grown too professionalized and internal, too specialized, and as a result trivial and decadent. It’s not any particular scholar’s fault that this is the case; the academy is an enterprise with its own incentive structure and its own avenues of advancement. But little magazines can collect the shards of an integral intellectual tradition and publish work that keeps alive the truly important questions.

So yes, if one gets politics wrong, then nothing else matters. But politics serve higher ends, among them securing the order necessary for Jews to pursue their covenantal obligations, to build upon their cultural inheritance, and, not least, to indulge in those higher human delights of thinking and reading. In that work can be found the generational act of preserving, sustaining, and elevating what matters most, and that is what little magazines of ideas can do in a period such as this.

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