The Future of Judaism Can’t Be “Crowdsourced”

December 23, 2019 | Abraham Socher
About the author:

In his book God Is in the Crowd, Tal Keinan examines the difficult situations into which Israeli and American Jewry have (in his view) fallen, and seeks to find a solution by appealing to the notion of the “wisdom of the crowd”—namely, that the aggregated opinions of a large number of people are often likely to be accurate. Thus, ask several hundred people to guess the number of gumballs in a gumball machine, and the average of their answers is apt to be very close to the correct one. Abraham Socher finds much compelling in Keinan’s book, but deems both its diagnoses and its prescriptions lacking—starting with the author’s ascription of Diaspora Judaism’s past success to a sort of crowdsourcing:

Keinan suggests that the “evolving Jewish moral code” is like a “moving stock average of more than 3,000 years of religious, cultural, and moral data points.” But charting a moving average to eliminate “noise” and smooth the trend line presupposes that the data points are just that: points on an x/y graph. But how does one graph, to take a simple case, a biblical verse through its various commentaries and literary uses? The ungraphable details matter; one might even say that God is in them (and not in the graphable crowd).

Keinan’s proposal for the revitalization of Jewish life is high-tech gumball counting. . . . The problem [with his idea] is not . . . even its sheer incoherence—how exactly does one teach one’s children “constantly evolving Crowd Wisdom,” and why?—but rather the premise that if we just had good enough data on what most Jews think Judaism should be, to the extent that they have thought about it at all, then that’s what it should be.

In the absence of a “wisdom machine” [that could magically aggregate the wisdom of millions of Jews], Keinan ran a poll of varied Jewish acquaintances asking them to list ten identifiers that “form the de-facto pillars of contemporary Jewish identity.” The top five results were justice, education, challenge and dissent, ritual and tradition, and community. (Neither God nor Torah made the list.) On this basis, he proposes a world Jewish tax that would fund summer camps, a high-school tikkun olam project, and college tuition for all participating Jews (has he heard about Jewish life on American college campuses?). In other words, more of the same at the cost of, he estimates, $13.75 billion.

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