July 23, 2009
History is good at telling us about the Before and After. How we get from one to the other, not so much.
Before 70 CE, Jerusalem was the physical and spiritual center of the Jewish commonwealth. After that year, after the Romans destroyed the Temple, Judaism survived as something different, a religion and people without a temple, sacrifices, or even a state. The transition from one era to another is a harder story to tell. But the sages gave it their best shot, embodying the drama of survival and revival in the story of one man, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai.
The Talmud and other sources tell us Rabbi Yohanan lived in Jerusalem during the Roman siege. In the best-known story about him, Yohanan realizes that resistance to the Romans is futile; he defies the Jewish rebels and leaves the city to negotiate with the Roman general Vespasian. Vespasian grants Yohanan one request, and it’s this: “Give me Yavne and its sages.” Yohanan goes on to establish a place of study well to the west of the fallen Jerusalem.
In a fitting piece of symbolism, Yohanan is said to have escaped Jerusalem in a coffin; it is a resurrection story, after all, with Yohanan embodying a new form of Judaism that transforms animal sacrifices into acts of loving-kindness and a Temple-centered cult into a portable faith of study and mitzvot.
I thought of Yohanan while reading a fairly apocalyptic new report by Steven Windmueller for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: “The Unfolding Economic Crisis: Its Devastating Implications for American Jewry.”
Windmueller paints a dire picture of contemporary philanthropy and Jewish life. Fund-raising is down; synagogues and institutions are losing members and laying off employees. Jews in finance, real estate, and allied fields — the backbones of Jewish giving — are unemployed, making less or withholding their usual gifts. Bernie Madoff may have cost Jewish institutions as much as $1 billion, and untold psychological damage.
“Weakened by scandal and economic dislocation,” writes Windmueller, the American-Jewish community that will emerge from the crisis will be “smaller,” “less cohesive,” with “fewer resources,” and ultimately, less powerful.
But contained within Windmueller’s report are the seeds of a possible rebirth. He contends that Jewish organizations suffer from a “serious leadership deficiency”; however, “a new leadership will also likely emerge that will need to draw on the lessons of this period.” For these younger Jews, “the changing economic picture may provide opportunities for further experimentation in creating new forms of Jewish expression and also accelerate their disengagement from traditional infrastructures.”
Paging Yohanan ben Zakkai.
The problem is that people and institutions heavily invested in existing systems have trouble imagining what will replace them — or are resistant to losing the system as it is, however broken. Ask people in the newspaper industry — whose challenges uncannily parallel those within organized Jewish life.
New media maven Clay Shirky wrote an important essay a few months back called “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” It’s not that newspaper people didn’t see the Internet coming, he writes. The problem was that they tried to “preserve the old forms of organization in a world” that was “visibly going away.”
Unfortunately for them, the old model is broken — as in beyond repair. And what will work in its place? “The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem...minor at launch” but may just reinvent the industry.
Windmueller shows how this process worked for Jews during another economic tsunami. The Great Depression wreaked havoc on Jewish organization life. The same period, however, saw a religious revival, and innovative Jewish leaders began to experiment.
“The American rabbinate saw a unique opportunity to galvanize Jews to engage in volunteer service in both the Jewish and larger American frameworks; to employ for the first time radio broadcasts and newspaper advertisements in reaching out and encouraging Jewish learning and synagogue involvement; and to speak out on public policy and social justice issues,” writes Windmueller. “Similarly, fund-raising by Jewish charities in the 1920s achieved extraordinary results in a way not dissimilar to American-Jewish institutions’ success over the past quarter-century.”
This week Jews will mark the Ninth of Av, mourning the Temple’s destruction. Yet in his biography of Yohanan ben Zakkai, scholar Jacob Neusner writes that he was initially drawn to his subject by the “challenge of the ‘next day,’ the 10th of Av in Yavneh.” Neusner was inspired by a figure who had “passed through that awful time [and] would bear witness that life could go on, in new forms to be sure, and men might confidently look beyond disaster.”
There is no one solution to the crisis Windmueller and others see within Jewish life. But Yohanan ben Zakkai understood that no solution was possible unless we dare to imagine new forms, new leadership, and new territory beyond our current walls.