Journal Watch
Tue, 01/24/2012

“I have always said that the hardest thing to predict is the future.” This, famously attributed to Groucho Marx and others, was in fact a contribution of Nobel-winning biologist Joshua Lederberg. Notwithstanding Lederberg’s wise locution, Journal Watcher’s foray into futurology this month yields some intriguing gleanings.

Journal Watcher begins with the intersection of religion, history and sociology: the future of the physical boundaries of Israel. Palestine, Eretz-Yisrael, Terra Sancta, Ottoman “Philistines,” The Holy Land — there has never been agreement, going back to the Tanach itself, on the boundaries of the land. Indeed, in the Hebrew Bible, every time the profile and limits of the land are identified in the text, the boundaries are different. But despair not! In “The Boundaries of Israel-Palestine Past, Present, and Future” (Israel Studies, Spring 2008), Tel Aviv University’s Gideon Biger takes us on a brisk historical tour of the delimitation of Israel. Beginning with biblical Palestine — “a geo-historical concept rooted in historical consciousness” — Biger walks us through “the actors who created Israel” and its boundaries: the Ottomans, British, French, the Zionists, Jordanians, Syrians, the League of Nations and the United Nations, Egyptians and Americans. A number of models were used by these stakeholders in reconciling historic lines and the establishment of the formal boundaries of Israel. The future, according to Gideon Biger, will call for using these models — and some hoary old international line, if one can be agreed upon — in negotiating a needed permanent international boundary line of Israel.

Further down the pike with the “boundaries” issue, Journal Watcher encounters a physical line: the “Wall” — the controversial security barrier in the West Bank. In a presciently named article, “The Writing on the Wall: Israel, the Security Barrier and the Future of Zionism” (Mediterranean Politics, March 2009), Clive Jones of the University of Leeds moves the controversy from the adverse impact of the Wall on relations with the Palestine Authority to the impact the barrier has had “upon competing ideas over the very nature of Zionism itself.” The true impact of the barrier, argues Jones, is as much about the coherence of Israel’s ideological boundaries as it is about physical protection of the state.

Clive Jones argues that the “Wall” transcends security; the barrier represents nothing less than a redefinition of the decades-old ideological debate between an ideal “liberal citizenship” — the rights of the citizen need not be diluted by responsibilities to the state — and “republican citizenship,” the expression of civic responsibility to the collective, “the intellectual offspring of mamlachtiyut — Israeli statism.” Bringing to bear history, sociology and politics in his analysis, Jones avers that the barrier’s construction will determine nothing less than the future of Israelis “as they reconcile themselves to the new physical, as well as intellectual, limits of Zionism.”

Moving right along in his quest for the future, Journal Watcher trips over religion, specifically religious conflict in Israel. In “The Future of Israeli Hareidism” (Conversations, 2011) public affairs analyst Pinchas Landau reviews issues that inhere in the perceived “hareidization” of Orthodoxy in Israel, a perception that is enhanced by the mixture of fear and loathing with which many Dati-Leumi unreconstructed National Religious Party/Modern Orthodox Israelis — and most secular Israelis — view the haredim, or ultra-Orthodox.

Landau’s futurology is an optimistic one. Greater integration, argues the author, is the prescription for the future of Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy. “Integration” means, of course, not religious or even social integration — not a chance! — but the movement of haredi society into the economy, notwithstanding the countervailing forces of increased haredi rabbinic power and influence. But Landau argues that the track record of haredim in adopting to new circumstances is a good one, and, the overwhelming majority of the wider Israeli society — especially the formal institutions of the state — are strongly supportive of efforts aimed at bringing ultra-Orthodox Jews into the labor market, into secular educational institutions, even in some limited manner into the Israel Defense Forces.

Will financial pressures and market forces lead to the kind of change envisioned by Landau? An emollient speculation, offers Journal Watcher, but not likely in the short term, especially as the halachic and social ball remains in the court of a few haredi rabbis, and with a centrist takeover of the formal rabbinic institutions of power an unlikely prospect absent a critical mass of public support.

Finally, Eugene Korn, in a sagacious review/essay, does nothing less than sum up the Jewish future, at least a future as refracted through the prism of two modern Jewish thinkers — Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Jonathan Sacks. Using two books by these Orthodox leaders as vehicles, (“Windows on the World — Judaism Beyond Ethnicity:  Abraham’s Journey” by Joseph B. Soloveitchik and “Future Tense” by Jonathan Sacks”), Korn, the North American director of the Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation, suggests that mastery of the vast corpus of halachic and other rabbinic literature, nurtured in the traditional beit midrash (study hall), ought be “windows to the world beyond that which is both God’s and ours.” English translation: Jewish isolation ain’t good — indeed, argue both Rabbis Soloveitchik and Sacks, it’s a curse — and if Orthodoxy’s pan-halachism remains regnant, the Orthodox community of the future will have little to say in the discussion and debate over the human condition:  ethics, social justice, spirituality, human purpose in general. Obsessive attention paid to “elaboration of the rules cannot soothe one troubled after a dark night of the soul.” A bleak assessment indeed of the implications for the future of the continued polarization in the Orthodox world.

The future? Mort Sahl said it best: the only safe thing to say about the future is that it lies ahead.

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of four books on Jewish public affairs and organizations. Forthcoming is “The Future of American Judaism,” a volume in the “Future of American Religion” series (Trinity/Columbia University Press).