In Uncertain Times, the Greatest Jewish Legacy Has Always Been Hope

If hand-wringing was an Olympic event, Jews would sweep the podium. We are a people well acquainted with angst, and for good reason. Since the earliest days of our tradition, Jews have had to endure any number of upheavals and injustices, often validating our inclination to fear the worst and try to mitigate disaster. We have known isolation, expulsion, and execution; we have been evolutionarily trained to look for the proverbial writing on the wall.

The digital age in which we live today has only sharpened the Jewish communal sense of foreboding. Anti-Semitism threatens our way of life from the outside while assimilation and indifference erode from within. The speed of information sharing has meant that institutional struggles create much more public outcry, as the closing of the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College has proven. This is a time when the only certainty in Jewish life seems to be the very uncertainty of what comes next. 

Despite all of this, I don’t think about pessimism when I think about Judaism. As a matter of fact, Jewish history and tradition generally inspire me with hope for the future. Despite our long and well-documented proclivity for concern, every moment in our past has allowed our people to demonstrate new and previously unimaginable feats of creativity and innovation. The Talmud is (in my biased opinion) on of the most ingenious expressions of human scholarship ever, and it wouldn’t have been possible if not for the destruction of the Temple. The idea for Zionism far pre-dates the Holocaust, yet the reality of a Jewish national homeland only becomes reality in the aftermath of devastation and despair. Time and time again, Judaism comes across moments of fear and trepidation, and in every instance, we rise to the occasion.

Today, we are trying to figure out what Judaism will look like in a world that offers so many distractions and competition. Shabbat worship now needs to compete with EVERY MOVIE EVER MADE. The answer to the question, “why should I be Jewish?” is getting more complicated than it ever has been, and “because you’re supposed to” just isn’t going to cut it anymore. The next iteration of the Jewish future will require a sales pitch that keeps people engaged and gives a good reason to keep coming back for more. Luckily, I and many of my peers are fairly confident that there is a great answer.

I suggest that the best role that Judaism can play in a person’s life is as a lens for meaning-making. We can’t and shouldn’t expect that the average Jew will refrain from participating in the secular world; isolation is next to impossible in a digital reality. Instead, how do we use the values and perspectives that Judaism teaches us to look at our daily life with more intention and compassion? How do we allow ourselves to experience holiness in even the most mundane of spaces? How can my Jewish tradition and community help me to live a more fulfilling life than if I tried to go it alone?

 Over two decades into the 21st century, we have seen that there is plenty to worry about in the Jewish future. Yet, as we see the rise in distraction and competition, we have the same opportunity to see a revolution in the way we allow Judaism to inform our experience of our reality. Human history has continually evolved to the point that the old ways of life became next to impossible. But in every era, the Jewish people have been able to adapt and grow to accommodate both the new way of thinking and a beautiful expression of our peoplehood and faith. That is exactly what we will do next: we will rise to meet the challenge, allow our Jewish roots to ground us in the best of what we have been, and help us aim for the best we can yet become.

Austin Zoot is the Rabbi Educator at the Valley Temple in Wyoming, Ohio.