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The Future of Jewish Communal Life

Are we ready for the spiritual transformation this plague will unleash?

Andrés Spokoiny
July 10, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed our Jewish communal infrastructure in grave danger, as Armin Rosen documented here earlier this week. At my organization, Jewish Funders Network, we have been bringing together donors and nonprofits to ensure that each sector of the community gets the assistance it needs. We’ve also been training funders in how to better plan for the future, both in Israel and North America.

But there’s one critical question many are failing to ask as they scramble to rescue our institutions and shore them up financially: whether the Jewish world is ready for the spiritual transformation this plague is going to unleash.

Few individuals emerge from a brush with death unaffected. It changes you, makes you question values and attitudes, alters your views on the meaning of life, and subjects your religious beliefs to a grueling stress test.

The same is true for societies and communities, and that’s why almost every plague or pandemic has been followed by powerful movements of spiritual, religious, and philosophical transformation.

In the religious upheaval that followed the Black Death of the 14th century, Europe witnessed the Reformation, multiple heretic movements and finally the Renaissance. More recently, the Spanish flu of 1918-19 contributed to the growth of anti-religious movements like fascism and communism. Like the Black Death, the Spanish flu changed art: Egon Schiele, for example, survived the flu (unlike his mentor Gustav Klimt, who perished) and ushered in the angst-laden expressionist movement.

Naturally, spiritual movements can’t be attributed only to plagues, but epidemics have been major catalysts of religious transformation, spurring new theologies, new understandings of life and death, new concepts of fate, and new forms of seeing the human soul and its relationship with the metaphysical.

It is all but certain that COVID-19 will also contribute to a reevaluation of our theology and our philosophy. For the first time ever, the whole of humanity is experiencing a brush with death at the same time, and we feel the limitations and inadequacies as a species. Indeed, we are eating humble pie by the ton, and that never leaves you spiritually unchanged. It is certain that we will come out of this crisis with many unanswered questions and with a heavy load of existential doubt. And that, as always, will likely affect the Jews disproportionately.

To be sure, our Jewish spiritual software was overdue for an update well before COVID-19. As I have written before, our times are disconcertingly lacking in new theological thinking. For decades, our community has mostly invested in programmatic initiatives that dealt with the frameworks of Jewish life to the detriment of its content. We have been better at creating new flashy programs than creating deep new ideas about God, the Jewish people and human nature. Our theological and philosophical frameworks, the ideological scaffolding of Jewish life, is still based on 19th- and 20th-century ideologies. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and Zionist approaches are all responses to the realities of the Jewish people in past centuries. They are all product of the clash between traditional Judaism and the revolutionary conditions of modernity.

The conditions of the 21st century are no less revolutionary—our understanding of life itself has changed, our understanding of the human condition is evolving, and the dance between technology and human consciousness is taking us to novel places. At the same time, the ideas of community, peoplehood and nationhood are also being transformed. And yet, there is no concomitant ideological development. No new systems of theology have emerged, no new philosophies have surfaced to help us navigate the radically new conditions we face. In sum, we were facing the challenges of the 21st century with a theological toolkit of the 19th. And that was before COVID-19.

I know that in a pandemic and amid a painful economic recession, talking about theology and philosophical systems seems like a luxury we can’t afford. There is something to that; the organization I lead, for example, has been deeply invested in mobilizing and coordinating funders’ emergency responses to the crisis. But history shows us that the religious and philosophic reckoning will come. In the plague’s aftermath, people’s quests for meaning will acquire a new urgency and, in that context, the vibrancy of the Jewish people will be dictated not only by how creative we get in programs and organizational mergers, but by how meaningfully we can address the deeper existential yearnings and anguishes that will emerge.

Without significant investment in ideas—theology, philosophy, deep existential thinking—we may end up saving Jewish institution but losing the possibility of a meaningful Judaism. After the Japanese smallpox plague of 700 CE, people turned to Buddhism, which was better positioned to answer some of the existential questions that people confronted; after the Black Death, the inadequacies of the Catholic Church were laid bare and Martin Luther proposed something that seemed more meaningful to large swaths of Europe. We don’t want Judaism to be supplanted by something that proves itself to be more adaptable and relevant.

I don’t think we are prepared to confront the spiritual avalanche coming our way. On the one hand, as noted before, there’s a paucity of ideas in the Jewish community. Theology, philosophy, and humanities in general are devalued, and the institutions that should incubate those ideas are being defunded, the publications in which those ideas circulate and cross-pollinate are closing, the spaces where deep ideas are debated are shrinking.

This is not just a Jewish problem: We live in a society that lionizes entrepreneurs and looks down on intellectual pursuits. Yet, for us as Jews the stakes are high. The current crisis affords us an opportunity to reinterpret our tradition, to rethink our religious values, to reevaluate the human condition and its relations with the transcendence. Individual Jews will be seeking meaning, and if we don’t provide an avenue for that yearning, like eighth-century Japanese, they’ll find it somewhere else.

As with every pandemic in the past, this one will offer an opportunity of spiritual renewal; new movements will emerge, old certainties will be shattered, and religious creativity will look for outlets.

What can the Jewish community do to prepare for this? In some ways, it is an uphill battle; a community that spent decades disinvesting the field of ideas can’t come up with a new theological system overnight. But there are still things we can do.

First, as funders, we should see the investment in spiritual and intellectual pursuits as a priority in equal measure as saving JCCs or summer camps. Places where ideas are produced and circulated need to be supported as much as other Jewish organizations. Funders can devise strategy to strengthen the field as a whole, support scholars, institutions of higher learning and publications and journals of ideas.

Second, we need to bring the issues of post-pandemic spirituality to the forefront of the community conversation.

Third, rabbis, educators and leaders need to be trained in how to have deep spiritual conversations with their congregants, students and constituents.

Fourth, we need to embark on, allow and encourage journeys of religious and spiritual exploration; something that, sadly, most of our organizations are not set up to do.

And fifth, we need to put a premium on content and deep Jewish learning. One of the reasons we can’t have deep spiritual conversations is because, as a community, we are largely ignorant of the conceptual language in which to have them. We don’t know sources, but neither we know basic concepts of philosophy and theology, impoverishing any potential communal dialogue we may have.

The times that come will be spiritually challenging, but they’ll offer us a possibility to find deeper meanings and get closer to answer the ultimate questions of existence. Let’s seize the opportunity.

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.