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The Direction of Jewish Civilization

In an interview with the Jewish Journal [January 11, 2012, by Shmuel Rosner], Harvey E. Goldberg, an American born professor of sociology and anthropology at Hebrew University, said the following in response to a question about whether Jewish civilization is rising or declining:

“First, one should not equate change with decline. Many patterns of Jewish life are undergoing change, and it takes time to reach assessments whether these are contributing to Jewish civilization or detracting from it. Second, calling Judaism a civilization needs to be qualified. Judaism has deep historical roots and has spread throughout the world, but because of the small number of Jews compared to other major civilizations, Jewish culture and religion have always been closely intertwined with other ways of life.

“Some Jewish ideologies, particularly those we call Orthodox, have sought to deny or minimize the fact of cultural interchange and dialogue, but any sober look at Jewish history reveals myriad examples of what we consider Jewish to reflect give-and-take with the wider environment. This realization need not lead to extreme positions: Viewing Judaism as a minor derivative culture, on the one hand, or seeking greater self-isolation to help protect Jewish ideals and practice, on the other. Jews need to be informed about their past and exposed to a variety of Jewish paths that are being forged in the present. Armed with such self-understanding (which entails a grasp of other civilizations within which Jewish life has grown), contemporary Jews can make thoughtful choices that are also informed by ingrained Jewish habits.

“If Jewish civilization succeeds, to continue to grow and flourish, it will only be on the basis of internal variety and dynamic efforts to hold onto what is significant from the past, while creatively sorting through new sources of influence and pressure.”

The Shalomist believes that while the Orthodox perform a vital service in keeping traditional Judaism alive, noting that Jews would not be here today without them, it is important for the Unorthodox to help Judaism grow and change, because things that do not grow and change always die. IF Jews are supposed to be a light unto the nations, we cannot do this if we do not give those nations the respect they deserve (and which God gave them) and if we do not speak to them in words they can understand. We also need to speak to ourselves in the words we learn from those nations ­– words that help Judaism grow and change in the way God intended (assuming God wants us to grow and change, which the Shalomist does assume).

The Shalomist believes that every religion has a piece of the truth and no religion has the whole truth. Therefore, if we want Judaism to be the best it can be, we need to learn the “truths” of the other religions and integrate them into Judaism. This is a capability that Judaism is uniquely situated to do without losing our core or our essence.

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