As many might know, Brandies University and Charles Bronfman have teamed up to create a Visiting Professorship in Jewish Communal Innovation — one that will be filled by competition, and escorted into the world by a conference in which semi-finalist applicants will present and debate their ideas concerning the way Jews should or must change the way they think about “themselves and their community.”
After much deliberation, and pressure from my team, I submitted my proposal – an excerpt and a link to the full version of which is below. My hesitation comes from my youth and relative inexperience: those who will be vying for this chair have years of wisdom and depth that I have yet to gain. That said, I think the rate of change during the Information Age calls for a candidate that is intimate with the trajectory of the potential transformations that might affect our People. If my thoughts might inform such a person, we will all be better for them. And so here are the first few paragraphs, the fundamental contextualization of my thesis:
The advent and spread of information technology has irrevocably transformed the means of communication, and therefore the form communities will take until the next great leap in technological abilities. The capabilities we as humans now have to develop relationships with others and to plan and execute collective actions have been exponentially impacted by the spread of the internet. These capabilities will only be expanded in the coming years, as mobile broadband becomes just as accessible as AM radio, as data storage puts near infinite bits on a keychain, and as battery life becomes measured in days and not hours.
What has not changed, however—what has even increased in recent years—is the human need for meaning and the search for others who share a common conception of meaning and values. Hence the rise of the evangelical movement, hence the increased focus in business on social return on investment and social entrepreneurship, and hence the valuation of social networks such as Facebook for sums in the billions of dollars.
There are few social networks with the depth and breadth as the one maintained for the past three millennia by the Children of Israel. And yet Am Israel, an ancient network tying together nodes of immense value across continents and time periods, seems to have lost its reason for being. To put it plainly, most Jews do not see the added value in being part of the Jewish People – and therefore would be hard-pressed to answer the question, “why are you Jewish?” This is a strategic threat, an existential threat, one we as a People are facing for the first time in a very long time.
In fact, the last time we faced such a threat, at the turn of the Common Era, Rabbinic Judaism was born as a value set to justify the continued existence of the Jewish People as Jews. Since the time of Hellenism there have mainly been environmental pressures that kept Jewish identity in check—Christianity in the West, and Islam in the East, both maintaining a discourse within which Jewish identity was seen as a worthwhile adversary, even while it was derided as inferior. Hellenism of old, and the Western liberalism of the present day, however, work on a different wave-length—leaving those Jews who are not wholly committed to the rabbinicly defined bounds of the covenant in an entirely different operating environment which is softly killing their resolve to act as Jews. To use computers as a metaphor, whereas the Abrahamic faiths were running one form of Operating System, the Greek-inspired paradigm runs a different Operating System – thereby creating cross compatibility issues we are feeling in the present day.
Read the full proposal here.