Our era swirls with rapid change. The pace of technological advances is, perhaps, the most visible aspect of change, affecting everything from intimacy to politics, match-making to manufacturing, business to warfare. What affects us most immediately and most profoundly is speed of social change, the opening up of myriad life options that reshape our lives, families and communities.
The dizzying array of choices and freedoms have the potential to alter future culture in ways we cannot predict. Science fiction writers imagine the human landscape in utopian and dystopian visions that take account of where we are now and where we might go. Jewish American novelist and poet Marge Piercy, for example, depicts – in one novel – a 22nd-century world in which people freely select their ethnicity and gender, and form triads rather than couples to raise children. In another novel, she updates the folk tale of the Golem, reimagining it as a cyborg brought to life to protect a futuristic Jewish stronghold against powerful and amoral corporations.
As in all good science fiction, these imagined futures are a means of probing present promise and anxieties triggered by changing circumstance and value. In picturing life in a later era, we express hope and concern about contemporary trends. We prod ourselves to help build a world we’d like our great-grandchildren to inherit, all the while acknowledging we can never predict where things will lead and wondering whether we ourselves would fit into the very future we are engaged in creating.
In a Jewish context, imagining a future entails imagining a Jewish future. And while many of us can easily entertain an open-ended vision of an evolving society in broad terms, when it comes to the Jewish future, we’re caught between the pulls of tradition and change. Think about Fiddler on the Roof – that classic mid-20th-century American musical based on the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem’s dairyman, Tevye. Fearful of the diffusion of Jewish tradition, Tevye bemoans the marriage choices of his daughters: one who chooses her own partner, one who marries a revolutionary socialist and one who marries out. But while Sholom Aleichem’s turn-of-the-century Russian Tevye worried about the brutality of Russian society toward Jews, his Americanized counterpart half a century later is depicted as stubborn, entrenched in biases as misguided as those of the anti-Semites who chase him from Anatevka. By then, America had opened itself to Jews, and Jews had opened themselves to America and its boundless possibilities.
In Canada today, as well, social values create an openness to change that challenges traditional ways of being Jewish. These days, Tevye’s 20-something children might embrace Jewish life and institutions, or they may be unaffiliated – because Jewish education and synagogue memberships are too expensive, because Judaism does not speak to them or because their passions are drawn elsewhere. They introduce him to partners with comparable Jewish values or partners raised in a different stream of Judaism. Or they might bring home same-sex partners, or partners from other religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds.
We are in the midst of a sea change in how Jewish families and Jewish communities are configured. What will the Jewish world look like in a hundred years? Some people fear Jewish Diaspora life will vanish, assimilating its way out of existence, no more than a vague ethnic memory, except for a “hard-core” group of haredim. Others suggest that Judaism and Jewish life has the capacity to draw in outliers, and that the challenge we face is learning – in the imagery of this week’s Haftorah – to “enlarge” our tent.
And, indeed, except for haredi communities, most parents don’t shun children who step outside the boundaries of Jewish tradition. They continue to love them, and because they love them, they open their homes and hearts to their partners. They love their grandchildren, who may or may not be Jewish. They make Judaism inviting, and let its values and warmth beckon.