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As non-Orthodox movements weaken, rabbi ponders what’s next in new book

Danny Schiff’s ‘Judaism in the Digital Age’ urges readers to take seriously the Jewish mandate to ‘resume its role as an ideas generator.’

This article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and was reprinted here with permission.

Rabbi Danny Schiff’s new book, “Judaism in a Digital Age: An Ancient Tradition Confronts a Transformative Era” (Palgrave Macmillan), is part history, part prophecy — but most importantly, it’s a warning to act before it’s too late.

This is not a book to make its audience feel good. Rather, it’s a book urging us to take seriously the Jewish mandate to, as Schiff writes, “resume its role as an ideas generator” as the world is confronted by a host of moral dilemmas emerging from the innovations of the digital age.

The 225-page volume is a well-researched and thoughtful analysis of why the current iterations of non-Orthodox Judaism are losing strength in a post-modern age, and posits those movements will not be the Jewish vehicles relevant to a rapidly changing world and its accompanying challenges.

Schiff received ordination, as well as a master’s and doctorate in Hebrew Letters, from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, and is the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s community scholar.

He writes eloquently and clearly as he lays bare his theories on why Conservative and Reform Judaism continue to decline in affiliation, his tone never deviating from respectful. He credits Conservative and Reform Judaism with serving their purposes well for more than a century, explaining their significance as conduits easing Jewish integration into American society.

But, beginning around 1990, as technology started to advance at breakneck speed, the world shifted into what Schiff calls “a digital age” — and everything began to change.

“Modernity is over,” Schiff writes. “Its questions, its societal structures, and its struggles are passé. So is its Judaism. Sooner or later, Reform and Conservative Judaism will become entries in the history books, alongside modernity itself. …This assertion is not intended as a mark of disrespect for the movements of modernity. Quite the opposite. No movement lasts a thousand years — nor should it. Movements belong to a specific time that calls forth a particular response. They belong to a certain thought milieu. For any movement to retain relevance and galvanize hundreds of thousands of adherents well into a second century of existence is no small feat. It is an accomplishment worthy of admiration.”

This proclamation, essentially a death knell for Conservative and Reform Judaism, is jarring. But as Schiff dives into the hows and whys of the waning of modernity’s Judaism, any honest reader will be hard-pressed to disagree.

While thought leaders in the non-Orthodox movements have struggled to find ways to bolster affiliation and commitment for decades, Schiff proffers that their membership challenges are not due to their “institutions, programs, or procedures.”

“Fundamentally,” Schiff writes, “their challenge is one of ideas. The vitality of any enterprise is inseparable from the relevance, importance, and vibrancy of its core vision. The foundational ideas of the Conservative and Reform movements were crafted as cutting-edge concepts for a societal and intellectual milieu that existed when horses were the dominant mode of transportation. They were designed to enable Judaism to contribute its wisdom for uplifting humanity as effectively as possible within the realities of that period. Since then, the insights of that earlier age have been patched and tweaked to adapt to the conditions of the passing decades. It is, however, unrealistic to expect that ideas that are derivatives of a nineteenth-century response to modernity will be well calibrated to a vastly transformed epoch in which self-driving cars controlled by artificial intelligence ply the streets.”

Schiff writes with the conviction of one who has spent years pondering and researching the subject — which he has. And his words remain elegant and accessible even as he portends alarming advancements in artificial intelligence, gene editing and longevity that should be the stuff of science fiction but instead are real.

Judaism, he contends, “will need to grapple with the parameters of what it means to be human — and even whether there should be humans at all.”

The book gives a comprehensive reckoning of technological developments that began with the rise of the internet, integrating insights from respected futurists including Ray Kurzweil and Yuval Noah Harari, to conjure a map of where we are most likely headed — if we do not pause to decide if that is indeed where we want to go.

Judaism, Schiff submits, needs to have a seat at the table to weigh in on the moral implications of these advancements before they get out of hand.

“We bear responsibility for our world and its destiny,” he writes. “Our purpose is not to be passive observers of the cosmos but to be the keepers of life itself.”

And, Schiff writes, it will take a reimagined Judaism, relying on Jewish ideas, community and practice — rather than one obsessed with affiliation numbers — to carry us into the next century and beyond.

“Evaluating which elements will best enable Judaism to maximize its contributions in the decades ahead is a different task from assessing what it will take to reinvigorate a commitment to Judaism among a large number of Jews,” according to Schiff. “The first concern relates to how Judaism achieves its purpose. The second focuses on strategies for engaging Jews. While there is an understandable interest in the second question, the first is more consequential. After all, more than Jewish tradition has been concerned with keeping the majority of Jews Jewish, it has been devoted to making Judaism pertinent.”

The book is a must-read for anyone concerned about the future, not just of Judaism, but of the human race.

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