In his new book, Rabbi Danny Schiff, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s community scholar, tackles topics that will make many readers uncomfortable but are nonetheless crucial to consider as we head deeper into what Schiff calls the “digital age.”
In “Judaism in a Digital Age: An Ancient Tradition Confronts a Transformative Era” (Palgrave Macmillan), Schiff examines the profound changes transforming society that began about 30 years ago. He posits that the Reform and Conservative movements — having served Jews well in the 20th century — will not be the Jewish vehicles leading us into the future. Those movements served to help the Jewish people integrate as Jews into modern American society, and largely have accomplished that mission. But a new set of challenges are presented by the digital age which those movements are not positioned to meet.
New iterations of Judaism must arise, Schiff writes, that will respond in a Jewish way to the profound questions of humanity that are emerging at breakneck speed.
Schiff splits his time between Pittsburgh and Jerusalem. The Chronicle spoke with him about his book this week via Zoom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You say in the preface that this book began as you were struggling to understand why the non-Orthodox movements were on the decline, and that it evolved from there. Can you describe that evolution?
I think that the important thing to understand is that we’ve gone through a big transition. And that transition is already evident all around us. We can see congregations that were once powerful, dominant players in the Jewish landscape now weakening and merging. And in many ways, the younger generation is turning less and less to the sort of institutions and the forms of Judaism that were strong in the second half of the 20th century. So that seemed to me to be something that required explanation because the rabbis of today are not profoundly different from a generation ago, and the programs are not much different, and nor are the Jewish practices. So what exactly happened that caused this significant and obvious decline in these forms of Judaism?
I came to understand that what we were experiencing was something within Jewish life — and particularly non-Orthodox Jewish life — that was part of a much larger phenomenon. And as I explored the rise of the “digital age,” I found that many think of the big changes going on around us as being technological developments. But technology really has an extraordinary impact on every part of our civilization — and most certainly on structures of meaning, which is what Jewish life really constitutes.
You first intended to write an article on this topic, right?
It was going to be an extensive article. And then it became clear to me that there was something bigger here that needed to be explored. Once I put the decline of modern Judaism into the context of the decline of modernity itself — and I claim in the book that modernity essentially came to an end somewhere around 1990 — that obviously led to the next question. So something new is emerging — what does that mean for the longer-term fate of everything that was part of modernity? And what exactly does this new period call upon Jews to do and how should we think about Judaism in this new period — because through the centuries we’ve been pretty good at adapting to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and that will be something that will be necessary in the 21st century.
You largely leave Orthodoxy to the side in this book. Is that because you are predicting that Orthodoxy is going to remain intact going into this digital age, or do you think that Orthodoxy is not going to be flexible enough to respond to it as a new non-Orthodox iteration could?
There is no one thing called “Orthodoxy.” Orthodoxy comprises a range of different types of observance. There are those who call themselves modern Orthodox; there are those who call themselves Hasidic; there are those who have more of a Yeshiva-type orientation. And all of these forms of Judaism, which are lumped together under the heading of Orthodoxy, are really quite distinct one from the other. So there are a couple of answers to the question that you asked. The first answer is that I don’t consider myself an expert in the Orthodox world, so in the book I am more focused on the non-Orthodox world — which I start off by saying in the first chapter is more susceptible to the changes that are going on precisely because it is more exposed to the currents of modernity.
That having been said, I also am of the view that many of the parts of Orthodoxy that I’ve described are also subject, to some extent, to the dramatic changes that we’re experiencing, and therefore will also be transformed by them — but I think to a lesser extent than is true for what we have called up until now “non-Orthodox” Jews. Additionally, there are plainly those Jews who try their very best to shield themselves from the reality of what’s going on in the surrounding culture. They will be less impacted by the upheavals of the digital age, but concurrently, they are also less likely to make a Jewish impact on the world around them precisely because they seek that insulation from the surrounding environment.
You’re always respectful in your tone when you are laying bare some difficult truths about the Conservative and the Reform movements. Still, are you expecting a harsh reaction from some of the adherents of those movements?
I don’t know what reaction to expect. I think that those who give the book a fair reading will acknowledge that a lot of what I describe is actually not predictive about the Reform and Conservative movements, but is already happening. And what I say in the book is that this is not the fault of non-Orthodox Judaism. Civilization has changed in such a way that these forms of Judaism are no longer what is likely to be significantly compelling in the 21st century. So I can certainly understand that people who have been devoted to Reform and Conservative Judaism for much of their lives will experience sorrow or sadness as these movements contract. Part of the argument here is that the extraordinarily rapid change that we’re experiencing is not only difficult but it’s painful and involves loss.
If people think that my analysis is wrong, I look forward to engaging in conversation about that. I think that what we really need to try to figure out is why are we in the circumstances we’re in. So if my explanation is incorrect, then I really want to hear what people think might be the alternative analysis — because the only other analysis that I usually hear is that we simply haven’t yet found the right silver-bullet type of rabbi or program or synagogue structure, and once we do, all will be well. And I’m pretty skeptical of that approach, as the book lays out.
You put forth that you fully expect there will be new iterations of Judaism forming in the 21st century. Are you seeing any buds of those new iterations yet? Have they started?
I don’t think so. I think that even if we were seeing buds, it would be too early to recognize whether they would actually sprout into full-grown plants, and what those plants would look like. So, just as I say in the early parts of the book, when these transformations take place, you only really get to acknowledge them and understand them once you are some decades into them. I think that we’re still at a period where they’re ahead of us; and I think, therefore, we’re caught in the mist, unable to see very far ahead.
In Chapter 6, you talk about a lot of changes in society — some that are really scary — that are happening very quickly. You put forth in your book that it’s Judaism’s responsibility to come up with a response to these things. Because they’re happening so quickly, and some have already happened, is it too late?
No, I don’t think it’s too late at all. “It’s too late” — it would only be appropriate to use that gloomy expression if we are not prepared to put some ethical constraints around the technologies that we churn out and put into the public domain without a great deal of consideration. So the book, I think, is a caution. It’s a caution that says unless we take ethics, and Jewish thinking seriously, unless we start to consider how exactly civilization might best be shaped, we are headed to places that could be very problematic. And as the book indicates — and this is not I think something that is speculative — the digital age is unfolding on an exponential curve. Therefore things are happening faster and faster and multiplying in a way that, unless we get hold of them in the short term, they could get away from us quite quickly
It’s a huge task, right? Because as you point out in your book there are so many parts of the world that all these technological changes affect, from jobs, to body enhancement, to immortality. Are you optimistic that Judaism can come up with responses that actually have an effect on tempering some of these things?
Rabbi [Jonathan] Sacks, alav haShalom, makes a differentiation between optimism and hope. Optimism is for those people who sit around and say, “All will be well.” Hope emerges when you believe the future can be better because you intend to do something about it. In this case, I don’t think optimism is much in play if we are just going to let the current trajectory continue without any course corrections.
Hope? There are, to be sure, plenty of reasons for hope if we get to work.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.