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Judaism and Humanity are Operating on Radically Different Timelines
Or: The case for Jewish futurism
I was deeply influenced by Carl Sagan as a child, and in particular by his Cosmic Calendar, in which the entire history of the universe is scaled down to the size of a single twelve-month period. Shrunk to this frame, the entirety of recorded human history occupies no more than the last twelve seconds of the last day of December.
As with much of Sagan’s work, the Cosmic Calendar is designed to make people feel small against the vastness of time and space. But I recently encountered something like the Cosmic Calendar again, this time repurposed to give people a sense of their own potential.
In the opening chapter of What We Owe the Future, William MacAskill makes the key point that human history is really just beginning. Compared to other homonids, homo sapiens haven’t really been around that long. Even if we only last as long as a typical mammalian species we probably have another 700,000 years ahead of us—and if we successfully inhabit other worlds we could survive quite a bit longer. MacAskill, like Sagan, sees the entirety of human history as a blip, but for MacAskill this brevity is an invitation for us to remember that, as a species, we’re just getting started.
Now, compare Sagan and MacAskill to contemporary narratives of Jewish history. In contemporary Jewish narrative, on a visceral level—though it is not always stated explicitly—we are an age-old religion that has almost reached its end, whether you believe in a history-ending messianic period or not. The achievement of the state of Israel, religiously labelled the “first flowering of our redemption,” is actually understood to be the de facto conclusion of the Jewish story, the thing we were trying to get to all along, after which there is no more story to tell. The fact that history unfortunately keeps going is now experienced not as a source of inspiration but as a kind of annoying loose end to be tied up into the existing narrative tapestry. This frustration shows up nowhere more than in the stories we tell about the state of Israel. Israel is clearly a long way off from being the ideal Jewish homeland—on this everyone agrees—but we’ve run out of narrative room to talk about why this is the case, or where we want to go. Yes, we talk about trying to do better—but that’s not a story, is it? (Let’s not even talk about the lack of a narrative for Diaspora Judaism.)
This mismatch has very real consequences. If you think your story is mostly over, you’re going to see new ideas as small attempts at nuance, rather than the early stages of something massive and exciting and unprecedented. There aren’t enough pages left in the book for another chapter, let alone many new chapters and books and whole new libraries.
Queer Jewish thought, which is one of the current centers of creative new Jewish ideas, is a great example of this. Even if you’re on board with it, it’s possible to approach Torah being written by queer Jews as nothing more than a latter-day corrective, an attempt to reimagine Torah that queer Jews will care about but everyone else can safely ignore or merely tolerate. I think this is completely wrong. The correct way to think about queer Torah is that it is forceful re-examination of huge portions of the Jewish thought, and that it has the potential to radically enrich Torah study and Jewish practice for all. It’s not a footnote to a book already written; it’s a prelude to one that is yet to come.
But this isn’t how much of the Jewish world thinks. Queer Torah is still marginal. Discussions of new tech, too, are marginal. The radically new forms of Jewish knowledge transmission enabled by digital media are marginal. To the degree that these phenomena are taken seriously it is because they are understood to be routes to “impact,” to engagement with young people—but addressing these topics because young people think they’re cool is not the same thing as actually developing them as new areas of Jewish thought, practice, and artistic expression.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the future is important and the present is not, as people keep reminding tech leaders. It is possible to think about the deep future without ignoring the people around you. The world needs thinkers and doers of all kinds. But Jewish thought is not anywhere near balanced. There is a lot of room to grow.
Now, you might say: how is a 3,000-year-old religion expected to do any different? Engagement in Jewish ideas means constantly immersing yourself in the ideas of the past. How can we be expected to think about the deep future while exploring a past that is already many multiples of a single human lifespan?
This is exactly the wrong way to think about it. Judaism’s extraordinarily long history, in which ideas that someone came up with yesterday are in conversation with ideas from decades, centuries, and millennia in the past, means that Judaism is already thinking in the deep-historical terms that futurists have only recently begun to normalize. It’s not an accident that one of the very first time travel stories ever recorded is about Moshe visiting the academy of Rabbi Akiva, who lived more than a thousand years in the future, which he is only barely able to comprehend—and this is in the Talmud, a text built over centuries on the idea that future people and past people are naturally and constantly in conversation. Engagement with Jewish thought means being able to dance over and around that history without any sense that there is anything strange about quoting texts written before humans had electricity, or could make glasses, or could even make iron tools. What is the Psalmist’s statement that for God, “a thousand year are like a yesterday that has passed” if not an invitation to envision a Cosmic Calendar?
Importantly, opening up to the long future doesn’t mean throwing away the past; in fact, quite the opposite. It is consciousness of that long past which makes it possible to develop a roadmap for the millennia to come. Perhaps we cannot become thousand-year-old men and women, but a constant conversation with the long past is not so far away, and we can approach the future as just more links in the long chain. Unless you firmly believe that the world is going to end in the Jewish year 6000—that’s 2240 A.D., mark your calendars—the long Jewish journey invites us to imagine worlds that will emerge long after our own bodies are dust and ashes. Those worlds are not ours to occupy, but they are ours to build. There is nothing to stop us.
I can’t imagine a greater disappointment than being raised to learn to treat the deep past as a friend, only to be told that every bit of it must be put in service of the projects of the next 1–30 years. Those projects very much matter, but the very framing seems custom-tailored to make us all feel old. What could be more rejuvenating than to throw the end date as far into the future as we can possibly imagine, in the process turning the entirety of Jewish history into the beginning of a story that is not yet written? People die, but religions need not. It is possible for an old religion to become young again. This is how.
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