Will Judaism Disintegrate?

My new blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

A popular California rabbi’s forecast seems gloomy until you think about it. Then you realize it’s absolutely catastrophic. He says that Judaism is:

“… a platform [that] rests on a mountain of dynamite. It is about to explode.”1

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink makes that prediction on his blog “Fink or Swim.” He’s talking about Modern Orthodoxy, but whether or not he realizes it, his warning applies to all branches of Judaism. He explains:

“Every real argument I have seen against Open Orthodoxy is an appeal to authority … Opponents claim that Open Orthodox rabbis and teachers lack authority … Proponents of Open Orthodoxy [rebut] these claims by invoking other commonly accepted authorities who do support them. ‘Round and around it goes.”2

Rabbi Fink believes the arguments are irrelevant because younger Jews are Millennials, for whom appeals to authority carry no weight:

”Today, Google allows us to fact-check from our phones before the authority finishes [his or her] sentence. Now, authority must be based on sound reasoning and meaningful arguments, not fear or shame … Appeal to authority with Millennials at your peril. The gods of man-made authority are dead to them.”3

In one sense, none of it is new. He has joined an argument that is indeed “millennial,” in the sense that it has been raging for over a thousand years. Saadia Gaon had his say in the 10th century CE, Maimonides in the 12th, and Spinoza in the 17th, when he wrote that religious authorities:

”… will put forward human beliefs and fabrications as God’s teaching and thereby abuse the authority of the Bible.”4


“I am utterly amazed that men should want to subject reason to ancient words that might well have been adulterated with malicious intent … They consider it pious not to trust their own reason and their own judgment and consider it impious to have doubts concerning the reliability of those who have handed down the sacred books to us.”5

Then in the 18th century, Moses Mendelssohn put in his two shekels’ worth:

”Convictions, by their very nature, permit no coercion or bribery … Hence, neither church nor state has a right to subject men’s principles to any coercion whatsoever. Neither church nor state is authorized to connect privileges and rights, claims on persons and titles to things, with principles and convictions, and to weaken through outside interference the influence of the power of truth on the cognitive faculty.”6

In another sense, however, our own era really is different. The Internet, the 24/7 cable news cycle, and mobile phones bombard us with opinions, information, and falsehoods from every imaginable direction. This incessant stream of “facts” both challenges our settled beliefs and urges us to follow different beliefs.

That can be a good thing if our beliefs are terribly wrong. But human communities — not just religious denominations — often depend on shared beliefs and shared respect for elders who are regarded as authorities. We have communities in the first place because they satisfy some of our deepest biological and spiritual needs: to be safe, to be liked or loved, and to be understood.

Thus, I think that Rabbi Fink is right about the danger but wrong about the reason. Millennials are no more open-minded than any other generation,7 but they look to different authorities: to the Internet, to rappers and pop singers, and to whatever current political crusade makes the most noise or offers the most pitiable tale of victimhood.

That Millennials do it is unsurprising for a couple of reasons.

First, they must. In their psychological development, children rebel against their parents in order to define their own separate identities. Likewise, in its social development, each generation rebels against the previous one in order to define its own sense of generational identity.

Second, the dominant culture is a seductive blend of hedonism and moral nihilism. In an earlier and far saner era, Samson Raphael Hirsch railed against the cultural influences of his own time:

”But behold! The prophet of the new message came into their midst with the cry of ‘religion allied to progress’; he filled the blank, pacified their conscience, and wiped out their shame. With this magic word he turned irreligion into Godliness, apostasy into priesthood, sin into merit, frivolity into virtue, weakness into strength, thoughtlessness into profundity.”8

What made Spinoza a Jewish philosopher is not that he held traditional Jewish beliefs — he didn’t. But he took Judaism, its sacred writings, and its tradition as his starting point, his authorities, even if only to reject them. He argued with other Jewish thinkers. Whether he liked it or not, he was part of the conversation.

The current Zeitgeist tells us that God doesn’t care what we do even if He exists. It says that the only important thing is for us to have pleasure and, presumably the result, be happy. It says that we have no obligations to our faith, our people, or our communities. It says that our only duty is to our own whims and entertainments. Of course such a message appeals to people who feel unjustly deprived by out-of-date moral and religious ideas. “Do what thou wilt” is hard to beat as a sales pitch. That’s what the culture offers Millennials in place of our historic faith.

Authority is not going away, for three reasons.

  • First, the nature of humanity: Like other primates, human beings live in hierarchical societies, with authority figures at the top.
  • Second, the nature of knowledge: You can’t think or learn based on nothing. You have to start somewhere. Your starting point is the authority you accept, whether it’s the Jewish tradition, the scientific method, or the latest dicta from the Internet.
  • Third, the nature of society: Social division of labor means that different people do different jobs. Some people build airplanes, some grow food, and some think about religion and morality. The people who think about religion and morality, whoever they are, are authorities in that field. To pay attention to their advice in their areas of expertise is not blind submission to authority, but a sensible way to live our lives.

The question is not: “Will people look to authorities for advice on what to think and how to live?” They will. That’s a given.

Instead, the question is: “Will the authorities be helpful or harmful — morally, socially, spiritually, and psychologically?”

Our challenge is to give Millennials and others a way to rebel against earlier generations without “going rogue” by rejecting the moral and spiritual heritage that is their birthright.

Our response to that challenge will determine the future not only of Judaism, but of our civilization itself.

Works Cited

Frank, D. et al, editors (2000), The Jewish Philosophy Reader. Routledge, London.

Gottlieb, M. (2011), Moses Mendelssohn: Writings on Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible. Brandeis University Press, Waltham, MA.

Israel, J. (2007), Benedict de Spinoza: Theological-Political Treatise. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.


  1. Fink, E., “Why the War of Words About Open Orthodoxy Won’t Matter,” February 10, 2016. 
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Israel,J. (2007), p. 178. 
  5. Ibid, p. 186. 
  6. Gottlieb, M. (2011), p. 72. 
  7. The inflexible dogmatism of political correctness is an example. Articulated by those whom Millennials see as authority figures, it embodies a view of the world that they feel must not be doubted or disobeyed. 
  8. Frank, D. et al (2000), p. 391. 

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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22 Responses to Will Judaism Disintegrate?

  1. Do we need human authority for Judaism? Do we need authority for music? For love? For friendship? For forgiveness?


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      You raise a good question. The idea of “authority” is a bit unclear, and I added a paragraph to the blog post in an attempt to clarify the way I’m using it.

      The short answer to your question is, “Yes, but …” Human authority is needed for most human communities, but I’m using the idea in a somewhat wider sense. Spinoza was a Jewish philosopher not because he held traditional Jewish beliefs, but because he was part of the Jewish conversation. He referred to the Jewish tradition, the Torah, and the rabbis, even if only to reject them. Likewise, “authority” in the broad sense is needed for music and for art generally if it is to be shared and understood by communities of people. Symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets share a common language and common structural features that make them comprehensible to listeners; without those features, you get chaotic noise. Visual art is the same way. Your own field, writing, uses authoritative structures and techniques without which nobody would understand what was going on: Robert McKee’s story structure seminars come to mind. We want to keep people in the Jewish conversation.


      • Will friendship disintegrate without an authority preserving it? Will love? Will forgiveness? Will music? I would say the answer to all these questions is “no”. Why should Judaism be different?


      • N.S. Palmer says:

        I think that two issues are involved here. First, one of your earlier comments highlighted the fact that “authority” can have a narrow meaning (some king or rabbi issues a decree) or a broader meaning (a consensus of a community and its conventions). I’m using it in the broader sense. I agree with you that none of the things you listed, including Judaism, require the narrow kind of authority, though a narrow authority might be helpful in Judaism.

        Second, it does seem to me that your list includes two different groups of things. Group 1 includes friendship, love, and forgiveness, which are usually between two people or at least a very small number. Group 2 includes music and Judaism, which both involve larger groups of people for whom consensus and conventions both facilitate communication and unite the group. So yes, Judaism is different in the sense that it must unite a large number of people, facilitate communication, resolve disputes, and so forth. Without some kind of agreed-upon authority and “rules of the game,” it can’t function. That’s how it seems to me, anyway. I make no claim to authority or infallibility; just as Rabbi Fink suggests, I’m offering reasons that I hope make sense.


      • Can’t I love a lot of people? Or nature? Or G-d? Why the worry about disintegration?


      • N.S. Palmer says:

        Those questions could get us lost in a thicket of different definitions. For example, my reaction — observe that I do not elevate it to the status of an answer or an argument — is that one cannot love a lot of people. Our time, energy, and attention are limited. Unless we mean “love” in a diluted sense, it seems to me that we can love only one or a few people, even if we have a general feeling of goodwill toward many others. For me, I suppose the operative question is “Would I take a bullet for that person?” The list of such people is very short. I love those people, but I would certainly help complete strangers if they were in dire need and I could reasonably do so. That’s not love, just general benevolence. Loving God or nature, of course, again, we’re talking about different meanings of the word love.

        I worry about disintegration mainly because we are social beings who need each other to become our best selves. We need to cooperate under common rules and expectations, value each other, and understand each other. Those things are easiest between people who share basic beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and ways of life, whatever they are. There’s nothing magical about, for example, speaking Hebrew; but when I see the Orthodox Jew who works at the grocery store, we talk in Hebrew instead of English. I think it says, “I see you, value you, and we are in the same club.”


      • do you see any signs that the Hebrew language is disappearing? why this worry about distintegration? what are the signs that you live in a world where common rules and expectations are vanishing? BTW don’t compare now to an idealized past that never existed — what are the signs that we are having problems compared to the past?


      • N.S. Palmer says:

        I was using Hebrew only as an example of something that can signal a basis of mutual trust. Of course, Hebrew did disappear in a lot of times and places except for literature and scholarship; Saadia and Maimonides wrote a lot in Arabic to reach the widest audience. Kind of related since you like Mendelssohn — maybe you know it already — but in Michah Gottlieb’s Mendelssohn book, he says that Western philosophy has a misleadingly narrow view of Mendelssohn because it has focused on his German-language work and ignored his works in Hebrew. I don’t recall the specific points he made, but if it’s of interest …

        As for historical changes, that’s an empirical issue. It seems obvious to me, and apparently to Rabbi Fink, that different segments of society no longer hold the same assumptions about life, etc. The problem is that every major difference between large social groups is a potential fault line along which society can fracture, leading to strife, hatred, and violence. Ferguson, Baltimore, and San Bernadino did not come out of nowhere. “Can’t we all just get along?” is a terrific idea, but human nature being what it is, it’s much easier in a society where there is broad agreement about the major issues of life and where groups of people inclined to hostility for each other seldom interact. Should it be that way? Maybe not. But it is that way. Humans are not angels.


      • You believe people need to agree on religion not to hate each other? The Satmars and Lubaitchers, Catholics and Protestants, Sunnis and Shiites all hate each other despite a near identity in faith (the difference is more or less incomprehensible to the outsider), yet within the US Jews and Catholics and Protestants and atheists get along rather well. As the old computer proverb has it — does not compute!


      • N.S. Palmer says:

        I think that you missed the word “potential.” We are biologically inclined to hostility and aggression against those we perceive as genetic competitors, and we tend — that is, need not necessarily, but are likely to — to interpret cultural and religious differences in terms of those biological defaults.


      • Even if everybody has the same religion there is potential (and often actual) hatred and violence


      • N.S. Palmer says:

        Undisputed. I don’t like those things, but there they are. We just have to do the best we can in our own lives, accepting that we will occasionally fail.


      • The question is why do you think religious uniformity is either a necessary or sufficient condition for peace? Why not go for peace more directly?


      • N.S. Palmer says:

        Religious difference and other differences (nationality, race, language, even high school or favorite sports team) are risk factors that make violence and hatred more likely. They are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions. If you put a chocolate donut in front of me, that is neither necessary (I could get one elsewhere) nor sufficient (I might not be hungry) for me to eat one. However, chocolate donuts are a known weakness of mine, which is why I don’t keep them at home and don’t go to donut shops.

        The Torah counsels us not to put a stumbling block in front of the blind. Commentators interpret the verse more generally, meaning that if we know people have a certain weakness, then we should generally not expose them to it. The tendency to be hostile toward those who differ is a known weakness of human nature. With effort and good will, people can often surmount it, just as a blind person might hop over a stumbling block. But the question is, why put the stumbling block there in the first place?

        As with most things, there are nuances. I haven’t done a scientific study, but I’m sure someone has, to determine when people feel threatened by difference and when they don’t. My guess is that numbers matter a lot. To avoid unintended aspersions on any specific group, let’s say members of nationality or religion X come into a country of nationality or religion Y. A few X-ers seem novel, interesting, and exciting. But increase it to a few million X-ers, and whether or not there’s a real threat, Y-ers will start to get nervous, then fearful, then hostile. They treat X-ers with hostility and the X-ers reciprocate. The situation escalates. Then both groups have a real problem, but one they could have avoided.


      • Your program — erase human differences to avoid violence — is totalitarian. I’d certainly want a lot more evidence before signing on, since the consequences, carried out logically, are so horrendous.


      • N.S. Palmer says:

        Who said anything about erasing human differences? Gosh, me being such a mild sort, and a crypto-libertarian to boot. I must come across a lot scarier than I really am.


      • you said you want to have everybody have the same religious belief so as to avoid inter-group violence. didn’t you? Did I miss something?


      • N.S. Palmer says:

        No, that’s not what I said.

        I stated a fact, that various types of difference are a risk factor for violence and hatred. I stated an opinion, that it is imprudent deliberately to introduce or increase such risks in society. That line of reasoning goes back to what I said a few weeks ago in “Ending the Violence, Part 2:” Groups of people who can’t seem to stop killing each other need to be physically separate. That both minimizes environmental triggers of aggressive impulses, and minimizes opportunities to engage in aggression. I’m actually against killing, I’d like people to do a lot less of it. If Muslims want to be Muslims, or Wiccans want to be Wiccans, or as one of my college friends who became a Pentecostal minister does, if they want to speak in tongues, that’s absolutely fine with me. But I’d prefer they not do it in my living room, and I think they have the same right not to have me intrude on their space.


      • I’m having difficulty following your thought, but that’s okay — I’m sure it makes sense — I dont’ mean to “hock you a tchaynik”!


      • N.S. Palmer says:

        If I can’t communicate my ideas to you, with whom I suspect I have a lot in common, then I’m not communicating them well. I’ll go back and take a look to see if I can do it better.


  2. BTW as far as my own field — writing — neither stories nor jokes need an authority in place to keep them around. People enjoy them, and we the writers face no authority other than our own need to express, and the listeners pleasure.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      I think we’re back to using “authority” in two different senses. It occurred to me that in the first sentence of my blog post, I used a technique that I’m sure you use all the time: Leading the reader or hearer to think that you’re going in one direction, then abruptly doing something else. (“At first it seems gloomy, but when you think about it …” The reader expects I’m going to say it’s not gloomy but is fine, and instead, I go in the opposite direction and say it’s much worse than gloomy.) That’s the kind of authority I’m talking about. It’s a set of conventions and techniques that let us communicate effectively, cooperate, and so forth. You’re the expert, but it seems to me that people understand your comedy writing because it’s creative while following some conventions that the audience understands.


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