Is Judaism Still a World Religion?

February 20, 2018Jonathan D. Sarna

In a dramatic shift, the Jewish people has gone from being a worldwide people to being a first-world people.

More than 90% of world Jewry now lives in first-world countries, those with the most advanced economies, the greatest influence, the highest standards of living, and the greatest technological prowess.

We Jews imagine that we form part of an am olam, a global people spread from one end of the world unto the other. I remember Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus teaching Hebrew Union College students that the sun never sets on the Jewish people.

Today, though, the Jewish world is rapidly consolidating. Almost 82% of world Jewry lives in just two countries: the United States and Israel. Fully 93% of all Jews live in first-world countries. The vast majority of the world’s 196 or so countries have no Jewish community whatsoever, or they house communities so small as to be negligible.

In short, more and more Jews live in fewer and fewer places.

In part, this is good news. Throughout the past 60 years, most Diaspora Jews have moved to what Israeli demographer Sergio Della Pergola describes as “economically affluent, politically stable and socially attractive environments.” They have abandoned underdeveloped countries such as Yemen, and unstable, dangerous countries such as Afghanistan for the world’s most economically advanced countries, including the United States, Canada, and Israel. As a result, Jews as a group today are wealthier, healthier, and more secure than they were 60 years ago.

Living in the first world has been good for Jewish continuity.

They are also far more interconnected than ever before; not only do citizens of the developed world travel a great deal, but today they are also virtually connected with one another through the Internet. In the five countries where more than 90% of all Jews live, Internet penetration ranges from 70% to 90%. Overall, the consolidation of world Jewry means that it is easier than ever before for Jews worldwide to meet, share, interact, learn from, and assist one another.

On the other hand, there are also significant problems associated with the fact that Judaism has become an overwhelmingly first-world religion, and we as a community have barely begun to think about them.

First, this distinction sets Judaism apart from Christianity, Islam, and Eastern religions. Those religions are today expanding, while Judaism is contracting. Other religions and peoples are preaching the gospel of globalism and spreading their diasporas north, south, east, and west. We Jews, who invented the very concept of a diaspora, are practicing consolidation and actually reducing our exposure to the larger world.

As a result, Judaism is no longer a world religion.

We like to think of ourselves as members of a world religion on a par with Christianity and Islam (the other “Abrahamic faiths”), but that is, in fact, a delusion.

A second problem: Being tethered to the first world means being unpopular with the overwhelmingly majority of people in the world (Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East), who are contemptuous of the first world. They are jealous of its wealth and advantages, which they understandably but erroneously believe come at their expense. They are scandalized by its permissiveness and promiscuity.

To the extent that Judaism is perceived as a first-world religion, Judaism too is hated. Indeed, in much of the third world today, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism march hand in hand (“Shylock meets Uncle Sam”). Many of the charges leveled against America and against the Jews are one and the same.

There is even a widespread belief in the third world that Jews control the American government and the American media. With America emblematic of the first world, and Judaism a religion of the first world, it should come as no surprise that the two are often conflated – and hated.

Finally, in becoming a first-world religion, we Jews run the risk of diminishing our own sense of perspective, our larger vision and mission. It is all too easy, as a first-world religion, to ignore the majority of the world, especially because many of those folks do not like Jews very much. It is all too easy to read Judaism’s social teachings exclusively within a first-world context. It is all too easy to confuse “seeing the world” with “seeing the world where Jews currently live” and ignoring the other countries.

If we Jews are not careful, Judaism could easily become a religion that is smug, self-satisfied, and out of touch with the realities of the “majority world.”

None of us – least of all members of the Reform Jewish community – wants that to happen. Instead, we can work with URJ Mitzvah Corps, American Jewish World Service, and other groups in North America and Israel to make clear that however much we benefit from being in the first world, we keep the rest of the world, with all of its manifold problems, close to our hearts.

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