by Tal Keinan
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
I read this book with wonder and amazement. It is meaningful as it attempts to answer the question: ”How can Judaism survive?” It is an impassioned yet well-reasoned and definitely well written reflection on an imperiled people.”
God is in the Crowd is an original and provocative blueprint for Judaism in the twenty-first century. Presented through the lens of Tal Keinan’s unusual personal story. It is a sobering analysis of the threat to Jewish continuity. As the Jewish people has become concentrated u just two hubs, America and Israel, it has lost the subtle code of governance that endowed Judaism with dynamism and relevance in the age of Diaspora. This code, as Keinan explains, is derived from Francis Galton’s “wisdom of crowds, “in which a group’s collective intelligence, memory, and even spirituality can be dramatically different from, and often stronger than, those of any individual member. He argues that without this code this ancient people and the civilization that it spawned will soon be extinct. Finally Keinan puts forward a bold and original plan to rewrite the Jewish code, proposing a new model for Judaism and for community in general. The author was born to a secular Jewish family in Florida. His interest in Judaism was ignited by a Christian minister at his New England prep school and led him down the unlikely path to enlistment in the Israeli Air Force. Using his own dramatic experiences as a backdrop, and applying lessons from his life as a business leader and social activist, Keinan takes the reader on a riveting adventure, weaving among past, present, and future and fusing narrative with theory to demonstrate Judaism’s value to humanity and chart its path into the future.
As Keinan finished the book, old fault lines between streams of Judaism have reopened. Knesset disputes around a Conversion Bill and a surprise Israeli cabinet decision to renege on a long-negotiated agreement regarding access to the Western Wall for pluralistic Jewish worshippers have reignited familiar political battles within Israel. More dramatically, the Wall debate has suddenly broadened a dangerous battle-front between American Jewry and the Israeli government. American Jewish reaction has included canceling meetings with the prime minister of Israel, threats to withhold long standing philanthropic donations to Israel charities, and a declared boycott of Israeli government representatives visiting the United States by American Jewish communities. This episode may pass, or it may escalate. Either way, we ignore it at our mutual peril. The challenges this book raises are real. The threats are only mounting. The longer we wait to face them the more we risk crossing the invisible threshold of irreversibility.
The best outcome that could emerge from this book is a public debate on the future of the Jewish People in light of the new realities we face, a debate that should have taken place ninety years ago. I am eager to see an alternate plan, or to see this one modified. Only if we chart a course can we hope to steer it and, when necessary amend it in the face of emerging obstacles. One obstacle should be clear to all of us: We cannot impose Jewishness on the Jews. The world itself is no longer imposing Jewishness on the Jews. Nor can we impose Israel on Israelis. We are all increasingly free to identify and associate as we like. The most productive segments of Israeli society have options. If and when they choose to exercise those options in sufficient numbers, Israel will lose the critical mass and quality of human resources required for its survival.
Keinan wrote the book not as an expert, but as a concerned member of world Jewry, he wrote it after having read much of the literature that touches on its subject. It is not meant to replace that literature, but to support it, and to provide a new and personal window through which greater numbers of Jews might be able to view the problem and contribute to a debate around its solution. This debate is urgent, and the numbers are important. We are crossing thresholds that will become visible only in retrospect, and from which there may be no return. Keinan wrote this book in the spirit of the third and last of Hillel’s interrogatives: “If not now, when?”
In the appendix the author points out the “Jewish World Endowment Assumptions” which includes sources of income, uses of income and how they should be utilized. He also promotes some discussion questions at the end of the book that are similar to the questions that have come up during our reflections and work on the Synod.