Searching for a unifying, global theme for 5781, it’s hard to escape two conclusions
Ever since German historian Oswald Spengler published his Decline of the West in 1918, writing a book predicting the downfall of American and Western power has been a route to riches — even as the West continued to dominate global affairs.
But like a broken clock being right twice a day, prophets of doom can also be on the mark sometimes. And searching for a unifying, global theme for 5781 — a year of plague, political earthquakes, social disorder, and natural disasters — it’s hard to escape two conclusions.
One is that a high-decibel Heavenly alarm is being sounded.
The second is that America is in the grip of something like an auto-immune disease. Like Covid triggering a cytokine storm, in which immune cells overwhelm the body, America has turned on itself. It’s losing its global vision, cultural confidence, and even grip on reality. Over the past year, that malaise — social, elite, and geopolitical — has been the country’s dominant export across the Western world. At long last, the declinist gloom merchants may be onto something.
Start with the rends in America’s social fabric. The last year has seen a range of disparate movements, from the BLM protests to Critical Race Theory, rise to prominence on the left. A common thread of these trends is a view of America as irreparably, structurally racist. This is not the healthy protest of a Martin Luther King, who demanded that America live up to its ideals. It’s the savage dismemberment of America’s heritage; revisionist self-flagellation, in which America’s origins are depicted as evil. The paroxysms of breast-beating were exported abroad, as colonial-era statues fell across Britain and parts of the Anglosphere.
Look at America’s Covid battles, and there’s more evidence of crisis. The decline of bipartisanship is a long-term trend, but the pandemic has worsened it.
Even after a chaotic political handover, America is frozen into two camps: Biden versus Trump. Wartime America had vigorous debates about strategy, but early on, a consensus crystallized in D.C. that enabled the country to marshal all resources to fighting the Axis. Covid is similarly a generational crisis, but a year and a half in, there’s a chasm instead of consensus. Lockdown politicians do battle with anti-mask mandate leaders, breaking down largely on partisan lines.
And with centrism gone, both left and right are engaged in vanity projects. Rising powers like China are pounding at the gates, but the left is worried about bizarre gender identities, and parts of the right promote tinfoil-hat theories of mass election fraud. It’s simply not the way a serious power behaves.
From elite self-indulgence, it’s a short hop to the Afghanistan debacle, which ushered out an annus horribilis. Powers in a confident expansionary phase, such as the British Empire in its pomp, are filled with a sense of mission. Right or wrong, they view the expansion of their footprint as a good thing. President Biden may have been right that most Americans wanted out of Afghanistan, but — quite besides the botched pullout — that fact alone is revealing. Uncle Sam is in geopolitical retreat, and China, Russia et al are happy to fill his shoes.
This is not intended as a jeremiad (an insult to the navi Yirmiyah, by the way). American is not doomed. It’s still the only superpower, and its retreat is one mostly of its choosing. It can find its way back. But doing so requires, like the builders of the Migdal Bavel, to rediscover devarim achadim, a unity of language and purpose.
America’s auto-immune year has been a dreadful one for the West. If there’s anything that observers across the free world wish, it’s the response to a hypochondriac’s self-obsessed maladies: “Just snap out of it.”
“Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way”
It’s been a bumper year for the halachic liberalization movement. With former pilot Matan Kahana in the cockpit of Israel’s Religious Affairs Ministry, the push to undermine established halachic bodies such as the Chief Rabbinate has moved into high gear. The above quote from a well-known Jewish feminist captures the spirit of the reforms underway in conversion and kashrus — the direction of travel is ever more lenient.
Over in Britain, a similar effort to force the local rabbinate’s hand seems to have been checked. It involved a “Get law,” which classified withholding religious divorce as domestic abuse. The problem was that the various Jewish lawmakers who pushed it through Parliament acted on their own initiative. Dayanim from the London Federation issued a psak that following the ruling would create a situation of get me’useh — an invalid divorce with tragic and irreversible halachic consequences. Behind the scenes, the rationale of the legislation was to force the hand of the local batei din, whom the community bigwigs think have been halachically unimaginative in freeing so-called “chained women.”
Could France elect a far-right leader next year? The country’s Jewish community is nervously eyeing April’s presidential elections, in which National Rally leader Marine Le Pen is a leading contender. A daughter of Jean Marie Le Pen, a far-right politician who espoused anti-Semitic views, Le Pen junior has cleaned up the party’s act, even expelling her own father. But with anti-Islam policies that would catch shechitah and kippah-wearing in a secularist dragnet, Jewish leaders are anxious.
As the old year gives way to the new, Israel will begin keeping shemittah, with more land than ever lying fallow. That’s because with Eretz Hakodesh, a chareidi slate holding significant power in the World Zionist Organization over the past year, Israel’s Keren Kayemet (KKL), a quasi-governmental body responsible for state lands, will bring those holdings under the umbrella of the great, yearlong agricultural Shabbos.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 876)
Oops! We could not locate your form.