June 21, 2024
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June 21, 2024
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The past eight months have felt absurdly Kafkaesque. Our bizarre and disorienting reality defies any logical explanation. We feel utterly powerless in facing an angry mob which shrieks “Death to the Jews.” The world has gone mad.

That these malicious threats come from our Arab enemies is tragic, but understandable. Our enemies in the Arab world have consistently opposed any Jewish presence in Israel. The issue for them isn’t borders, refugees or the suffering of innocent Palestinians, but rather their outright denial of the right of any Jew to breathe air in a sovereign Jewish Israel.

However, what is illogical and even dystopian is the odd coalition forged to support rapists and serial murderers. It is surreal to watch crowds of Asian college students blindly back mass murderers while vilifying the victims of savage brutality. It is appalling to witness African-Americans, whose legitimate rights Jews have heroically defended, turn their backs on us while spewing venomous antisemitism. And amidst this theater of the absurd, the most farcical scene is that of the LGBTQ community, known for its policy of unconditional embrace and tolerance, suddenly turning into a hate-filled assembly of bigots. Why has “Gen Z” lost their minds and their senses? What is causing this wholesale insanity and what does this say about our own culture?


The Age of Bewilderment

Often, when humanity experiences sudden and dramatic change, confusion sets in. When the old system is unceremoniously and swiftly swept aside, humanity is plunged into an identity crisis. Sometimes this leads to healthy progress. The Renaissance period emerged in the aftermath of the Black plague of the 14th century, which wiped out up to half of the European population. Further cultural disruptions, such as the invention of the printing press and the discovery of the New World, prompted humanity to rethink its basic assumptions. The ensuing cultural reboot led to the empowerment of Man, the unleashing of his human potential and the dramatic modernization of the human condition.

However, rapid and unpredictable change can also cause cultural anxiety and societal vertigo. Prolonged cultural dizziness doesn’t often end well. WWI completely washed away the existing world order, obliterating empires and redrawing the maps of Europe. Additionally, the transportation revolution shrunk the world, while industrialization relocated populations into crowded cities. Newly discovered scientific theories altered the way we viewed ourselves. Instead of inhabiting a space cut to human size, we were now just an infinitesimally small part of “billion years and a billion spheres.” Humanity felt incomprehensibly displaced from itself. As Kafka wrote in “The Hunter Gracchus”: “My ship has no rudder, and no compass, and no steering wheel; I am driven forward by the wind, which gives me no time to look around, not even a chance to consider where I am going.” Interwar Europe didn’t know what to do with itself. Its inner angst metastasized into incoherent rage directed at the perceived cause of this cultural displacement. Jews are always easy targets.

Generation Z is experiencing a similar maelstrom of confusion and anxiety. Like the printing press 700 years ago, the internet revolution has radically transformed our lives, our communication, and both our communal and personal identity. The development of AI is just as revolutionary as the discovery of the New World and will be just as transformative. The world feels both larger than ever and smaller than ever. Once again, as a century ago, confusion and bewilderment are fueling rage and discontent.


The Age of Boredom

In addition to bewilderment, Gen Z is just plain bored. Ironically, a society can become too successful by eliminating all tyrannies and adversities. Under these circumstances, as Francis Fukayama wrote in “The End of History and the Last Man”: “…ironically the success of a society breeds the desire to rebel against it. If men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom.” Looking for purpose and for meaning in a world which doesn’t offer obvious “causes” to rally for, society turns on itself and rebels against the established order and its hierarchies.

Parshat Behaalotecha portrays our nation as we were primed to enter Eretz Yisrael and launch Jewish monarchy. Sadly, the process was derailed by discontent and complaining. This malevolent discourse poisoned the environment and demoralized our national spirit. Too much success, too much comfort and no obvious cause to rally around. Toxic speech is contagious, and soon afterward, Miriam and Aharon spoke slanderously about Moshe, destabilizing his authority. Turning in on ourselves, we imploded.


First the Jews, Then Society

Our generation, which is both confused and bored, has identified the cause of its cultural dissatisfaction: as always, the Jewish people and their state serve as the lightning rod for social anxieties and fears. In the past we were hated because we were outsiders who infected society with foreign ideas. Ironically, Israel has now become the symbol of the West and the embodiment of modernity’s perceived evils.

Tragically, this toxic mixture of bewilderment and existential boredom threatens the broader population. Humanity still hasn’t learned the hard lesson that antisemitic hatred ultimately devours general society. It always starts, but never ends, with the Jews. Angry mobs have already begun turning against the system, burning American flags and chanting “Death to America.”

This is the current sorry state of Gen Z. Confused by modernity and bored by success, they have targeted an easy scapegoat for their existential angst. Just show up at a rally without any clue about the facts, and blame Israel for all alleged crimes of the white Western male over the past 200 years. Castigating Jews is cathartic and purgative. Violence is aggrandized and rape is glorified as part of the larger battle to restore a lost past of meaning and identity. The inability to believe in anything and the desire to rebel against everything. Darkness. Alienation. Rage. Insanity.


Our Own Cynicism

Thankfully, most Jews haven’t fallen victim to this cultural nihilism. Yet we suffer from a lighter case of this cultural malaise, and it is called cynicism. Though we aren’t rebelling against modernity or the establishment, we have become excessively cynical and skeptical. We are too unwilling to accept delivered truths from others without performing self-mediation. Religion and belief are founded upon the ability to believe in truths which can’t be personally arbitrated and upon the ability to passionately commit to articles of faith and to immutable values. Religion and faith demand piety and sincerity, not cynicism and skepticism. The Talmud (Sotah 42) warns that cynics cannot stand in the presence of God. Though we are not disenchanted and not discontent, it is fair to ask how deeply we allow ourselves to believe and to sincerely commit.

This issue is especially acute in Israel where a powerful strain of cynicism simmers beneath the surface of our culture. As an immigrant (of 40 years), I wonder why Israeli culture can’t be more accepting and believing. Of course, a healthy degree of skepticism and intellectual autonomy is vital, especially as we buck the odds and build our state under such duress. However, Israelis often display too much intellectual and personal swagger and suffer from an inability to embrace and accept convention.

Living amidst this cultural chaos,we must look into our own mirror and ask ourselves: Do we believe enough? Do we believe enough in human potential? Do we believe deeply enough in historical destiny? Have we become too hard-nosed and too cynical for our own good?

As the world goes mad, don’t forget to peer into your own soul and check its health.

The writer is a rabbi at the hesder Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, with ordination from Yeshiva University and a master’s in English literature from CUNY. He is the author of “Dark Clouds Above, Faith Below”(Kodesh Press), providing religious responses to Oct. 7.


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