Exit, Loyalty … Crowdsource?

Tal Keinan’s God Is in the Crowd leads with a strong hook:

I awoke to the smell of ammonia. I was on my feet, but couldn’t remember where. . . . I exhaled instinctively . . . and held my breath for as long as I could. When the air rushed back in, the wet burlap hood fastened around my neck pressed against my cracked lips. I tasted urine, and the reality began flooding back. I was hunched low, in an underground cell, my shaved head scraping through the burlap against a jagged stone ceiling.

Orientation: I remembered that my dungeon cell was four stories underground. I had counted my steps over the days. I could faintly hear the echoes of angry curses issued in Arabic, iron doors slamming, beatings, and cries. They were likely coming from minus two, where I believed my teammates were being held.

Not a single member of the community that had raised me to adulthood knew where I was. I was more alone than I had ever been, but driven by a conviction that eclipsed my solitude. . . . This was the right place for me. . . . I took a moment to recognize the absurdity of my gratitude at the threshold of the interrogation chamber, and caught myself smiling softly under the hood. That conviction was born at . . . Phillips Exeter Academy in 1986.

 Tal Keinan.
Tal Keinan.

It is a bit of a surprise to open a big-think policy book on the fate of the Jewish people and read a Jason Bourne scene with a prep-school payoff, but Keinan is entitled to it. It was a training exercise in the Israeli Air Force, which he joined after moving to Israel in college, a process that began when, as a junior at Phillips Exeter named Tal Weiner, he began to think seriously about what it meant to be Jewish. Keinan tacks between autobiography and policy throughout God Is in the Crowd. Despite his extraordinary achievements—he became an F-16 fighter pilot before getting a Harvard MBA and cofounding the investment firm Clarity Capital—he does so with modesty (the only combat mission he describes is one in which he bombed the wrong target).

Albert O. Hirschman. (Photo by Herman Landshoff, courtesy of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.)
Albert O. Hirschman. (Photo by Herman Landshoff, courtesy of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.)

The Jewish issues Keinan addresses could not be larger: the accelerating demographic decline of American Jewry, the dangerous sociopolitical stalemate in which Israeli Jews find themselves, and the relation between the two. He describes himself as “an insider in two worlds who had achieved escape velocity from both,” and, though he is not unique in this respect, it does give him, as he says, “an uncommon vantage point.” Keinan goes on to say that history has proved “that there was one identity I could not escape. I was a Jew,” but of course he knows that even if this proved to be true for him, it is very far from true of American Jewry. As the economist Albert O. Hirschman elegantly showed, there is always the possibility of leaving any organization that demands loyalty. For 21st-century American Jews, the exit door is always accessible. As an alternative to exiting an organization, Hirschman pointed out another option, “voice”: A citizen or customer can point out flaws, protest, suggest a solution. It is to Keinan’s great credit that he sees the Jewish people as a whole and voices his concerns on both the Israeli and the American fronts.

Keinan describes his own father’s mute fury when his older brother announced his engagement to his non-Jewish girlfriend. Eventually, he took Tal and his three brothers out for dinner to finally, incoherently, tell them how important being Jewish was to him.

It was Passover, and we were eating pizza as we debated the value of Jewish tradition. The unintended irony was completely consistent with our upbringing . . . Where was the line between observing a kosher Passover and marrying out of the tribe? We were Jewish, but were we not American as well?

Keinan is clear that he does not fault those Jews who find love outside the faith, as, eventually, each of his three brothers did. However, he correctly insists, the implications for American Jewry as a whole are stark. According to the 2013 Pew Center study of American Jewry, 58 percent of American Jews who get married marry non-Jews (subtract Orthodox Jews from the equation and the number skyrockets to over 70 percent). Among the 42 percent of American Jews who do marry other Jews (and this includes converts to Judaism), the average number of children is 1.9, which is the same rate for Americans as a whole.

If this trend continues, and there is every reason to think that it will, “the size of the next generation of American Jews who have two Jewish parents will be only 36 percent the size of today’s.” The following generation, Keinan writes, “will be 13 percent the size of today’s—almost complete collapse.” This may unfairly discount the Jewish lives and identities of the children of intermarriage, but there are numbers on that too, and they aren’t encouraging. In short, the grand story of American Jewry, which now accounts for almost half of world Jewry, will be effectively over within the space of a lifetime, save for a few small enclaves of committed Jews, the majority of them Orthodox, and most of those haredi. One is reminded of the economist Herbert Stein’s famous law: “If something cannot go on forever, then it will stop.”

What of Israel, where the other half of world Jewry lives? Simplifying for an American popular audience, Keinan divides Israeli Jewry into three ideological camps: Secularists, Territorialists, and Theocrats. In the Secularist group, he includes not only the heirs of Herzl and Ben-Gurion but all those Israeli Jews, including Modern Orthodox ones, who believe in a fairly strict separation between religion and state. Territorialists are those Religious Zionists who insist that Judea and Samaria should be wholly annexed on theological grounds regardless of the consequences. The Theocrats represent the rapidly growing haredi population, whose primary allegiance is to their own community and their conception of Torah.

Keinan is a frank secularist, but his definition of secularism is overbroad, since it includes all Israelis who accept a (mostly) secular state, religious pluralism, and the possibility of territorial compromise. While he describes the selfless idealism of some of his Religious Zionist fellow soldiers with real admiration, he argues that annexing the territories would quickly lead to a non-Jewish majority in Israel. He evinces no understanding of, or sympathy for, the Theocrats, who are, on Keinan’s account, haredi free-riders who take a disproportionate amount of government services while refusing to serve in the army and failing to adequately contribute to the economy. Moreover, in addition to what economists call rent-seeking, their political activity is primarily aimed at coercing their fellow citizens to conform to their strict construals of Jewish law concerning matters of personal status, such as marriage, divorce, and conversion. (Keinan and his wife avoided an official rabbinate marriage by having a civil marriage in New York before their non-state-recognized Reform marriage in Israel.)

Even though the Secularists bear “the bulk of both the defense burden and the economic burdens that underpin Israel’s survival,” they are losing, demographically and politically, and this very loss further undermines their commitment to the Zionist project. He points out that half of all first graders in Israel are now either haredim or Arab Israelis, meaning that absent a huge cultural shift, they won’t be receiving a draft notice in 10 years. “In light of the looming defeat of their vision,” Keinan writes, “it is becoming difficult for Israel’s Secularists to justify shouldering this growing burden.” After all, why not just leave for America? (This won’t strengthen American Jewry, by the way. As Keinan notes, expatriate Israelis are even more likely to intermarry than American Jews.)

Keinan’s analysis alternates between the anecdotal and the schematic, and his broad characterizations obscure a great deal. It is true, for instance, that the secular ideology of the Zionist founders is no longer ascendant, but that doesn’t mean that a majority of the country now rejects the idea of a modern pragmatic state. There are also relevant developments that he does not discuss, including the rise of the new “Jewsraeli” identity described by Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs, which combines a soft traditionalism with unwavering patriotism, and some encouraging signs of haredi integration into general society. He also ignores recent strategic developments in the Middle East, especially the Sunni states’ new posture toward Israel and the chaotic state of Palestinian politics, which impact when and how to negotiate over the territories regardless of whether the Territorialists are right in their eschatological interpretation of history. But he’s also not wrong about the danger of the cultural and political divides by which Israel is riven. The Jewish state is lurching toward what, as I write in early December 2019, looks like one of three bad options: an unstable “unity government” of fierce opponents, a narrow government that isn’t much more stable, or a third election in 11 months.

If American Jewry is on the verge of evaporating while Israel is about to implode, what is Tal Keinan’s solution?

In 1906, the British statistician Francis Galton went to a county fair where some 800 people were placing bets on the weight of a fat ox. Some of the contestants were farmers and butchers, but nonexperts who just liked a good bet also competed. No one correctly guessed the weight of the ox, but when Galton averaged all the guesses, he found that their collective wisdom was that the ox was 1,197 pounds. It weighed 1,198. As James Surowiecki wrote in his bestselling book, The Wisdom of Crowds, Galton had stumbled on “the simple but powerful truth that . . . under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” This turns out to work for guessing gumballs and finding the coordinates of lost submarines, as well as determining the weight of butchered oxen. As Surowiecki went on to detail, drawing on the work of cognitive scientists, economists, and others, there are more such circumstances than one would have imagined. And that’s Keinan’s solution.

He read Surowiecki at the Harvard Business School and theorized that we must tap into the wisdom of the Jewish crowd to provide “a model of Judaism compelling enough that the vast majority of Jews, in America and Israel, will embrace it willingly.” This, oddly, is more or less what he thinks Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi was doing in the 3rd century when he codified the Mishnah. But the Rabbis were intellectual elitists who disdained the crowd. Their ideal system of governance could be called a representative meritocracy, run by jurists who valued precedent highly even when they departed from it. To the extent that it was a democracy, it was, to employ Chesterton’s famous phrase, “a democracy of the dead.”

Nonetheless, Keinan finds it “difficult to ignore the neatness of the theory that Crowd Wisdom served as Diaspora Jewry’s method of governance,” and thinks he sees Surowiecki’s three criteria for wise crowds working through Jewish history.

Dispersion created . . . independence. Communities in the Russian Pale, for example, were cut off from the ghettoes of Western Europe . . . Each interpreted its Talmud independently. . . . Jewish communities in the Diaspora were culturally diverse. Bankers in the Venetian ghetto were affected by their interactions with the Venetian business community . . . making their experiences distinct from Ottoman Jews . . .[they] formed a mosaic of diversity. Periodic migrations and expulsions over the centuries forced the aggregation and reconciliation of ideas that had diverged in isolation. The simple average that we used to aggregate guesses at the number of gumballs in a jar was an unsophisticated operation. This qualitative Jewish reconciliation would have been far more complicated, but it served the same function.

Real history is not so neat. The ghettoes of Western Europe were largely gone by the time of the Russian Pale (that’s the beginning of the story of Emancipation and assimilation, and Keinan is grappling with their effects); Shylock certainly had distinct experiences from Rabbi Joseph Karo, but what of it? And though migrations and expulsions do mark the medieval and early modern Jewish experience, a strong web of scholarly, business, and personal ties connected Jewish communities. When Maimonides answered the questions of the Jews of Southern France from his home in Cairo, their exchange was certainly “far more complex” than counting gumballs, but it did not, even remotely, “serve the same function.” In his zeal, Keinan seems to have forgotten that both the miracle and the limitation of crowd wisdom is that there is spontaneous coordination without conversation. It works for markets, but tradition and the scholarship that sustains it are not a market function.

Nonetheless, Keinan suggests that the “evolving Jewish moral code” is like a “moving stock average of more than three thousand years of religious, cultural, and moral data points.” But charting a moving average to eliminate “noise” and smooth the trend line presupposes that the data points are just that: points on an x/y graph. But how does one graph, to take a simple case, a biblical verse through its various commentaries and literary uses? The ungraphable details matter; one might even say that God is in them (and not in the graphable crowd).

The climax of the book is Keinan’s description of a closed-door Israeli Air Force meeting after a 2002 attack on a Hamas terrorist in Gaza whose operations had killed hundreds of Israelis. The terrorist, Salah Shehade, was killed, but so were civilians. Israeli Air Force commander Dan Halutz led the meeting, which Keinan describes as turning quickly from a tactical debriefing to an impassioned moral discussion. It ended without consensus (27 pilots later publicly resigned), but all voices were heard. “We knew,” he writes, “we would never have perfect answers, but through some invisible cognition, the community’s combined struggle for an answer had come close . . . This is how Diaspora had worked.”

This may, or may not, have much to do with how the diaspora worked, but it has nothing to do with strangers counting gumballs or a market achieving equilibrium. A town-hall meeting like this might be better described in Hirschman’s terms: Keinan and his fellow fighter pilots had (like American Jews) three options: loyalty, exit, or voice.

Unfortunately, Keinan’s proposal for the revitalization of Jewish life is high-tech gumball counting:

Imagine a machine designed . . . for applying the wisdom of a large crowd . . . This machine’s inputs would consist of the textual opinions, insights, predictions, and prescriptions of the subject community. The machine would rank the input . . . by means of an objective logic . . . It would continually aggregate and reconcile these inputs into a constantly evolving Crowd Wisdom.

The problem with this is not the sci-fi conceit or even its sheer incoherence—how exactly does one teach one’s children “constantly evolving Crowd Wisdom,” and why?—but rather the premise that if we just had good enough data on what most Jews think Judaism should be, to the extent that they have thought about it at all, then that’s what it should be.

In the absence of a “wisdom machine,” Keinan ran a poll of varied Jewish acquaintances asking them to list 10 identifiers that “form the de facto pillars of contemporary Jewish identity.” The top five results were justice, education, challenge and dissent, ritual and tradition, and community (neither God nor Torah made the list). On this basis, he proposes a world Jewish tax that would fund summer camps, a high-school tikkun olam project, and college tuition for all participating Jews (has he heard about Jewish life on American college campuses?). In other words, more of the same at the cost of, he estimates, $13.75 billion.

It’s a shame, really, because there are parts of a better, more thoughtful book lurking in this sleek bestseller festooned with celebratory blurbs by stellar Jewish writers, academics, pundits, and rabbis. They can be found in the passages in which he charts his own fascinating Jewish journey and takes with ultimate seriousness the idea that both Israeli and American Jewry need a fundamental reorientation. As he writes in the final sentence of the book, “If Rabbi Yehuda, and all the successive generations that preserved our fragile legacy for so long, could ask us one question, perhaps it should be: Who are you to end it?

Tal Keinan penned a response to this review; it can be found here.

Abraham Socher’s rejoinder to Tal Keinan’s response can be found here.


  1. Marcel Klapisch

    Excellent review! Taking an average of the present situation - even if it is a correct guess of what Judaism IS - cannot tell us, like Rabbi Jonathan Saks said - what it OUGHT to be. That is why, he wrote many books and lectures everywhere to awaken Jewish consciousness.
    The book describes as you say, more of the same, i.e. disparition of US Judaism and implosion of Israel. But History - specially the Jewish history- is full of surprises . In a time of growing antisemitism, many Jews will be forced to be aware of their Jewish roots, and think what to do about it.

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