June 27, 2019

‘God Is in the Crowd’: A Memoir and Warning

“My prognosis for the Jewish future is grim,” announces Tal Keinan at the very outset of “God Is In the Crowd: Twenty-First Century Judaism” (Spiegel & Grau). For precisely that reason, Keinan urgently seeks to start a conversation with “the Crowd,” which he defines as “a critical mass of the world Jewish community,” about ideas that he readily describes as aggressive and even radical. But he insists that what is at stake is the very survival of Judaism: “In an era of seemingly limitless personal options, our choice as a community is stark: Create meaning in Judaism or accept extinction.”

Keinan is an activist and an entrepreneur rather than a religious scholar. He attended Israel‘s Air Force Academy and spent eight years as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force (IAF), an experience that “left almost no time for contemplating Judaism.” He holds an MBA from Harvard and runs an investment firm called Clarity Capital. As co-founder of Koret Israel Economic Development Funds, his contribution to Israel focuses on making loans to small businesses. To put it another way, he knows how to fly an F-16 in combat, and he is an expert at number-crunching and asset management, but he relied on Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller for the accuracy of his references to the Talmud and Halacha.

The author starts with the assumption that Jews today, both in America and Israel, do not face the same threat of physical extinction that confronted Judaism during the Holocaust. “Like America, Israel has brought the blessings of security, freedom, and prosperity to many individual Jews.” But he insists that “complacent American Judaism” and “a fundamentally divided, visionless, and consequently rudderless Israel” remain a direct threat to our survival. “American Jewry is dying in its sleep,” he writes, and Israel is growing ever more estranged from the Diaspora: “Israel’s viability will be deeply compromised if the country comes to represent nobody but its own inhabitants.” His book, then, is a cry of alarm and a call to action addressed to the Jewish people in their entirety.

“Keinan’s book is a cry of alarm and a call to action addressed to the Jewish people in their entirety.”

At the same time, “God Is In the Crowd” is an intimate memoir of his own aliyah. Keinan makes the storytelling compelling by allowing us to accompany him through the harrowing experiences of applying to and training for the IAF, and then serving under enemy fire. He writes candidly and movingly about the rough bumps of his own transformation from American immigrant to Israeli citizen. In one memorable moment, he shows us what the offer of a melted cheese sandwich from a kibbutznik on Yom Kippur meant to a soldier from America at a post in the Negev: “I took it without hesitation,” he recalls. “Just like that, the single annual anchor of my Jewish identity melted in the heat of the Negev.”

Above all, he confronts us with what Israel really asks of its men and women, both young and old, whose duties include military service on fighting fronts. “The leap between war and work,” he writes, means the repeated transition from “a normal professional and family life that any Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Wall Street investor, or American Jew would recognize” to “a world fraught with terror, loss, irreversible consequences, and unavoidable guilt.” Only rarely are readers offered an opportunity to ride along in the cockpit of an F-16 on a combat mission in the “Syrian missile umbrella,” and his account is far more thrilling than any movie or video game that offers an ersatz version of the same experience.

The last one-third of the book consists of Keinan’s courageous and visionary attempt to make sense of the conundrums and contradictions that he has explored in the first two-thirds. His goal is “to offer a model of Judaism compelling enough that the vast majority of Jews, in America and in Israel, will embrace it willingly.” He turns to a very modern-sounding (but actually quite old) approach to decision-making variously called “Vox Populi” and “Wisdom of Crowds,” and he insists that “Jewish Crowd Wisdom” has always served as a tool for Jewish self-definition and self-correction. “Perhaps paradoxically, the diversity of our individual readings, and our diverse choices of destination, help to define us as a coherent nation,” he argues. “The Jewish Crowd in Diaspora did not receive dogma from above. It wrestled with its own moral governance.” Drawing on his own expertise in financial analysis, he asks: “Could the evolving Jewish moral code be a representation of a continuous moving average of more than three thousand years of religious, cultural, and moral data points?”

“God Is In the Crowd” rewards the reader with a vivid and affecting account of life in Israel today, while at the same time challenging us to ponder and perhaps even revise our understanding of what it means to be a Jew, both in Israel and America. That’s what Keinan means when he refers to the evolving moral code that is the highest expression of Judaism. “Modernity will end Jewish history and, with it, the distinctive contribution of the Jews to human history,” he warns, “unless the code, and the community that serve as its medium, can be revived.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.