2021 has turned out to be another unpredictable year.
As wave after wave of news stories reporting death and mayhem rolled over us, I found myself thinking about the Enlightenment. Taking root in Europe from the 17th to 18th centuries, it opened a new chapter of historical thought. Its values of rationalism and freedom of inquiry tamed the excesses of monarchs and religious leaders and eventually, as they took hold, led to the embrace of science, religious tolerance, education for all and the beginning of equality for women. The Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, absorbed some of these values and became a bridge to modern Judaism. I grew up on these values, passed down to me by my father, a scientist, and my mother, a leader of the Jewish community in New Jersey.
Yet here we are in 2021, still fighting for these same Enlightenment values. The struggle for them underlies our current challenges, from politics to public health. And here we are, grappling with groups that don’t share those values—the Taliban in Afghanistan, the terrorist masterminds of ISIS and the theocrats running Iran, not to mention large segments of the population in the United States, Europe and Israel who seem to prefer theocracy or autocracy to democracy. Nearly a third of Americans have proved reluctant or unwilling to get a COVID-19 vaccine, ignoring the established principles of scientific research that helped us eradicate polio, smallpox and other communicable diseases. Some eschew rationalism for magical thinking or insist on the kind of certainty that the scientific method of inquiry cannot supply.
It turns out we can’t take Enlightenment values for granted. We need to keep fighting for them. We can’t slough off people who don’t agree with us (and call them stupid) and think the job is done. It’s not. Nor are Enlightenment values static: They don’t necessarily present themselves as they did in the past. What enlightenment is and should be in our time is still a work in progress, and it is up to us to try to define and disseminate it. This brings us to this issue of Moment.
Let me begin with the Uyghurs in China, the subject of this year’s Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative, a project that makes it possible for journalists to cover prejudice and its effects across the world. Moment has published a number of pieces about China over the years, including one on the philosemitism of the Chinese people and another on the popularity of Jewish studies departments at Chinese universities. But China’s record of welcoming Jews and Israelis does not change the fact that Communist Party leaders have been orchestrating a frightening crackdown on the Uyghur people in Xinjiang in western China. It is no secret that about a million Uyghurs have been forcibly sent to work at “reeducation camps” in an effort to erase them as a people. Sadly, the United States and other nations have done little to stop this genocide.
Tom Gjelten, who recently retired after a long and distinguished career as a reporter at NPR, investigates why. In his damning story, “An Inconvenient Genocide,” he offers a chilling way of looking at this moral failure, reaching back into history to a time when the United States and its allies stood by as the Nazis enslaved and murdered millions of Jews and others. His juxtapostition of past and present is powerful, and we sincerely hope this story will motivate the Jewish community—and all Americans—to advocate for the Uyghur people and demand action.
This edition of Moment also marches directly into the fiery national conversation about racism. Our “Moment Debate” on critical race theory pushes a hot button on one of the most divisive issues in education today. As usual, our debaters offer dramatically different ways of looking at the topic, so you can make up your own mind. (Making up your own mind is an Enlightenment value!) In my essay “In the Shadow of the Lynching Memorial,” I recount my experience of one stop on a summer pilgrimage to civil rights sites. My visit to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama is part of my journey to understand and reckon with the racial ugliness of our nation’s past.
This brings me to our Ask the Rabbis question on self-righteousness. There are times when all of us think we are smarter than and morally superior to other people.
Of course, such thinking only makes it harder for us to listen, learn and forge new paths and connections.
As our rabbis explain, this is a very Jewish—and a very human—problem.
Searching for new paths and connections—and figuring out how to capture the essence and contours of the current conversations in our Jewish community—is what we do here at Moment. It takes courage and wisdom—which leads me to Sarah Breger. Sarah has been appointed the new editor of Moment. I have known her since she came to Moment more than a decade ago as a Rabbi Harold S. White Fellow, and have watched her become the leader she is today. You will be hearing more from her in the future. I will still be here as editor-in-chief, but I will be spending more time on creative projects and strategic partnerships. You can always reach Sarah or me at email@example.com. As we begin 5782, please stay safe—and keep reading, thinking and learning!