Few ideas exercise such superficial appeal as the belief that the major threat to the Jewish people today is our small and ever declining numbers. And few ideas are ultimately more counterproductive and potentially dangerous.
Michael Freund's "Size Counts" (April 21) is the latest example of what is by now a familiar genre in these pages. The bulk of the article consists of depressing statistics about the Jewish people's declining numbers – both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the world's population. On the eve of World War II, for instance, Jews constituted eight of every thousand people in the world; today the figure is two per every thousand.
In part that decline is a consequence of the Holocaust, without which, Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola estimates, the number of Jews today would be approximately two-and-a-half times its current number. But only partly. In absolute terms, the Jewish population has continued to decline since the Holocaust.
What Freund fails to do, however, is to explain why numbers per se matter. He asserts that "to live up to our national mission as Jews, we need a much larger and more diverse 'team' at our disposal." Yet he never defines that mission, or explains what he means by a more diverse team, or in what way greater numbers would help us fulfill that mission. At most, he invites us to contemplate the "cultural and spiritual riches" that would have been produced but for the Holocaust. But those cultural and spiritual riches will not be replaced by tracking down every obscure tribe in the world that has an oral tradition that they are one of the Ten Lost Tribes, which is Freund's own pet hobby-horse; doubling our numbers in that fashion will not double our number of Nobel Prize winners.
The only source for our mission, the Torah, informs us explicitly that our mission has nothing to do with our numbers: "Not because you are more numerous than all the peoples did Hashem desire you and choose you, for you are the least numerous of all the peoples" (Deuteronomy 7:7). The promises to the forefathers that their progeny would be numerous are Divine blessings that will follow from our fulfillment of our mission. But it is not our task to bring about those numbers.
Since the mission of the Jewish people is a spiritual one – to bring knowledge of G-d to the world – our criteria for evaluating success or failure are spiritual, not material. In the yeshivos of Europe, they taught that purity, not numbers, is the Jewish standard of measure. From purity numbers can come, but from numbers, quality will never come.
From the time of the mixed multitude that accompanied the Jewish people out of Egypt greater numbers have often been at the expense of our spiritual mission. For that reason, the rabbis of the Talmud forbid conversion altogether in certain periods, and discouraged proselytizing.
THE OBSESSION WITH NUMBERS is based on a confusion between cause and effect. Many of the steps taken as a consequence of that obsession amount to no more than putting ineffectual band-aids on the symptoms, while allowing the disease to rage untreated. Never have American Jews faced fewer obstacles to the practice of their religion or so few threats to life and limb. Yet the number of American Jews has remained unchanged for fifty years, despite the arrival of more than 500,000 Jewish refugees in that period. And of those counted as Jews by the demographers, twenty percent are not halachically Jewish.
Lower rates of marriage and fertility of Jewish women contribute to the demographic stagnation. But by far the biggest contributing factor is intermarriage and drop-outs from the community. Our declining numbers are indeed a source of pain, but the reason is not the numbers themselves but what they tell us: Being Jewish is simply not that important to most Jews today.
The measures taken to address the declining numbers, while ignoring the cause, are, at best, a waste of time and money, and, at worst, only exacerbate the downward spiral. American Jewish Federations are forever announcing new initiatives in Jewish continuity. Such efforts are presumably based on the assumption that it is important that the Jewish people continue to exist.
Yet that is the very question never addressed by any of those continuity efforts: Why is it important that the Jewish people continue to exist? Worse, the nature of those efforts – singles nights, "edgy" magazines aimed at youth who hated Hebrew school – only emphasize the opposite. There is nothing really important about being Jewish. The more desperately we run after young Jews -- no matter how far they stray and whom they marry -- to assure them that they and their children are still members in good standing of the tribe, the more we convince them how worthless that membership is and how unworthy of any sacrifice on their part.
In the words of Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the most trenchant observer of the American Jewish scene, the one message that we are unwilling to give to our children is the one that might make a difference: "Jews have over the millennia willingly and gratefully set themselves apart" – often at great cost in their blood – for a set of "distinctive commandments, beliefs and values."
The most commonly offered solution by those who view numbers as the ultimate desideratum is conversion on easy terms. But that effort has been a costly failure, for again, it only further debases the currency of Judaism. The easier the terms of conversion have become the lower the percentage of non-Jewish spouses opting for it. That is hardly surprising. Why should we expect any large number of gentiles to rush to join a religion that plays no significant role in the eyes of the vast majority born into it?
The only result from lowering the bars to conversion is the loss of any power of the name "Jew" to bind us together. Variable standards of entry mean that those calling themselves Jews no longer share either a common commitment or a shared history.
An op-ed in these pages a few years back argued, "Any religion in the modern world that does not make an effort to welcome, or seek out, new converts, is fated to diminish." That statement is false on its face. Little of the rapid growth of Islam has to do with conversions, though alarming numbers of Europeans are choosing to bet on the "strong horse." (Whatever else one might say of Islam, it definitely plays a significant role in the lives of many of its adherents.) On a happier note, the decline of American Jewry is projected to reverse itself at mid-century due to the growth of Orthodoxy, little of which has to do with conversion.
A better rule than that enunciated by the above-mentioned op-ed might be: A religion whose foundational texts and basic tenets are unknown to most of its members, whose rites and practices are observed by few, and which is of so little significance in its members' lives that well over 50% marry members of other faiths is fated to diminish.
Instead of worrying about the numbers, and wasting time and money on far-fetched quick fixes for declining numbers, it is to those deficits that Michael Freund should direct his well-meaning efforts.