Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels recently said something very wise: If he could grant every American child one wish, it would be to be raised in a two-parent home. A huge body of literature points to the cost to children of being raised by a single parent who is divorced or, far worse, was never married. Such children are far more likely to be poor, to drop out of high school, to experience psychological and behavioral problems, and to themselves become single parents.
Daniels was not lamenting just the individual tragedy, but the societal as well. With 40% of all children beginning life without a father on the scene, and 70% of black children, the United States is well on the way to creating a permanent and growing underclass of people who will be left behind by technological advance.
The above is just one example of the impact of the quality of the citizenry on national fortunes. History demonstrates that national character is often far more decisive than natural resources or other measures of national power in determining a nation's future. Israel, for instance, has flourished, despite lacking any significant natural resources (or at least so we thought until very recently), while being surrounded by some of the nations most richly endowed with natural resources, in which the majority of the population remains stuck in grinding poverty.
Gibbon attributed the fall of the Roman Empire to the decline in the quality of Rome's citizens. And today, we are witnessing European civilization again threatened by hard and ruthless barbarians at the gates. In long-term conflicts, Daniel Pipes has written of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is not economic power, nor even military power, that usually proves decisive, but the will of the two sides and their belief in the justice of their cause and eventual triumph. Few would bet on Europe's capability of withstanding the barbarians today.
Sometimes government policy is the source of potentially major societal problems. China's one-child policy is an example. As a consequence of parents' preference for male children, there are today 120 boys born for every 100 girls in China. By 2030, a full quarter of Chinese men in their late '30s will never have married. The result will be tens of millions of angry, single males roaming the countryside.
But more often, social pathologies are the result of the amalgamated decisions of individuals, not government policy. The health crisis in Russia, for instance, owes as much to Russians' romance with vodka, as to government health policy. Despite Russia's superabundance of natural resources, according to the World Health Organization, a 15-year-old Russian has a lower life expectancy than a Cambodian of the same age. Death rates for men between their late 20s and early 50s have doubled since 1965, despite the explosion in personal wealth.
Negative population growth virtually everywhere in the advanced world – with the notable exceptions of Israel and the United States – constitutes a likely damper on long-range economic development. An aging workforce will tend to be a less-educated, vibrant, and creative workforce. And the dramatic increase in the ratio of older, retired persons being supported by a dwindling workforce is already proving economically unsustainable. And the problem will only grow much, much worse throughout the developed world.
The growing reluctance to have children, particularly in the developed world, is the reflection of many factors. Among them is the loss of religious belief. Those who can conceive of no timeframe outside the span of their own lives will of necessity be less concerned with the perpetuation of future generations.
The point of all these examples is that it is impossible to predict a society's future trajectory without taking into account the quality of its citizenry. China may be projecting growth rates in GDP of 8-10% well into the future, but if current ratios of male to female births are not reversed, the society will be torn apart by those unable to marry. In any event, the rapid aging of the Chinese population due to its sharp negative population growth, and consequently aging population, will eventually bring that growth to a halt. A tourist to Western Europe today would still view the same classic sites as always and would be unlikely to encounter the hundreds of all Muslim "no-go zones," where even the police do not enter. But because of a dwindling and aging native population, Europe will continue to import workers from the Muslim world, and those "no-go zones" will continue to spread. Moscow may be the highest priced city in the world today, but a city filled with drunken bums will not remain that way forever.
Neither a lack of children nor a taste for vodka are among the challenges facing Torah Jewry. But like any other society, ours must continually be on the alert to ensure that the seeds of future crises are not being sown today. No matter how outwardly successful and flourishing Torah society is, we must be asking about the quality of the individuals making up that society. Are we, for instance, maximizing the human potential of the vast majority of most of our children. Do they anticipate their futures as Torah Jews eagerly? I think the answer to such questions is overwhelmingly positive, but they are type of question that even the healthiest society must continually ask itself.
Last week, I spoke for a group of young professionals in Chicago. I was on my feet for nearly two hours, the last forty-five minutes in questions and answers. Everything was going along swimmingly, until the last questioner asked me point blank: So how do you know G-d exists? (Earlier he had asked me about Torah Codes, and I had expressed skepticism.)
Now, that young man's question should be the easiest one that we could ever be asked by a non-frum Jew. Not because we have studied Kiruv 101, but because it is something that we think about many times every day. If the answer to that question is not the most obvious thing in the world to us, how can we function as Torah Jews?
Yet I suspect the momentary panic I experienced as I thought about how to respond would not have made me unique. I'm currently working on a biography of Rabbi Noach Weinberg, zt"l, the founder of Aish HaTorah. And in the course of the research, I have interviewed a number of yeshiva products who mentioned their astonishment upon their first exposure to Aish HaTorah, when they heard the fresh ba'alei teshuva talking about HaKadosh Baruch Hu at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Six Proofs of G-d is one of the basic Aish courses, in which every newcomer to Aish HaTorah is enrolled, and a large percentage – at least in the early days -- would end up teaching the course to new arrivals within six months of their own entry to Aish.
Reb Noach once sharply rebuked a talmid at the bar mitzvah of the latter's son because the bar mitzvah boy did not know the Six Constant Mitzvos. And it quickly became known to yeshiva bochurim who came collecting on Purim that they would be tested on those mitzvos, and that those who failed (initially almost all) would be sent away empty-handed. G-d consciousness remains one of the defining marks of an Aish talmid.
I won't share what I answered the questioner. I imagine that each of us connects emotionally more to some proofs than others, and my particular responses are not relevant. But the question made me realize that I'm not spending enough time consciously thinking about these matters. When I saw a group forming after Mincha the next day in Chicago's Adas Yeshurun shul to learn Chovos Halevavos with Rabbi Zev Cohen, I joined them, even though I would be flying back to Eretz Yisrael the next day. And I resolved to finish Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz's Six Constant Mitzvos when I returned home.
I ran into an old friend at a chasanah the other recently. Since I last saw him, he has founded a yeshiva high school in the tri-state area, and the challenges of running that high school took up most of our discussion. He opined that a lot of the energies currently being devoted to kiruv rechokim would be better directed towards keeping our own children within the fold.
"I keep reading about Project Inspire, and the need for all religious Jews to look for opportunities to reach out to our non-religious brother and sisters," he told me. "But what about all the things that could be done with our children? I can't pay my rebbes, or give each boy what he needs. If I had ten baalebatim volunteering their time in the beis medrash every night, the impact on my students would be unbelievable. Just recently, I discovered a boy in ninth grade who did not know how to read Hebrew. Someone spent less than an hour learning aleph-beis with him, and he was the happiest kid in the world."
The issue of how to divide our communal resources between kiruv rechokim and kiruv kerovim is an old one. I do not mention my friend's remarks in order to enter that debate. Much of what Project Inspire encourages, for instance, does not involve any major commitment of time. Rather, Project Inspire seeks to reorient our attitudes towards non-religious Jews and sensitize us to the multitude of opportunities to convey a taste of Torah and mitzvos to them.
But by the same token, we also have to be aware of the many opportunities to have a profound impact on Orthodox youth that present themselves within our own communities. How many of us have considered our potential impact tutoring in yeshivos in our own communities? It is in that context that I mention what this one principal told me. I suspect he spoke for many others.