Too few Jews or too many?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 14, 2003
About one thing most Jews would seem to agree: There are too few of us. More than half a century after the Holocaust, the collective Jewish people remains an amputee forever conscious of the six million Jews lost. Since the end of World War II, we have lost almost as many through assimilation and intermarriage. Natural increase alone should have resulted in the addition of millions of Jews over that period. Yet the world Jewish population has been constantly shrinking for more than half a century.
Where Jews part company from one another is over the issue of whether our constantly diminishing numbers is itself the problem or rather the outgrowth of the real problem. Those in the first category view the Jewish people as an interest group – albeit one notoriously unable to agree on what those interests might be – and as with any interest group, the greater the number of members the more powerful.
Viewing the problem through the lens of interest group politics place leads to an emphasis on increasing the numbers of Jews in any way possible. The method of choice, to date, has primarily been accounting tricks worthy of Arthur Anderson and Company. Patrilineal descent, for instance, was the Reform movement’s answer to declining memberships. Other "inclusivists," like demographer Gary Tobin, would go even further and count as Jewish anyone living in a household with someone of Jewish descent.
The opposite camp views our ever declining numbers not as the problem per se but as the symptom of the real problem. After all, the Torah already told us, "Not because you are more numerous than all the peoples did God desire and choose you, for your are the fewest of all the nations" (Deuteronomy 7:7)
Efforts directed specifically at increasing our numbers have an unhappy place in Jewish history. When we left Egypt, Moses allowed the "mixed multitude" to attach itself to us. Thus after the Sin of the Golden Calf, God said to Moses, "your nation has sinned." The nation referred to, Rashi explains, was the mixed multitude whom Moses decided on his own to join to the Jewish people and which had led the people to idol worship.
Large and numerous are not Jewish terms of measurement. Our standards have always been purity and holiness. Confronted with the choice of making a blessing on a large, but partially broken loaf of bread, and a much smaller complete loaf, the halachah dictates that we make the blessing on the latter.
From that standpoint, the problem confronting world Jewry today is that Judaism has ceased to play a major role in the day-to-day lives of the mass of Jews. Even the minimal commitment to raise one’s children as Jews is one that most Jews are not prepared to make. In the United States today, there are more than two marriages between a Jew and a non-Jew for every marriage between two Jews. Less than 30% of the children of intermarriage are "raised Jewish" by any standard and the vast majority will themselves marry non-Jews.
In light of these intermarriage statistics, all the various schemes for increasing our numbers through wide-scale conversions become laughable. How attractive can we expect Judaism to be to non-Jews when those born Jewish are themselves fleeing in droves? More than a million born Jews in America describe their religion as "none or other," and that number is constantly growing.
Before we worry about attracting those born as non-Jews, we should concern ourselves with showing our children that the question of whether the Jewish people dwindle away is not just sentimental. In any event, both holding our own and attracting converts depend on answering the question: What difference does it make that the Jewish people continue to exist? Just pointing to the ideas that we brought first to mankind will not serve. The stark reality, however, is that only those for whom being Jewish permeates every aspect of their lives, through the observance of mitzvos and study of Torah, can be expected to experience the continued existence of the Jewish people as a matter of ultimate importance.
NOWHERE IN THE WORLD are the implications of the debate between those who worry about numbers for their own sake and those who concern themselves with the Jewish quality of our lives more intensely felt that Israel. Over little more than a decade, close to a half million non-Jews have come to live in Israel. As a consequence, the percentage of Jews dwelling in Israel has already fallen to 72%, and is projected to continue dwindling.
Having created this problem, the Israeli government has now decided that "national interests" dictate its solution. That solution is mass conversion of non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU. For the first time the prime minister, the Jewish Agency, and upper echelons in the IDF have decided to impose specific numerical goals for conversion. For that purpose they have enlisted some national religious rabbis concerned with preserving Israel’s image as a Jewish state.
Numerical goals, however, are an inherent contradiction to the very concept of conversion. Conversion, as defined by Maimonides, is an individual decision to attach oneself to the Jewish people through an acceptance of the yoke of Torah, followed by certain proscribed rituals. The exercise of free will in this fashion cannot be coerced.
Each decision to accept the yoke of Torah, especially by those coming from a society that systematically disparaged all religious belief for eighty years, is a miracle. The Midrash attributes even greater merit to such a convert than those who stood at Sinai, for the convert accepted the Torah without any of the thunder, flames, and shofar blasts that accompanied the original giving of Torah at Sinai. Miracles, however, cannot be mass produced.
One of the most despised figures in Eastern Europe Jewry was the rav mi’taam, the government-appointed rabbi. Those rabbis participating in the newly established Jewish Agency four-week quickie conversion course in Eastern Europe or the new rabbinical panels being specially created to convert 3,000 soldiers a year will become the equivalents of the old rav mi’taam, serving interests determined by a secular government rather than the demands of halacha. For the secular state to set numerical goals for conversion, a halachic process, makes no more sense than were a car mechanic instruct a heart surgeon how to operate, as one letter writer to the Post trenchantly observed this week.
Some have, in their wisdom, have opined that the halachic requirements for conversion should be relaxed in light of Israel’s demographic problem. It is sufficient, they argue, that would be converts be as mitzvah-observant as the average Israeli Jew. The answer to that claim has already been given: Just because a nation has many tax evaders among its citizenry does not mean that it must grant citizenship to professed tax evaders.
Indeed the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, ruled that in a period of lax mitzvah observance rabbis must be stricter, not more lenient, in accepting converts, for it can no longer be assumed that those who wish to join the community of Jews will continue to keep mitzvoth.
Those who would reduce the criteria for becoming Jewish to ``Israeliness," in any event, are caught on the horns of a logical dilemma. If serving in the army, or other some other indicia of ``Israeliness," are sufficient to make one Jewish, why should we worry about the demographic problem of too many non-Jews in the country at all.
If all we care about is that the immigrants from the FSU sincerely wish to live like their Jewish neighbors, there is no reason for the state to enlist rabbis in making a farce of halachah.
Related Topics: Pluralism
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