There have been three reports released in the past few days that look at the Jewish population.
Two of them, the Pew Research Study and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute Study, are concerned with Jewish population numbers. The third, by the University of Huddersfield in England, concerns itself with the genetic history of Askenazi Jews. In fact, however, all three studies are really about Jewish identity.
The Pew and Steinhart studies have come up with vastly different numbers describing the size of the Jewish population in the United States. This disparity is due to their diverse definitions of who is a Jew.
This is not a new problem. Jewish identity has been an issue in the Jewish community at least since the beginning of the Common Era, and perhaps even earlier. At the start of the Common Era, Jews in Rome were proselytizing so successfully that the rabbis felt that they had to erect barriers to conversion for fear that the Jewish community would become too diluted. In essence, they revised the standards for Jewish identification, and as Judaism became more rabbinical, whole segments of the Jewish population who were not considered religious enough by the rabbis became disenfranchised and were left out in the cold.
In great part, due to this exclusionary policy, the world Jewish population declined sharply over the next thousand years. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the world Jewish population dropped from about five million at the start of the Common Era to about one million by the end of the first millennium CE. It remained at about one million until the middle of the eighteenth century, when it suddenly skyrocketed to seven million in less than a hundred years.
Both the precipitous population decline and the even more remarkable population increase resulted from the different policies affected the way Jewish identity was defined. In the early years of the Common Era, before the rise of rabbinic Judaism, Jews were defined through self description; for example, you could describe yourself as a Roman Jew or as a Greek Jew. There was no other requirement than that. You didn’t have to belong to a synagogue or observe holidays, or keep kosher, or meet any of the other criteria that are currently applied in population surveys. After the rabbis gained power, the nature of Judaism and Jewish identification changed. A Jew could no longer self select. He had to be listed as a Jew by the rabbi. Thus, if a Jew was not affiliated with a rabbinic religious community, he was not counted as a Jew.
This situation continued for the next thousand years, until Napoleon granted the Jews citizenship, and pioneers and visionaries like the Bal Shem Tov, the founder of chasidism, and Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the founder of the Reform movement, declared that it was not necessary for a person to be affiliated with a synagogue or even know how to pray in order for him to consider himself Jewish. (It should be remembered that the Bal Shem Tov was excommunicated by the Vilna Gaon because of this heretical idea.)
These great visionaries said that if you consider yourself Jewish, then you’re Jewish!
As a result of this earth-shattering declaration, the world Jewish population soared so high that by 1935, through the measure of self identification, there were fifteen million Jews in the world. (Hitler did not ask how Jewish his victims were.)
Today, we are facing a problem similar to the one that confronted the Jews in the first centuries of the Common Era. We once again have set up barriers to Jewish identification, and we now have standards to determine if you are a true Jew: Was your mother Jewish? Did you have a bar mitzvah? How often do you attend services? Do you belong to a JCC? Contribute to Jewish charities? Been to Israel? Speak and/or read Hebrew? Light Shabbat candles? Have a Christmas tree? And on and on.
These questions only serve to narrow the field, in a time when we should be widening our tent. We can no longer afford to be an exclusive and exclusionary club. We need to find new ways to welcome not only the disenchanted and disenfranchised Jews but also the intermarried and their non-Jewish partners.
In the same way that Jews of the twenty-first century are different from their first century ancestors, so too must the definition of who is a true Jew be different. Until we can settle on a new definition, we will be unable to measure the Jewish population accurately.