Demilitarized Zone, South Korea – Standing on a hilltop and peering into the most repressive regime on earth, the Stalinist prison camp that is North Korea, got me thinking about Israel.
How is that the Middle East’s only democracy comes out only a hair better in world opinion polls? How could Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s freely elected leader, be as disliked as the young monster dictator Kim Jong-Un of Pyongyang?
Might the small number of Jews in the world be a consideration?
In Israel recently I was amazed to see how many pregnant women there were. Everywhere. On planes, at the beach, and at the parks, there were children galore. Israel loves kids, and the Jewish state has one of the highest rates of births per family in the Western industrialized world, averaging close to 3 per family.
Not so in the U.S. Jewish community. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, you’ll see some pregnant moms. But you’ll see 10 Jewish singles for each of them. The American Jewish singles scene is a crisis that we’ll leave for another time. For now we’ll focus on how few Jews it produces.
The world Jewish community has been shaken to its core by the tsunami of anti-Semitism that has broken out in the wake of Israel’s third Gaza war. World media has condemned the Middle East’s only democracy for the simple act of defending itself against terror rockets and tunnels. In London and Berlin they’re chanting, “Hitler should have finished off the Jews” and “Ham-As rhymes with poison gas.” We’ve seen pogroms in synagogues in Paris. Most of all, we have wondered how a civilized world with liberal values could choose the women-honor-killing, gay-murdering, free-speech-suppressing Hamas terrorist death cult over democratic Israel.
Here’s one of the reasons it’s happening. There’s a heck of a lot more of them than us.
The greatest challenge facing the world Jewish community is its puny size. The number of Jews in the world has fallen below a critical mass, and our paucity suggests unpleasant consequences. Foremost among them is our inability to fully defend the State of Israel. Will governments choose to side with 14 million Jews over half a billion Arabs?
In America, where there are nearly 6 million Jews, our large and well-organized communities are able to create an effective political lobby that has yielded positive results in American support for Israel. Compare that to the 230,000 Jews of Britain, who live in a population of 64 million. Such a paltry number has virtually condemned the supporters of Israel to being completely overwhelmed by Britain’s growing Muslim community.
We Jews, whose biblical mandate is to be a light unto the nations, are meant to leave a mark on the world. Real influence, to be sure, comes from quality and not quantity.
Yet numbers still matter greatly.
Kicking up Jewish numbers isn’t going to be easy, and vastly increasing the Jewish birthrate, as well as reversing assimilation, is key. But it is high time we addressed the issue that Jews have traditionally shied away from: actively attracting non-Jews to Judaism.
The Mormons have grown in just 150 years to roughly 14 million, the same as the number of the world’s Jews, even though we have been around about 3,000 years longer. The reason: They field a global missionary force of some 60,000.
There are other considerations as well. What of the millions of offspring in the world who have a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother and thus are not considered halachically Jewish? But with a Jewish parent, the connection is strong. Should we not be connecting them with their Jewish roots?
The same applies to millions of Europeans who stem from Jewish ancestry, like the Marranos. These people feel themselves to be partially Jewish, but we allow them to founder and never connect them with the Jewish people.
It is those people, and the countless without any religion at all, to whom we should be offering Judaism as a monotheistic alternative and actively promoting the Torah as wisdom by which to master life. Should they not wish to become fully Jewish, we should be creating a Jewish confederation of Noachides who identify with Jewish spirituality but do not embrace all the mitzvot.
We should be funding billboards with Jewish teachings for non-Jews, offering classes in synagogues where Gentiles can discover Jewish spiritual essentials, and engaging in social media outreach to those unaffiliated with a faith.
The Oxford University L’Chaim Society, which I founded in 1988, had thousands of non-Jewish members. Many of its officers – like Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and President Mike Benson of Eastern Kentucky University, the grandson of the Mormon Church’s President Ezra Taft Benson – were not Jewish. Their intention was not to convert to Judaism but to lead lives based on universal Jewish values including the oneness of God, the emphasis on deed over creed, and the belief in the creation of all mankind in God’s image.
Saul of Tarsus saw that the ideas and values behind Judaism were so revolutionary that they could change the world, if only they could be stripped of their ritual. Thus, from the foundations of Jewish spirituality, Christianity and later Islam were born. It’s time to offer the world the original source by reviving an ancient “associate” status that allows non-Jews to live lives deeply influenced by Jewish spiritually and values while retaining a distinct identity.
In ancient Rome, as Rodney Stark writes, “Jews constituted ten percent of the Roman world, and attracted many pagan God-fearers to their synagogues. â€¦ Jews in general and the synagogue in particular were attractive even to non-Jews. The simplicity of Jewish theology (belief in the one God), the ethical standards (the Ten Commandments), and the many festivals exercised a certain fascination among many in the Greco-Roman world. Some even made a full conversion to Judaism. Others remained in a kind of ‘associate’ status – what Luke in Acts refers to as ‘God-fearers’ – perhaps unwilling to take upon themselves the peculiarities of Judaism. It is very likely that many of the non-Jews who embraced Christianity were first exposed to the Jewish scriptures and Judaism through their association with the urban diaspora synagogues in the Roman Empire.”
Could this be revived?
Becoming a Judaizer would entail a seven-step program of living:
1. Observe Friday night as family night by tuning out all electronic interference and focusing on children, friends, and community.
2. Eat kosher food (20 percent of Americans already look for kosher symbols as a symbol of cleanliness and purity) and separate milk from meat as a symbol of the affirmation of life and its negation from all forms of corrosion and death.
3. Celebrate the themes of the Jewish festivals. Passover seders, emphasizing the human capacity to rise above material enslavement (President Obama already hosts his own annual seder at the White House), dismissing material comforts by returning to the essentials of nature on Sukkot, lighting lamps on Chanukah as a symbol of the human capacity to illuminate a dark earth and heal a painful life, and so on.
4. Studying Judaism’s great texts, from the Torah portion of the week to selections of the Talmud to the epistles of Maimonides to mystical and kabbalistic works.
5. Observing the marriage laws, including the monthly erotic barrier of sexual separation, thereby enhancing desire and lust.
6. Appreciation of, and respect for, the feminine, including codes of alluring modesty for women and domesticity of marital commitment for men
7. A commitment to acts of communal kindness, like regular visits to hospitals and homes for the elderly and giving 10 percent of your income to charity.
Then there is the need to offer Judaism as a religion to those who wish to become full-fledged Jews. If we could agree on moderate yet essential halachic norms of conversion that focus on observance of the Sabbath and festivals, a kosher home, and the laws of niddah (mikveh and sexual purity), we could add millions to the Jewish people and strongly redress depleted Jewish numbers.