Rabbi Berel Wein
The latest rage in the Jewish world concerns the demographic problem that there are too few Jews in the world. The Jewish people have not made good on the loss of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, American Jewry is declining in numbers because of intermarriage and a low birth rate and the problem of chronic “singles” plagues Western and Israeli Jewish societies. Alarmed by what is perceived as the main danger to Jewish survival, pundits, politicians and especially the media have begun an almost hysterical campaign to replenish our numbers by mass conversions of non-Jews.
In order to affect this panacea, all of these savants agree that the bar to conversion to Judaism must be substantially lowered and that determined “outreach” efforts directed at the non-Jewish world must be put into place in order to attract hordes of converts. I do not deny that there should be larger numbers of Jews than presently accounted for. However, conversions of non-Jews to help solve the problem is a chimera. The idea is not only against Jewish tradition and halacha, it is against reason and historical experience.
It is against reason simply because it presupposes a large pool of non-Jews wanting to become Jews but yet unwilling to undergo the requirements of conversion as these standards are currently interpreted by halacha. There is absolutely no empirical or even anecdotal evidence that such a group exists. The evidence here is contrary.
Hundreds of thousands of non-Jews live here in the State of Israel and witness Judaism in all its varieties first hand. Yet, there is not a major clamor at the doors of the rabbinate demanding conversion to Judaism. There is, as there has always been, a small trickle of non-Jews who are interested in becoming Jews. If they persevere in this idea and study Judaism, its beliefs and practices and then are still interested in becoming Jews then they will in almost every case be converted to Judaism according to halacha.
These wonderful people are to be welcomed and admired by Jews from birth. They are a necessary transfusion into Jewish life of talented and committed people. But their numbers are not large and probably never will be large and these loyal converts are certainly not the promised panacea for our demographic problem.
A noted journalist as well as an Orthodox rabbi spoke at a dinner that I recently attended. They both advocated a more loving and embracing attitude towards the intermarried in order to increase our numbers. All studies have shown that in the United States over eighty percent of children raised in an intermarried family are not raised as Jews. Reform Judaism, the haven of the intermarried in America, is declining in its influence and true numbers, no matter what the propagandists foist upon us.
Tolerance is a Jewish virtue. The intermarried couples have not helped Reform become stronger or more Jewish. They have only increased its alienation from other Jews and Jewish groups. Unfortunately, blindness to reality, wishful thinking, looking at the Chanuka menorah in the house and not at the adjoining Christmas tree, will not in any way strengthen Jewish life, society, the State of Israel or bring about a demographic revival.
Intermarriage itself is a powerful individual statement about not really caring to remain Jewish. There are exceptions, individuals who through intermarriage sometimes find their way back to Judaism. But they are few and far between, a speck of holiness in a sea tide of assimilation and a flight from Judaism.
In the second and third centuries of the Common Era, there were thousands of non-Jews who were interested in Judaism. They no longer believed the myths of the gods of Greece and Rome and were repelled by the depravity, violence and emptiness of pagan life and ritual. Many of them became converted to Judaism, but the overwhelming majority did not. They found the bar of conversion set too high, the demands too rigorous and the life of a Jew too difficult.
Christianity capitalized on this situation, giving the convert to this new faith all of the “benefits” of Judaism – monotheism, ideas of love, forgiveness, peace, moderate life-style and belief in a better world – without demanding the sacrifices entailed in halachic conversion – circumcision for males, intense study of Judaism, acceptance of ritual and commandments and the willingness to identify with a small, persecuted nation.
There were great people and Jewish scholars and heroes stemmed from Roman converts to Judaism – Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, Onkelos, Akilas and others. However, most potential converts took the Christian way out and the Talmud records for us painful instances when converts to Judaism eventually became renegade Jews.
Over the centuries, easy and mass conversion to Judaism has proven itself to be a detriment and not an asset. The rabbis of the Mishna criticized the Hasmonean kings for their mass conversion of the Idumean tribe into Judaism. Eventually those converts produced Antipater and Herod and contributed to the destruction of the Second Temple and the Second Commonwealth. The history of mass conversions and lowered standards for conversion does not make for pleasant reading in Jewish history.
There are many things that our society can do to help strengthen Jewish demographic trends. It can educate in our schools regarding the practicality and sanctity of fundamental Jewish values – the importance of marriage and children, the holiness of life and the ills of rampant abortions. There are many more abortions in Israel yearly than there are potential converts under any standards of conversion to Judaism.
The view of life through a Jewish prism and not through the lens of the current fads of modern society will go a long way towards solving our demographic problems. Misguided plans of widespread conversions may be considered innovative and popular, however, they are not realistic, practical and/or desirable. The old-fashioned values of intensive Jewish education, traditional Jewish life, early and stable marriage, children and self-pride are not very glamorous or media-worthy. But until now they are the only things that have worked and created Jewish survival until today.