You may have seen a video doing the rounds, The Islamic Tidal Wave, about the demographics of survival and the clear message that within our lifetime Islam will have conquered the world through its birth rate.
Of course it is a Christian scare video to get good believers to rabbit away to save the Kingdom of Christ. In its over-simplicity it ignores too many other factors. But it does make a very valid point–that cultures cannot sustain themselves unless they increase membership through conquest, conversion, or producing babies (and of course an ideology they think worth fighting for).
Europeans and most Americans reproduce at a rate that guarantees extinction. The statistics quoted are that one needs a birthrate of 2.11 just to retain one’s population. The European indigenous birthrate averages 1.38. On the other hand, Muslim immigrants in Europe reproduce at a rate of 8.11. In less than fifty years therefore they will be the majority in all countries of Western Europe. Similar predictions of doom apply to the USA although it will take quite a while longer and Catholic Latinos reproduce just as quickly.
Now such situations are not news to Jews. It has always been thus and we have even gloried in our minority status and capacity to defy odds. The great medieval Rashi comments on Jacob’s fear of the huge number of tribes descended from Esav in comparison to his (and I suspect Rashi’s comment was also a reply to the situation that prevailed in his own day, when Jews were a very small minority in a totally dominant Christian world). Jacob was comforted with this parable:
“A flax merchant with his camels loaded squeezed past a small charcoal burner’s store front. The charcoal burner was initially in awe at the size of the camel’s load, but then realized that one small spark of his could reduce it all to nothing.” (Rashi on Genesis 37:1)
It is this that gives me comfort when I hear the amoral UN clap anti-Semites and cheer anything derogatory of Jews or pundits argue that Israel is a greater threat to the world than Iran (as if self-defense were ethically wrong). We like to say that the Almighty (Allah, if you prefer) works in strange and unpredictable ways, and we are still around even as the numerically superior Roman Empire disappeared and Christianity is certainly wobbling. But overall, Jewish numbers are down, significantly! Of course, none of this is new to academics, such as Sergio Della Pergola of Hebrew University, who have for years been warning Israelis of the looming demographic reversals.
Not a day goes by in the Jewish world without some philanthropist funding a new initiative, a conference, a chair, or a competition to find a way of ensuring Jewish continuity, survival, call it what you like. Millions have been spent, and doubtless willing suckers will continue to be leeched by conniving, self-serving charlatans till Kingdom Come. But the fact is that it is all a complete waste of time and money. There is only one guarantee of continuity and that is birthrate (assuming, of course, people want to continue and not assimilate). And the evidence for this is everywhere. There are some valuable and interesting initiatives in the less Orthodox world that must not be underestimated. But overall figures are down, unless one accepts the arguable contention that mixed families still strengthen Judaism (doubtless there are individual cases who do).
Who reproduces? The Charedi world of course, our own equivalent of the Muslims! Their whole social structure, mindset, and raison d’etre is based on the desire and the need to obey the command to reproduce, to deny Hitler a posthumous victory, to refute the predictions of assimilationists, to counter secularism, reform, and any ideology they consider a threat.
And it works. If the rest of Jewry is marrying out at the rate of nearly 50% of all marriages, the Charedim are not only all marrying in, but are growing exponentially; theirs is the one sector of Judaism that has absolutely no doubts about survival and looks on the concerns of others as pathetic. The current recession brings almost daily news of many Jewish schools in the USA closing down, but not Charedi ones (though a few did, thanks to crooked rabbis). They are replaying the story of the Children of Israel in Egypt, where despite everything the Egyptians could throw at them they increased and multiplied and grew stronger and stronger. And despite what you might think, I am delighted.
In many ways the Charedi world offers a distorted version of Torah, certainly in its ever-increasing strictness, beyond reason and law. But if I ask what guarantees the future, it is passion, commitment and numbers too. When Charedi families have 8 or 10 children, even if two go off the tracks, they are still way ahead in the reproduction stakes of the rest of the Jewish world.
And that’s what the future may well look like for Judaism. Those who “do”, both reproductively and religiously, will survive. Those who neither live a dedicated Jewish life, nor reproduce but spend their time at conferences recommending solutions will not do much for survival. I am not sanguine about the loss of so many Jews through assimilation. I wish it were not so. But I see no other alternative, no panacea, no Magic Bullet, no Golden Goose or Egg, certainly not trying to rope in as many lukewarm, reluctant members as possible.
Life is so complex, so strenuous and demanding, it might simply not be possible to have one’s cake and eat it any more. The pressures of earning a living might leave no time for spiritually. Only the very wealthy or, at the other end, those on welfare will be able to afford a religious life. I’d rather see us survive, even if it is as a distorted expression of Judaism, than disappear. Because what is, what exists, can be repaired and nursed back to health. But if there is nothing left…