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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…

10 thoughts on “Demographics

  1. I would be more sanguine about the future of Judaism if the Charedim were not so restrictive in their outlook. All I can see is our religion without its passion for music, science, art and literature which, certainly, my generation was brought up to venerate as a part of our heritage. Do you think Charedim might evolve or will the love of extra-biblical learning just expire?

  2. Jeremy, as a baal teshuvah, I just don't see the "backwardness" in the "Charedi" world that you do. I'm in the US, and I know things are different in Israel, but I see communities rising, religious Jews attending universities, achieving advanced degrees…

    If anything, I think some of that philanthropy could be focused into developing more colleges and universities for observant Jews, where they won't fear sending their sons and daughters. For example, I know there is a relatively new medical school in Brooklyn geared towards observant Jews.

    We who wish to connect deeper and stronger with our heritage and spiritual inheritance are not the problem, as you say yourself. The problem is that everyone else is losing the will to continue.

    There is a Chassidic parable you might appreciate. The son of a king fell dangerously ill. The king called all his advisers, who collected the best medical experts to come and heal the son. Despite their experience and knowledge, the doctors failed to heal the boy. Devastated, the king issued a decree throughout the land for anyone who could help his son to come, and that no price would be spared.

    Thousands came claiming to be able to save the boy. All failed. As the king nearly gave up hope, a man came to look at the boy, whose prognosis had deteriorated further. After the examination, he went to the king and said that he knew how to heal the boy. He warned, the king, however, that the price would be very high, and the boy's condition was so advanced that there was no certainty that the treatment would work. Distraught, the king replied that nothing in kingdom would be spared to save his son and asked the man what he needed.

    The man pointed to the biggest jewel in the king's crown. It was a large, beautiful precious stone, the biggest anyone had ever seen, passed down from king to king for thousands of years. Powder that jewel into dust and feed it to the boy, he man said. The king ordered it done, and it was, and the boy lived.

    In our time, when the Jewish people are threatened with assimilation and spiritual extinction, it is no longer enough to do what has been done in the past. It is no longer enough to simply follow the letter of the law. Today we need a compelling reason to do so, we need a why! We need to know the source of the law, we want to understand the spiritual foundation of the world and how we fit into it.

    The concealed Torah which explains the why – knowledge that was traditionally privy only to the greatest Torah sages – is the jewel in the Crown of Torah. With the floodgates of this knowledge burst open by the Chassidic movement, Jews like me, who grew up completely secular, are finding our way back.

  3. Victor:

    "Kabbalah, in its entirety, is a collection of pagan superstitions which have penetrated into the world of Jewish faith, and which cannot be reconciled with '…the Lord our God, the Lord is One.' The Zohar (the most fundamental Kabbalistic work) was fabricated and written by a certain Moshe DeLeon in Spain in the late thirteenth century… hence, the idea that the Zohar is a 'holy' Tannaic work is nothing but foolishness. The Tannaic Sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (who lived about nineteen hundred years ago) had no connection with the Zohar whatsoever!" Yeshayahu Leibowitz

  4. Jeremy wrote: "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…"

    I think I agree on balance but the problem is (to echo Leila) that there is very little which I identify with in this form of Judaism.

    For example, I was always under the impression that Judaism is a form of ethical monotheism, possibly the exemplar. The response by some Haredim to the arrest of the Meah Shearim mother accused of deliberately starving her child clearly bears no resemblance to any recognisable morality, monotheistic or otherwise. It bears a lot more resemblance to the fear, ignorance and superstition of the Taleban.

  5. Leila:
    With Charedim, as with fanatical Muslims, I am an optimist that time will modify extremes. We humans evolve slowly and we tend to make judgements on too short a time span! Religion never succeeds when it censors or bullies (short term perhaps). Take Iran as a case in point. They won't be able to keep the lid on for ever.

  6. Victor:
    That is beautiful and I do not disagree. Of course one should not generalize about the Charedi world because there are so many different facets to it, them. But there are certain common denominators.

    I love the Charedi world. It's where I belong for tefilla, limmud Torah, mesirut nefesh, and indeed gemillut chessed.

    But I loathe religion and politics and that, as you say, applies more to Israel than the USA.

    What the USA Charedim share with all others in general, is fundamentalism, a literalism and an intellectual rejection of certain ideas that is dogmatic and not necessarily required in Talmudic terms, but owes more to the Chatam Sofer's ideological rejection of Haskala and anything new. And remember I am not talking about halacha but about theology.

    There is, I think, a paradox that one will accept science when it comes to medical and practical things in life but automatically reject any scientific theory that seems on the surface to present difficulties. Just think of the overwhelming negative Charedi response to Nathan Slifkin, one of their own, who dared to find Midrashim that supported his view about zoological development that they did not like!

    It is that and the politics that I am unable to take on board.


  7. Avi:
    There is a lot of truth in that quote, but not 'its entirety'. That is far too sweeping, unfair, and frankly untrue a statement in my opinion. I regard myself as a rational sort of fellow who also loves mysticism but sees the dangers in it too. No extreme is healthy, rational or emotional. But I find a lot that interests and inspires me in some of Kabbalah, both theoretical and practical (as well as the Zohar). Equally, I find some of it irellevant, superstitious, wacky, and improbable. One has to be selective; that's why one also needs a good guide!

  8. Avi:
    Yes, indeed I do agree with your reservations, and like you I strongly disagree with the response of the Charedi world to the mother you refer too. But having lived for several years in Meah Shearim I also know many many of its Charedi denizens are not like that, and it's a vocal minority that throws stones, etc., etc. There is also a sad record of secular welfare authorities being insensitive to Charedi issues in Israel, rather in the way other minorities think British and American Social services are unsympathetic to them too.

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