This is the final installment in a special three-part series on Jewish civilization.
In early installments of our interview, Dr. Shalom Salomon Wald described how Jewish civilization managed to survive a number of internal and external threats to its existence. He continued by arguing modern Israel is an expression of an under-appreciated Golden Age in Jewish history.
In addressing the fraught topic of Jewish numbers, Wald touches on the civilization’s ability to express, expand, defend and gird itself for the future. This third segment will focus on that.
A multifaceted question exists about the numbers of a Jewish civilization. The Jewish people have never been substantially large relative to other peoples in the world. There are questions of religious affiliation and conversion; there are questions of involvement in cultural activities associated with Jews; there are questions about identity and commitment. Numbers have been an unnerving part of continuing work in Jewish circles and there is no easy answer to going about expansion that balances the dueling demands of quality and quantity.
“We have not overcome the Shoah. We are the only victim of WWII that has not been able to make up for the loss,” says Shalom Salomon Wald, who recently completed the book Rise and Decline of Civilizations: Lessons for the Jewish People in conjunction with the Jewish People Planning Institute – JPPI. “Optimists say now we will reach again 16 million, which is near to the number of Jews in 1939. We have to make up for this. Demographics are an important driver – not the only one but an important one.
But he also says the Jewish people are evidence that a small population is still capable of instilling far more hope than even civilizations with gargantuan populations.
“You can have a huge population and still be hopeless. It is clear without the Shoah there would have been a Jewish people beyond 30 million, which would have meant a totally different history. We might not have had Israel, but if Jews would not have been killed in Eastern Europe then maybe Latin America would have become a Jewish continent.”
He admits there would have been drawbacks to that scenario, but does not believe people would not accept those faults in exchange for never having had the pain of the Holocaust.
“There would be much less unity in the Jewish people. Without Hitler, the Bundists would have been very strong, fights between Zionists and non-Zionists. Zionists would have been a minority. Still, most of us would probably choose not to have the State of Israel and no Holocaust” if given the opportunity. “It is a tragic choice.”
Other controversies or crises for Jewish civilization, among them the intermarriage problem, should probably be seen in a strategic sense regardless of one’s views, implies Wald. While plenty of Jewish leaders have consistently expressed their dismay over the decades-long trend of increasing intermarriage by Jews, there are positive trends inside that that could be exploited to the advantage of Jewish numbers.
“A greater portion of the intermarried want to remain Jews and raise their kids as Jews,” he says. What this implies most definitely clashes with the prevailing thinking of most Orthodox Jews about not being lenient on conversion or tolerant of intermarriage, but Wald says that the integrity of the Orthodox conversion process is incredibly important itself to demand something of people who would contribute something to Jewish civilization.
“Yesterday I met an Orthodox Rabbi from France, and he told me ‘the number of Frenchmen who want to convert is very great.’ But, you can’t get it in easily. It is Ultra-Orthodox controlled.”
“Rightly there are good reasons not to make conversion so easy. Christianity makes it easy. Islam makes it easy. You say something and ‘poof!’ you’re a Muslim. Does it add to the quality of Islam? I don’t know.”
In this sense, he agrees that there being a process is a very important element in ‘screening’ new members as it were. Yet, he seems to agree with many critics of conversion policy that makes it harder to finish the process successfully, let alone start it.
“But the real Halakhah is very flexible. Out of stubbornness or fear they don’t want this flexibility.”
On the other hand “the seclusion of Judaism was a competitive advantage – it created a border line and an am segula (unique nation). Civilizations who are proud of themselves want to see a borderline.”
That pride is evident in how Jews across the spectrum tend to demand some sort of education for future members regardless of their views on the ease (or requirements) of conversion. Shifting focus to that pride, he says the notion of ‘chosenness’ that is often criticized by anti-Semites or by other religious groups is hardly a unique concept to peoples and civilizations. For Jews, it happens to be very refined.
“Jews are attacked for believing they are superior but MOST civilizations believe this even though they don’t say it this way. The Greeks felt this. Anyone who didn’t speak Greek was called a ‘barbaros,’ which comes from the expression “brah brah.”
Translated into English, it means, “blah blah.” It is also the origin of the word ‘barbarian.’
“The Greek language was the absolute dividing line. For them the language had the same function as Halakhah for us.”
Coming back to the issue of numeric strength, Wald says in his book: “They were chosen ‘not because you are more numerous than all of the peoples . . . for you are the fewest of all the peoples (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 7:7).’ The tradition knew early on that numbers were not everything, and that the power of numbers depended critically on the strength of Jewish identity.”
Sustainable population levels, which intuition might say should be high in the event a human-engineered or natural disaster were to affect the Jewish people, might actually be different depending on the period in history. Wald goes into great detail in a fascinating chapter of his book, Numbers and Critical Mass (IV:6), describing five distinct periods where Jews variably did or not did have a geographic center and did or did not have a grounded Diaspora.
Wald points to four main requirements of Jewish civilization that in Wald’s words themselves require a “critical mass” of a population to sustain: defense and physical survival; numerical majority in a homeland; cultural and religious creativity; and political influence and power. The actual numbers things require have proven small for Jews who have managed it in Israel and in select communities in the Diaspora: medieval Baghdad, Golden Age Spain, and modern America among others.
In the modern era, where Israel is the undisputed center of Jewish civilization with a very large Diaspora, Jewish Civilization has achieved an odd balance between an achieved critical mass in one area but challenges to it in others. In other words, numbers are a problem, but it depends where you look.
“For the first time since the Second Temple period the Jews of Israel must have sufficient critical mass to achieve all four goals together: defense, numerical majority, creativity and political influence.”
Israel has the critical mass for a country, but is challenged in that regard in a number of areas, though not necessarily in the same way the Diaspora is.
Wald says the division in vision for the Jewish future between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora must be overcome not just to achieve a working demographic strategy, but on the way those communities look at the world in general. Rarely in history has Jewish civilization ever been in a position to organize itself against these threats, and at the same time as important for those same Jews the critical point the people have reached.
Wald says in his book that the Jewish people today must see themselves as up to that challenge, as “a global presence and a significant partner in the shaping of a common global future, and also as coordinated, proactive, and fearless challengers of their enemies in the world.”