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It's a monotheistic faith that was born in the Middle East some three millennia ago. Its adherents, scattered in a global diaspora for centuries, have often faced severe persecution, especially in Islamic societies. In open societies where its followers have found full acceptance, such as the United States, the intermarriage rate hovers around 50 percent. And although its community of believers is rapidly shrinking to the point where there are serious concerns about its long-term survival, its traditional keepers of the faith disdain proselytizing and are reluctant to embrace converts.
And now the good news, sort of. It's not Judaism - at least not in this case.
It's Zoroastrianism, the religion founded in ancient Persia some 3,000 years ago. It was one of the dominant faiths of the ancient world, with tens of millions of followers stretched across an area extending from Egypt to India. While it shares some theological concepts with Judaism, Christianity and Islam (belief in one god, a view of earthly existence as a moral battleground between good and evil, anticipation of a messianic day of judgment), its rituals are obscure and archaic. Many people probably assume it long ago died out as an active faith. Even those aware of its survival in the modern world, including myself, don't give it much (or any) thought.
That is, I didn't until I read a recent article in The New York Times about the small Zoroastrian community in North America, which numbers some 15,000 out of a total global figure estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000.
The uncertainty over that latter figure is the result of religious persecution in Iran that necessitates a very low profile for Zoroastrians still living in the land where their faith was born. But while no such problems exists for them in the Western nations where they have settled, in those societies too this venerable faith is facing potential extinction.
Why? As the Times reports: "The Zoroastrians' mobility and adaptability has contributed to their demographic crisis. They assimilate and intermarry, virtually disappearing into their adopted cultures. And since the faith encourages opportunities for women, many Zoroastrian women are working professionals who, like many other professional women, have few children or none."
Sound familiar? How about this: "Despite their shrinking numbers, Zoroastrians - who follow the Prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek) - are divided over whether to accept intermarried families and converts, and what defines a Zoroastrian. An effort to create a global organizing body fell apart two years ago, after some priests accused the organizers of embracing 'fake converts' and diluting traditions. 'They feel that the religion is not universal and is ethnic in nature, and that it should be kept within the tribe,' said Jehan Bagli, a retired chemist in Toronto who is a priest, or mobed, and president of the North American Mobed Council, which includes about 100 priests.
'This is a tendency that to me sometimes appears suicidal. And they are prepared to make that sacrifice.' "
ONE DOESN'T want to go too far in making facile comparisons between the Zoroastrians and the Jews. But despite the numerous differences between the two, surely one or two simple salient points can be made.
The plight of Zoroastrianism as a fading faith is not unique in the modern world. This follows a general decline in religious belief across the globe in the past few centuries, although obviously much more so in the Western world than the developing nations.
Those religions that have bucked this trend - most notably Islam, Mormonism and certain evangelical Christian churches - are all distinguished by one characteristic: an open-minded and in some cases even aggressive approach to proselytizing. This obviously includes a willingness to accept converts in some form or another, including the spouses of another faith who intermarry into the community and are prepared to accept at least some of the tenets and religious lifestyle of their partners.
Zoroastrianism, as taught and practiced by its ordained priestly leadership, is clearly not one of those religions. Once the state religion of Persia, it is today nowhere near the majority faith of any country, and thus has no national home. Already in sharp decline at the dawn of the modern, post-Enlightenment world, its prospects for survival look dim beyond a tiny, cult-like fragment of a future.
AND JUDAISM? It certainly enjoys one big advantage over Zoroastrianism: it's the majority faith in at least one nation. What's more, a country that both enjoys a birthrate higher than the average in almost all developed nations, and whose population has grown more than five-fold in the past half century, largely due to immigration.
Israel has thus provided Judaism with a secure societal and cultural base, where even the offspring of many non-Jewish immigrants assimilate into a strong identification with, and sometimes observance of, traditional Jewish customs.
Outside Israel, alas, the situation is a lot bleaker - in fact, one can legitimately ask why one should expect the fate of Judaism in the Diaspora to be any different from that of Zoroastrianism in a few generations' time. To argue that Judaism will survive simply because it has for all these centuries is not enough; Zoroastrians can make the same claim, even as they dwindle into relative insignificance.
Of course, Diaspora Jews will not vanish as a species, but continue onward, be it in small, self-contained Orthodox communities, more numerous and diffuse Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations, or simply as a vague form of ethnic identification.
The question of "Jewish continuity," however, is not about simple survival per se; it is whether the Jewish world outside Israel can stem the assimilationist tide at least enough to maintain its present numbers, in order not to fall below the critical mass needed to ensure that those existing Jewish communal frameworks which support Jewish continuity - synagogues, schools, organizations, etc. - also survive.
Various approaches are now being kicked around in professional Jewish circles as to the best way to maintain Jewish continuity, involving everything from education to trips to Israel, to matchmaking, to promoting Jewish cultural initiatives, etc. But the fate of Zoroastrianism should help clarify one simple truth; any religion in the modern world that does not make an effort to welcome, or seek out, new converts, is fated to diminish.
"We have to be working together if we are going to survive," one ardent Zoroastrian tells The New York Times. It's a message that the Jews of the Diaspora had best take to heart, before they learn themselves that having survived for 3,000 years doesn't necessarily mean you're in good shape to make it past the next 300, or even a third of that.
The writer is director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem Media Resource Center.