As we begin a new year, I believe that what the world Jewish community is most lacking is size, and the foremost challenge confronting it is the need for greater numbers. The number of Jews in the world has fallen below a critical mass, and the paucity of our number leads to its own tragic consequences.
Foremost among them is our inability to defend ourselves. Does Israel really have a long-term future with so few Jews in the world? Who will influence and exert pressure on their own governments to support Israel, the Middle Eastâ€™s only democracy, when the Jewish population in most countries, outside the United States, is small to inconsequential? Will governments really choose the Jews over Arab adversaries when there are hundreds of millions of them and just a handful of us?
Until now, we have relied on two factors to offset our limited number: Jewish economic power, and alliances. But each solution is flawed and inadequate. In countries like Australia, for example, where there are just 100,000 Jews, their economic influence is such that governments take the Jewish community seriously. But this, firstly, leads to all kinds of charges that Jewish money controls foreign powers. And it is, at best, a temporary solution, because that economic power, in an age of rampant assimilation, is becoming more and more diluted as more and more affluent Jews identify less and less with the Jewish community.
As far as the Jewish communityâ€™s friendships and alliances are concerned, they always involve trade-offs. Sure, Christian evangelicals are Israelâ€™s best friends anywhere in the world. But they still dream of all of us becoming Christian, and often pursue those dreams in multimillion-dollar conversion campaigns. With Catholicism itâ€™s the opposite. After 2,000 years, they have come to greatly respect Judaism. But on the Israel front, the Vatican remains slanted in favor of the Palestinians.
But aside from security, we Jews, whose biblical mandate it is to function as a light unto the nations, are meant to leave a Jewish mark on the world. I fully understand that real influence comes from quality and not quantity, and that already we Jews, the smallest of nations, have been, arguably, the most influential nation of all time. The Athenians never numbered more than 20,000 citizens. Yet, along with the Jews, they laid the foundations for Western civilization.
BUT ALL this took place before quantity sheer numbers became so important. All civilized nations in the world today are, thankfully, democracies, and their governments, and their direction, is decided by numbers. And without sufficient Jewish numbers, we cannot influence the direction of world policy to reflect Jewish and biblical values, the way that evangelical Christians have done so successfully in the United States because of their enormous voting bloc.
To be sure, I have no interest in Jewish hegemony. I just want Jews and Judaism to have a seat at the table. And today, we have to accept that we donâ€™t. Just look at the United Nations as an example of how Jews and Israel are treated with contempt, mostly because we are too small a number to influence a world body.
Kicking up Jewish numbers isnâ€™t going to be easy, and vastly increasing the Jewish birthrate as well as fighting assimilation is key. But it is high time we addressed the issue that Jews have traditionally shied away from, that being, converting non-Jews to Judaism.
In the 150 years that they have been around, the Mormons have grown from a few hundred followers to roughly 14 million, the same as the number of the worldâ€™s Jews, even though we have been around for 3,500 years longer. The reason: the Mormons field a global missionary force of 60,000.
Why have we Jews not proselytized? Firstly, our standards for conversion are high, and we refuse to water them down to allow people to enter. And we would prefer not having converts to having insincere converts, and that is admirable and necessary. We can brook no compromise with the lofty standards that Jewish observance demands.
But the bigger reason we donâ€™t proselytize is even more noble, namely, that unlike every other religion in the world, we donâ€™t claim a copyright on truth. We donâ€™t believe that by becoming a Jew you come closer to God than you would be as a devout Christian or Muslim. We actually respect the Godly qualities of other faiths that lead to a righteous life. And we shouldnâ€™t want to change that and tell the world that unless they are Jewish they are all going to hell.
And yet, there is something that I have learned from the many debates that I have conducted with leading Christian thinkers around the world. In the debates, there is always a group of people who feel uncomfortable with what they see as Christianityâ€™s compromises and accommodations with paganism. The idea of a man as God does not appeal to them. They are likewise put off by the pagan overtones of God conceiving a child with a woman, and they are positively cold to the Christian idea of original sin and how we are all born guilty before being innocent. Finally, they believe in personal accountability, so that the idea of a redeemer shedding his blood in order to purge them of sin does not accord with their personal values.
It is to those people whom I believe we should be offering Judaism as a pure monotheistic alternative and actively promote the Torah to them as the word of God that may light their nascent spiritual fire. Should they not wish to become fully Jewish, because they are equally unexcited by Judaismâ€™s exacting demands of ritual observance, we should be creating a Jewish confederation of Noachides, as the Bible calls them, men and women who identify with Jewish spirituality and Jewish values but without the ritual observances.
In effect, these people would be adopting the Torahâ€™s norms without converting to Judaism. Already, there are whole Christian congregations that have removed the cross and steeple and transformed themselves into Noachide communities who reject the deification of Jesus, observe the Sabbath on Saturday rather than Sunday, study the Torah for its general prescriptions of a spiritual life, but do not embrace all the rituals of biblical law.
Indeed, in my travels I have encountered many such former Christians who have created communities where they have Friday night Shabbat meals, observe all the Jewish festivals, study the Torah in Hebrew, and have a staunch love of Israel. They call themselves either Noachides, or non-Jewish Jews.
The Jewish community should be spearheading this movement, and should fund a global campaign to have non-Jews join a Jewish confederation, if not adopt Judaism in its entirety.
This is not to knock Christianity or portray it as a lesser faith. On the contrary, Judaism and Christianity, both Godly religions, simply have vastly different appeals, even as they share a great deal in common. Christianity will always appeal to those who prefer a more corporeal religion, where God is incarnate in human form, just as Judaism will always appeal to those attracted to a more subtle and intangible God, and those who wish to approach God without intermediaries.
The writer recently won the American Jewish Press Associationâ€™s Award for Excellence in Commentary. www.shmuley.com