When it is both Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh, two Sifrei Torah are used in the days’ service. Counting Sifrei Torah presents no problem but counting people does. Every Torah is the same; every human being is different.
The Divine artist is unique and so are each of His children.
But that is not the only reason why we do not count people. Human numbers constantly fluctuate. Even before census day ends, statistics are out of date. People are born and people die. No-one and nothing stands still.
This happens to Jews as a nation too, but there is a perception that the changes are always in a downward direction. We lost six million in the Holocaust and we are told of a constant drain since.
Today’s Jewish numbers are estimated at between 12 and 15 million. Both figures are below the 18 million of the pre-Holocaust era.
In truth, no current estimate is likely to be accurate since there are so many yardsticks. I tend to go for the higher estimate because I know how often otherwise-unknown Jews come out of the woodwork.
What is the critical mass without which there can be no Jewish survival? It is impossible to answer. There are largish concentrations where very few are involved – and small groups with an intense level of commitment.
Who decides if someone is a Jew? I wish it were Jewish law. In Israel it is sometimes a low-level official such as the woman in the Interior Ministry who barked at my wife and me, not caring that for decades I had issued certificates of Jewishness, nor that if I am not Jewish, hundreds of others must now be in question.
But whatever the yardsticks and criteria, the perception is that Jewish numbers are declining. So shall we start saying Kaddish for ourselves?
Jewish tradition rejects that approach. Hagossess k’chai l’chol d’varav – even a dying person is deemed to be alive in every respect.
No-one dare be written off while their heartbeat and brain are still at work.
But are the Jewish people a gossess at all? Shall we say of it what used to be said of American Jewry – that it is a fabulous invalid, often ailing, but still alive? Our numbers need examination but with a long view.
There were always massive fluctuations.
In 1500 BCE there were 600,000 Jews (though this may have been males only) but by 1000 BCE there were two million. By 500 BCE –though this is hard to believe – we were down to 300,000.
At the Roman destruction the figure was 4.5 million.
In Rashi’s time, the 11th century, again an era of great achievement, there were one million Jews. By the 19th century the number was 10.6 million and by 1939 up to 18 million.
Today we need to use not a static criterion (asking where we are) but a dynamic one (where we are going) seeking not flat facts but living trends.
To find the trends, imagine two escalators beside one another, an “up” and a “down”. On the “up” escalator are the orthodox, whose large families more than replenish their numbers, the ba’alei t’shuvah who come in from the periphery and become more Jewish and the many who have a solid Jewish identity despite different levels of observance.
On the “down” escalator are those who attenuate their Jewishness and have little involvement in the community, families who have few or no children and the many who come good only in a crisis.
Where does the balance lie? At the moment both escalators are busy; only time will tell the long-term answer.
But Judaism never believed in leaving things to sort themselves out. It believed that the future could be moulded and influenced, insisting that we have a large share of control over what happens to us.
So what policies should we adopt? Here are some suggestions.
• Have at least four children per family. This will maintain and even increase our present numbers;
• Accept more converts. Judaism will be good for them and hopefully they will be good for us. Don’t let intermarried couples be lost to the community; and
• Love the Jews we have. Don’t denigrate or alienate anyone. Encourage aliyah, strengthening Judaism in the Jewish land. Intensify the quality of Jewish life everywhere.
Half-a-century ago the British historian Arnold Toynbee stated: “It seems safe to prophesy that in 100 years’ time there will be no Jews anywhere. There will be, with good fortune, the State of Israel, with its own distinctive but non-Jewish contribution to make; and there will be citizens of other countries with Jewish blood in their veins but without Jewish thoughts and feelings in their heads.”
Fifty years have passed since Toynbee spoke. Two things will keep his prophecy from becoming a reality: the Jewish people’s own determination and God’s promise that his people will live.
We can trust God to play His part, but we have to play ours.
This article originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 4 May, 2006.