Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Teves 5763 - December 25, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Counting Klal Yisroel

Up until sometime around 150 years ago, the Jews of the world were a pretty well-defined and homogeneous group. Everyone knew who was Jewish and who not, and all Jews shared a very close relationship to the Torah, largely accepting its authority in determining how to lead one's life and its teachings in matters of knowledge and belief. Since then, there have been radical changes.

The first, quite rapid, deterioration was in the acceptance of the Torah. By about 100 years ago, millions of Jews, especially in Europe, no longer looked to the Torah for their education and guidance in life. Taken out of the isolation they had enjoyed from the non-Jewish world, they were caught up in the powerful social and intellectual changes that transformed the world and generally shunted all religion and thoughts of transcendence to the side. Still they remained socially and culturally distinct by sticking together and marrying Jews. Even if, for example, they were Communists, they associated mainly with other Jewish Communists.

When prime minister of Israel Ben Gurion asked dozens of well known Jewish thinkers (only a few of whom were religious) over 40 years ago: Who is a Jew?, everyone still pretty much agreed upon who was Jewish and who was not. Though the prime minister got back many very different answers, what they disagreed about was what it meant to be Jewish. Everyone agreed about which people are Jewish and which not, and all felt a deep bond that united all Jews, whether they came from Los Angeles or Warsaw or Tripoli or Tel Aviv.

Since then the situation has changed much for the worse. At the beginning of October, the US United Jewish Communities released some of the information from their latest study of American Jewry entitled "National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-2001." They counted 5.2 million American Jews. At about the same time, other researchers in America said that there are more than 10 million American Jews.

These different numbers are not the results of different counting techniques but of different conceptions of Jewry. The larger number includes anyone associated with a Jew and also counts non-Jewish spouses and children of acknowledged Jews. According to this approach, intermarriage "adds" to the "Jewish" people: if two Jews marry each other we have one new Jewish family. If two Jews intermarry we have two new "Jewish" families.

Even the NJPS, the smaller of the two estimates noted above, casts an unduly wide net in counting Jews. They include everyone with a Jewish background who does not identify with another religion. This criterion embraces millions who are neither socially nor culturally nor halachically Jewish.

The traditional halachic criterion -- that someone be born of a Jewish mother or properly converted -- is also not restrictive enough, even after it lops off 1.2 million from the estimate of the NJPS. It is true that anyone who meets these criteria is Jewish no matter what. However, after two generations of rampant intermarriage plus unchecked assimilation, millions of these people are, sadly, very alienated from Judaism. Though they have an ineradicable identity as Jews and potential for more, the reality is that those who deny their Jewishness, are intermarried and generally live their lives without a thought about Jewishness -- and certainly not any regular actions -- do not deserve the name Yisroel and are not part of the Jewish people in Olom Hazeh nor will they be in Olom Habo.

The Jewish people have a mission in life to be a Mamleches Kohanim veGoy Kodosh. Those who live this mission are the ones who deserve the title Yisroel asher becho espo'eir.

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