Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a Mida writer’s event in Jerusalem. For those who don’t know, Mida is a Tikvah Fund-sponsored website which features conservative and libertarian articles on Israeli life and politics. The clustering of so much talent in one room was a clear refutation of the common canard that “there are no right-wing intellectuals in Israel.”
The keynote speaker was David P. Goldman, of Spengler and Why Civilizations Die fame. Goldman gave a cogent and convincing presentation on the rapid demographic decline in most of the world, and especially in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It was a sobering lecture; the only bright spots were the high birth rate of all Israelis, including non-Haredi ones.
One of Goldman’s most important insights was his emphasis on the importance of religious faith in ensuring above replacement level birth rates. The most striking example was of course the Jewish community – Ultra-Orthodox have very high birth rates, while pretty much all of the non-Orthodox communities have birth rates so low that they would disappear even if not one of them intermarried or assimilated.
All this helped reinforce something I’d been thinking of for a long time – Organized Jewry focuses far, far too much of its cultural energy on creating leaders and intellectuals and far too little energy on creating and preserving a committed, engaged laity. The result is that we are inundated with all sorts of celebrities even while the critical mass of the group is vanishing.
There are historical reasons for this – the traditional lay Jew or baalabos was often considered a second class citizen by the elites. Many sources are replete with attitudes ranging from disdain to compassionate condescension to those who were unable to become a tzadik or talmid chacham.
But this is a terrible error; if talmidei chachamim or other spiritual leaders (insert your non-Orthodox equivalent here) are the head of the Jewish body, the baalabos is the backbone and frankly the rest of the body. He and his female equivalent, the baalaboste, are the ones who provide the money, raise the families and maintain the communal atmosphere and sense of commitment so critical for Jewish continuity.
Without them, intellectuals are nothing more than a glorified talking shop, an historical flash in the pan with no continuation. They are the ones who need convincing that the lifelong investment in Judaism is worth the effort; the opinions of some self-important professor in a university far less so.
In the twentieth century, all movements invested tons of energy in creating ‘gedolim’. In the twenty-first, we must steer that energy toward the retention and strengthening of the baalabos. Our future depends on it.