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Beyond the Stars: Focusing on a Judaism of Mission, not Numbers

When it comes to the survival of Judaism, forget what the survey numbers say

Four women?

In a paper released recently, Dr. Doron Behar, a graduate of the Technion, claimed that 3.5 million Ashkenazi Jews are the direct descendants of four European women living over 1,000 years ago. He theorized that these women were most likely Italian converts who met and married single, Jewish men fleeing from the east. They became Ashkenazi Jewry’s “four founding mothers.”

I was thinking about these women. What were their lives like? How and why did they make their choices? Were they shunned by their families? Did they have any clue as to what their future would hold and to the majesty that they were building through their choice to join the Jewish people?

I’ve been thinking about these women in light of another study released recently: the Pew Suvery of American Jews. The study revealed some statistics that are causing serious hand wringing amongst the Jewish community.

Since 2000, 71% of non-Orthodox Jews who married chose to wed non-Jews. Conservative and reform affiliation are down and don’t show signs of rising. Only 22% of intermarried Jews said they were sending their children to some sort of formal Jewish educational program or organized Jewish youth program. 37 percent of Jews surveyed believed you could believe in Jesus and still be Jewish. The New York Times summarized it as showing: “a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish.”

Sounds scary.

But this is not the first time we’ve had demographic problems. You know who had demographic problems? Abraham.

His wife was barren, so he cohabited with an Egyptian woman with the hopes of continuity. His first son, from his Egyptian wife, was then cast out to die in the wilderness by his wife (with God’s support). In their very old age, he and his wife miraculously had a son of their own. His second shot at continuity, Isaac, was nearly sacrificed by Abraham’s own hands (on God’s orders).

Abraham is told by God that he is going to be the father of not just the Jewish nation but many nations, and this is his reality.

Naturally, Abraham wonders – is this whole project going to work out? Is this idea, this call to the world for justice, righteousness and Godliness going to be realized?

God took Abraham outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, “This is how your descendants will be.’ (Genesis, 15:5)

The Talmud in Masechet Nedarim asks – what is this episode all about? Why did God take him outside? What is God trying to teach?

And God took him out… – Abraham said before God ‘I’ve looked into my astrological fortune, and I only have but one son!’ God said to him: ‘leave your fortunetelling. The stars do not apply to Israel.’

In these words, God is giving Avraham a powerful, two-fold message.

First, don’t let the limited science of your day get you down, whether it’s astrology or statistics (sometimes they seem not so far apart). Our existence on this planet is not determined by what seems probable. I’m not a mathematician, but I would venture that the continued existence of the Jewish people today, after all we’ve been through is close to statistically impossible. We answer to a power beyond the sun, beyond the stars, beyond astrology or statistics.

Second, what you are about is uncountable. The success of the Jewish people is not measured by our number. Numbers are never an end to themselves. That’s the sin of King David when he conducts a census – a focus on numbers and not mission. Numbers are only a means to the end of executing our sacred Jewish mission on this earth.

Our mission?

To study, teach and apply God’s urgent, timely, spiritual teachings in this world. Teachings revealed in Torah, teachings about human relationships, about nature, about work and about rest, about God and love and redemption. Teachings that have, can and will change this world.

And it is in that that spirit we must reach out. In that spirit we must engage the next generation, reach out to those who are not connected, promote Jewish learning and ritual. Not in the spirit of of showing an upward growth chart or of competing with the Episcopalians, but in the spirit that we have something so big, so important, so necessary that we need as many people as possible on board – of all kinds, all backgrounds, all talents, to make it happen.

When we read from the Torah, we say a blessing thank God for the chayei olam nata b’tocheinu, for planting eternal life in our midst.

That seed of Torah, of divinity, was planted within us, long long ago. Before demographic surveys and birthright trips, before reform, conservative, orthodox, before Romans and Babylonians. It’s the seed that was planted in Abraham, in 4 women, and replanted every day in all of us who care, who commit, who serve.

That seed has flourished in every climate, in every soil, in every empire, every age. It’s faced down threats from engaging the next generation of youth to some of the most evil enemies human history has ever known. It is a powerful seed from beyond the heavens. So long as we continue to nurture that seed with vision, with purpose, and with love it will grow. It will grow.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Hart is the spiritual leader of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, a modern orthodox synagogue in Skokie, Illinois.
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