The Jewish historian Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israel’s prime minister, was sometimes asked to explain the miracle of Jewish survival through two millenniums of persecution. He would answer: “The Jews didn’t survive”!
About 1,900 years ago, he would explain, there were 8-9 million Jews in a world population of roughly 300-350 million. Today, there are about 14 million Jews in a world of 8 billion. How is it that the number of Jews is essentially stagnant, even as global population has grown twenty-five fold?
Persecution, he explained, has driven the Jews nearly to extinction. So many murdered, so many converted to Christianity or Islam, so many choosing the path of assimilation as a defense against hatred and isolation. The Jews of today, he said, are a remnant of a remnant.
But he was wrong. The reason that Christianity and Islam are the numerically number one and two religions in the world today is that they both placed great emphases upon outreach activities and direct proselytizing of everyone in the world.
Two thousand years ago well established religions like Judaism and Zoroastrianism did not eagerly seek to make converts or even warmly welcome converts into their midst. During the centuries of Roman rule the Zoroastrians were even less welcoming to converts than the Jews were.
There were many more Zoroastrians than Jews in the world during the days of the Second Temple and yet there are much fewer Zoroasterians than Jews in the world today. Why? Because Zoroastrianism did not seek to make converts or welcome converts into their midst while at least some Jews in the diaspora did reach out to non-Jews and encourage them to join the Jewish community whenever they were able to do so.
Buddhists, Christians and Muslims each grew from a few thousand people into the many tens of millions who live in the world today, while Jews and Zoroastrians did not grow. The number of Jews, even before the Holocaust, was only two to three times the number of Jews in the first century, and the number of Zoroastrians (called Parsees in India) in the 20th century was much smaller than they were in the first century.
Jews usually explain their steadily decreasing percentage of the world’s total population as Jewish historian Benzion Netanyahu did, in terms of a long history of persecution, forced apostasy and physical slaughter. But there is another important factor that is almost always overlooked. While Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are missionary religions; Judaism and Zoroastrianism are definitely not.
The spread of Buddhism from India to China; the spread of Christianity throughout Europe; and the spread of Islam from Morocco to Indonesia were all the result of missionary activities. These activities still continue. Half of all South Koreans have become Christians in the last half century because of Protestant missionaries.
In less than 200 years, Mormon missionary activities produced a Mormon population equal in size to a Jewish population that was born more than 3.000 years earlier.
Jews and Zoroastrians, have remained largely confined to the descendants of the nation in which they originated. For example, Jewish and Parsee communities in India and China were descendants of immigrants; and not descendants of converts, as are almost all Christians and Muslims in India and China today.
This does not mean that Jews and Zoroastrians were, or still are a pure race. Anyone who visits Israel knows that Jews from Ethiopia look mostly like Ethiopians, and Jews from Poland look mostly like Poles. There has always been intermarriage with some conversion to Judaism; and over the centuries Jews begin to resemble the local inhabitants. Also, even though the majority religion usually prohibits its members from converting to Judaism, it did not always succeed.
Christians and Muslims have often criticized Jews for being a clannish and inbred people because Jews do not include a great variety of different racial, ethnic and national groups. This is slowly changing in the U.S. where thousands of non-Jews, many of them Asians, convert to Judaism every year.
I do not know why Zoroastrianism did not develop a missionary impulse, but the main motive for missionary work is lacking in Judaism. Jews do not believe that we alone have the wisdom that will provide all humans with true enlightenment; nor do we believe we have the only faith that will guarantee all humans admission into heaven.
Judaism teaches that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come. Jews must not bow down to statues or believe in more than one God, but that does not apply to other nations and peoples. As long as non-Jews practice justice and mercy they will receive God’s blessings.
As the Biblical prophet Micah declares, “God has shown you, O human, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) This is true now and will be true even in the Messianic Age, when
“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord God has spoken. All the nations will walk each in the name of its gods, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever. (Micah 4:3-5)
So while Jews have no missionaries, Judaism should most certainly welcome everyone who desires to become Jewish to join us. Many Jews even encourage some people who no longer believe in their childhood religion, to study Judaism and if they so desire, to become part of the Jewish People. That is why it is so sad that the number of people who convert to Judaism in the State of Israel has been in decline in recent years.
In 2011 the state’s Conversion Authority performed just 4,293 conversions, compared with 8,008 in 2007. From 2008 to 2010, the number of conversions dropped to 4,645 from 6,221. (Rabbi David Stav in The Jewish Daily Forward April 9, 2013). More recently things have gotten worse.
Figures from the state conversion authority show that while the budget for the conversion program has risen in recent years, 21% from 2016 to 2018, the number of people actually converting to Judaism has declined by a greater extent. At the same time, the number of conversion candidates who begin a conversion course and eventually complete it is barely 30%.
According to the figures obtained by ITIM following a freedom of information request, the number of converts in 2014 was 3,718, but in 2018 there were just 2,588 converts, compared to 8,008 in 2007.
Although the number of conversion candidates increased between 2014 and 2018, the percentage who completed the conversion process declined precipitously from 60% in 2014 to just 29% in 2018. Their teachers must be doing a very bad job. If a yeshivah had this kind of dropout rate they would all be fired. The conversion authority must be filled with incompetent anti-convert rabbis like Shammai, who should all be fired and replaced with pro-conversion rabbis like Hillel.
Jews are not missionaries, and people who are committed to their own religion should be respected. As long as they “act justly and love mercy” they will receive God’s blessings. But making it hard for non-Jews to become Jewish is a terrible mistake, Rashi, the greatest of our Bible commentators, taught that Jews started seeking converts from the very beginning, when he interpreted a verse that states that Abraham made souls in Haran, to mean that Abraham and Sarah made converts.
And the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) condemns those who push potential converts away by relating that Isaac and Jacob pushed away Timna, the sister of Lotan, who wanted to become Jewish. So she married a son of Esau and one of her descendants was Amalek, who attacked Israel shortly after they escaped from Egypt.
If, instead of being pushed away, Timna had become Jewish, Amalek would have been on our side, and not on the side of our enemies. This applies to the tens of thousands of ex Soviet Jews in Israel who have been pushed away from converting to Judaism.
Indeed, Rabbi Yohanan says the Jews were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt because Abraham didn’t try to influence some captives that he rescued, to become Jewish. (Neddarim 32a)