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
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
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