Encore Archive

Welcome to Encore, the place where you will find the latest thoughts and reflections by CLAL faculty and associates on topics of the moment. Each week you will find something new and (hopefully) engaging here!

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(Over the course of the next three weeks, we will reprint a three part series, originally published in 1979, on the Jewish birth-rate, and on the putative obligation to bear Jewish children.)

The Jewish Birthrate: The Basic Two ... ?

Ralph Dolgoff ( Sh'ma 9/168, February 16,1979)

Two ideas with enormous implications for the Jewish community have gained currency in our society. Population growth is out of control and increasing at an alarming rate. The world's resources are unequal to the task of feeding, housing, clothing, etc. many more people than now exist. An uncritical acceptance of these two ideas leads to the conclusion that an environmentally sound world demands fewer people than now exist.

But there are those who do not accept this assumption and - in fact - suggest that a more just world can only be accomplished with continual growth. Representative of this differing view, Bruce-Briggs assumes that even with the most optimistic cut in the birth rate, there will be over five billion souls on this earth at the end of the century. These people must be fed, housed, and provided with a decent life. For them, a world of zero growth would be a world of conflict, an age of iron and blood. Only continuous growth can begin to deliver in modest degree, what the coming world will require by way of health, welfare, and human dignity.

Jews are in the forefront of those now espousing the neo-Malthusian doom-saying. One result of this is an emphasis upon a low birth-rate. This argument not only accepts the arguments of the neo-Malthusians as assumed truth but suggests that a smaller Jewish community is a necessity as well as a virtue.

Population Is Growing, But More Slowly

Demographers have begun to suggest that self-limiting factors exist which will set limits on growth through such means as education, higher living standards, move to nuclear instead of extended families, loss of the economic utility of children, etc. In any case, world population is increasing but at a decreasing rate and is expected to grow more slowly than recent predictions anticipated. In almost every case actual census compilations in the 1970's have been lower than the U.N. "low" projections. In fact, in some parts of the world today the International Planned Parenthood Federation has identified under-population, sub-fertility, and infertility as major problems. And if for them, why not for the Jews?

Agricultural economists have calculated the world has enough land to be cultivated to feed thirty billion people at present U.S. levels of consumption with existing technoloay. A Director of the U.S. Bureau of Mines believes "the world has more resources now than ever and there will be even more in the future," provided we maintain our science and technology in order to use lower grade ores.

There is no compelling reason for Jews to accept the perspectives of either the neo-Malthusians or the optimists. Without being pollyannas, we must prepare for future possibilities. However, neither population control, nor ZPG, nor steady-state economies ensure a "world without the obscenity of great wealth co-existing with grinding poverty." Only continued growth can bring large numbers of people out of poverty. Only a larger "pie" can deliver more for the poor.

Societies Have Different Needs

Zero growth leads to a world of conflict, the "haves" against the "have nots." The reasoning of the neo-Malthusians may be congenial to those who already are prosperous. But, without now unanticipated radical national and world-wide policy revolutions, those who are the "have nots" essentially have to opt for the "bigger pie" with more for everyone. It is simply unrealistic to expect the rich to give and unrealistic to expect the poor to seize the wealth and resources needed. Continued economic growth - hopefully with minimal pollution - is a prerequisite for improving worldwide life conditions.

Even if all the neo-Malthusian assumptions were correct, that does not mean that all groups or societies have equal needs. We need more Jews, not fewer. The quality and vitality of the Jewish community depend upon having Jews. A community can become so small that it cannot foster and support quality and vitality. The creativity of any community depends upon having among other resources - a "critical mass." And, we know the smaller the Jewish community, the higher the rate of intermarriage.

The general American birthrate recently reversed itself - upward. This may prove to be a short-term phenomenon However, the expected rates for first and second births are close to the highest levels ever recorded in the United States. The only way to reverse the trend toward low completed fertility rates is for third and higher births to rise.

We Need Incentives For More Children

Our decisions and discipline as Jews to have third and fourth children (or more) is the crucial decision to be made by Jewish families. The issue of major importance is how the Jewish community can motivate and assist those families which choose to go beyond the basic 'two'. The least the Jewish community can do - synagogues, Y's, camps, schools, etc. - is not punish those who have more children by penalizing them in various ways, particularly financially. But beyond this, we need a strategy which motivates and assists families to have third and fourth children.

How can the Jewish community encourage families to have more children? One way would be to take into account the number of children in a family. All communal institutions instead of charging the same fees for each child should recognize the needs large families have and give special rates for three or more children. This recognition and assistance may not in itself raise the birth rate but as with Israel's Zahava movement of large families (reduced water rates, discounts in stores and for admission prices, etc.), the message is communicated. larger families (4 or more children) are the norm and Israeli society needs, expects, and recognizes the contribution of these families in tangible, yet symbolic, ways. We too in America can send a message that larger families are expected. The explicit and implicit values of the Jewish community have to support couples having three, four or more children.

There are many other ways the Jewish community can act to encourage larger families. A high priority is research, experimentation, and analysis. If we are prepared to spend millions on the fight against anti-Semitism, for example, what should we be doing to at least explore ways to encourage Jews having more children?

Our Decisions Are Relevant To All Jews

It is possible for Jews in good conscience to have more children Many factors influence the decision to have children. One of these factors is the relationship of individuals and couples to the community. Why have so many chosen to believe and act on the neo-Malthusian assumptions as though they are automatically true? Why have they acted as though individual/family decisions have implications irrelevant for the total Jewish community? And, why has the Jewish community not acted to find ways to deal with this problem?

For Jews, acceptance of the "truths" of the neo-Malthusians and acting upon them as being real can lead only to a smaller Jewish community - a smaller percentage of the total population with political consequences,- a smaller group with consequences for Jewish communal life, institutions, and morale for the future. In another context, Emil Fackenheim has challenged modern Jews not to cede to Hitler another destruction of the Jews - a self-inflicted Shoah. Such a challenging comment goes right to the heart of the matter.

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