The Pew, the Few, and the Many: Rav Soloveitchik on Jewish Numbers

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

imageThe Pew, the Few, and the Many: Rav Soloveitchik on Jewish Numbers

A Yiddish lecture delivered by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik in the 1950’s at New York’s Moriah Synagogue

Edited by Rabbi Basil Herring

A Sadducee once asked Beruriah: “It is written (Isaiah 54:1) ‘Roni akarah lo yaladah’ (Sing, O barren one, who has not born children; break forth into song and exalt…) – why should one rejoice because one has not given birth to children?” (Berachos 10a)

It is a good question. For while the usual reading of the verse would understand that the phrase lo yaladah merely explains what preceded it (akarah), one could also take it (as the Sadducee did) in a causative sense, i.e., “sing barren one because you have not born children.” Accordingly his question makes sense: why would one sing on account of being childless?

In her answer, Beruriah directs his attention to the end of the verse: “for the children of the desolate are more than the children of the married wife, says the Lord.” She argues that lo yaladah is merely a parallelism that explains the meaning of akarah. But then Beruriah seems to contradict herself, saying “for we have not produced children like yours destined for Gehenom.” That is, “we rejoice precisely because unlike you we do not have children destined for damnation.” In other words, the phrase lo yaladah is not simply explanatory, but causative. How can we understand this contradiction in her words?

There is a deeper meaning in this passage. First of all, we must recall that Beruriah’s life under Roman persecution was filled with suffering and tragedy. She was the daughter of R. Chananiah b. Tradyon, the Tanna executed while wrapped in a Sefer Torah (Avodah Zarah 18a). Her mother too was killed. Her only sister was forcibly taken to a life of harlotry in Rome (Avodah Zarah 17b). Her brother became a violent outlaw (Eichah Rabbah 3:16). Her two young sons died as children (Mishlei Rabbah 31:1). Throughout, she accepted God’s Will without question. Notably, the Sifri to Deut. 32:4 demonstrates the ultimate acceptance of God’s ways by quoting her and her family members. They recited “ha-Tzur tamim po’alo, the Rock, His work is perfect” when Chananiah was martyred; “ki chol derachav mishpat, for all His ways are justice” when her sister was taken; “Keil emunah ve-ein avel, a God of faithfulness and without iniquity” when the brother rebelled; and “tzaddik ve-yashar Hu, just and right is He” on the death of her two children.

God chose us precisely because we were the smallest nation, and He wanted us to remain that way (until the time of Mashiach)

Additionally she endured the devastating apostasy of her husband R. Meir’s personal rebbe, Elisha ben Avuyah. Given what we know about the unparalleled intensity of the Rebbe/talmid relationship in Talmudic times (we can recall R. Meir’s refusal to despair of his Rebbe’s repentance even after his apostasy (Chagigah 15a), one can only imagine the pain that event caused them. And yet withal, Beruriah and R. Meir never succumbed to despair. Tragedy notwithstanding, they continued with undiminished faith, even to the point of rejoicing “with song,” as our verse puts it.

It is thus not surprising that the Sadducee could not comprehend their emotional and spiritual fortitude, saying “how can you who are now childless and bereft of extended family and teachers still rejoice in your fate? How is it that the more your loss, the stronger your faith and your exaltation?”

Yet the question of the Sadducee went even further. Remember that at that juncture the remaining Jews in Israel were being persecuted by Rome (as recorded in the Yom Kippur asarah harugei malchut litany). Additionally various heretical Sadducean, Christian and Gnostic sects sought to betray the faithful few to the authorities (hence the anguished addition at the time of la-Malshinim to the Amidah). Surely the Sadducee’s question was in essence a theological polemic, based on the abject condition of the Jews. His question was in reality a rhetorical stab at the truth of the Jewish faith: “Your adherence to your Jewish faith has been rewarded by God with persecution and exile. Surely that proves that your God has rejected you, and your religious convictions are false?”

Only a select group can be expected to maintain the strictures and responsibilities demanded by our faith

To fully comprehend the thrust of his words, we must appreciate that until those second century Hadrianic persecutions the Romans, unlike the Greeks, had generally tolerated other religions in their empire. When they conquered Judea, razed Jerusalem and exiled millions of Jews, they famously proclaimed Judea Capta, believing that the Jews would in time disappear, or at least be docile. But with the Bar Kochba revolt in 132 C.E., Rome came to understand that the Jews were unlike other nations. They realized that the Jews would continue to rise up even absent an independent polity, because of their religious convictions, i.e. their adherence to the law and teachings of their Torah. And thus, for the first time they outlawed the teaching and practice of key aspects of the Torah. It is not coincidental that it was at that time that the halachos of yehareg ve-al ya’avor (i.e., at a time of religious persecution a Jew should die rather than violate any aspect of Jewish law or accepted custom) were expounded. In the view of the Yerushalmi it was actually Elisha ben Avuya who convinced the Romans that the Torah was the source of their abiding strength, and that to subdue them the Torah had to be uprooted.

We can now better understand the words of the Sadducee. He observed the complete imbalance of power and strength between the massive Roman Empire on the one hand, and the Jews on the other. Rome ruled the world. The Jews (who according to several historians numbered fewer than a million in Israel, with a largely assimilated cohort in the diaspora) were relatively powerless, subjugated, and beset by internal divisions. And so he taunts Beruriah saying “why do you adherents of a discredited faith think that you can withstand the dominant power and culture of Rome in spite of your small numbers and dim survival prospects. Your very condition proves God’s rejection of your faith. Become Sadducees like us, instead of blindly rejoicing in your decrepit state. As the Gemara puts his question: mishum de-lo yaladah roni? (“How can you rejoice in the very fact of your being so few, so miserable, so rejected?”)

The answer of course is one attested to by Jewish history, but appreciated by only a few. Had Jews reproduced naturally over the generations like other nations there would today have been at least 150 million Jews. As a result of repeated persecutions and assimilation we are today a tiny people, perhaps only ten million in number. But that is not coincidental, for it reflects the abiding truth of the Torah’s statement “ki atem ha-me’at mi-kol ha-amim, for you are the fewest of all peoples” (Deut. 7:7). This was true not just at the time of the Exodus when the verse was written, but throughout Jewish history, starting with the patriarchs and continuing till our own time. God chose us precisely because we were the smallest nation, and He wanted us to remain that way (until the time of Mashiach).

By way of explanation, we may recall that the Torah says “Hashem rose from Seir… and shone forth from Mount Paran” (Deut. 33:2). The well-known Midrash (Sifri #343) comments that before God gave the Torah to the Jews at Sinai, He offered it to the other nations. These included the descendants of Esau, who rejected it because it forbade murder, and the descendants of Ishmael who spurned it because it forbade stealing. Developing an idea first found in Yehudah Halevy’s Kuzari (1:113), we can explain this as follows.

The strength of Judaism, and the secret of its survival, is in its exclusivity

There were two periods in history when Judaism might have become the religion of large segments of humanity. The first was at the end of the Second Temple (i.e., the 1st Century CE). At the time a number of Roman notables converted to Judaism. Had that process continued, Judaism might well have become the adopted faith of the Roman Empire. But that did not happen, and in time Rome embraced the Christian faith. The second was in the 7th Century when a significant number of people in the Arabian Peninsula likewise became Jews. But rather than Jewish conversion becoming a mass phenomenon, Islam became the dominant faith throughout the Middle East.

In hindsight, in both instances it was the hand of Divine Providence that precluded the mass adoption of the Jewish faith. Why would God oppose this – after all, is that not the hope and expectation of so many of the prophets? Do we not pray for that outcome every time we recite the Aleinu? Is it not what the Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah implores God to make happen (u-vechen ten pachdecha, etc.)? The answer can be found in the Kuzari (albeit expressed there in a different context): had either the Roman Empire or the Arab Middle East converted, Judaism as we know it would long ago have ceased to exist. Yahadus by its very nature demands extraordinary discipline and consistency of belief and action in every aspect of life, at every hour of every day. Only a select group can be expected to maintain the strictures and responsibilities demanded by our faith.

And thus, had either Rome or Arabia converted en masse to Judaism the result would inevitably have been the thorough dilution, distortion, and ultimately the disappearance, of historical Judaism as a religion. There would have been enormous pressures to modify and reform the faith. As the midrash put it by way of illustration, murder by Romans (i.e. the descendants of Esau), theft by Moslems (ie the descendants of Ishmael) and sexual depravity (in the case of the descendants of Amon and Moav) would have been justified and accommodated into the faith by popular demand. Thus, to preserve the Torah inviolate, it was God’s Will that the Jewish faith would be the exclusive patrimony and possession of “the fewest of all peoples.” Only of a select few, those who would remain loyal and committed to the Torah and its demands over time, could He expect fealty to the 613 commandments and all that they entailed.

The more there is numerical strength, the more there is a danger of distortion and falsehood

The strength of Judaism, and the secret of its survival, is in its exclusivity. It is in our very smallness as a nation that the faith endures inviolate. As the Torah states in Deut. 33:2-4, it does not matter that numerous nations like Paran and Seir seek to embrace the Jewish faith. It is God’s Will that the eish dat (“fiery law”) of the Torah be lamo (“for this people alone”). For while God is chovev amim (“He loves all nations”), only kedoshav (“His holy ones”) can fully uphold His commandments (yisa mi-dabrotecha). Hence Torah tzivah lanu (“we and we alone were given His Torah”), which became morashah kehillat Yaakov (“the exclusive possession of the descendants of Jacob”).

Thus we can appreciate Beruriah’s response to the Sadducee. As she put it, the smallest of people should rejoice in its failure to become a dominant world religion. For the greatness of its faith and people lies precisely in its remaining small in number, with few adherents rather than becoming a large and popular mass. Put differently, our greatness – paradoxically – is in our smallness. Or as Beruriah put it, and as recent Jewish history confirms, we should rejoice because as a result of our small numbers we have avoided the fate of other peoples and faiths who are guilty of moral or spiritual failings. We properly exalt because, unlike them, our hands have not been soaked in blood, and our consciences are clear.

Of course, in keeping with the prophets and the Aleinu, there will indeed come a time when the world will recognize our faith as the true one, and many will embrace it via conversion, thus finally rendering us a religion and a people of universal proportions. But that will only happen “ba-yom hahu, on that day” – i.e., at a time when humanity will have progressed to the point that we will no longer have to dilute the principles and the practices of our faith so that the masses might embrace it. Until then, our task and our fate is to be and remain separate and apart, uniquely dedicated as a small minority to our unique and treasured spiritual patrimony.

We always were a small people, and there have always been Jews who left the fold and assimilated

There is one more consequence of Beruriah’s words. They contain a resounding critique of much contemporary Jewish thinking. Too many Jews in our time seek only to be numerically strong, always in search of larger and larger numbers, more and more adherents, as supposed proof of their being right, or strong or successful. Such thinking forgets that the more there is numerical strength, the more there is a danger of distortion and falsehood. Because our synagogues constantly crave more members, they risk having to make halachic compromises of one kind or another. Rabbis water down their sermons and lectures to appeal to the many, and as their audiences grow some of them tailor their words to satisfy the many – as if it is ever possible to satisfy all of one’s critics. A thousand people is not necessarily better than eight hundred. Sometimes having ten good people is better than having a thousand mediocre ones. The modern mind idolizes the notion of the masses, whereas we value yechidei segulah, the precious few. Too many Jews imitate the Sadducee who, seeing the shrinking numbers of loyal Jews, concluded that they had no future and thus argued, “All you have to do is compromise on milah, or Shabbos, or notions of Jewish chosenness, and then you will triumph to universal approval and admiration.”

If only more Jews would heed the words of Beruriah in refusing such offers and such logic. If only they would understand that our true strength does not lie in large numbers but in the spiritual and moral consistency of our lives in upholding the Torah, without compromise, without apology, even if for whatever reason there are few to bear witness to it. Would that they would raise their children to live by the axiom that indeed we exalt precisely because we are a small and precious people. That it is better to be numerically diminished, if that is what it takes to be free of moral depravity, and the guardians of the purest form of God’s Will.

Ki atem ha-me’at mi-kol ha-amim, indeed!

Comments by Basil Herring:

  1. This meta-historical analysis by the Rav was developed and presented a few short years after the Shoah with its catastrophic loss of a third of the Jewish people. It also took place against the backdrop of American Jewish life in which the Orthodox and those who actually maintained halachic observance were a tiny, and shrinking remnant. The Rav’s words must have been balm to the minds and hearts of his talmidim. But it would be a mistake to dismiss his analysis as a mere homiletic placebo intended to overcome a contemporaneous despair born of Orthodox demographic decline. The idea that the perseverance and strength of the Torah life is not a function of how many Jews remain committed to it over the short term, and that the very emphasis on numbers and size is fundamentally un-Jewish, fully reflects the Bible’s own antipathy toward census-taking, the repeated warnings of Chazal against drawing conclusions from popular attitudes, and the repeated patterns of Jewish history in which the few overcame (or at least outlived) the many.
  2. On the interfaith level, coming a few years before Vatican II, the Rav was also acutely aware that many Jews (knowingly or not) were internalizing the classic Christian doctrine that the worldly sufferings of the “disappearing” Jews, in contrast to the obvious spread and power of Christian faith, were “proof” that the ancient tenets and practices of the Jewish faith should be doubted, reconsidered, or at the very least amended and reformed for a new age. The Rav here forcefully argues that there was nothing new in these attitudes. The Sadducee precursors of Christianity in the Second Century already made the same argument in light of the Hadrianic persecutions of the time, and – as Beruriah replied – the demographic argument based on widespread adherence to religious doctrine was as specious then as it was in the second half of the Twentieth Century.
  3. We must do a better job of becoming more attractive and compelling role models to the assimilating masses

    Then there are the internal Jewish denominational lessons of his analysis. While the Rav does not say so explicitly, one cannot but conclude that he also had in mind the mid-century triumphalist mindset of the non-Orthodox movements in light of their large numbers, wealth, and institutional leadership of American Jewish life. By contrast few were the Orthodox yeshivot, mechitzah synagogues, mikvaot, and shomer shabbos enclaves. The calls to change (or “modernize”) the mesorah in order to preserve the core were difficult to resist. The Rav’s answer as implied here was straightforward: namely, that this was nothing new, insofar as throughout Jewish history significant numbers of Jews have sought to dilute the Torah’s teachings, amend Halachah, or adopt inimical external influences. And so we might say that there were always those who argued that the strict interpretation of halachic Judaism contradicted what the Church called natural law, or what today might be called the needs and drives of human nature. Such deviance inevitably left the faithful few to carry on mainline Judaism, while the others drifted into an assimilationist oblivion over time. We always were a small people, and there have always been Jews who left the fold and assimilated. And that is how it was meant to be. The crucial insight of the Rav, building on the Kuzari, was that this is a necessity and by Divine intent, so as to safeguard the integrity of the faith of our forefathers.
  4. Most significantly, the Rav’s thesis bears consideration in light of the recently released, and already much discussed, Pew Study on American Jewish demographic trends. Of course the study in of itself (and those like it) fully reflect the phenomenon of excessive American Jewish preoccupation with demographic numbers. In light of what we have seen the Rav, one suspects, would be far less inclined to attach surpassing importance to a snapshot of the denominational or assimilatory numbers at any given moment. Contrary to popular or Christological thinking, cataloging numbers of adherents or believers can be very misleading, and certainly do not indicate the truth or falsehood of a proposition or doctrinal world outlook. Besides, by now we should know that over time the few can become the many and the many the few. In light of the vagaries of time, and the unknowns of future historical developments, there is little room for Orthodox smugness, schadenfreude, or triumphalism.
  5. That said, however, there is the practical consequence of how to allocate scarce resources in dealing with the cloudy future of American Jewish life. We are all familiar with the triage dilemmas in choosing between in-reach or outreach, and choosing between putting up fences of separation to protect ourselves or lowering the bar so as to make those currently outside our “Pale” feel more welcome within it. My sense of the Rav’s thesis articulated here (and others might well disagree), is that he would favor outreach and dissemination of our hashkafah and our Torah by means of us becoming better adherents of the mesorah of Torah. We must do a better job of becoming more attractive and compelling role models to the assimilating masses, as measured not by diluted halachic standards, but rather in our pursuit of individual and communal ethical excellence, our studying, teaching, and personifying the inspired texts and teachings of Torah in all their richness, and in genuine humility and selflessness in our dealings with each other, with our non-Orthodox brethren, and with the enveloping society in which we live. If these do not staunch the scourge of intermarriage and pseudo-conversions, nothing will.
  6. In the end, however, our supreme task as Jews is to walk in the footsteps of the Beruriahs and R. Meirs of our people. No matter how challenging, no matter how few, it is our responsibility to remain committed to the Torah; to live exemplary moral lives that refuse to imitate the bloody or otherwise misguided norms of an orgiastic or materialistic majority; like Beruriah, to care and pray for the return of all of our fellow Jews even if they have left the derech that our forefathers and progenitors in every generation have bequeathed to them and us alike; and finally, to never lose faith in the ultimate redemption and vindication of the Jewish people, this smallest but most privileged nation, by virtue of God’s having elected us to be the am segulah, His precious people.

About Basil Herring

Rabbi Basil Herring PhD has headed a number of congregations, taught at various colleges, published a number of volumes and studies in contemporary Halachah, medieval Jewish philosophy and Bible, and best Rabbinic practices. A past Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Caucus and Rabbinical Council of America (the RCA), he is the editor of the recently published Avodat Halev Siddur of the Rabbinical Council of America.


  1. Although I am not sure if I agree,you appear not to dissagree with the Rav’s theory that Hashem keeps us a small Nation to protect our spiritual destiny. According to his theory, the loss of more than one third of our people in the Holocaust was “to protect our spirtual destiny”. This sounds a little ridiculous to me. Perhaps you do not care to venture an opinion publicly but I would be interested to hear from you on this.

  2. RYBS was far too developed of a philosopher to assert anything about theodicy, guessing why Hashem did something.

    Rather, take his words to imply that the Holocaust did indeed protect our spiritual destiny as per Hashem’s plan for that destiny, not that this was Hashem’s Purpose for permitting it to occur.

  3. Indeed the question raised is a fair one, and I thank you for the opportunity to make a distinction that the original posting should have made.

    The Rav’s analysis, if I understand it correctly, addresses the question of why Yahadus was not embraced by many more converts or nations throughout history, and thus why there are not many more Jews in the world. His analysis does not state or attempt to justify why when the enemies of the Jews sought to diminish the Jewish people God did not prevent them from succeeding on occasion.

    Thus, if as a result of the nefarious actions of our enemies there are fewer Jews than there would otherwise be, that has nothing to do with God’s Will, and everything to do with human will, in its immense capacity for inflicting freely chosen evil.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter