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Abraham’s Lesson: Quality Over Quantity in Push for Jewish Continuity

We need to stop stressing about 2.1 children
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

This article appeared first in the Forward


Anxiety about the Jewish future — and the number of people we will have in that future — is totally reasonable. It is a long-standing hobby of Jews going back to Abraham, and an especially popular pastime of late 20th and early 21st century Jews. It is born of the historical reality of the Shoah and abetted by the openness and ease of assimilation into American society. Not to mention the existential concerns: If our people are meant to be something and to do something, will there be enough of us to achieve these lofty objectives?

Anxiety can be both productive and destructive, and this is no exception. Productive anxiety feeds creative investment and problem solving, while destructive anxiety results in the demonization and isolation of the perceived causes. A good example of productive anxiety is the creation and ongoing support for Taglit-Birthright Israel. Like or dislike Birthright, it represents a very concrete, tangible, well-funded and goal-oriented approach to changing young people’s relationship to the Jewish people, and as a matter of consequence whether they will express that connection through marrying other Jews. By its own metrics it has worked.

In contrast, Jane Eisner’s recent expression of population anxiety (“Be Fruitiful and Multiply — Please?” in the December 12 issue of the Forward) expresses what I would consider a destructive anxiety.

Some transparency first: I suppose that in our family life, my spouse and I are close to the imagined non-Orthodox poster children. We married young, had children relatively young, and exceeded the 2.1 magic number of sustainable population replacement when we went for it and had that third kid. We fell short of the haredi fantasy of seven or eight children, but we did our part.

Here’s what we had on our side: We were both heterosexual; we had no serious fertility issues or costs; we had excellent medical coverage and health care that reduced our risks and eliminated any costs incurred with pregnancy and childbirth; we were fortunate to have had healthy pregnancies and smooth deliveries; we had support systems — financial, family and otherwise — that smoothed all the transitions and made our choices possible; we both have careers and jobs that make having children (somewhat) affordable, and that provide childbirth leaves (for both of us); and the list goes on.

Having children is expensive, bad for the environment, a health risk for everyone involved, and — for women — can be a career liability. It is also an option available only to those with some constellation of the good fortune that I described above, for which I am thankful but not boastful. So the first problem: How can the standard to which our community aspires demand a set of conditions that are controlled largely by chance?

Moreover, this non-Orthodox birth-rate envy seems to be making a value out of a circumstance created by historical anomaly. It is not fully understood when or why the ultra-Orthodox birth rates spiked to the levels that they are today, but it seems connected to post-Holocaust population anxiety, and what seemed the only way to reconstitute decimated towns, villages and religious dynasties. Eisner effectively imitates the post-Holocaust anxiety with her concerns about the (voluntary, non-genocidal) decline of non-Orthodox Judaism and calls for a similar prescription. In this framing her suggestion is almost perverse, a kind of strange longing to imitate what might eventually look to us like an historical anomaly.

Worst of all is the assumption that having children constitutes an act of “communal responsibility” in and of itself. This approach assumes that the quality of Jewish life is inevitable but that the quantity is not. I think this is backwards. Maybe I am naive, but I believe that a quality product will ultimately sustain itself; more than that, I think there are many actions and activities that we as a community can undertake to concretely strengthen the institutions, identities and even families that constitute Jewish life today. Outreach to potential converts and interfaith families, the embrace of the other, support for the downtrodden in our community, making possible the envisioning of Jewish families for those for whom traditional family life is genetically or otherwise impossible or undesirable — all of these align much more with the culture of ethical living that should be the focus of our “communal responsibility.”

I hearken back to our ancestors, and wonder why we look to Jacob as the ideal patriarch — he of the 13 children — and not his grandfather Abraham. Abraham is the real modern Jew: He moved a lot, spent a long time searching for a sense of purpose, struggled with fertility issues, and was anxious about his future. And then he had just two children — not enough for the magic 2.1 standard, and too late in life — and spent the rest of his life trying to embody and pass along a commitment to justice and righteousness to the one child that ultimately remained. It need not be a choice between having a serious mission and having enough people to live it out. Given a choice between investing in the hard work of defining and sustaining our mission, or in promoting the production of more people, I hope we remember our legacy as the people of Abraham and Sarah.

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