Chief Rabbi of Israel Lau Lecture at Inauguration of Tajtelbaum Jewish Study Hall

At Slager Jewish student centre, 61 George St, Oxford, OX1 2BQ 

For pictures click here 

February, 2010 

‘Future of the Jewish People’




PICT1004.JPGThe greatest threat facing the Jewish people today is assimilation and lack of Jewish education.


The killing of one’s neighbour is the unfortunate history of the world. The first person who killed in the Torah was Cain who killed his brother Abel in the Book of Genesis. He was jealous of his brother that the sacrifice of Abel was accepted by G‑d and not his own so he arose and killed his brother while out in the field. Cain was cursed by G‑d.


Then there was Esau who wanted to kill his brother Jacob for stealing the blessing that their father Isaac had wanted to bless Esau. Isaac requested Esau to bring him his favourite dish and promised to bless him. Instead, Jacob prepared the food first and when he brought the dish, Isaac who was blind gave the blessing to Jacob.


Esau resolved to kill Jacob for stealing the blessing but said that ‘I will wait until my father passes away and then I will kill Jacob’.


The commentaries pose the question, why did Esau wait to kill Jacob until Isaac passed away? If he hated Jacob so much then he should have killed him at the earliest opportunity. One of the commentaries explain that Esau cared about his father and did not want his father to experience Jacob being killed by his own brother. He therefore chose to contain his hatred and wait until Isaac’s passing.


Another commentary, however, points out a far more sinister reason. Esau thought he would learn from the mistake of Cain. When Cain killed Abel out of jealousy he did so in a rage and didn’t wait until his father, Adam, passed away. This allowed his father to have more children to replace Abel after his death and continued his legacy.


PICT0903.JPGEsau reasoned that he would be patient and wait until Isaac dies and then kill Jacob so Isaac cannot replace him with a sibling who will remind people of what Esau did to Jacob.


However, Esau made a mistake, because while he waited for the death of Isaac before killing Jacob, there was time for Jacob to have numerous children of his own and raise a family. Not a small family but one of twelve children who became the tribes of Israel. He decided then that there would be no longer any point in killing Jacob.


The next to kill the Jews in the Bible was Pharaoh. The Jews increased in number while in Egypt and Pharaoh decided that they were a threat and had to be contained. He said to himself that Esau was unwise, since while he waited to kill Jacob, he was able to raise a family. Pharaoh would be smarter than that and would kill all the mail children in one fell, not allowing for any future existence of the Jewish people.


Pharaoh, however, made a simple miscalculation. Although he killed all the males he allowed the females to live. In Jewish tradition, if a Jewish girl marries a non-Jewish boy, the children will still be Jewish, as Jewish identity is passed through the maternal line. Thus, he was unsuccessful.


The next person who tried to destroy the Jewish people was Haman, the Prime Minister of the Persian Empire. He realised that everyone before him had failed with their ideas of how to eradicate the Jews and decided on a strategy that would take previous failures into account. His plan was, as related in the scroll of Esther, to kill men, women and children all on one day.


However he also failed, since the Jews held steadfast to their identity and G‑d protected them.


The next link in this chain of history was the Holocaust, when it appears Hitler learnt from history. Hitler understood that the physical survival of the Jewish people is connected to their spiritual survival. If he could only sever the Jews of their spiritual connection, he would be successful.


This is essentially what happened on Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass), on 9 November, 1938, when the Nazi government sanctioned a night of violence against Jews and their property. Using the pretext of the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris, Goebbels urged Storm Troopers, the SS, and the Hitler Youth to stage violent reprisals resulting in 91 Jewish dead, hundreds injured, and 7,500 businesses and 177 synagogues gutted.


PICT0829.JPGIt was with the destruction of the synagogues that Hitler symbolically indicated that he would cut off the Jews of not just their physical existence but also their spiritual.


He insinuated through the destruction of Jewish places of worship and study that in order to destroy the Jews physically they had to also be cut off spiritually.


However, Hitler failed, since he was unaware that ultimately one cannot destroy the spiritual existence of the Jewish people by destroying buildings, even synagogues.


The Chief Rabbi finished this historical polemic by explaining that Judaism talks about a final war that will occur in the future, called Gog and Magog, which will be catastrophic for the Jewish people and some might suggest that this is what is happening at the moment with the decline of world Jewry through assimilation.


While one cannot G‑d forbid make any comparison between the Holocaust when 6,000,000 Jews were exterminated and assimilation, however, the decline of world Jewry must still be considered a grave issue and perhaps the greatest threat facing the future of the Jewish people in modern times.


The numbers speak for themselves.


In 1939, on the even of the Holocaust, there were seventeen million Jews in the world. After the Holocaust, by 1945, there were only eleven million, as approximately six million died in the Holocaust. Sixty five years later, however, the worldwide Jewish population is 13.3 million. 


While in the 13 years following the Holocaust the Jewish population grew by one million, it took another 38 years for it to grow by another million. Statistically it should have grown by three million.


These sobering figures reflect how severely the Jewish population has declined over the past forty years. Effectively, there has been a loss of two million Jews in just forty years. This decline has not been due to any catastrophes, G‑d forbid, but rather due to assimilation and low birth rate.


Tajtelbaum hall1.JPGWe will look further at the statistics of the Jews in the United States, the world’s largest Jewish community, which provides a good indicator for the future of the Diaspora Jewish community.


According to studies, it is predicted that in the next 80 years America's Jewish population would decline by one-third to 3.8 million if current fertility rates and migration patterns continue, together with assimilation. Intermarriage rates have risen from roughly 6% in 1950 to approximately 40–50% in the year 2000. Only about 33% of intermarried couples raise their children with a Jewish religious upbringing. This, in combination with the comparatively low birthrate in the Jewish community, has led to a 5% decline in the Jewish population of the United States in the 1990s.


Studies also anticipate a severe decline in the number of Jews in the former Soviet Union. By 2080, data suggests, the Jewish community there would be virtually non-existent, partly due to migration but mostly due to loss of Jewish identity.


The UK is also suffering from decline. According to Dr. Yaakov Wise of Manchester University there are currently 280,000 Jews in the UK. This is in contrast to 450,000 in 1950, a decline of about forty percent.


Israel is also not immune to assimilation. This happens primarily when Israelis travel abroad and became easy prey to assimilation and intermarriage, due to shallow Jewish roots received in Israel.


The only Diaspora Jewish communities that are not in decline, according to studies, are Manchester, Antwerp and Germany, with has attracted a large influx of Jews from the former USSR.


What is to blame for the decline of world Jewry? The main reason is lack of Jewish education. The future of the Jewish people is dependent on Jewish education and the building of Jewish study halls like the Tajtelbaum Jewish study hall, allowing people to learn about Judaism and thereby strengthen their Jewish identity.


The Chief Rabbi ended on a positive note that despite the decline of world Jewry, Jewish identity is unique in its authentic preservation and continuity compared to other cultures of the ancient world.


To illustrate this point with a visualization:


Socrates gets off a plane in Greece and approaches the first person he sees. “Excuse me sir, where can I find a Greek temple? I need to pray to Zeus, Pan, Aphrodite and Apollo.” The man, dressed in western clothing, squints and looks at the Socrates. “I don’t understand your language,” he replies in Modern Greek to the ancient philosopher. After finding a common dialect, Socrates repeats his question. “Temple?” the man repeats. “We have a Greek Orthodox church, if that’s what you mean.” As the conversation continues, Socrates realizes that nothing remains of ancient Greek culture and he sheds a tear.


Julius Ceasar lands in Rome and, unfortunately, the same routine follows: ”Can you take me to the Coliseum?” – “It is in ruins.”


“How is the Roman Empire?” — “It is no more. We are a city in Italy.”


But when Moses lands in Ben-Gurion, things are different. He approaches a man and extends his hand. “Shalom Aleichem,” Moses says. Without missing a beat, the airport worker replies, “Aleichem Shalom!”


“I did not pray yet today, can I find Tefilin (Phylacteries) in Israel today,” Moses asks. “Of course!” the man says. “Use mine.”


This is the strength and power of our tradition and the need for Jewish education to preserve it.


Thank you very much.