Earlier this week, just in time for Holocaust Remembrance Day, a news item appeared in the media that sent a shiver up my spine.
According to the report, distinguished demographer Sergio Della Pergola of the Hebrew University has concluded that had it not been for the Holocaust, there would be 32 million Jews in the world today, rather than just 13 million.
The Holocaust, he noted, had "struck a mortal blow particularly at the Jews of Eastern Europe because of their especially young age structure." This, he said, had caused "significant long-term demographic damage" with ramifications "far beyond what we think."
Indeed, as Della Pergola points out, the percentage of Jews in the world today is steadily declining. Whereas prior to World War II, there were eight Jews per thousand people in the world, the figure now stands at just two per every thousand, and it is heading southward.
These findings are a timely and chilling reminder of the unfathomable destruction which the Holocaust wrought. Not only did it claim the six million who were murdered by the Germans and their collaborators, but it also took away their children, grandchildren and all of their descendants, forever depriving the Jewish people of untold millions of precious souls.
In other words, the scope of the killing, magnified over time, becomes ever more extensive and incomprehensible.
Just imagine a world in which a vibrant and ample Jewish people, more than double its present size, was not beset by the constant threat of demographic diminution and assimilatory attenuation.
Consider for a moment the cultural and spiritual riches that we would be producing, the mighty intellectual and cerebral contributions to mankind that we could be making, and you begin to realize the extent of what has been lost.
BUT IN ADDITION to all the "what ifs," Della Pergola's research inevitably raises a related question, albeit one far more philosophical and theological in nature: To what extent does it matter how many Jews there are?
Traditionally, of course, we have never placed a great deal of emphasis on the size or dimensions of the Jewish people. For the past 2000 years, living at the mercy of others, we tended to focus more on quality rather than quantity.
That, perhaps, is why many Jews tend to discount or minimize the importance of our numbers, arguing that what really matters is whether we are working effectively to fulfill our national destiny.
But this mode of thinking, I believe, is a product of exile, a function of the fact that we were more concerned with surviving, rather than thriving. In the process, we tended to lose sight of the important role that numbers can and do play in the life of a nation.
Go back to the Bible, for example, where demographic prowess is repeatedly emphasized. In Genesis 13, God assures Abraham that his descendants shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth. The medieval commentator Rashi explains the promise as follows: "Just as the dust can not be counted, so too shall your seed be beyond counting."
Similar pledges were made to the patriarchs Isaac and Jacob, and when Moses addressed Israel before his death, he too prophesied that God would multiply them "a thousand times over" (Deuteronomy 1:10-11). This, says the Ha'emek Davar commentary, is a promise that relates both to the quality and the quantity of the Jewish people.
SOMEHOW, WHILE we were getting collectively beaten up in the Diaspora over the centuries, we seem to have moved away from this approach. But now might be just the time to start rethinking it. After all, size does matter, whether in basketball, business or international diplomacy. And to make a difference in the world and live up to our national mission as Jews, we need a much larger and more diverse "team" at our disposal.
This means that we not only need to work harder at keeping Jews Jewish, but we also must expand our horizons and look for other ways to boost our numbers.
A good place to start would be with descendants of Jews, with communities that have a historical connection with the Jewish people and are now interested in returning. These include the Bnei Menashe of northeastern India, who are descended from a lost tribe of Israel, the Bnei Anousim of Spain, Portugal and South America (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term "Marranos"), the "Hidden Jews" of Poland from the Holocaust-era, as well as others.
Through no fault of their own, these people's ancestors were taken by force from the Jewish people, and we owe it to them and their descendants to embrace them and welcome them back home. Doing so will not only right a historical wrong, but it will strengthen us numerically and spiritually as well.
If you are still not convinced of the importance of numbers, consider the following. In his A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson notes that during the Herodian era there were eight million Jews in the world, "constituting about 10 percent of the Roman empire." At around the same time, a census in China conducted by the Han dynasty found that there were 57.5 million Chinese, or seven Chinese for every Jew.
Jump ahead 2000 years to the present, and the numbers are of course quite different, with China seeking ways to limit its growth beyond 1.1 billion people, even as Jewry desperately searches for ways to maintain its 13 million members.
We might never be able to match China's demographics, but we can and should look for new opportunities for growth. Our precarious state as a people, and the threats we face at home and abroad, demand as much.
The writer serves as chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based group that assists 'lost Jews' seeking to return to the Jewish people.