Israel's increased birthrate: A demographic crisis in the making?

Israel’s population is growing at a welcome rate, but there is no room for horror forecasts of resource scarcity . The Jewish nation constitutes only 0.15% of the world’s population – we are in existential danger, and must grow.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, | updated: 13:59

Judaism Har Bracha yeshiva
Har Bracha yeshiva
פלאש 90

Question about Procreation and the Environment

“My name is Elyashiv Sagi. I grew up in the Golan, and studied in a Hesder Yeshiva. Today I live in a community in Samaria, and serve in Keva (professional corps) in the Israeli Air Force. I recently completed my Bachelor’s degree in Earth Sciences. The question is a personal one, out of genuine concern.”

“I would like to ask the rabbi a fundamental halakhic question: In the Torah world, there is wall-to-wall agreement that regarding the Torah obligation to have a son and daughter, it is proper and correct to go beyond the minimum required to fulfill this mitzvah as best as possible, as hinted in the verses “He did not create it (earth, ed.) to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited” and “but in the evening your hands should not be idle.” I have also heard that after the dreadful Holocaust it is even more worthy to go beyond the minimum requirement of this mitzvah and thereby increase the Jewish population.

"Here are some statistics on the population in Israel: Currently living in Israel, there are approximately 9.1 million people (not including the Arabs in Judea and Samaria, and the Gaza Strip). The State of Israel is one of the most densely populated in the world – about 440 people per square kilometer. The rate of reproduction in Israel resulting from natural increase and immigration of Jews to Israel is two percent a year, which means the population in Israel is doubled every 35 years. Hence, if the current rate of growth continues, we will reach 18 million within 35 years, and in 70 years, we are expected to reach approximately 36 million, with a density of about 1,800 people per square kilometer.

"In our modern lifestyle, we are unaware of the processes preceding a product’s arrival at a store or water’s arrival to the tap, and what happens to garbage after being discarded. But these processes exist and affect us all. Such a growth in population will have far-reaching effects in many ways: presently, the State of Israel is already completely dependent on food imports – we are unable to feed ourselves. Today, the State of Israel already lacks sufficient rainwater. The natural resources we consume, the pollution, and the waste we produce are a simple multiplication of the average amount of waste per person of population size. And today, in a densely populated country such as ours, it is already difficult to find suitable solutions for mountains of waste and pollution of water, soil, and air. Developed areas are growing in direct proportion to population growth, and nature areas are shrinking respectively.

"At a certain point, too large a population is not a blessing, but rather, big trouble. When we have 36 million people here, without open spaces, without hiking areas and forests, with mountains of debris, pollution, and countless buildings and roads – won’t it be clear we have to stop? Or maybe just 35 years later, when we will be 72 million?

"Clearly, something needs to change – the only question is, when. At a certain point, it is impossible to continue encouraging procreation as we do today. Reality will force us to stop. And if so, shouldn’t we already be talking about it today?

"I learned from what Rabbi Yosef Engel wrote in his book “Atvan D’Oreita”, Rule Number 13, that there are two parts to the mitzvah of puru u’revu (procreation): The Torah mitzvah to have a son and daughter is a mitzvah between man and God, and the mitzvah to add more children as hinted in the verse “He did not create it to be empty” is to the benefit of the world. In light of this, in my humble opinion, we can say today that for the sake of the world, it is preferable not to excel in this mitzvah, because it causes serious harm to humans and the environment.

"Also, it seems that in general, environmental issues such as global warming and the like are of no interest to the Gedolei Yisrael (eminent rabbis), and this surprises me, because anyone who has eyes in his head and cares about the environment sees that in our generation, we consume natural resources at a much faster rate than their growth, and produce waste and air pollution in general and in particular carbon dioxide. The way I see it, we are similar to someone who has lived an impossibly high lifestyle for years at the expense of his parents’ inheritance, and leaves the debts to his successors.

"This critical issue, fraught with several moral and ethical matters which in not so many years is liable to have a profound effect on all of us, cannot be ignored by society and its rabbis. I would appreciate hearing your opinion, Rabbi, on these issues.”

The Discussion about Environmental Issues

A: It is essential to preface that the conventional discussion about the depletion of natural resources is one full of empty clichés, which, for consecutive generations have turned out to be false. Since Europe’s population began to grow at a rapid rate, concern arose that natural resources would be depleted, and fertility, which was considered a blessing, would turn into a curse. The foremost advocate in this field was Thomas Malthus (1776 – 1834), who argued that the rate of population growth was higher than the rate of food production, and if it continued to grow at such a rate, early in the twentieth century humanity would sink into catastrophes of hunger and thirst, wars and epidemics. Today, there are already in excess of seven billion people, who produce far more food than is required. However, because food is not properly distributed, there are those who are starving. If, for example, Africans used their natural resources efficiently and economically, they could produce several times more quality food, and no one would suffer from hunger.

Human Development is faster than Demographic Growth

The fundamental reason the gloomy projections are unfounded is because the more people there are, the more they develop science and technology, and in so doing, resources increase at a faster rate than population growth and as a result, the standard of living steadily increases.

Guardedly, it is possible to say that we are currently on the verge of scientific breakthroughs that will allow the production of clean energy from the sun, and the production of molecular-level food, so that from basic materials any type of food can be created to suit every palate. In recent years, scientists have been able to artificially develop meat by means of replication of stem cells from animal meat. If this development succeeds commercially, a revolution in the meat market could ensue: the raising of billions of cows and chickens for slaughter would come to an end, the price of meat would decrease, and the pollution associated with the raising of livestock would end. This will create tremendous savings in land, water, and all natural resources.

Academic Educators of Environmental Sciences

Apparently, academic teachers in the field of environmental sciences are not fulfilling their duty and are not presenting their students and the public with the full picture, in addition to all their gloomy predictions pronounced with full confidence and accepted by the scientific community - which have already been disproved. As scientists, they should have known that scientific progress is faster than population and consumption growth. This is especially true of a free-market, democratic society with fair competition, which produces innovations that far exceed consumption growth.

For example, there is a lot of talk about the problem of mountains of “non-biodegradable” plastic, and lo and behold, we now hear about the development of a plastic-eating bacteria which converts it into energy that can be utilized. Another example can be given by the many and harsh arguments of the opponents to the natural gas plan of the Israeli government and Minister Yuval Steinitz, all of which have been refuted one by one. Nonetheless, they refuse to learn a lesson, and like Don Quixote of old, they search for the next windmill to determine it a dragon, and declare war on it.

Crises Must Be Dealt with by Moderate Means

While it is clear that in the process of development and progress there are also downsides and crises that need to be addressed, that must be done in a realistic and moderate way without intimidation. The environmentalists’ shrill cries must also be taken into consideration, as they also encourage continued research on the developments required to deal with environmental pollution. In a free society when people are outraged they demand solutions, and as a result, it becomes more lucrative to invest in them. Take, for instance, recycling. Without their cries we might possibly have had to wait another decade until the demand for it naturally increased, and only then solutions would have been found.

The Danger of Intimidation

When adopting horror predictions, besides the inherent mistake, there is a fair chance they will result in moral distortions. For if indeed, if the situation is so severe, extreme measures must be taken, in the sense of “et la’asot” (‘the time for action has come’). Thus in China, the number of births was limited very cruelly. Similarly, as a result of the theories of Malthus and others like him, the holders of race theory strengthened their position that humanity should encourage races of productive people, and work to reduce others. More moderate results were the attempts to formulate a public position that it is proper to scale down birth, and denounce large families, as is the common position in Western countries. In practice, as a result of this position, Western nations have found themselves in a severe demographic crisis, leading to serious socio-economic problems that place their future in question.

Returning to the Basics of the Mitzvah

However, there is some truth to your question, for at times, a superficial notion of the mitzvah of pru u’revu leads to serious problems. Therefore, it is appropriate to briefly recapitulate the three levels of the mitzvah:

1) it is a Torah obligation to give birth to a son and daughter, and in order to fulfill the mitzvah, one must make great efforts, including utilizing all conventional medical treatments.

2) Average couples are obligated by Divrei Chachamim (rabbinical ordinance) to try and have about four children. However, if there are exceptional difficulties, physical or mental, they are exempt from this.

3) It is a mitzvah to have more children, but there is room for consideration in this level. If parents know they can raise more children and educate them towards Torah, mitzvot, and derech eretz (good manners), it is a mitzvah for them to continue having more children to the best of their ability. But if they know that with more children the burden will be too heavy, and their lives will be filled with anger and anxiety, there is room for them not to have more children, because although with every additional child they fulfill a mitzvah, on the other hand, in their terrible mental state they will commit sins, and this can adversely affect the education of children. Not only that, but also those who wish to direct their talents to other beneficial avenues in a way that will not leave them strength to raise more children, may do so (Peninei Halakha: Simchat Ha’Bayit U’Birchato 5:6).

It seems that these general rules also answer the problem you raised, for if numerous difficulties arise in providing for children, it is possible to settle for fulfillment of the mitzvah on the second level.

Concerning the issue of the density of the country and its borders, there is room to expand on this issue on another occasion. In the meantime, however, it is important to add that we, the Jewish people, currently comprise a total of only 0.15% of the world’s population. The persecutions, murders, and assimilation put us in existential danger that still remains till this day.

And therefore, as you wrote, it is our great duty to encourage families to raise numerous children for the glory of the Torah, the Nation, and the Land, and for the blessing of all nations of the world, as the Torah says: “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.