When I was invited recently to address the Beth Tefiloh Synagogue, the largest Orthodox congregation in Baltimore, on the subject of "Kosher Sex," I was pretty anxious. I rarely ever address Orthodox crowds on that subject because many feel it is inappropriate for a rabbi to talk about matters of the flesh. My fear was only somewhat allayed when Gary Rosenblatt, the highly respected editor of The Jewish Week and a native Baltimorean, told me that the congregation was pretty sophisticated and hip and probably wouldn't stone me.
Nevertheless, on the train down from New York, I decided to rethink my approach to "Kosher Sex"--which argues for passionate sexual intimacy in marriage. I hoped to find the deeper angle that would allow those who are not "Kosher Sex" enthusiasts to embrace its message. As I did so, I happened to open my newspaper to an article about a new Jewish museum in Manhattan, with an entire wing devoted to the Holocaust. Suddenly, the connection was born.
I recalled my first visit to perhaps the most important Holocaust memorial, the Auschwitz death camp and its museum. The visit, of course, was chilling. But despite the barracks, gas chambers, and wooden watchtowers, the sheer magnitude of the horror did not hit me until I saw the display of piles and piles of suitcases. It was the abandoned luggage that made me realize that these were not one million anonymous lives; rather these were one million hopeful futures, one million unrealized potentials, one million unfulfilled destinies. The luggage bore the names and cities of origin of each victim. Each Jewish prisoner had written his or her own name in the hope that they would reclaim their possessions at a new destination, a better destination, one with a future. They were wrong.
For the world, the tragedy of those years was that a man as evil as Hitler could amass the power to engulf the nations in another war. The tragedy for the Jewish people, however, was that one-half their number could be slaughtered with barely a whimper from the world's leaders. It is a tragedy that remains with us, like a nightmare passed down through generations.
We build great museums and memorials to pay homage to the memory of the innocents, to educate the world about all it was robbed of, and to remind us all of man's destructive capacity so that it may never again be unleashed. And yet, it seems that the most important response of all has eluded us.
I speak of our obligation to restore, replenish, and repopulate the world with Jewish children. The most logical response to the death of six million is to give birth to at least another six million. The best course for a nation that lost half its number in the valley of the shadow of death is to find its rebirth in households teeming with life. The real response to the Holocaust lies, ironically, not in the somber corridors of a museum, but in the passionate chambers of the heart; not in the haunting silence of the now-abandoned gas chambers, but in the piercing cry of the delivery room; not in the shattered hopes of a broken nation, but in the intimate connectedness of a man and woman bringing forth life.
Museums commemorate the deaths of our nation's innocent victims, but the birth of Jewish children brings the nation literally to life.
It has always been the Jewish custom to name a newborn child after the memory of a departed loved one. There should be a new campaign to copy down the names of every victim from Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, and Maidenek, among others. Then we should distribute them to families who will undertake to have children with those very same names so that the victims will have a living testimonial.
In the United States, the Jewish population is projected to drop from 5.7 million in 2000 to 3.8 million in 2080, based on trends that have been established in the last 50 years. Low fertility levels, a high intermarriage rate, and an aging population will inevitably lead to a reduction in the total number of Jews outside Israel. This shrinkage, itself alarming, poses an affront to the memory of the Holocaust's victims.
Here we are, the richest, most prosperous generation of Jews in history, living just 50 years after six million of our brethren were slaughtered in the most gruesome way, and we have still not made the decision to replenish our number.
Those who decide to have more than the expected 2.2 children in the Jewish community are often met with polite surprise at best and unmasked hostility at worst. Indeed, studies show that entirely Jewish households average only 2.2 persons (not even children!) while the national average household size is 2.63 persons.
The repopulation of the Jewish people after the Holocaust has been a pivotal factor in my wife's and my decision to have a large family, now up to seven children. You may be thinking, "Gee Shmuley, no need to tackle the Jewish population issue single-handedly!" Well then, you're going to have to help me out and have more kids yourselves.
Interestingly, the most common response people have to the size of our family is, "Gosh, your wife must really be tired." And yet, female lawyers who regularly clock 80 hours a week at work are rarely reprimanded in the same way. On another occasion, someone said to me, "Seven kids? Wow, you guys must live with enormous pressure!" That is all children are viewed as. Obligation. Exhaustion. Work. The idea that we actually love children and would choose to devote a large part of our energy to them seems unfathomable.
When we view children only as a drain on our resources, then we have been desensitized to their infinite blessing. While museums and memorials are worthy reminders, a single addition to the Jewish population is even more worthy. Like G-d, who took the dust of the earth and fashioned it into the first man, we are similarly taking the ashes from the chimneys of Auschwitz and forging them into a new generation of Jews who affirm life.
While I believe wholeheartedly in the Holocaust museums around the world and go back to them for inspiration, memory, and education, I have an even greater belief in the little children who replace all the ones we lost during those terrible years. May G-d grant that they multiply until they are, as He promised, "like the stars of the heavens and like the sands of the sea."
And what was the reaction of my Baltimore audience to the idea that Kosher Sex is the ultimate response to the Holocaust? Initially, I sensed some shock (it does, after all, sound irreverent), but by the end there was enthusiasm and near universal support. Which just goes to show that there are times when you can have more than two Jews and just one opinion.