Sermon – On reaching seven billion

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 14 October 2011

At some point during the next few weeks something truly momentous will happen in the history of the world.  Somewhere on the planet – probably, though not necessarily, in India or China – the 7 billionth inhabitant of our world will be born.  The population of the earth will tick over – the addition of just one more human life, but the reaching of a major statistical landmark.  It will be a very significant moment in the life of our planet.  And one reached in extra quick time.  When I was born – a relatively short 37 years ago – the population had only just hit 4 billion.  By the time I reach 50 it is likely that the world population will have doubled in my lifetime.

As we approach the forthcoming “Day of 7 Billion” we will, no doubt, be surrounded by visions of a Malthusian dystopia – a crisis of overpopulation in which the limited resources of the world will become over-stretched between a growing and youthful population, leading to famine and drought, to war and extremism.  And it will, no doubt be accompanied by calls not only for responses in welfare and development, but also for measures of population control of more or less draconian nature.

As Jews, where will we stand?  What might our response be to this constant advancing of the world’s population?

When we delve into our texts we may have something of a problem – because we find that they seem to want us to make more people.  Over the next week we will begin again our reading of the Torah with the narrative of Creation, a narrative which presents a world view in which the earth is ours to tend, but also to exploit and to use.  At the heart of this model is the divine injunction which we will read on Thursday morning on Simchat Torah: pru ur’vu u’milu et ha’aretz v’chiv’shuah – be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.  It is an injunction repeated to the sons of Noah – and thus to all humankind – after the flood.  Ironically, if projections are accurate, we may well read Parashat Noach on exactly the day on which the population hits seven billion.

As a result Judaism in its classical form opposes the artificial limitation of family size – by anyone, not just by Jews – as a transgression of a divine command.  Halachah is not entirely closed to the possibility of birth control for the sake of welfare –possibly even in the case of poverty that may threaten a family’s physical welfare – but the other voice is stronger – that all people, Jew and non-Jew are enjoined to procreate.

This is surely one of those moments when we, As Reform Jews, are duty bound to step away from the text.  Or rather, to acknowledge that the text is from a different time and place, one in which the total population would have been measured in millions not hundreds of millions or certainly billions – and that therefore we have to understand our own duties more broadly.  In rabbinic literature the commandment to procreate is sometimes read in conjunction with the words of Isaiah, that God did not create (the world) a void, but formed it for habitation.  As the world is already inhabited, we must now reconsider the nature of our obligations and discover a new obligation – one of enabling our world to remain a habitable environment.

So, perhaps, we can posit a new religious obligation – the obligation not to overpopulate the world.  And this is a duty that belongs not just to others but also to ourselves.  I am certain that over the next few weeks we are in line for some serious handwringing in the so-called developed world about our inability to effect change in demographic trends elsewhere – that responsibility for over population lies elsewhere.  As Jews, we may wish to use our own narrative as caution against the more extreme language of this debate.  As Jews we have in our story and in our history been victims of imposed population control.  The Pharaoh of the Exodus story experienced his own demographic nightmare – as we are told “the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land – literally the earth – was filled with them”.  Pharaoh’s response was ruthless – slavery and infanticide.  Now no-one is, to my knowledge, proposing such measures today.  However, our narrative points to the very real danger of making population growth only the responsibility of the other – of saying ‘there are too many of them’.

This, unfortunately, puts an especial pressure on us as Jews.  Because we may well feel that we do have a right to procreate while others must exercise self control.  That we have a right to make more Jews – on the grounds that we are still making up for our own loss of the last century – or, perhaps for the sake of Am Yisrael – either to ensure the survival of Jewish culture or – more perniciously, for the sake of the politics of Middle East.  These thoughts are entirely understandable, but we also have to recognise, I think, that particularism of this sort – we are different, we are exempt – is the other half of the particularism of Pharaoh – they are the problem, they must be controlled.

One of the joys of being a rabbi and not a maker of public policy is that I get to talk in broad brush terms, with rhetorical flourish – without ever needing to answer the actual problem.  But I do need to answer the Jewish voice.  The Jewish voice which has traditionally understood our role in the world as being to fill it, must surely now be laid to rest.  And the Jewish voice which says that we have the right to make more Jewish babies while others must limit their families must also be challenged*.

The real Jewish voice should now be different – to state that the responsible use of birth control and family planning in our society and throughout the world is a legitimate Jewish response. To state that as Jews we are duty bound to respond in the most basic way to the needs of others – of the already 1 billion people in the world without access to clean water, the 2.5 billion without proper sanitation, to work to make the world inhabitable and not only to fill it with more Jews.

As we consider the Malthusian nightmare, it is, perhaps worth giving the final word to Malthus himself – not only a scholar and demographer but a clergyman.  In the 1826 edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population he wrote of his response to the injunction of Genesis, in terms that might well act as a warning to those who oppose any form of population control for religious reasons: “I believe that it is the intention of the Creator that the earth should be replenished; but certainly with a healthy, virtuous and happy population, not an unhealthy, vicious and miserable one. And if, in endeavouring to obey the command to increase and multiply, we people it only with beings of this latter description, and suffer accordingly, we have no right to impeach the justice of the command, but only our irrational mode of executing it.”


* It was clear when I delivered this sermon that I was insufficiently clear about exactly what I meant.  It was not my intention to speak to those who have families with three or four children, but to question the practice in parts of the Jewish world to have very large families.