The recent article in the Jerusalem Post on line concerning conversions in Europe (http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1226404749594&pagename=JPost%) reflects a difficulty that is faced both in the realm of conversion as well as outreach to all Jews in general. The equation is simple. The lower we set the standards for inclusion in the "group," the larger the numbers we can attract to the group. The higher the standards, the lower the numbers. So what do we strive for, standards or numbers?
The question is actually not so simple. There is also, for example, the factor of time. Again, for example, the person we attract today with lower standards may become the standard bearer of distinguished Torah standards into the future. We can also question how we evaluate our standards. A person may be meticulous in one aspect of Torah while ignore another aspect. Do we call for all or nothing? Then we can ask: Is there anyone, outside of a few selected tzaddikim, that can meet a standard of all or nothing? The metaphor of the ladder is often presented as a manner by which we are to look at ourselves and others. It is not solely where you are on the ladder but whether you are going up or down? But the questions are still there. There must be, especially in the case of conversion, a minimum standard of where one is -- however we set that will affect numbers. Also we, the Jewish community as a whole and individuals -- both rabbanim and lay -- still must evaluate how we assist, direct, even push, one to greater heights; how do we know whether we are pushing too much or too little? And even this decision may affect numbers?
Another factor may be that numbers and standards are interrelated not only inversely but directly as well. The greater the numbers, the greater the ability to set and develop standars. As the rabbis in the smaller communities in Europe pointed out. with greater numbers they can build a strong Jewish communal structure which would improve the standards of the community. In the other way, there is also the possibility that with greater standards, Torah observance would stand out in a positive, distinctive manner which may also positively attract people to Torah observance thereby increasing numbers.
The bottom line question is, though: what do we want? We all want more Jews but what does that mean? In this whole modern concern regarding intermarriage and assimilation, this is the question. Do we just want people who identify as Jews regardless of what this term means or do we want people who meet a certain standard that makes the term Jewish mean something? Of course, then we have to figure out what this standard is, but the answer to assimilation and intermarriage cannot be just to increase the number of people who simply call themselves Jews regardless of what it may mean. The question is: what is the basic standard that we must demand?
Rabbi Ben Hecht