Seemingly, in light of the wars, exiles and destruction, the Jewish people should have disappeared by now – but they haven't. How did Jews survive?
Anthropologist Melvin Konner of Emory University, Atlanta, attributes the Jewish people's survival to their devotion to some of the mitzvot of the Torah, which he says were specifically suited to guarantee the continued existence of the children of Abraham.
According to Prof. Konner, circumcision and practicing family purity (Niddah) are mitzvot which allowed and encouraged the birth of a greater number of offspring, contributing to the people's continued existence.
He adds that the model of prolific mothers matches Darwin's Natural Selection theory, according to which many offspring improve the chances of survival. In other words, "be fruitful and multiply" is a winning formula.
Konner presented his theory last week at the conference on "Judaism in Evolutionary Perspective" at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
"The existence of the Jewish people throughout history, in light of the exiles and persecution, is a real challenge," says Konner. "Religious people see this as divine intervention.
"There is no doubt that their commitment to religious texts helped, but if we look at certain Jewish traditions, we can definitely examine their influence on the reproductive system."
Good and bad
When he addresses the circumcision mitzvah, Konner doesn't conceal the negative aspect. Following the brit, he says, babies may suffer from an infection or die as a result of bleeding. Not to mention the fact that the Jews' enemies, including the Nazis, used circumcision to identify the Jews.
Nonetheless, there is scientific evidence today that male circumcision can prevent infections in the sexual organ – and this was likely even more important in ancient times when hygiene was poor.
In the past, such infections could have led to infertility problems among women – and so it was important for a man not to infect his partner.
Judaism has also given women a role in guaranteeing the nation's survival – through the Niddah mitzvah, which forbids sexual intercourse during menstruation.
"Niddah has a negative aspect too," Konner says. "Religious groups used Niddah to keep women away from the public arena and restrict them in different ways."
But Konner mentions the good sides as well. This mitzvah, he says, has boosted natural increase, which is the essence of evolution according to Darwin. Waiting seven days from the last day of menstruation brings you two to four days before ovulation. As sperm can survive in the uterus several days, the timing determined by Torah is the ideal time to conceive.
Moreover, he mentions the fact that this mitzvah has another dimension, with the anticipation creating a sort of "monthly honeymoon" for many couples and increasing the chance to conceive.
Although these are two ancient mitzvot, Konner still finds them relevant. "It has recently been proved that circumcision can reduce the chance of contracting AIDS in east Africa by 60%.
"Following these findings, the American Academy of Pediatrics was close to making a decision recommending the circumcision of all males in the United States. It was eventually decided that in the modern Western world the advantages are not big enough, and the decision was left to the parents.
"In any event, there is no medical argument on the advantages of circumcision.
"As for Niddah, which is observed by many Orthodox and Conservative Jews as part of the family purity, it can be seen as an event with many advantages, even romantic ones. This reality places the man and woman as equal by experiencing the monthly period together, as a couple."
And yet, while Niddah and circumcision were "made kosher" in the modern era, another cultural custom, which also helped to boost the nation, remained behind: Polygamy.
"Judaism is not monogamous in nature," says Konner. "In the Bible era, from Abraham onward, we see how men took full advantage of the authority to marry more than one woman. Sometimes we see behavior matching Darwin's sexual selection concept.
"There are places where Jewish warriors are allowed and even encouraged to take women, especially virgins, as loot. And of course we have the 1,000 women and mistresses of King Solomon.
"It may seem an exaggerated number, but it wasn't an unusual phenomenon among powerful rulers in Asia and Africa throughout most of history. In King's Solomon's case, he wasn’t criticized for the number of women, but for the fact that he pursued foreign women."
People, Torah and God
While Niddah and circumcision are perceived by Konner as still relevant, polygamy isn't. "As the father of three girls, I'm glad this is behind us," he clarifies. "We must not forget the 999 men who didn't have any women because of Solomon's harem."
Konner was born into an Orthodox family, but according to Israeli terms he is a former religious today. And yet, he view Torah and mitzvot as an essential asset for Jewish existence.
"I don't think we would have survived as a people without the Torah," he says. "Even though every generation has people like me, who draw away from observing the Torah's mitzvot, it remains the core of the Jewish people.
"Like most Israelis, I don't approve of religious extremism either and view it as a potential threat, but like Ben-Gurion realized – the Jewish people need religious people.
"In Israel today you can be completely secular without affecting your Jewish identity. In the Diaspora there is no such thing. In recent generations, secular Judaism has been a way out of Judaism. But three things have allowed the existence of the Jewish people in the past, and in the future: The people, Torah and God."