Since writing “The Da Vinci Code,” American author Dan Brown has certainly proven that he is not afraid of creating controversy. His 80 million-copy bestselling novel that follows a quest for the “Holy Grail” touched more than just a nerve among devout Christians by concluding (spoiler alert!) that the Holy Grail itself amounted to a century-old conspiracy theory protecting the secret bloodline of Jesus and his wife, Mary Magdalene.
Yet now, after reading Brown’s new novel “Inferno,” I am wondering how it might now be the Jewish community’s turn to cry foul.
As Jews, since the moment of the very first commandment given by God to Adam and Eve in the Torah, “pru u’rvu u-milu et haaretz,” we have been given carte blanche to be fruitful, multiply and to fill up the earth. Dan Brown, however, clearly does not think this is a good idea. In an interview with Time Magazine, Brown reflects on the theme of curtailing population growth as a major controversy in his book. Throughout Inferno, several characters repeatedly take the position that if we do not lower our birthrates, the planet will eventually be led down a road to mass-starvation and environmental catastrophe. At times while reading the book, it seemed to me that Brown makes this case so persuasively that even I was left wondering whether or not the villain, who wishes to decimate a part of the world population to save the future, might not be so evil after all.
As Jews, I do not think there is a reason to confuse Haman with Mordechai in this story. Jews unequivocally believe that populating the world is not an evil endeavor, but rather an opportunity to make the world a better place. There can theoretically be no such thing as too many Jews. The Talmud reminds us that procreation is more than just filling up the world: procreation gives our lives legacy, and meaning (Nedarim 64a). And the fact of the matter is that as our demographic lot presently stands, the Jewish people seem to have the exact opposite problem of population growth: we stand at a meager 0.2 percent of the world’s population.
However, a part of me still feels that Brown's book has some other instructive value by reminding us that living as socially and environmentally conscious persons is also a mitzvah. When Adam and Eve were commanded to fill up the world there were a handful of people on the planet and we lived more sustainably. Now, according to Brown in “Time,” a person aged 85 years old lives in a world that is two thirds larger than when he or she was born. Today, we live at risk of ruining our world through excessive procreation. And so what are we to do when the mitzvah of priah urviah, our sacred charge to procreate, comes into conflict with the other famous mitzvah given to Adam and Eve in Genesis: “le-ovdah u-leshamra,” to tend and to till the earth in a responsible way?
Recently, there was a rather strong opinion piece written in the Jewish Daily Forward by Jay Michelson that speaks to the risks surrounding the unsustainable Jewish growth in the Haredi community. Interestingly, the author points out that this growth is not only dangerous for ideological reasons, but because it is socially and environmentally unsustainable. If Jews procreate repeatedly without really taking into true consideration how their choices might impact others who will need to provide for them, Dan Brown's book encourages us to ask ourselves, “Are we at risk of alienating one mitzvah in order to promote another?”
As Jews, I believe that Brown’s arguments about population control run counter to our values. Jews have the right and God-given responsibility to procreate and to grow our people. Nonetheless, that does not mean that his work should not give us pause to think long and hard about the choices we make, and the impact those choices will have on others and the world around us.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on twitter @danieldorsch.