Torah from around the world #116

by Rabbi Stanley M. Davids, Immediate past-president of


, and Rabbi Emeritus,

Temple Emanu-El

of Greater Atlanta, US.

Counting should be a very straightforward kind of thing. You send out an e-vite to a child’s party, and each of the recipients can not only indicate with a key stroke whether s/he will be attending, but there is a listing on the side noting how many other recipients of the electronic invitation will be attending, and how many will not and how many laggards have not yet replied. Numbers are facts; nice, comfortable, reliable facts.

Of course, numbers can also be manipulated, either for play or for far more serious proposes. You can mystify a toddler by saying that she has ELEVEN fingers! All you have to do is to start numbering the fingers on one hand backwards: ten, nine, eight, seven, six – that’s one hand. And naturally there are five on the other hand. So clearly she has a total of eleven fingers. Numbers can be a little tricky.

A survey report was issued last year in Israel, indicating that 8% of the Israeli population considers itself to be either Reform or Conservative. The survey results were greeted with great celebration in many quarters, because only 7% of the respondents indicated that they were Haredi (ultra-Orthodox).

Upon further analysis, however, it was acknowledged that Haredim are, generally speaking, loathe to respond to those who ask them questions relating to their personal lives and to their core values. In other words, this population is often statistically under-represented by such surveys.

Similar problems exist when one attempts to drill down to what Israelis actually mean when they self-identify as ‘Reform’ or ‘Conservative’ Jews. Many fully observant Sephardic Jews are quite comfortable calling themselves “


” – not at all meaning that they are members of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, but rather that they are traditional in their observance. Other Israelis will adamantly claim to be “


” – not at all meaning that they are members of

Yahadut Mitkademet

(Progressive Judaism), but rather that they are progressive in their thinking and in their approach to life. (It is for this reason that the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism has now rebranded itself as the Israel Movement for REFORM Judaism).

The fourth Book of the Torah is known in Hebrew as


– In the wilderness – because of the opening words of the Book: “

VaYidaber Adnoai el Moshe b’midbar Sinai


And the Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai

.” But the English name of this Book is Numbers, not only because the opening chapters are devoted to a census of the Israelites as they began moving from Sinai toward Canaan, but also because the Book focuses heavily upon an analysis of all of the tribes, and most especially upon the tribe of Levi.

The census was to be used to shape the pattern of encampment during the 40 years, as well as to create a structure for the mustering of soldiers during times of battle. Near the end of the wilderness wandering, the census would play a role in the distribution of land. Chapter 2, verse 32, offers the final results: There were 603,550 Israelite men (excluding the tribe of Levi) between the ages of 20 and 60, the ages considered most suitable for service in the military.

But once again the numbers are far more problematic than they appear to be. Some scholars challenge whether such a count is even possible, because it would mean that more than two million Israelites had wandered that desert for 40 years, successfully finding adequate water and food. Was the census more metaphor and


than an actual counting? Was the census a retroactive shaping of early Israelite history, meant more to prove certain tendentious points rather than to reflect objective reality?

There is a raging debate in our own day over the nature of the Jewish community. Part of that debate is fueled by competing ways to view the available census data. Are our numbers shrinking – because of declining birthrates, increasing inter-religious marriages, and increasing distancing from patterns of formal affiliation with the institutions that have traditionally dominated our community? Or are our numbers in fact increasing – because of the many non-Jews who (whether through formal conversion or not) consider themselves to be Jews, and because of the impact of Patrilineality which dramatically expands the definition of who is a Jew?

This debate is no minor concern. On the contrary. Based upon a given organization’s perspective on the most current census data, programmatic structures are being proposed and funded so as to ‘save’ the Jewish future. Based on that data some rabbis are altering their approach to officiation at mixed marriages, and based on that data severe critiques are being offered regarding the way our communal institutions are educating, attracting, empowering and thus retaining our teens and emerging adults. Based on that data decisions are made where best to direct our funds so as to serve Jewish communities all across the globe.

Every population survey is contoured by the manner in which the questions are developed, administered and interpreted. Objective reality is an unachieved goal. So the choice once again lies within our own hands. We can choose to be limited and restrictive in the manner in which we identify ‘who is a Jew.’ We can apply strict halachic norms. We can strengthen boundaries so as to clarify and even simplify the challenges that we confront. Or we can choose to lower ail barriers, to throw open the doors of our people wide, to accept all who not only choose to self-identity as Jews but those whom we will decide OUGHT to be Jews whether they feel that way about themselves or not.

Or perhaps we can choose to free ourselves of the strictest of norms and their accompanying doomsday forecast, while yet avoiding the temptation to be so open and so formless as to lose all purpose and mission and identity. Perhaps we can agree that in order to attract our own children and grandchildren it is more important to engage them in rich Jewish experiences (including extended programs in Israel) and meaningful Jewish conversations (including how Jewish living includes a commitment to reshape the world within which we live) than it is to debate whether they fully meet abstract, objective criteria. Perhaps we can agree that rather than wallowing in so many of our past failures we can embrace the powerful challenge to reconfigure our communities and our organizations so that all who might wish to affirm Jewish identities will not find such an affirmation financially prohibitive, and that ‘doing Jewishly’ can bring profound meaning and purpose to our lives.

Who counts? We all count, outliers and insiders alike.

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