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How to Properly Count Jews

Updated: Jun 7, 2020

There is much superstition about counting Jews, largely due to the Torah and the general beliefs of ancient peoples: that census taking was a dangerous proposition. In addition to being the lead to tax adjustments, it could also be a prelude to military conscription for a war. These negative consequences needed to be mitigated with a ransom or other donation to one’s deity. That is why in Sh’mot/Exodus 30:13-16 the Eternal instructs Moshe to collect “expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the Tent of Meeting.” Everyone 20 years and older is to make a half shekel offering, rich and poor alike.

B’mid’bar/Numbers is all about counting and who counts. The book is rife with strife and rebellion from the jealous husband who cannot make himself believe his faithful wife (5.11-31) to the righteous claim of the daughters of Tzelofekhad (26.1-27.11, 36.1-12) with violence in between. Any discussion of counting Jews is bound to be a fraught discussion, especially a counting that seeks to make a distinction without a difference and goes against Jewish teachings.

Throughout the Torah and the Talmud there are lots of numbers. One of the most famous numbers is 600,000. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of studying with Rabbi Dena Weiss, Hadar’s Rosh Beit Midrash, and she introduced me to commentaries by Rabbi Me’or Einayim on Parashiyot Vayeitzei and Shelach. In the former, R. Einayim seeks to have us understand contradictions in Genesis 28. In verse 11, it says (Ya’akov) took from the stones of the place, while verse 17 says he took the stone. This is the Genesis narrative in which Ya’akov is running away and he comes a [certain] place and decides to sleep there.

The rabbis imagine that Ya’akov took (12) the stones and placed them around his head and laid down to sleep. Rashi explains that the stones started arguing with one another to be the one upon which Ya’akov would rest his head. They ceased competing and decided to become one so that the “Tzaddik” (Ya’akov) will rest on all of them. R. Einayim says, "For, in truth, since Wisdom is drawn down from above, from the supernal source, the world of unity, and is extended to the world of separation from which emerge the roots of the souls of Israel… this is why there were twelve stones, because Wisdom is apportioned (separated out) to each tribe according to its root, as it is known that our Rabbis said that there were twelve stones corresponding to the tribes of Israel. But at their root they are one stone, as has been explained, and each one is drawn to the wisdom from the world of division."

R. Einayim uses Rashi’s midrash to create a collective place in Judaism for all of us. In his commentary on Shelach, Rabbi explains that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah (yes, that’s almost double the actual number) and that these 600,000 letters correspond with the same number of Jewish soul-roots now split among the roughly 15 million Jews currently on the planet. He goes on to say that: …every person of Israel has a letter in the Torah. And the Torah and the Holy Blessed One are one. And that part of God that is inside a person is literally that letter from which comes the root of (one’s) soul… if one letter from the Sefer Torah is missing it is not complete…

R. Einayim reminds us that this concept of unity caused the rabbis to say that anyone who destroys one soul from Israel is like one who destroys an entire world. The opposite is also true. One who sustains one soul from Israel, it is as if they have sustained an entire world. (Both of these concepts have been expanded to speak about all human life.)

R. Einayim deepens this connection by referencing the morning liturgy in which we say toward the beginning of the service, “I hereby accept upon myself the positive mitzvah of ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself [Leviticus 19.18].’” He concludes, “Because everything is one complete Unity just as the Torah is only called the Torah when all of the letters are joined together,” so Judaism is incomplete if one of us is missing.

I’m sure many of you recognize that 600,000 is the same number used to describe the eiruv rav – the mixed multitude of “men” who left Egypt. Some biblical commentators blame the “eiruv rav” for the complaining and disobedience that occur throughout the Torah. In other words, they categorize some percentage as not being Israelites and never fully becoming part of the kahal, the community. Though several commentators go down fascinating routes to make their point, there is no textual support for that interpretation. The Torah makes it quite clear that we were all at Sinai. Regardless of what or who we were before revelation, after revelation we were all the Eternal’s people.

I deeply appreciate R. Einayim’s teaching that each and every one of us Jews is needed to have a vibrant Judaism. It’s not a matter of age. It’s not a matter of gender. It’s not about the color of one’s skin. It’s not about disability. It’s not about how learned we are. Others may want to place stumbling blocks in our paths or erect other barriers to contain Judaism. Yet, Judaism by its nature is not limited because the Eternal is infinite. By seeking to block, diminish, contain, or constrain another’s Torah, one is blocking, diminishing, containing, and constraining a part of themselves and the sparks of the Eternal.

I was fascinated by Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashersky’s excerpt from their chapter for the upcoming American Jewish Yearbook 2019, which they also edited. While it is not unusual to read an essay or an article in which the writers are completely blind to their biases, I could not believe that they were defending the very data that prompted the report, “Counting the Inconsistencies: An Analysis of American Jewish Population Studies with a Focus on Jews of Color” which stated that “at least 12-15%” of American Jews are Jews of Color and critiqued previous population studies for data collection that kept the JOC population at 6%. Sheskin and Dashersky claim that the data in the above report is faulty and creates an overcount. They conclude: "[T]he percentage of Jews of Color is almost certainly closer to 6% nationally than to ‘at least 12%–15%;’ and this percentage has not increased significantly since 1990, although it is likely to do so in the future. Thus, responsible planning by the American Jewish community demands recognition that not all Jews are of Eastern Europe and Ashkenazi origin; and future research on American Jews needs to be sensitive to discerning Jews of Color."

Ari Y. Kelman’s critique of Sheskin and Dashersky explains why the data they reassert is not useful: "[I]nconsistencies are only the half of it; we could only find inconsistencies where there were questions about race and ethnicity. Further analysis revealed that only 41% of Jewish community studies (36 of 89) conducted since the year 2000 even included any questions about race and ethnicity in the first place (all of the studies, reports, survey instruments, and data are available on the Berman Jewish DataBank)."

I cannot read into the hearts of Sheskin and Dashersky and why they felt the need to assert the dominance of Ashkenazim in American Judaism by means of numerically containing and minimizing Jews of Indigenous, African American, Chinese American, Ethiopian, Puerto Rican, Arab, Indian, Caribbean, Peruvian, African, Yemenite, Mizrahi, Sephardi, Persian, and Mixed Heritage. Some of us are Jews by Choice. Many of us have a long, unbroken lineage.

We are the neighbors to be loved as you love yourself. (To learn about the origin of the term Jews of Color, click here.)

We are not a newly invented inconvenience, for we have always been part of the Jewish people and there is no Judaism without us.

We know who we are and that we belong. Furthermore, those who contest our belonging say much more about themselves than about our spiritual right to be safely welcomed into Jewish spaces, without hassle or harassment.

This is especially important, now, as our Asian sisters and brothers are experiencing harassment by White America, because of our president’s insistence on calling COVID19 the “China Virus.” Our Black and African American brothers and sisters are in deep pain as more and more Black women and men are harassed and murdered by police. Latinx and Indigenous Jews receive the same unwanted police suspicion. Any one of us who “looks Muslim” can be harassed, if not murdered, for that resemblance. People of Color and all Jews are not safe by any measure in a White Supremacist system.

Jews of Color especially need our spiritual communities to be a refuge from the madness of White Supremacy, including reviewing curricula for diversity of Jewish experiences and Jewish thought. As easily as anti-Semitism in the Jewish culture is discussed, so ought racism and White Supremacy be discussed, as well as the pain it causes all parts of our communities. There is no eliminating anti-Semitism without erasing all manifestations racism.

White-skinned and White-identified Jews also need to examine their relationship to White Supremacy in particular and Whiteness broadly, including White privilege with a focus on how to use it to dismantle White Supremacy. It is good for all of us to understand the push by our White-skinned Jewish American ancestors for Jews to be seen as White.

I invite you into this conversation realizing that it may be difficult. You do not have to do it alone.

There are many reasons to know how many of us there are. So, if we want to count us Jews, we must do it with integrity to make sure we are counting each and every one of us as we are: a diverse and highly varied people who have many gifts for each other and the world.

© Sabrina Sojourner 2020

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