July/August 2018 ~ Tammuz/Av/Elul ~ Volume 5778
At the very beginning of the Torah’s Book of Numbers, Bamidbar, the Israelite nation is commanded by God to take a military census as preparation for their upcoming war to conquer the Promised Land. And yet previously, in the Book of Exodus, Shemot, God warns the Israelites that census-taking, even for the purpose of war, can result in the death by plague of the participants and of the takers themselves.
Which is it then? Is taking a census permissible or not? Our ancient Sages look to the case study of King David to help resolve this textual contradiction. In the Book of Samuel II (and in parallel, Chronicles I), King David and the entire nation are punished with a horrible plague for having taken a census. What’s so wrong with taking a census, the Sages asked? They conclude that, at least in the case of David, the sin of counting was that he reduced human beings to objects, resources to satiate his feeling of being in absolute control. (I can imagine King David surveying his kingdom from his palace’s turret and exclaiming “All of this is MINE!”)
The ancient rabbis understood that human nature tends toward formulating the allusion, the story, and that we are the sum of that which we own. Our very existence is dependent on our power over others. David’s sin was relating to his people as surrogates to serve his own ego. But David and all of us are here to serve each other. Communal systems cannot flourish where their only narrative is numbers and rules. For true vibrancy, communities require human stories – of suffering and triumph, conflict and euphoria, humor and love – to ensure that a community understands its own depth and complexity (Rabbi Sacks).
The similarities to our current Jewish public conversation concerning policies and numbers is salient. In the institutional American Jewish world over the past half-century, there has been what scholars call a Theology of Demographics: How many people registered for your Shabbat program? How many households are members of your synagogue? How many young families participated in your Purim carnival? What is your temple’s post-Bnai Mitzvah attrition rate? This has become the bulk of the conversation, the Halacha of American Jewish life.
But here’s the problem with this conversation: While it certainly comes from a good place, an existential concern for the continuation of American Jewry, in our zeal to ensure the Jewish future, we forgot to articulate why it matters for Judaism to continue. The challenge isn’t about demographics. Rather it is about creating communities of meaning.
In America, where Jews can choose their religious and cultural identities from a smorgasbord of a seemingly endless array of offerings, where Jews are free to leave the Jewish community without joining any other religious community, where old ties to Jewish life have eroded and most Jews have no plausible explanation to justify trying to preserve them (Rabbi Gordis), the conversations that we need to have must start at the very fundamentals of our personal and collective Jewish identities. Why be Jewish? Do we have an obligation to remain part of the Jewish people? Where does that obligation come from? Who (or what) makes that obligation real? If I choose not to be Jewish, what do I lose? Would our lives be significantly impoverished if we chose not to make Jewish connection a central part of life? What does Judaism offer that I cannot find in secular society (Rabbi Gordis)?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously stated at the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly in 1964 that “…it is time to retire surveys and survival.” We must teach each other how a commitment to Jewish life will revive our spirit, rekindle our passion for living, and
infuse our lives with joy and with meaning (Jay Michaelson). We must foster a Jewish life which merits the attention of modern Jews by virtue of its potential role in our lives as a compelling, meaningful, and enriching enterprise that helps define precisely who and what we are (Rabbi Gordis). To express our humanity. To satisfy our need to touch the transcendent in the world.