What motives lurk just behind census figures?


In Parashat Pinhas, a census takes place at Shittim in Moab. With 39 years lodged between the first and second Israelite censuses, the make up and inner life of the people has changed. A head count and assessment of the population’s resources was required. Without proper planning their fortunes would be fatal. The census provided an essential overview for the apportionment of the land of Canaan. The current crop of Biblical scholars scrutinize the statistical breakdown, pondering the slightest deviations, offering occasionally contradictory estimations of the world the Israelites lived in.

Censuses have been with us since the dawn of civilization. Ancient societies employed them prior to marching out into battle. Back then, censuses were not just about military muscle, they provided us an early example of taxation. Jews have viewed such inquiries as censuses nervously. We read in Numbers Rabbah (21:7) “every time Israel stumbled they were subject to a census.” In the Tanakh, God often initiates the censuses. Censuses are a public service. God counts (on) Israel because God cares. Censuses have consequences, some of them catastrophic. Their merit rests with the motives. Jews have historically questioned what the authorities would do with the data. The case of King David’s census (in 1 Chronicles 21: 1-7) suggests in that a “satan” is behind the statistics. Scholars (such as Professor Michael D. Coogan of the Harvard Semitic Museum) sidestep this explanation, writing that the culprit is not supernatural. This is human handiwork.

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Perhaps the danger rests with what details we ignore or pay attention to. The research cannot be easy. Religion is a private matter for many of us. Professor Jeremy Schonfield of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies sees our people’s routine resistance to censuses as a “refusal to regard people as commodities.” Divinity is not part of the transaction here. Human fingerprints are all over these figures. There are differing diagnoses. We read that American Jews are disappearing beyond reclaim into this great Melting Pot (5.275 million). Others claim we are on the mend (6.4 million.) Some see this as infighting over strategic funding. But if that is true, then our powers to predict the size of the population are missing the mark. Law professor Thane Rosenbaum suggests in his recent New York Times editorial we are “Losing Count.” According to his article, the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami estimates that of the 87,000 Holocaust survivors who live in America, roughly half of them live in poverty. Professor Rosenbaum despairs “many are without sufficient food, shelter, heat, health care, medicine, dentures, eyeglasses, even hearing aids.” We should despair too. Lost in our focus on the highest concentration of Jews, is the cumulative impact of our neglect. The survivor community needs to be aided, not isolated. Censuses count, but the offense is not in the counting, the sin occurs if we read the findings and do nothing about them.

Rabbi Severine Haziza-Sokol of Congregation Kol Am prepared this week’s Torah Portion.