We Jews seem to be obsessed with counting. It seems hardly a month goes by without some new survey about our numbers, our practices or affiliations. This concern with numbers goes back a long way, at least as far as our Sidra this week. The Israelites were encamped in the wilderness, preparing to enter the Promised Land, and Moses wished to know how many males of fighting age there were. He counted them according to their tribes and their numbers are recorded at the beginning of the book known in English as ‘Numbers.’
Abraham was promised that ‘your descendants shall be as many as the stars of heaven and the sand of the sea.’ But in terms of world population, we are a tiny minority, more ‘a drop in the ocean’ than ‘the sand of the sea’: some twelve million Jews compared to billions of Christians and Muslims. Now that the census in Britain provides data about the number of people identifying as Jews, every time its results are published we have a revised account of the number of Jews in Britain and where they live. In this country, there are perhaps a quarter of a million of us and official numbers continue to decline. The number of Progressive Jews is even smaller, just a few thousand, although there are signs that our numbers are increasing.
There are many pessimistic voices talking about the dismal future ahead for British Jewry. However, one need only attend Limmud to see enormous creativity and a thirst for Jewish learning, which belie the statistics and indicate a community that is thriving. The recent Liberal Judaism Biennial was attended by more than three hundred people eager to learn about Judaism and apply its teachings to the problems of society. The MRJ Hagigah will no doubt also be a celebration of Jewish engagement. Even in small communities in the most out of the way places, there is Jewish activity out of proportion to the number of people involved.
The Hebrew name for the Book of Numbers is Bemidbar, in the wilderness. The wilderness was a place where the Israelites experienced freedom for the first time, where they received the Torah and learnt what it meant to be God’s servants. To be in the wilderness means to be apart from the mainstream, relying on our own abilities and learning about ourselves and what we are capable of.
As Progressive Jews, we should not fear the wilderness. We claim to emphasise ‘prophetic Judaism’ and the prophetic mission is to be ‘a voice crying in the wilderness,’ to protest against injustice, pursue truth and live with integrity. It is tempting sometimes to be expedient and popular in the search for numbers, to do something because it links us to the mainstream even if it is contrary to our principles. But if we care about numbers and forget about our integrity, we lose our very raison d’etre.
What matters is not quantity but quality, as I often tell our small Friday night congregation. Although there are few of us, our singing is enthusiastic and we have a real sense of warmth and closeness as we experience the holiness of the Shabbat together. Far more important than our numbers is the commitment we bring.
Progressive Judaism has great potential for growth and much to offer, but we must make sure that we do not lose sight of our purpose as we seek growth in numbers. As Rabbi John Rayner put it in his address at the centenary service of Liberal Judaism: ‘Integrity was perhaps the outstanding quality of our founders…It may entail accepting a lower numerical growth than we should have wished. It may mean remaining a minority for a long time to come, or even forever. That too is a price we must be willing to pay, for it is better to be few and right than to be many and wrong.’
It would be wonderful if Progressive Judaism were to become the largest sector of British Jewry, as it is the largest sector world-wide. However, this is not the most important thing. If we lose sight of our purpose, we will in the end have less to offer and dwindle spiritually as well. What counts ultimately is not how many we are, but our spirit. As the prophet Zechariah expressed it two and a half thousand years ago: Not by might and not by power but by My Spirit, says the Eternal One your God.’
Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.