Thursday, 21 May 2009

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

Be-Midbar Sinai

The traditional understanding of the Five Books of Moses is that every word was dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, and that the entire text was then transmitted intact, without a change in a single word or letter, to produce the Torah read by us today.

Reading these five books without preconceptions, however, a very different conclusion might be suggested. The nature of the material and the style in which it is presented vary so noticeably that at times it appears as if sections were written by experts in different professions. We may think first of the brilliant narrative gems revealing extraordinary literary talent, whether packed into nineteen verses (the Binding of Isaac: Akedah), or extending through fourteen chapters (the Joseph story). The professional lawyers certainly had extensive input in critical sections of Exodus and Deuteronomy. The historians must have been responsible for the first half of Exodus and much of Numbers, the theologians for the beginning of Genesis and the end of Deuteronomy, the priests for the outline of the sacrificial cult in Leviticus.

Other specialist authors would appear to have produced the genealogical tables—the long list of “begats” (King James translation) — in Genesis; the extensive detailed architectural specifications for the tabernacle that take up most of the second half of Exodus; the precise descriptions of dermatological afflictions in Leviticus; a scrupulously painstaking accounting of the spoils of war at in Numbers 31: 25–53. One can almost imagine protracted negotiations among representatives of these various professions about how much of their own favourite material would be included.

The first chapter of Be-Midbar Sinai (Numbers), represents the golden moment for the demographers. The instruction comes from God to Moses: to take a census of the entire people (with the exception of the Levites, whose special responsibilities are outlined in the rest of the parashah), in order to know how many adult males, twenty years old and above, are potentially eligible for military service. In verse 45, we get the final number: 603,550; consistent with the number of “about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children” (Exod. 12:37) who left Egypt 13 months earlier, but difficult to imagine for a people moving through the Sinai wilderness. Yet the biblical narrative is not content with the final number: the number for each individual tribes is provided, with seemingly endless repetition of the same Hebrew phrases (Num. 1:20–42). The demographers apparently did not believe in sending their report to a copy editor.

This fascination with numbers is not limited to the beginning of the Book called Numbers. Elsewhere in the Torah, the specificity is replaced with the theme of a number so great that it is beyond counting. Abraham’s offspring is to be “like the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13:16), “as the sands on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17), as many as the stars in the heavens (Gen. 15:5). One of these phrases is picked up by the Prophet Hosea in the first verse of the Haftarah for this week, and applied not to all the descendants of Abraham but specifically to the descendants of Jacob: “The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted” (Hos. 2:1). But all this applies to an imagined future. In actual experience, exact numbers are considered important.

And these numbers varied significantly in Jewish history. The pre-eminent American Jewish historian Salo W. Baron, using the best demographic data available, estimated that in the first century of the Christian era, Jews represented 10% of the population of the entire Roman Empire, and 20% of the Eastern Empire, where most of the Jews lived.1 By contrast, in the 1930s, the massive Jewish population of eastern Europe (from Austria to Ukraine) was 6% of the total, about 10% of pre-war Poland. The percentage of the Jewish population in the United States has decreased from close to 3% to a little more than 2%. Despite the enormous increase in world population, there are still fewer Jews in the world today than there were in the summer of 1939.

In the UK, there is considerable discussion of the decrease in absolute numbers of the Jewish population from some 400,000 after the war to about 270,000 today. How do such trends as intermarriage, assimilation, low birth rate, higher average age for mothers at the birth of their first child affect projections about Jewish population a generation from now?

Trends within the Jewish community are also studied and to sometimes contested. To what extent is membership in United Synagogue communities decreasing, and how much of this decline can be attributed to seepage toward the “right” (ultra-Orthodox) and to the ‘left’ (Masorti, Progressive communities)? Will Progressive communities eventually constitute a larger proportion of affiliated British Jews than United Synagogue? Are those who identify themselves as “Secular Jews” (although they may be members of United Synagogue, Progressive, or Masorti congregations), actually a majority of the British Jewish population? How many rabbis will Leo Baeck College need to train in the next 10 or 20 years to fill the needs of the UK (and European) Progressive communities

Obviously such numbers are helpful in public relations, and in planning for the future. But in an open and fluid society, we cannot expect the precision reflected in the census at the beginning of our parashah. Perhaps more important than the precise numbers is a word coming at the very end of verse 3, which instructs Moses about the implementation of the census:  לגלגלתם, “head by head”. The thirteenth-century Spanish commentator Nachmanides, following a passage in the Midrash, said this meant that each individual had to be counted separately: “Not that you should say to the head of the family, ‘How many are there in your family?’, but that all should pass before you with the honour due to them”. Two centuries later, a Spanish preacher, Isaac Arama, expanded this principle: “They were not just like animals or material objects, but each one had an importance of his own, like a king or priest. . . .”2 Numbers may be important for our communities, but numbers are never as important as the value placed upon each individual human being.

1 Salo W. Baron A Social and Religious History of the Jews , Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: JPS, 1952), p. 171.
2 Both of these comments are quoted by Nehama Leibowtzt, in Studies in Bamidbar [sic] (Numbers) (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization), 1980), pp. 13, 15.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.