On the Counting of Jews: Toward an Orthodox Social Science

By Matt Williams

I was never comfortable counting Jews. Perhaps, it was the numbers violently drawn into Jews during the Final Solution that so firmly etched themselves in my mind. Perhaps, it was waiting for a minyan on Shabbat afternoon, whispering “Hoshea,” “Et,” “Amecha,” etc. reciting a verse of ten words as opposed to counting off men one by one, circumventing a halachic paradox under the watchful gaze of the synagogue rabbi. Perhaps, it was that paradox itself that, on an intellectual level, troubled me. Counting Jews – taking a census – occurs frequently throughout Tanach and yet each attempt ends in disturbingly different ways. When Moshe solicits a half shekel, it is cause for a new Sefer in the Torah – Bamidbar (known more generally as the Book of Numbers). It leads to the further development of Jewish leadership while simultaneously ensuring the unity of the Jewish people – each one matters the same. In contrast, when King David decides to conduct a census, he calls forth the wrath of Hashem, who unleashes a plague which decimates the young nation.

Many commentaries have offered a variety of explanations to the differences between the approaches of Moshe and David, as well as the others who tried. Some point to the notion of authority as a deciding difference. Moshe followed Hashem’s instructions; David, ostensibly at least, did not. Others dig deeper into the nature of counting. Moshe asked for representational coins, acts of charity on one level and, on a deeper level, a facsimile, a model, instead of a numbered counting that David commissioned. Whatever the differences were, the legacy of David’s indiscretion remains, cautioning us to refrain from directly counting Jews, a custom and law that stays with us to this day. What is a social scientist to do? Or, more precisely, what is the Orthodox Union doing in the social science business?

Let’s winnow the chaff to get to the grain of the matter. Much of my role does not revolve around the simple demography of census taking. Determining the impact of an NCSY program or an Israel Free Spirit Birthright Bus means delving into the lives of the participants, the educators, the structure of the program, its materials, and the pedagogies employed. This is far from the challenge posed above. Further, studying the “shidduch crisis” or day school affordability, larger issues that extend beyond any single program, require a variety of tools that do not easily or readily resemble those of Moshe and David. And yet, there’s a kernel of similarity that remains, resting uncomfortably beside contemporary statistical or ethnographic methods.

This paradox, though, is not solely a source of discomfort for me. It also plays a generative role, maybe even a meaningful one, within one of the central debates in the social scientific study of Jewry today. I often think of this debate simply as the “is/ought” problem.

Briefly put, should social scientists craft or adapt a rubric of normative Jewish beliefs, practices, values, and behaviors to measure the community against? For proponents of such a method, this approach allows us to gain a greater insight into the “health” of the community. How many people perform practice X or belief in Y? How does that compare to ten, twenty, thirty years ago? In which areas do we fall short and in which areas do we succeed? In other words, how OUGHT the Jewish community behave relative to how it currently performs?

For others, social scientists should understand the Jewish community not solely a function of tradition, text, and cultural norms, but rather through the idiosyncratic expressions of Jewishness that Jews define on their own terms. For proponents of this method, social scientists concern themselves with understanding the lives Jews live and the conditions that inform and shape such lives, regardless of how they conform to any specific set of standards or norms. In other words, what IS the nature of Jewish life, in all its varieties, today?

These methods not only lead us to very different places, but they also philosophically reveal two entirely different postures that social scientists can take toward the Jewish community in twenty first century America. Those who advocate for the “OUGHT” approach have adopted what might be called a theological voice – one that speaks for the values of a community and sets standards and goals that define what’s good and what’s bad, what’s Jewish and what’s not, and, of course, who is in and who is out. As scholars of American Jewish history point out, this theological voice has evolved to carry tremendous weight in non-Orthodox communities, helping to set policy, establish values, and define boundaries. It’s not unfair to claim that social science, rather than Jewish law, provides the purposes of Judaism to Jews in some such communities.

Such a model simply cannot work for Orthodoxy. Rabbis, not social scientists, serve as the Torah and moral authorities of the community, a role firmly detailed in our tradition. Their leadership must continue to mediate the Torah and the people, the world above and the world we know. As for me, I can only work in the world that IS. An Orthodox social science cannot project or assert an authority over Jewish life, it must remain an instrument to describe the lives of Jews, regardless of what I think those lives OUGHT to be. I’m not a rabbi; I simply cannot act the part of spiritual leader.

The efforts of Moshe and David loom large here, specters haunting the work I do and the role I play. My only conciliation is that, as a social scientist at the Orthodox Union, I cannot, I must not work with the authority that they had then and that our rabbunim hold today. Moshe and David, both, acted as authorities, representatives, leaders of the Jewish people, the connective tissue between Hashem and His nation. When they counted, they did so, for better or for worse, with an undeniable sense of what OUGHT to be.

The paradox of counting, for me, is a function of how one understands one’s authority. I am not a rabbi, I cannot pretend to live in the world of the OUGHT, I can only live in the world of the IS. My discomfort is lessened by the diminished or different kind of authority I must have in the Orthodox community. I can describe where the paths are, not necessarily the direction they should lead. Counting Jews is a complex thing, but if it is not expected to act as a theological voice, to prescribe the values of the Jewish community, then I can, perhaps, rest a little easier.