Why Counting Can Be Counterproductive

October 1, 2010
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Noam Pianko

A clear ambivalence about counting characterizes the Jewish tradition. Biblical sources make census-taking a central part of the Jewish people’s founding narrative. Yet, other sources and subsequent legal traditions prohibit directly counting Jews. Today, the dialectical tension in the tradition seems to have swung toward a preference for quantitative data-gathering, rather than more qualitative attempts to capture the meaning and relevance of Jewish collectivity. Jewish communities allocate tremendous resources to the activity of counting. Population surveys, social scientific research, and other data about Jewish demographics shape communities’ leadership agendas, popular concerns, and academic debates. Institutions, organizations, and foundations strive to measure the efficacy of their activities by counting the number of members, participants, donors, and constituents. The demographic balance between Jews and Palestinians in Israel (and the West Bank and Gaza Strip) has raised the visibility of numbers and counting to an even greater degree of urgency.

There are several factors that contribute to a growing tendency to downplay the tradition’s discomfort with adding up individuals. Metrics, spreadsheets, and financial models have become central tools for our societies’ assessment of various trends outside the business sector. Indeed, hard data and quantitative analysis have emerged as the lens for evaluating the efficacy of various social, cultural, and philanthropic endeavors. It is not surprising that Jewish communities have integrated these popular modes of analysis into how they address self-understanding and communal policy. Psychological factors are likely at play — the perceived benefits of counting and perhaps a hesitation to ask more complex questions about how and whom to count.

But there is also a counterproductive outcome to quantifying Jews and their behaviors. Measuring population size and establishing levels of participation provide a faulty sense of unambiguous boundaries. That is, the process of counting promotes a misleading belief that Jewishness is an unchanging and core dimension of identity. One response in the face of insecurity about the nature of Jewish identity and uncertainty about the ties that link an increasingly fragmented Jewish population to one another is to preserve the idea of a binary distinction between Jews and non-Jews. Yet, categories of identity today are more fluid and nuanced than counting can fully capture.

Counting and the assumptions it sustains clash with changing notions of race and religion in the United States today. The moral and practical assessment of racial categories dramatically changes the theoretical playing field around issues of group membership and identity. Bonds of inclusion perceived as inherited or fixed (including inherited religious belief or ties based on birth) have a dwindling place within American ideals of liberal citizenship. A recent Pew research survey reports that religious belief is best understood as a personal choice that individuals fashion and refashion many times in relationship to their own personal spiritual journeys. The diversification and individualization of religious belief and practice, then, further erode religion’s potential role as a unifying element in the construction of collective ties. The concerns that arise when counting Jews, such as intermarriage, matrilineal descent, and (in the case of Israel) eligibility under the Law of Return, emphasize precisely the models of identity (descent or faith-based) viewed as problematic by younger Jews.

Given the rapid transformation in the politics of identity in the United States, it is time to consider more seriously the tradition’s prohibition against directly tallying Jews. Numbers and data galvanize a sense of demographic emergency by pointing to attenuated participation or shrinking populations. But they do so while implicitly promoting outdated paradigms of Jewish membership. The outcome of counting shifts policy considerations to policing boundaries rather than to creating compelling and exciting reasons for inclusion. Surveys are not calibrated to capture the shifting and ambiguous notions of solidarity developing today. Nor does counting fully come to terms with the voluntary basis of collectivity and membership. Finally, counting Jews fails to address the growing rift in the very community it is intended to measure as a unified group.

A more effective strategy would be to use communal resources to promote precisely the diverse expressions of Judaism that may or may not match the established lines drawn by those empowered by the community to count. Confident and vibrant communities see individuals as ends in themselves rather than as means to establishing demographic security or ensuring biological continuity. Relationships, experiences, and ideas that cannot be counted will pave the way toward a meaningful Jewish future and a growing number of individuals committed to membership in the Jewish people.

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