Friday, February 18, 2022

No One is Just a Number


Do we have a minyan yet? As a small group gathers in the synagogue for services, people look around the room to see if the requisite ten people have arrived. And then someone begins to call out: “Not one, not two, not three,” counting without counting, to see if there is a minyan. A calculation is done discreetly, without assigning anyone an actual numerical value. An alternate method of “uncounting” for a minyan is to use a verse from the Tanakh that has ten words, and assign a word to each person in the room. This tradition goes back to 11th century Babylonia, where Rav Hai Gaon reports using the ten-word verse from Tehillim that begins with the Hebrew words v'ani b'rov chasdecha. Others use another verse from Tehillim that begins with the words hoshiya et amecha. We don’t count people.

JUDAEA. First Jewish War. 66-70 CE. AR Half Shekel (18mm, 6.69 gm). Dated year 2 (67/8 CE). "Half Shekel" in Hebrew, chalice with beaded rim, date above / “Holy Jerusalem” in Hebrew, sprig of three pomegranates. Meshorer 195; Hendin 660. Near EF.
Our Torah reading is the source for this unusual practice. Moshe is commanded that “when you take the census of the children of Israel…then every man shall give a ransom payment for himself to the Lord, when you count them, that there may be no plague among them when you count them.” By implication the Torah forbids counting; one is only allowed to conduct a census indirectly, and only with a payment to charity. Otherwise, the census might cause a plague, as it did in the times of King David. The Talmud explains that when they needed to count kohanim in the Beit Hamikdash, the leader would have the kohanim extend their fingers, and then he would count the fingers. The Rambam codifies this rule, and says that “ is forbidden to count Israelites except by means of some other object.” One can count an object, such as a broken shard or coin, which is given by each person, but not the person themselves.
In the modern state of Israel, this prohibition became a matter of public debate. Even before the state was established, the Histadrut labor union conducted several censuses, to gauge the size of the Jewish population. In 1937, at the third Histadrut census, the question whether one may participate was posed to the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rav Ben Zion Uziel. He allowed it, because the count is done indirectly, by writing the names down and then counting the names. Rav Menachem Kasher offered a different rationale to permit this; he argued that a modern census has a great deal of imprecision and estimation, and should be allowed because it is not a perfectly accurate count. However, others opposed the census on halakhic grounds. During the 1971 Israeli census, the Beit Din of the Edah ha-Haredit, and the Steipler Gaon, R. Ya'akov Kanievsky of Bnei Brak, issued rulings prohibiting participation in the census. In 1983, the outgoing Chief Rabbi, Rav Shlomo Goren, also ruled that participation in the census is prohibited.
What could be wrong with counting people? Rashi explains that the act of counting provokes the evil eye. This was a very common belief in the ancient world; and even today, there are many who will end any proud discussion of their children’s accomplishments with fake spitting, such as saying “ptu, ptu, ptu,” to ward off the evil eye. According to Rabbeinu Bachya, the census attracts the evil eye because each person is brought forward individually to be counted, and becomes the center of attention at that moment. Continuing this thesis, the Malbim explains that when the individual is separated from others in the count, they are subject to divine judgment on their own, without being insulated by the merit of the community. The problem with counting is while in the spotlight, the person being counted attracts the undesirable attention of the evil eye.
But there is a different way of understanding this prohibition, which is the very opposite of the prior view. The problem with counting is not that it highlights the individual; on the contrary, the problem with counting is that it reduces the individual to a number. The census, as Moshe Garsiel notes, began when tribal societies developed into states, and the new royal administrations needed to track their populations. The citizenry resisted counting, and resented the loss of autonomy it represented. And the census opened the door for autocratic leaders to misuse the newfound statistics. For this reason, Shmuel David Luzzatto (Shadal) associates the prohibition of counting with royal arrogance. When a king can count the size of their army, they begin to trust in their own might, and abuse their power. Shadal further explains that the evil eye associated with counting is a metaphor for how God humbles the arrogant. (He offers Napoleon's defeat in the winter of 1812 as an example of the haughty being given their due.) Counting people is a tool of the powerful, and one that is often misused. Reducing people to a ledger entry is fundamentally dehumanizing. We are individuals, not numbers.
Jewish ethics is shaped by the appreciation of the infinite value of the individual. The Mishnah declares that if one destroys one life it is as if they have destroyed an entire world, and one who saves one life, it is as if they have saved the entire world. Every life is an entire world.
The Rambam takes this idea a step further. He adopts the absolutist position that one cannot murder an innocent person, even if that murder will save many other lives. Instead of following the utilitarian path and calculating how many lives will be saved versus how many will be lost, the Rambam demands that we must never lose sight of the individual. Thomas Nagel offers a fascinating insight into the difference between the absolutist position (like that of the Rambam), and utilitarian positions. Absolutism is focused on the interpersonal, the relationship between two people, while “utilitarianism is associated with a view of oneself as a benevolent bureaucrat distributing such benefits as one can control to countless other beings…The justifications it requires are primarily administrative.” Utilitarians look at the numbers; absolutists look into people’s eyes. And the Rambam maintains that even under duress, one cannot reduce the value of life to a math equation.
The prohibition against counting is the foundation of this moral view. It reminds us that each individual is a world unto themselves, a life of infinite value. The census enables the administrative attitude that people are just numbers. And they are not.
The last century offers a powerful example of this lesson. The Nazis treated the Jews as a math problem to be solved by murder; a demonic hatred of the Jews was blended with the heartlessness of a large bureaucracy. Lily Ebert, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor who is now a major presence on TikTok, has used that platform to take questions from people around the world. In one video, she answers the question, “How did it feel to get your number in Auschwitz?” Lily offered this answer: “My number is A-10572. That is what I was, they did not call us by our name. We were no longer humans. We were only a number and we were treated like numbers.” Counting begins a process of reducing people to numbers, turning a warm soul into cold data. In the hands of a wicked regime, these very same numbers were used to enable a monstrous genocide.
The Torah’s insights regarding the census is particularly relevant to the 21st century. Data analytics has become a growing field of employment, and an army of statisticians help governments and corporations shape public opinion, based on “the numbers.” There is an inherent callousness to this process. It feeds the arrogance of the powerful and loses sight of the individual. The Torah asks us to look past the numbers; to step away from our computers, and remember that every person has a name, and every soul is a divine gift.
And no one is just a number.

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