Friday, May 25, 2012

Who Counts? Men, women and minorities

One of the great gifts I got from my grandmother, Goldie Kastel o.b.m.[1] was to be noticed by her as someone ‘special’. At her 80th birthday celebration, I compared her effect on me to that of a caterpillar being transformed into a butterfly. The way she saw me changed the way I saw myself. I learned to think of myself as someone “who counts” and can make a contribution.

On Wednesday this week, I was part of a group that gave a similar message to a group of young Arabic and Pacific Islander students who might be considered disadvantaged because of their family income. Issa, an 18 year old Arabic recent graduate of their school and of the same socio-economic situation as most of the students was part of our Together for Humanity team. He told of a two week trek he did in the forests of Malaysia together with 11 other young people, some white, others from minority groups. One of these was a Somali who was the sole survivor of his family; all the rest had been murdered. At the end of the journey Issa told the Somali, “two weeks ago I did not even know you and now you are a brother to me”. The Somali broke down in tears because he was so moved. I don’t cry often, but that story really moved me and tears welled up in my eyes. The kids noticed. They could see clearly that one of their own “counted” and by extension they could too.
On the other hand, there are many people who are not noticed and get the message that they don’t count. In Australia for many years that was quite literal. Aboriginal Australians were not counted in the census, because the Australian Constitution stated that 'Aboriginal natives shall not be counted[2]'.   A milestone for Aboriginal people was the 1967 referendum that allowed them to be counted in the Census. An Aboriginal elder reflected on the change, “…because we were not counted as part of the census, we were part of the flora and fauna[3]”, it is only after being included in the Census that “we were recognised as people”. 

This is an exploration of how people can be affirmed and valued, particularly through the process of counting. It is also about who is not counted and what we make of that.

A Census in the Wilderness
Moses was commanded to count the Israelites in the desert[4]. The symbolism of this has interpreted as relating to them being loved[5]. The Jews are compared to wheat that “is counted when brought into storage and when taken out, unlike hay and straw which is neither counted nor measured…because God derives pleasure from the Israelites, therefore they are counted all the time”[6]. It is also related to being raised up and exalted, using a play on the words used to command Moses to count the Israelites which also means “lift up the heads”[7]. The theme of recognition is also linked to the flags[8] that the four camps of Israelites had, which are explained as a great expression of affection by God, “so that they will be recognised[9]”.  

Not just a number
The way we are counted is important of course. To be “just a number” is to be devalued, we want to be recognised by name for the individual we are. I remember the first time I saw a light blue number tattoo on the arm of a Holocaust survivor, the physical evidence of the dehumanization of people by reducing them to a number. Yet, in the desert counting, there was great dignity, even “greatness” in the counting. Moses was not to simply approach the head of a household and ask how many in the family, rather they all passed before him in awe and honour[10].  Each person was called by their name[11].

“Every Male”. Don’t women count?
Only males were counted. Considering the symbolism of the counting, the exclusion of women would suggest they were not valued as highly. It is made even more difficult because we are told twice that the counting would and did include “everyone[12]”. It is a bit like the sign seen in a Hasidic neighbourhood in New York. It said, "Lecture Tuesday night. Everybody welcome. No women.[13]"  

A gender differences argument
It is at times like this, that men run for cover and let women do the heavy lifting[14]. Seriously, the following ideas, while I don’t find them entirely convincing were the best argued I could find.  Channa Weisberg[15] , bases her article on Kabalistic teachings that “the masculine force in creation is outward-bound, while the feminine is inward-bound”. Significantly, Weisberg presents Torah’s differentiating between men and women as symbolic of two approaches to divine service. Rather as rigid gender roles, such as ”Men go out to war, women nurture families”, she recognises that both men and women can and do operate in the mode thematically linked to the other gender.    

Masculine war-making 
Symbolically, Weisberg explains, the spiritual service of men is to forge into foreign territory, to wage war against evil. “We are in a male mode when we go outside of ourselves in order to impose a higher truth upon our world and ourselves... by literally waging war against the tyranny of cruel regimes, or through ideological battles against immoral ideals”.

Feminine Nurturing
The feminine mode, “is to protect, nurture, discover and reveal the holiness implicit in creation…. the divine power in what already is, and become sensitized to the potential of our inner essence”. …”This mode is not waging a war or imposing an order, but rather uncovering and nurturing the positive and Godly aspects within our world, and thereby increasing and spreading holiness”.

Men need a boost?
Weisberg argues that operating in the masculine dimension involves “putting oneself in a position of danger by exposing oneself to the outside elements”. In these situations men need the strength that comes from being counted, which “empowered him to respect his own individuality and remain true to himself[16]”…When on the attack, fighting in alien environments against foreign values which constantly attempt to erode one’s ideals and vision, this reminder was needed to keep the warrior (from being) swallowed up by the surrounding norms.”

I have summarised Weisberg’s article and left out some of her argument, while I am impressed, I am not convinced that the challenge involved in nurturing does not require the additional strength implied by being counted.

Alternative meanings of the count
It is useful to consider the historical development of the Torah. According to traditional sources the Torah itself is from approximately 1300 b.c. It the primary text, a simple explanation for this census was to count the men who would be called upon to go to war as can be seen from the reference to counting “all who are fit to go out to the army in Israel[17]”. The timing of the count is linked to the impending invasion of Canaan[18], which if not for the episode with the spies would have happened shortly after the count[19]. The Midrashic interpretations that link counting to value were written over 1000 years later as an inspirational teaching rather than a factual explanation of why God wanted people counted.
The Midrashim offer a variety of different interpretations. An alternative explanation for the counting is that it symbolised forgiveness for the sin of worshipping the golden calf[20] which was essentially a male sin[21].

Beyond the practical meaning of a census in a desert or in Australia, is the symbolism of recognising people as being of value, be they female or male, rich or “low socio-economic”, white, black, Arab or Jew. I am in Bangkok airport as I write these lines, I was here for 18 hours for an interfaith peace conference, and I have lost count of the times people have put their hands together and bowed to me since I arrived. It is a way of saying, you are important and we see you that way. I heard that in one part of Africa, people greet each other by saying “I see you”. In an age in which people are often thought of as nothing more than a number, we would do well to think, feel, speak and behave in a way that makes everyone feel like they count.   

[1] Of Blessed Memory
[2] Section 127 of the Constitution Act 1900,
[4] Numbers 1:2-3
[5] Rashi
[6] Midrash Tanchuma 4
[7] Pesikta Rabbati 10
[8] Numbers 2:2-34
[9] Bamidbar Rabba 2-3
[10] Bamidbar Rabba
[11] Lekach Tov based on the words “according to the number of their names” in number 1:2
[12] Numbers 1:2 & 18
[13] Comment by “Stan” on the article
[14] At a seminar I attended recently about women and inheritance under Sharia law, the speaker left to address the issue was a woman law professor.
[15] Weisberg, C, Don’t Women count?
[16]Weisberg drawing on Chasidic sources, primarily the work on the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson,  explains that the empowering effect of numbering is reflected in the halachic rule that “an entity which is counted can never be nullified” (Talmud, Beitzah 3b; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 110:1). Under certain circumstances, certain food items are “nullified” when mixed with a quantity sixty times their volume. For example, if some milk drops fall into a meat soup, the entire mixture becomes forbidden. If, however, the volume of the meat mixture is sixty times that of the milk, then the milk is considered nullified and nonexistent. However, an object that is sold solely by unit is considered “prominent” and cannot be nullified. An example of this is: if whole eggs of a non-kosher bird become mixed with kosher eggs, it is not batel b’rov—“nullified by the majority”—since eggs are sold by count (e.g., by the dozen) rather than by weight or volume.
[17] Numbers 1:3
[18] Rashbam
[19] Klei Yakar
[20] Midrash Hagadol
[21] Pirkey Drabbi Eliezer 45

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