What counts and how we count: our bodies, our voices, our power to be and do good – are questions that preoccupy me. These days more than ever, when numbers drive “trending” news items and the result of every Google search.
As a woman, these questions also remain very personal, shaped by family dynamics and the post-WW II white assimilating Jewish suburban culture in which I grew up. How to find my place, when and where to speak up, speak out have long preoccupied me.
As a citizen, there are ways that I am counted that have to do with white privilege: freedom from harassment by police, merchants, and voting rights enforcers, access to credit and a good public education. As a citizen, there are ways I do not count that have to do with my gender: physical safety on the street, equal opportunity and pay in the workplace.
It got me to thinking about what my Jewish roots and experience have taught me about counting.
The way Jews count ourselves, we do not count heads: you, Esther, are one; you, Sam are two; you, Bernie are three; you, Sylvia are four (my mother and her siblings.)
It is from King David that we learn of the danger of counting each head, census-like: he made a fatal choice when he counted heads. In the ensuing plague 70,000 Israelites died. The safe way for us to count is the way God had us do it in the desert: a half-shekel went into the pot for each Israelite, then Moses counted the shekels. Or the way Saul counted a shard of pottery offered up by each warrior to number his army. We are permitted to count on our fingers or toes, or according to the number of words of a verse from Psalms, as long as we do not count individuals. We are also permitted to count this way: not-one, not-two… This is how men make sure there are the required ten for prayer.
It is the collective that is important: ten for prayer, 600,000 souls for revelation at Mt. Sinai, 600,000 letters in the Torah. On Yom Kippur we number our sins, A to Z in the first person plural: we account for the state of our collective soul.
Nor do we count the heads of strangers. Abraham, sitting at the door to his tent, is our ancestral role model: he was on the look-out, so he could welcome them in as soon as possible.
Nor do we afflict or oppress the strangers who do show up at the doors of our tents, as we were strangers in Egypt.
Irony, even death, the way others count us: immigration quotas. Education quotas (my father earned his law degree in such a slot.) Tattooed serial numbers on the left fore-arm. Jews were zeroed out of neighborhoods, along with “dogs” and “n—–s,” as neighborhood signs commonly announced.
What our society counts and how have shaped our country
In 2010 I first came across the young field of ecosystems services when I taught a course in Ecobiology and Human Health. A number of environmental causes began to pick up political steam as dollar values were assigned not just to the value of crops produced on agricultural land or the value of coal or gas extracted, but to life-supporting “ecosystem services.” Purification of air and water. Mitigation of droughts and floods. Pollination. If this last one seems odd, consider that by 2012, apple and pear trees were being hand-pollinated in areas of China due to the decimation of their natural pollinators, bees.* The commodification of nature was not lost on researchers, even as political capital for the environment increased.**
From this perspective, what we care about, we count. What we count, counts.
What we don’t count often remains hidden in plain view. As a society, we do not put a dollar value to us, collectively, of family members who care for their chronically ill, disabled, and dying kin. And so they soldier on without the moral and practical supports they need. And when we fear for what we care about, we turn towards quotas and all manner of exclusionary counting.
From another perspective, we know that societal choices guided by numbers-only bring us a host of plagues, not unlike the one that followed King David’s census: we call them unintended consequences.
This puts us right back in our soft, squishy unquantifiable humanity.
This brings us back to neither counting the heads of strangers, nor afflicting nor oppressing them. To open-hearted and open-handed behaviors.
How we work with the tension of these perspectives has everything to do with our own choices: what we count, how we count, and when we refrain from counting. Each of us. All of us together.
**The history of ecosystem services in economic theory and practice: From early notions to markets and payment schemes. Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Rudolf de Groot, Pedro L. Lomas, Carlos Montes. Ecological Economics 69 (2010) 1209–1218 http://www.cepal.org/ilpes/noticias/paginas/7/40547/the_history_of_ecosystem.pdf