The book of Numbers opens with a second census of the Israelite people. “Out of love for them, God counts them regularly,” explains the great […]
The book of Numbers opens with a second census of the Israelite people. “Out of love for them, God counts them regularly,” explains the great medieval scholar Rashi. But if counting the people is a sign of the Holy One’s love, apparently women and children are less beloved. Levites, too. Only adult males of the other 11 tribes were included in the census.
40 years later both women and Levites were excluded from the Israelite count in a far more tangible way; they received no land rights. Only citizens count, and land ownership has long been the mark of citizenship. Think about more recent times. With the founding of the United States who was initially given the right to vote?
In an agrarian society, land is the only material good of lasting value. Israelite men, as landowners and heads of family, were the bedrock of biblical society. Women, Levites and foreigners flowed like water around them; essential but transient. Women passed from one family or tribe to another when they married. Levites wandered the lands, in search of tithes to feed themselves and their families. Deuteronomy refers to הלוי אשר בשעריך: the Levite who is amongst you but not of you, and is in a class with widows, orphans, children, slaves and foreigners. (See Deuteronomy 12:12-19, 14:27-29, 16:11-14, 18:6, and 26:11-13.)
But wait, you might say, Levites were a privileged class. They were chosen — for their merits! They were set aside for a life of singing and shlepping in God’s own house. The Kohanim, priests, could only come from the tribe of Levi.
And you would be right to say so; the Levites were considered holier than the rest, and they seem to have been admired for their special role. Of course, women were also admired by men, and all that admiration set both Levites and women as groups-apart. As we Jews well know, “a group apart” from one perspective is a group of “outsiders” from another perspective. The Levites had privileges other groups did not have, but they were also deeply vulnerable.
In medieval Europe, the Jews as a whole became like “a nation of priests”, as the Torah promised we would (Exodus 19:6). In many ways, European medieval Jews were a privileged class, like the Levites of old. Literacy, for example, was exceptionally high among Jewish men and quite high among Jewish women, while Christian peasants were mostly illiterate. Jews were simultaneously admired and hated by the Christian peasantry. The royalty depended on Jews as bankers and tax-collectors, but through relentless expulsions they made their Jews transient and extremely vulnerable.
Human nature does not change. Like a dance, history simply shifts who stands in which position. AntiSemitism is alive and well today. Those who hate us still see us as privileged outsiders. But we are not, thank God, like the Levites of ancient Israel, or the Jews of medieval France. Our antagonists may see us that way, but we are neither outsiders now transients. We Jews are 7 million proud citizens of America.
Who are the outsiders in America today: essential to our functioning, but made to be transient? Admired, perhaps — for their rich culture, their music and dance and cuisine — but also hated and certainly vulnerable? I am haunted by the words of Woody Guthrie that seem as true today as they were 60 years ago when he wrote them:
My father’s own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.