The following address was given last night at the Class 27 Graduate Fellowship Orientation by WGFA Shaul Kelner (Class 8, and Chairman of The Wexner Graduate Fellowship and Davidson Scholars Selection Committee):

This Shabbat we begin reading B’midbar, the sociologists’ parashah — when my colleagues and I all get a special aliyah, and we claim Biblical mandate for our work:

“On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community…”

The parashot are named by their first distinctive word in the opening sentence, that is, by the first word that is not formulaic. Otherwise, many of our parashot would be named “Vayomer” (“And the Lord said to Moses”). The phrase that gives this parashah its name, “in the wilderness”, is tucked in the middle of one of these formulaic introductions, and it might better have been called by the first words that God spoke before mentioning anything about wilderness, namely: “S’u” (which JPS translates as “take a census”). And, indeed, this is how the English naming does it. We call B’Midbar the Book of Numbers.

But, in Hebrew, rather than name the parshah after the command, we name it for the setting in which the command was given. I find this calling-attention-to-the-context-for-the-command interesting. When we find ourselves in the wilderness, wandering and maybe even lost, how do we get our bearings? The divine command seems to be: gather data.

It’s not bad advice. And if modern day American Jews were writing the Bible, they probably would write this part exactly the same way. We do place a lot of faith in data. We do pin many hopes on numbers. Perhaps more than is warranted.

Just in time for Parashat “When in the wilderness take a census,” the NY Times this past Sunday, May 16, had an article by Bruce Feiler, who wrote “Walking the Bible”. It was entitled “The United States of Metrics.” Here is what he wrote:

“In the last few years, there has been a revolution so profound that it’s sometimes hard to miss its significance. We are awash in numbers. Data is everywhere. Old-fashioned things like words are in retreat; numbers are on the rise. Unquantifiable arenas like history, literature, religion and the arts are receding from public life, replaced by technology, statistics, science and math…
SOCIAL SCIENCE That God-shaped hole in the universe? It’s been filled with social science. Whereas once we quoted politicians or preachers, now we quote Gallup or Pew. (Actually, few neologisms better capture the change in the United States in the last 50 years than the move from pew to Pew.) There’s a study, poll or survey for everything these days…
Every generation gets the gurus it craves. Ours include Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Kahneman, Brené Brown, Jim Collins, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Dan Gilbert, Dan Pink, Dan Ariely and Nate Silver. What do they all have in common? They use research to tackle issues that were once the provenance of poets, theologians and philosophers.”

The Biblical census was not a survey, and its findings did not set the direction that guided the Israelite camp through Sinai and toward the Promised Land. And yet, when I think of the reception of last year’s Pew study of American Jews, I am struck by how much the communal conversations about the Jewish future have been centered on what the survey says rather than on what our poets, theologians and philosophers say.

I have now seen several rounds of brouhaha over Jewish population surveys: 1990, 2001, and now Pew 2013. One would think that the conversation would advance each decade. This is social science after all; time marches on and we build our knowledge cumulatively, on the shoulders of giants as it were.

Alas, we don’t live only in linear time. We are a religious community and, as such, we live in cyclical time as well — repeating, reiterating, reliving, recapitulating the creation of the world and its judgment, our people’s journey from slavery to freedom, our wanderings and our homecomings, our devastations and our restorations.

It is into this cyclical time that we have entered our population surveys and their reports. And why not? For this is what we do with our writings, we weave them into our Jewish textual tradition, with its midrashic interpretations and ritualized readings. Just as we mark the passing of each year by chanting appointed texts on appointed days — Esther on Purim, Jonah on Yom haKippurim — we mark the passing of each decade with a ritualized reading of a new decennial demographic survey. These surveys punctuate time, creating a moment in which we collectively take stock and look ahead. An accounting of souls. A Rosh Hashanah for statistics.

In cyclical time, our conversations around each new survey do not build cumulatively in a march of scientific progress, but ritually reenact the  foundational narrative again and again: we stand once more as Israelites in the wilderness at the moment when our spies are reporting back from Canaan. They have glimpsed a future of opportunity and peril, and give voice to the competing pulls of hope and trepidation. The tension between the two is enduring and fundamental, not only to the Jewish experience, but to the human experience of change. And so, we reenact it, time and again.

We are here today inaugurating a new class of Wexner Graduate Fellows and Davidson Scholars because we believe in a model of social change that is not determined by demography, but by individuals and groups who bring leadership, vision, activism, ideas and initiative to reshape the world around them.

The parshah tells us that among the people whom God assigned as one of Moses’s census takers was the head of the tribe of Judah, Nahshon ben Aminadav. The same Nahshon who stepped first into the Red Sea. He did not wait then for a headcount to come in to decide whether he should take that leap. Neither should we.


Shaul Kelner, an alum of The Wexner Graduate Fellowship (Class 8) and also Chairman of The Wexner Graduate Fellowship and Davidson Scholars Selection Committee, is Associate Professor of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. His research focuses primarily on Jewish organizations and leadership. Prof. Kelner holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. He is currently writing a book on Israel experience programs and diaspora Jewish identity. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Pamela, and his children Boaz and Shoshana. Shaul can be reached at