If I asked you to imagine a scientist in your mind’s eye, what image would emerge? A balding man in a white lab coat? A woman wearing thick glasses? A millennial glued to a laptop?
A 1970s-era study found that when asked to draw a picture of a scientist, boys and girls depicted males 99.4 percent of the time. The pervasive and subconscious images of scientists as male that begin to surface at an early age may be one explanation why girls entered STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math — at lower rates than boys.
What happens, though, when we change up the narrative by broadly altering cultural expectations around gender and move women to the center of the story? The numbers speak for themselves.
When stories of female scientists’ achievements became part of elementary school curricula, studies showed that students’ perceptions of who belongs in the field shifted dramatically. Over a period of 50 years, girls in particular began to draw female scientists more often. So while only 1.2 percent of girls depicted scientists as female in the original study, the figure rose to 33 percent in 1985 and then to 58 percent in 2016.
Numbers speak for themselves in this week’s Torah portion as well — lots of them. And, as we will see, they add up to more than their sum.
Census-taking rolls like a sand dune through Parashat B’midbar, which is also the Hebrew name for the fourth book of the Torah that we begin reading this week, known as the Book of Numbers in English. More than once in Numbers, God issues an order to count heads. The first order comes in the second year after the Exodus when the motley crew of freed slaves attempts to consolidate itself into a community as it begins its journey in the wilderness (Num. 1:1-46). The second order occurs 38 years later as the newest generation of Israelites prepares to enter the Promised Land (Num. 26:1-51). Each census is thoroughgoing and recorded with accountant-like precision. Forty-six verses of the opening chapter of Parashat B’midbar detail the process and results of the tally. Once the divine commandment to “take a census of the whole Israelite community” is heard, census-takers are appointed and the numbers start rolling in for each of the tribes:
- Reuben - Elizur, son of Shedeur, counts 46,500 men
- Simeon - Shelumiel, son of Zurishaddai, counts 59,300 men
- Judah - Nahshon, son of Amminadab, counts 74,600 men
- Issachar - Nethanel, son of Zuar, counts 54,400 men
- Zebulun - Eliab, son of Helon, counts 57,400 men
- Ephraim - Elishama, son of Ammihud, counts 40,500 men
- Manasseh - Gamaliel, son of Pedahzur, counts 32,200 men
- Benjamin - Abidan, son of Gideoni, counts 35,400 men
- Dan - Ahiezer, son of Ammishaddai, counts 62,700 men
- Asher - Pagiel, son of Ochran, counts 41,500 men
- Gad - Eliasaph, son of Deuel, counts 45,650 men
- Naphtali - Ahira, son of Enan, of the tribe counts 53,400 men
All told, 603,550 Israelites are counted.
While the instruction is to take a census of the whole community — and in certain instances, “Israelites” (B’nei Yisrael) can be construed as an inclusive term for men and women — this is decidedly not how it goes down here. The text makes abundantly clear that the census includes only men of at least 20 years of age who are deemed capable of bearing arms (Num. 1:2-3). Because they will be counted on to defend against danger during the perilous trek, it is they who count.
But how do we account for the numbers that the census conceals — the roughly 600,000 women, 2 million children, 100,000 elderly men, and 90,000 men with physical challenges who live alongside the “603,550 Israelites”?
In its original context, the census is a mere pragmatic tool designed to calculate the potential military might of the community. The numerical results seem to offer mere data points to assess risk.
But numbers speak for themselves.
When you consider that 603,550 men are counted in a book of 36 chapters that acknowledges fewer than ten women, you begin to understand that who does the recording and who is recorded are not incidental matters. Factor into the equation the cumulative effect of hearing these numbers repeated year in and year out to ever-new generations of Jews during the cyclical reading of the Torah. The impact of hearing stories that feature male protagonists almost exclusively is exponential, incalculable, epic.
What would happen were we to change up the narrative by broadly altering cultural expectations around gender and move women to the center of the story?
Photo: Courtesy of the State Archives of the State of North Carolina
To honor the uncounted numbers in the fourth book of the Torah and to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States this year, I will roll out eight “chapters” of an alternative “Book of Numbers” over the next eight weeks. This effort launches during American Jewish Heritage Month, as well as the year 2020, as we gear up for a national election and a census in the United States. (Incidentally, the suffragists’ efforts to pass the 19th Amendment were encumbered by the Spanish flu, not unlike the COVID-19 pandemic in our own time.)
I will introduce you to the likes of Gloria Steinem’s Jewish grandmother, Pauline Perlmutter Steinem, who was the president of the Ohio Woman’s Suffrage Association and of her Reform temple’s sisterhood; Emma Lazarus’ cousin, Maud Nathan, who threw herself into the suffragist movement, while her sister Annie opposed it, even as she helped to found Barnard College; and North Carolina’s Gertrude Weil, whose mentor was the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I will draw on the holdings of the Jewish Women’s Archive and other resources to tell the stories of Jewish women who combined civic engagement with Jewish values in a 40-year struggle “in the wilderness” to pass the 19th Amendment.
Let the numbers speak for themselves.
After all, being counted is no trivial matter. Just ask the girls who drew themselves as scientists.
Rabbi Carole B. Balin, Ph.D. is the first woman to earn tenure at her alma mater, HUC-JIR’s NY Rabbinical School, where she is Professor Emerita of History. She serves as chair of the Jewish Women’s Archive board and publishes widely on gender and the Jewish experience, including Sisterhood: A Centennial History of Women of Reform Judaism. She is currently writing a narrative non-fiction work on bat mitzvah, which will appear in 2022. To share your bat mitzvah story, visit her website.