In a hard fought, razor-close presidential campaign, many questions remained unanswered after the polling stations closed. It wasn’t clear which party would control the Senate, it wasn’t plain how significant mail-in ballots were, it wasn’t apparent how many uncounted votes remained in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, it wasn’t known who would stand on the west front of the Capitol at noon on Jan. 20, 2021, to take the oath of office as president.
But beyond politics – beyond the winning and the losing, the cheering and the sobbing, the brave claims of victory and the sober calls for patience – one question remains unanswered, and perhaps even unposed:
Were the hours after the polls closed on Election Day – were the days when the ballots were still being counted – a peculiarly Jewish moment?
And then there are the questions that flow from that one: Was there something in the immediate irresolution of the contest that had reflections in Jewish culture? Were there elements of the unknown that mirrored the unanswered questions of Jewish life? Were there aspects of the unresolved that had antecedents in ancient Israel?
Judaism is, after all, a religion steeped in numbers. There are five Books of Moses, and one of them is actually called Numbers. There are precisely 10 Commandments. There are 613 mitzvot in the Torah. There were 12 tribes of Israel. The Hanukkah lights last for eight days. There are four questions at the Passover Seder. About a fifth of the passages in the Bible contain a number. The letter “chai” is an amalgam of the eighth and 10th letters of the Hebrew alphabet, combined to render the number 18 and the symbol of life.
So numbers matter in Judaism and, as we saw as the ballots were counted in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee, they matter in our civic religion of American democracy.
Moreover, in our secular lives, we inhabit a world defined by measures, whether of the gross domestic product, the unemployment rate, the number of Americans without health insurance, the COVID infection rate, and ‒ in baseball ‒ not only runs batted in (RBIs) but wins against replacement (WAR). The 20th century was, in the title of a landmark book by Theodore Caplow, Louis Hicks, and Ben J. Wattenberg, “The First Measured Century,” and the authors of that volume argued that Americans have become “the most energetic measurers of social life that ever lived,” adding, “They measured everything that had been counted before, such as population and the size of the government’s territory and army.
And they pioneered the measurement of facets of American life that had never been systematically counted before, such as crime, love, food, fun, religion, and work.”
But Jews for 2,000 years have lived both in the specificity of numbers and in the ambiguity of questions.
The uncertain Election Night verdict of the American people left multiple questions unanswered in the days after the end of the campaign. That was agonizing for a nation that has grown impatient with imprecision, that expects answers to its questions ‒ whether trivial pursuits at the footrail of a neighborhood bar or life-and-death verdicts in the environs of the legal bar ‒ to be final and, in the best of circumstances, to be rendered swiftly.
How many unresolved questions are there in Jewish life? Far more than the 270 electoral votes required for winning the presidency. How long have they tortured Talmudic scholars and suburban rabbis alike? Far longer than the election interregnum.
For isn’t the most evocative portrait of the Jew in study the many visions of men in beards bent over scrolls or scholarly tomes, preserved in the paintings of Josef Johann Süss (1857-1937) and others? And isn’t Judaism marked by unanswered questions? The very title of a book that Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz, the director of The Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia and the pulpit leader of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, New Jersey, produced eight years ago captures this element deftly: “Judaism’s Great Debates: Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl.”
Indeed, it is the chavrusa-style learning that was prominent in the shtetls of the past and that is one of the defining aspects of the yeshivas of today – group debate and inquiry practiced with patience, knowledge acquired in slow-motion and reflection – that Americans needed in the indecision that was the hallmark of the election that NBC marketed as Decision 2020. In an article written three years ago for the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, Jackie Congedo, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, wrote that “Jews believe that you can’t find the truth until you examine every angle and exhaust every argument,” adding, “We even have a word for it, Machloket, which is a dispute between two differing opinions on a legal interpretation of the Torah.’’
It is true that the 2020 election wasn’t resolved swiftly. Big deal. Rabbis and Jewish scholars for generations have been discussing why God, who is regarded as omniscient, asked in Genesis 3:9 where Adam was. (The short answer may be that God knew exactly where Adam was but that God was asking Adam whether or not he knew where he was himself: Not where he was physically, but where he was morally and spiritually.)
Rabbis for centuries have sought the answer to the perplexing question in Deuteronomy 10:12: “What does God ask of you except to fear Him …?” They have haggled over whether we are permitted to ask God to change the natural order to benefit ourselves. They have wrangled over whether, if God knows everything, doesn’t God also know everything that will happen – a state that forecloses our freedom to act?
“We believe that God knows of every possibility that humans might choose,” said James A. Gibson, rabbi emeritus of Pittsburgh’s Temple Sinai, “not each individual decision that we make.” That is a notion to ponder when elections turn in ways that leave us perplexed or angry.
Then there was the question of why the conservative commentator and third-party presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, a special target of Jewish enmity, won 3,407 votes, many of them from Jews, in Palm Beach County in the disputed 2000 election that was a virtual draw between Governor George W. Bush of Texas and former Vice President Albert Gore Jr. The 2020 election was destined to be resolved. The answer to the Pat Buchanan question in Florida may never be resolved.
David M. Shribman, previously the Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the paper’s coverage of the Tree of Life shooting that earned the Pulitzer Prize.