Observations, Estimations and a Recommendation inspired by Parashat Pinchas

Observations, Estimations and a Recommendation inspired by Parashat Pinchas

By A.J. Happel , 23 July 2022

I dedicate this drash to my ma (aleha hashalom), Marta Leah bat Dov v’Cora. I wish to reassure everyone, I am not here to discuss current politics, nor to rehash decisions from 30 years ago. I welcome discussion of the numbers I cite – preferably after Shabbat.

The p’shat of Parashat Pinchas concerns names, numbers, the enumeration of available military personnel (at that time, all male) and sacrifices. As replete as this parasha is, it is severely limited; it only shows one side of the picture. For this drash, I have taken the liberty of estimating some numbers based on other sources to project more of the picture. But first, bear with me as I make a couple of obvious observations, before providing estimates and, as a consequence, a recommendation.

Observations and Estimates
First Observation

One hundred millennia ago, give or take 10,000 years, our forebearers brought forth on this planet a new species, human beings. And they’ve been doing it ever since. From that beginning until modern times, multi-generational families consisted of two groups, male and female, co-existing simultaneously together yet separate. Each group was constrained not to cross the line of behavioral norms for their assigned gender role. These norms were often regulated by overt means such as restrictions on apparel and on the use of tools and weapons.

The division between the groups is clearly represented in Torah, which admittedly was written primarily by, of and at least in some cases for men. Despite the extraordinary number of women named in Parashat Pinchas, we recognize that the numbers listed herein do not enable us to compare the two halves of society.

In fairness to Torah, women are rarely represented in history texts and scientific studies written prior to the 21st century. Even today, historical and statistical research funding is imbalanced, in part due to the significance of defense-related studies, which are still predominantly the domain of men. Many of these often publicly funded studies highlight the valorous sacrifices of men throughout history.

Second Observation

What about the women? There are fewer than 50 women listed by name in the Chumashim. Out of the 54 par’shiot, this parasha is singular in that it alone names 8 women: a religious prostitute, 5 upstart virgins, a woman who never dies and Moses’ mom. It’s a very diverse group. They were unusual by the mere fact that they were named. Yet we know little about them, what their lives were like, what chance they stood of living. We know even less about the masses of women, and men, who were not named. So, I estimated the likelihood for two gender-specific causes of death prior to modern times.

First Estimate

Let’s start with the men, by examining historical statistics for military combat fatalities, not for just one battle or war, but across broad ranges of time and geographical location. What danger did an average man face in military service? Did the average man actually serve in a military capacity? (3000 years ago – he probably did, at least once. 300 years ago – probably not.) I exclude the effects of plagues and other epidemics, which likely affected the civilian as well as the military population. Because of plentiful data availability, I cite herein statistics from what I would call proto-modern wars, namely the Crimean War and the U.S. Civil War. Granted ancient warfare differed significantly in scope, duration and nature from those of medieval and proto-modern warfare; but, I think we can assume that military fatality numbers in ancient times did not exceed those of the mid-1800s. In fact, I suspect they were in general lower. I stop at the year 1870 for two reasons: 1) because stopping at that date excludes the 20th century, which used heretofore unknown technologies and which would skew the fatality numbers for both military combatants and civilians; and 2) because I want to contrast military fatality numbers, which focus on men, against pregnancy fatality numbers from another set of estimates, which focus on women.

In the Crimean War, British fatalities in action and of wounds for those assigned to combat was 4%. In the U.S. Civil War, combat deaths were 6% for the Union and 7% for the Confederacy. These numbers prefigure the lethality of modern technology against Napoleonic military tactics (e.g., Charge of the Light Brigade and Pickett’s Charge). Hence, the per-war likelihood of our average man dying in combat was roughly 5%, or 1 out of 20. Although some men fought in more than one major war, most did not. The probability could be much higher for specific individuals and forces, depending on circumstances, geographical location and number of wars fought. These percentages do not include deaths by diseases, which accounted for 2 out of 3 military deaths in the U.S. Civil War. (For comparison, the fatality rate in WWI for the world’s mobilized forces was approximately 13%, a little less than 1 out of 7.)

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (zichrono livracha), as he pointed at the base of the back of his skull, taught that one should use one’s “reality checker”. I.e., does it seem correct? So, I want to add a quick reality check to the above. In the classical ancient period, the Romans considered decimation to be a devastating defeat. Decimation is the loss of one out of ten. Losing 10 percent of your army in a war was significant, exceptional, worthy of memorializing.

Second Estimate

To compare the challenges faced by the two halves of society prior to 1870, let us look at historical fatality rates due to reproduction. Finding sources for this is much more difficult. The World Health Organization has a lot of current data; but, historical data is very piece meal. I relied on studies done by researchers from Oxford University, based on records from 1800 to 1950, and I cut their plots off at 1870. I erred on the conservative side (using lower numbers). I also included a per pregnancy fatality rate from a Scandinavian study of circa 1800, which was considerably less than the Oxford rate. I will not spend time here on the details of what was included, what was not included, nor how I sifted through plots and synthesized results. Please see me later about those details.

Let me be clear, I did not do a research project on this. I just did some spreadsheet calculations using online information to get an approximation.

An approximate, admittedly imprecise, but I think accurate estimate of likelihood of fatality due to all pregnancies throughout the reproductive lifetime of the average woman prior to 1870 is 25%.

As the history books record, wars throughout history were gory. Not so long ago, so was childbirth. In some places it still is. Taboo as the subject was, the reality of what was happening in every household in every generation could not be completely ignored. The final reality check is hidden in Torah itself. The women’s mortality numbers are embedded in the stories of the four mothers. 1 out of 4 died.


So, what is the take-away message? What is the significance of this to Conservative Judaism and to us as members of this kahal? We are here because Conservative Judaism speaks to us, and we want to pass a fitting message on to the next generation.

The theological commitment of the Conservative Movement was “we affirm our faith in the Creator and Governor of the universe”. May I add, the manifestation of this faith was to maintain Halacha (or at least a knowledge of it), and to use Halacha to inform the ritual practices and the moral and spiritual processes of Jews living in the modern world? Conservative Judaism is a movement born of the human need to intimately remind ourselves of our past as we move forward in the modern world. We do this by offering prayers every day, individually and in daily minyanim. But we also must listen for the kol d’mamah dakah, the soft, elusive, ephemeral, resonating, permeating, penetrating message, which is the response to prayer.

From the Zugot 2100 years ago through the Rishonim several centuries ago, the rabbis formulated liturgy for the public to preserve and to perpetuate the faith. I cite my teacher, Rabbi Joel Rembaum, who scarcely a year ago reiterated in a zoom lecture that the most fundamental prayer of Judaism, the Sh’ma, is Torah text augmented by the rabbis to suit the needs of an evolving Judaism (and I add: the needs of evolving Jews), while simultaneously maintaining the uninterrupted integrity of any given line of Torah. This careful, painstaking development continues under the Acharonim to the present.

The Conservative liturgy has over time been refined to express an evolving understanding of historical liturgy and to address the concerns of modern Jews.  Our liturgy has been deliberately constructed to direct our thoughts and to remind us of our responsibilities. In addition to our duty to commit to serving HaShem and to healing this world, we also have a duty to remember our ancestors – all of our ancestors, and to honor their sacrifices. What better embodiment of Frankel’s “positive-historical Judaism” could there be than to honor the sacrifices of our forebearers? Since we cannot call them all by name, Traditional Judaism recites the archetypal names of the three fathers. The Conservative Movement also offers the recitation of the names of the four mothers as optional.

Now we are engaged in civil strife over reproductive issues; nonetheless, this is an age when medical technology can significantly reduce the dangers, including fatalities, of pregnancy, so much so, that even our awareness of the past dangers is slipping away. We are forgetting. To forget the sacrifices made by so many women for the sake of human existence would be inexcusable, even unforgiveable.

I therefore conclude that Conservative Judaism, by its raison d’etre, ought not to merely permit the inclusion of the Imahot. It ought to require the inclusion of the Imahot lest future generations forget the sacrifices of our foremothers. This would be fitting recognition of the sacrifices of the roughly one out of four women who gave their lives that we all might live.

As a layperson, I respectfully submit this suggestion to the Kahal for consideration. Shabbat shalom.