April 17, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
April 17, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A Zaidie Writes to a Rebbe

The following letter was given to JLBCto print because its author, a frum Jew, believes we must monitor and be fully aware of some of the lessons our children are being taught…subliminally and otherwise. He said he was afraid to put his name on it for public consumption, but he did send it to the Rosh Yeshiva who made a speech at his grandson’s graduation in a yeshiva ketana in New Jersey, and, not surprisingly, has yet to receive a response.

Dear Rabbi:

My wonderful grandson —– was among the graduating 8th grade boys you addressed [at the ceremony]. He is looking forward to entering your Mesivta and Beis Medrash. As in other yeshivas, I assume much of his Torah study will increasingly be devoted to reconciling many seeming contradictions in gemorrah and rishonim. May I suggest that the most important contradiction yeshivas and their talmidim need to wrestle is the following: On the one hand there is the humanitarian voice of Torah that teaches: “Beloved is man for he was created in the image of God” (Avot 3:14). Opposed to this is the seemingly contradictory tribal voice of Torah that teaches “Only Jews are called human beings, but gentiles are not humans.” 
(Baba Metzia, 114b) How do we grapple with these contradictory voices? Which one do we emphasize to our talmidim? Do we teach them to see gentiles as fellow human beings or as something less than human?

I came a bit late while you were speaking to the graduates but if I understood your words correctly you were telling the boys; of course we Jews do many holy things the goyim don’t do. After all, we are light and they are darkness; we are holy and they are unholy. But, your message to the boys continued, even actions and mundane tasks of daily life that we share with goyim must be done by us Jews differently, not in a goyish way. In contrast to Hillel who saw the essence of Judaism as not doing to others what you don’t wish for yourself, you have simplified the essence of Judaism to “do everything differently than the goyim.”

I have heard similar sentiments expressed from rebbeim to their talmidim at many bar mitzvah’s that I have attended. They stress the fundamental difference between Jews and gentiles and teach their talmidim that there is nothing we have in common with the goy. There is nothing in the goyims’ knowledge and libraries and ethics that have any value for us. Goyim are decadent and we Jews have a monopoly on decency and kindness, shiker iz a goy, etc, etc.

This morning I went to the high school graduation of my granddaughter where the emphasis was refreshingly different. One of the graduating girls explained Bnei Yisroel’s reluctance to leave the midbar. In the desert Jews lived in a spiritual cocoon, studying Torah directly from Moshe Rabaynu, not needing to work the land and not needing to interact with other nations.

But Hashem had a different plan; He wanted Jews to interact with the world and in worldly human endeavors but to do so in a way that brings Hashem’s light and blessings to all of mankind.

I don’t think these two messages to the graduates necessarily contradict one another. The difference is largely one of emphasis. Do we emphasize our disconnectedness from the rest of mankind or do we emphasize our obligation to bring light to our fellow human beings?

The choice of what we choose to emphasize to our children is not a frivolous matter of “frumkeit” but is one that has very serious consequences. It is all too easy to explain away all antisemitism as simply “Esav hating Yakov.” The truth is probably much more complicated and more painful. Even though they couldn’t quote the exact sources of our Jewish teaching denigrating goyim, many gentiles intuitively understood how little they were valued or respected by Jews. This is a very long and complicated discussion but perhaps to save time and words I will illustrate this point with a picture painted in 1870 that hangs in the National Museum of Warsaw. It is called “The Last Possession” and is a picture of an impoverished Polish couple and their child. They live in a hovel, are dressed in rags and there is no fuel to fire their stove. All they have left is a goat. The Jewish merchant in this picture is entirely focused on how fat the goat is and what kind of deal he can make. Unfortunately, he is totally oblivious to the suffering of all around him.

Is this painting simply an antisemitic exaggeration without any basis in fact? I think not. In 2004 there was a tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed almost 250,000 people. I have a letter written by the Novominsker Rebbe that was sent to all Torah Umesorah yeshivas and Beis Yaakovs. The letter shows no compassion for the enormous human loss of life and suffering. Instead it makes the point that we Jews need to take this disaster as a warning from Hashem of what can happen to us if we fail to behave properly. In other words, we taught our talmidim that a quarter of a million goyim were totally expendable and were killed by Hashem simply to teach us Jews a mussar lesson. Is this really the attitude towards goyim we wish to instill in our children?

In conclusion, we can all agree that Torah scholars are supposed to increase peace in the world rather than the opposite. I believe overemphasizing our lack of shared humanity with goyim and our devaluation of them as human beings has cost us millions of lives throughout Jewish history. I hope I am wrong but I fear that unless we change our emphasis many more Jewish lives will be lost in the future. The challenge for your yeshiva, and all others, is to struggle with the contradictions and find a way of balancing our Jewish values with compassion and respect for all of humanity.

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles