Saturday, March 25, 2023

“Racism in the Orthodox Community” is the title of Rabbi Jeremy Wieder’s recorded presentation to his students at YU (and later published in The Jewish Link with the same title on December 1, 2016). In the presentation, he says, “Unfortunately, racism runs deep in the Orthodox community… I can tell you that it is a very real issue.”

To excoriate racism is one thing but to condemn a community is quite another. Clearly racism is to be denounced but it is wrong to paint the Orthodox community with the broad stroke of racism!

The Talmud (Yevamot 49b) tells us that King Menashe killed the prophet Isaiah. Chazal, describing the circumstances, tell us that when Isaiah heard that Menashe sought to kill him, he fled and was absorbed within the trunk of a cedar tree. Menashe, however, learned of Isaiah’s location and authorized that the tree be sawed down. When the saw reached Isaiah’s mouth, he died. The Talmud explains that he died when the saw reached his mouth because, in Isaiah’s dialogue with God, he said, “and I live among a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5)

Rashi comments that as Isaiah was not commissioned to rebuke the people with such a condemnation, he was punished through his lips or mouth. Ritva adds that while Isaiah’s statement before God may have been forgiven through the Seraph’s passing live coal over Isaiah’s lips (ibid. 7), his unauthorized harsh statement to the Jewish people was not forgiven.

I understand that a prophet is authorized to deliver God’s message to the people and bring them to repent (Rambam, MT, h. Teshuva 4:2). Maimonides notes that every Jewish congregation should appoint a genuine chacham, a God-fearing elder beloved to them, to guide them toward improvement and repentance.

Acknowledging this role of a rabbi, I need to add that great leaders of the Jewish people serve as advocates for the Jewish people. Their love for their flock motivates them to speak of the virtues of am Yisrael and inspire them to greater heights. Witness how Moshe, Aharon and the prophet Samuel are described by the Psalmist (99:6): “Moshe and Aharon among His priests, Samuel among those who call on His name—when they called to the Lord, He answered them.” The task of a leader is to highlight their merits, even when seeking to educate them.

To condemn racism is praiseworthy; to condemn the Orthodox community for racism is not.

Menahem Meier
Sign up now!