Thursday, December 02, 2021

Meylekh Viswanath will be running in the NYC Marathon on November 3 to raise money for victims of terror in Israel through the One Family Fund.  If you are interested in being a sponsor, please go to http://www.teamonefamily.org/plachikkatviswanath.  You can get more information about the One Family Fund at 1029 Teaneck Road, Suite 3B, Teaneck, NJ 07666, tel: (866) 913-2645.  According to Charity Navigator, an independent monitoring organization, 77.3% of their total budget goes towards their programs.

Part I:

One Shabbos, more than two years ago, a respected Israeli rosh yeshiva and a frequent visitor to our synagogue, in a speech from our shul pulpit, made some very racist, very demonizing remarks about Arabs.  Among other statements, he said that an Arab walking next to a Jew is constantly thinking of how he can kill the Jew.  I was shocked to hear such explicitly racist rhetoric from our synagogue pulpit.  But what shocked me even more was that his remarks didn’t seem to bother most of the congregants.  To be fair, he had spoken in Hebrew and even though the Hebrew he uses is fairly simple and easy-to-understand, many people in the audience probably were not paying attention.  But many were; and they found all sorts of ways of excusing this rabbi’s words or explaining them away.  At least one person actually excoriated me vehemently for daring to criticize a respected rabbi’s remarks.  Of course, close-knit groups often exhibit hostile attitudes towards other groups with whom they are in competition, either for land, material resources, or even simply with respect to ideology.  I suppose I thought the group I belonged to was special, that my friends were special; others might exhibit such behavior, but not my group, not my synagogue.  I was clearly wrong!  Now, I don’t believe that Jews are inherently different as human beings from other people; what makes them distinctive is their group history, their social structure and their religion.  So in trying to understand why some Jews are racist, I decided to use a broad perspective.

Let’s start by asking why some people preach hatred against other peoples?  Against other nations?  An individual might feel hatred towards another individual who has done something bad towards him.[2] But would it be rational for this person to feel hate towards his antagonist’s son or brother or friend?  And would it make any sense to hate the entire nation or group of origin of this person?  Most people would say, no!  So then why do we have a Ku Klux Klan?  Why do we have intertribal mass killings?  Why do we have mass violence in Sri Lanka against the Tamils and in Myanmar against Muslims?  And to underscore the phenomenon, both Srilanka and Myanmar are nominally Buddhist nations, both purporting to follow the precepts of the Buddha, the one who taught compassion towards all beings, the one who, out of compassion, gave up nirvana in order to stay and bring his fellow-beings to enlightenment.

Perhaps such behavior originates in an initial act of irrational injury or violence which may be entirely out of the blue; or it may be an excessively extreme reaction to something that the victim might have said or done; or it may even be due to a misunderstanding.  The target of this injury cannot understand, cannot accept that such an act might have been intentionally directed towards him or her, because to consider such a possibility is to consider the possibility that s/he herself or himself might have some shortcoming, might have done something bad.  The possibility that the violence might have been irrational, i.e., without any understandable cause is even more difficult for people to accept, because that is so close to the notion that there is no order in the universe.  As a result, such an offense might be rationalized as being prompted by antipathy against the target’s group, which is then followed by a reactionary antipathy towards the assailant’s group.

So why do groups exist?  One answer that an economist might give is that forming groups is a way to reduce the free-rider problem;[3] another reason is to propagate social values that benefit all members of the group.  Whatever the reason, group-stability and group-cohesion are important features of a group.  This can be achieved in two ways: creating bonds between in-group members and creating distinctions and distance between groups.  Such pre-existing between-group distance reinforces this creation of ill-feeling towards the other on the basis of his/her group affiliation.  The basic point, though, is that individual experiences have an important part to play in the generation and maintenance of these anti-other group feelings, whether we term them racism or not.  And if racism is an understandable result of individual experiences, then it is also easy to understand why the target of an unfortunate incident of violence or injury would want others to share his/her feelings.  A feeling that is shared is a feeling that is validated.  The unfortunate result of the sharing of such negative feelings towards other groups is that racist ideologies are taught to children and young people who, having learnt such negativity at a young age, incorporate it into their world-view.  Ideas learnt at a young age are essential foundations of the individual’s epistemological system and hence are difficult to remove, later on.[4] Consequently, if we wish to eliminate racism, it is important to teach young people about tolerance of other people, of other groups.

It is equally important to not allow people who have been hurt to propagate their hostility towards these other groups.  The Jewish community, unfortunately, has been the target of a lot of hate.  The Holocaust is still fresh in our group-memory, and most of us know people who have suffered during the Holocaust and after the Holocaust, whether in Eastern Europe, in Germany or in the Middle East.  It is completely understandable that such people have negative feelings towards Germans, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Arabs, Muslims or any of the other groups to which their assailants might have belonged.  Some of these people have overcome their experiences and have come to teach love and tolerance even towards their assailant-groups.[5] Unfortunately, many other people have been pushed by their experiences into this cycle of perpetuation of fear, mistrust, doubt, suspicion and violence.   The purveyors of such negative sentiments are not necessarily fringe elements in our society; they are all too often, unfortunately, community leaders and even rabbis and yeshiva-teachers.

The Torah sometimes does mandate hatred against an entire ethnic group.  For example, we are commanded to remember what the Amalekites did to us and to obliterate their name from under the Heavens.[6] But, as the Abarbanel says, Amalek’s actions were directed against the weak and the feeble; they were committed out of baseless hatred and were perpetrated in a cowardly and furtive manner.[7] Such actions and ideologies are what we condemn in remembering Amalek.  Similar, we condemn the Nazis, a group whose ideology was racist, eugenistic and genocidal, completely lacking in compassion towards the weak and infirm.  However, it would be a mistake to declare and to teach hatred and mistrust towards Germans as a group, towards Arabs and Muslims as a group.  There may be hate-filled and hateful Germans and Muslims.  But Germans and Muslims do not choose to be born into their groups; and, furthermore, these groups are not defined by an ideology of hate.[8] Hence they are not, per se, deserving of hate.  How, then, could somebody from the nation of Abraham, which the Talmud characterizes as modest, merciful and beneficent, declare of Palestinians, as a group, “Yimmakh shmam!” “May their name be blotted out!?”  Nevertheless, I have heard such racist preaching from pulpits in our own synagogues; and I have heard of such declarations by Jewish day-school rebbes in our own communities.  This kind of racist behavior is, frankly, perplexing to me, given that not so long ago Jews were on the receiving end of these attacks and diatribes.  Our history dictates that even if we can understand the origins of such hate and even if we sympathize with the experiences that gave rise to this hate, we have an obligation to reject it and to speak out against it.

We should also not confuse the existence of some extreme statements in the Talmud against various groups with a general mandate to hate these groups.  For example, R. Chelbo says in the Babylonian Talmud (Yevamos 47b) that “Proselytes are as hard for Israel [to endure] as scabs.”  No exceptions!  All converts!  Should Jews hate converts, then?  Clearly no; and Rashi, in fact, explains that this refers to converts who stick to their pre-conversion practices and influence Jews negatively.  Tosafos suggests that the difficulty for Jews may lie not in the nature of the convert but in the nature of the Jew who is commanded not to mistreat the convert and finds it difficult to follow this commandment.  In other words, one doesn’t take a statement in the Talmud and apply it indiscriminately; it is important to consider the statement in its context and to consider how it might or might not warrant application in our own context.  Furthermore, not all statements by rabbis in the Talmud are equally privileged, especially non-halakhic statements.  Perhaps, R. Chelbo, himself, should have been careful to qualify his remarks about proselytes.  On the other hand, R. Chelbo’s comments were made in the restricted context of the beit midrash, where the qualifications to his statement might have been understood.  A person, today, speaking to a general audience, has a much greater obligation to keep his heart and speech clean.

In the continuation of this article, I will discuss other problematic statements in the Talmud, as well as other instances of racist discourse in our community and suggest how we as individuals and as a group should respond to this disturbing phenomenon.

Part II:

In the first part of this article, I presented some ideas as to the origins of racism, discussed some problematic statements in the Talmud and suggested why those statements should not be used as models for public discourse today.  In this continuation, I will present some other Talmudic statements and suggest how we, as individuals and as a group should respond to the disturbing phenomenon of racism in the Jewish community.

In the tractate Pesachim (87b), there is an interesting story that our Israeli rosh yeshiva might have had in mind when he made his remarks.  A certain Roman sectarian declares that his people are better than Jews because King David, in a short period of six months, had killed every male in Edom (often identified in the Talmud with Rome) (I Kings 11:16), whereas the Jews had been living in the Roman empire for many years without being killed.  R. Oshaia, a Palestinian amora, rebuts this claim saying that the only reason that the Romans have not killed off the Jews is for fear of being called a murderous kingdom.  And, in Rashi’s interpretation, the Roman acknowledges that his people are indeed constantly occupied with this thought of how to exterminate the Jews without being taken to task.  Some people may interpret this story as telling us that non-Jews are constantly immersed in planning the murder of Jews.  But I think such a reading makes no sense for two reasons.  First of all, the Talmud is constrained to come up with a strong counter-statement against the incontrovertible Biblical evidence proffered by the sectarian regarding Jewish slaughter; hence the (overly) strong rebuttal.  Second, we have no reason to infer from this that Romans by their nature, or Arabs by their nature, are murderous – no more than we would infer from the evidence regarding King David that Jews are genocidal.  The most we could conclude from this is that the Roman government might have been happy to get rid of a troublesome people in a land that would otherwise have happily agreed to be hellenized. In fact, what we have here is something very particular that cannot and should not be used as a basis for generalization.

We have another similar misunderstood source for hatred of non-Jews in a commentary to Genesis 33:4.  There, Rashi quotes R. Shimon bar Yochai as saying that “Esau hates Yaakov.”  Since Esau is identified elsewhere as the ancestor of Edom, this has been taken by some people as a statement that Christians (identifying Christians with Rome, the center of the Catholic faith) hate Jews.  Others, including our Israeli rosh yeshiva (in a conversation with me), have extended this to the belief that all non-Jews hate Jews.  Ignoring entirely the context of the statement where Esau and Yaakov are the two personalities, the two brothers, the two sons of Yitskhok – not the nations, and certainly not the two groups of non-Jews and Jews![9]

But precisely because there do exist such false sources for gentile-hatred in Jewish texts, it is important that Jewish religious leaders be vigilant and speak up against hate-mongering and racism.  This applies not only to the extreme case of our Israeli rosh-yeshiva, but also to other less extreme, but equally important, utterances.  For example, we recently heard Rabbi Hershl Schachter, a respected and learned rosh yeshiva at the centrist Orthodox Yeshiva University, referring to African-Americans as shvartses.[10] While Yeshiva University did put out a press release stating that “The recent use of a derogatory racial term and negative characterizations of African-Americans and Muslims, by a member of the faculty, are inappropriate, offensive ...,” none of our local orthodox community rabbis, to my knowledge, used the opportunity to condemn the use of derogatory racial terms.[11] Neither did R. Schachter, himself, apologize for his remarks.[12] The point is not that R. Schachter is a bad person;[13] rather, given R. Schachter’s prominence and the likelihood of ordinary people learning from him, it is crucial that rabbis speak out against the use of such derogatory expressions.[14] After the Israeli rabbi whom I described at the beginning of this article spoke in our shul, I am happy to report that the following Shabbos, our own rabbi gave a derasha distancing himself and our shul from such vitriol.  On the other hand, a couple of years later, this hate-mongering rabbi was once again given an opportunity to speak in our synagogue; worse, shul members were encouraged to contribute to his yeshiva.  It seems we still have a long way to go in recognizing and redressing racist attitudes.

But it’s not only rabbis and rebbes that have such anti-other views.  Many ordinary Jews have highly biased views of non-Jews; very likely such views have been inherited from their parents and grandparents who went through the Holocaust.  It is important to make a distinction between understanding why somebody might have negative views of Eastern European gentiles and allowing that understanding to color one’s own views of gentiles.  I personally, though not of Eastern European extraction, have been on both sides of the fence.  Many of my relatives in India have/had anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews, partly inherited from the English/Americans passing through India and partly due to the pro-Arab stance that the Indian government had for a long-time.[15] Many Hindu Indians have negatives attitudes towards Muslims as a group and against lower-caste Hindus; similarly Muslim think of Hindus as kaffirs – “idolators and polytheists, and educated Muslims are contemptuous of the inequality of the Hindu caste system.”[16]


On the other hand, in the US, I have personally been on the receiving end of some unpleasant experiences both from Jews and from non-Jews, because of my skin color and my geographical origin.  For example, many years ago, in Chicago, I sat down next to an elderly white lady on a city bus, whereupon she promptly got up and moved elsewhere – even though there was more than enough room for both of us on the seat.  I understood that the lady might have inherited her attitudes from her upbringing and didn’t hold it against her, especially given her advanced age, but I was certainly saddened by her action.  Another time, I encountered a rather hostile reception while eating dinner with a white girlfriend at a restaurant in a Lithuanian neighborhood on the south side of Chicago.


I also know personally how easy it is to fall into racist behavior.  I remember how at one time, I myself treated a Gideon New Testament with less than complete respect, and my children called me out on my behavior.  I realized that I was wrong, that I had violated the very precepts that I had taught my children to follow.  The point I want to make is that we have to be on our guard, lest we lapse into such behavior.  The fact that such behavior is common or natural in some sense does not mean that it can be condoned.  Our children should be taught that speech and behavior disrespectful of ethnic and religious groups is not tolerated, even when it emanates from individuals we teach our children to respect.  The Orthodox community has experienced several instances of sexual molestation by rabbis and other people respected in the community; even if we, as a community, have not yet taken sufficiently strong steps to prevent the recurrence of such behavior, we all agree that it is unacceptable.  We need to take a similar stance against racist speech and behavior.

The very first book of the Bible tells us that God made man in His own image.  He made man in His own image, not just Jews!  The Bible is clearly telling us to respect the humanity in every man.  Even if other peoples do not recognize this fact, the Jews have a special obligation to remember it and act upon it.  Even if other groups act hatefully towards us, we should not hate them.  This doesn’t mean that we should not defend ourselves against violence, it doesn’t mean that we should not recognize and protect ourselves against violence perpetrated by various groups.  It does mean that our actions should not be motivated by hate towards another human being qua human being.  This is why even after four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, the Torah tells us that we may not oppress the stranger.  Ki geyrim heyyisem be-erets mitsrayim – “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” is a phrase that is repeated over and over again in the Torah in various contexts to admonish us against negative actions and thoughts.

Clearly, as Jews, we have an obligation to not be racist.  But, equally importantly, we need to speak out against racism in our community, whenever and wherever it occurs and by whomever it might be perpetrated.  In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (http://www.rabbisacks.org/ on parashas Noah, Covenant and Conversation 5774): “It is not enough to be righteous if that means turning our backs on a society that is guilty of wrongdoing. We must take a stand. We must protest. We must register dissent even if the probability of changing minds is small. That is because the moral life is a life we share with others. We are, in some sense, responsible for the society of which we are a part. It is not enough to be good.  We must encourage others to be good.”  We must act to eradicate racism from our community.



[1] This article is the first part of an abridged version of a longer article that appeared in vol. 17 of Conversations published by The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.  This is not a scholarly article, but rather a personal appeal to my fellow Jews, a cri de coeur.

[2] Even in such a case, the Torah in Leviticus 19:18 requires us not to exact revenge. The verse actually only prohibits the taking of revenge and the bearing of a grudge against other Jews.  However, as the Sefer haChinuch explains the prohibition of taking revenge (prohibition 241), a man should realize that anything that happens to him, whether good or bad is ultimately from God; hence if somebody should inflict pain and suffering on him, it is because of his own sins.  From this we see that even though technically the prohibition is only with respect to Jews, the logic of the prohibition applies to non-Jews as well.

[3] This refers to the problem of some people getting the benefit of shared resources that they have not paid for, such as using roads and not paying taxes, or attending a synagogue and not becoming a member.  Groups solve this problem partially by using group dynamics to deny group benefits to individuals who would like to avail themselves of such advantages without paying for them.  In the past, the Jewish community used mechanisms such as excommunication or kherem; today, group members might refrain from inviting such individuals to festive occasions.

[4] The Talmud counsels just this, in Pesachim 112a.

[5] I am thinking, for example, of Arnold Roth who established The Malki Foundation in memory of his daughter Malki, killed in a terrorist attack at a Sbarro’s restaurant in Jerusalem in August 2011.   The purpose of this Foundation is to help physically disabled children of all religions in Israel and Gaza.  “We want the Malki Foundation to be the antithesis of terror,” Mr. Roth has said.

[6] The rabbis agree that the actual tribe of Amalek can no longer be identified; the commandment continues to exist, nevertheless and we fulfill it in several ways, particularly in the reading of Parshat Zechor; it is clearly a symbolic commemoration.

[7] See commentary of the Abrabanel (R. Isaac ben R. Judah Abrabanel, 15th century Spanish commentator) on Deuteronomy 25:17

[8] I attended a couple of Muslim Friday afternoon khutba sermons, recently, and it was amazing to me, how similar the content of these sermons were to a Shabbos morning derasha.  Muslims as a group are not characterized by hate; but this is not to say that there are no Muslim groups who define themselves through violence and hate.

[9] See Dovbear’s blog http://dovbear.blogspot.com/2010/11/what-esav-soneh-lyaakov-really-means.html.

[10] The Jewish Daily Forward, March 29, 2013.  As a fluent speaker of Yiddish who uses it on a daily basis, I am well aware that the yiddish word for black and for blacks is shvartse, shvartses.  If one were speaking in Yiddish, one would have few other options.  However, in Jewish English, the word shvartse has a clear negative connotation.  It is difficult to believe that R. Schachter, a posek who renders halakhic decisions and who is thus supposed to be aware of the social and environment, does not know this.

[11] The use of pejorative terms such as sheygets and shiktse/shiksa and goy is far from unknown in our community.  Although the term goy is not necessarily pejorative, it is often used with such intent, cf. other terms such as goyishe kop.  Sheygets and shiktse are, invariably, used as slurs.

[12] This is in contrast to other rabbis, who have apologized for errors of commission or judgement.  For example, in 2003, R. Mordechai Willig, another rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University apologized for mistakes in the handling of the Baruch Lanner case.

[13] In fact, even as I disagree with him on his use of such terms, I continue to believe that R. Schachter is a scholar from whom one can learn a lot; from whom I have learned a lot.

[14] My criticism of R. Schachter’s use of pejorative terms has nothing to do with whether I consider Black Muslims dangerous as cellmates or not.  The Nation of Islam, often referred to as the Black Muslim movement, has indeed been condemned by some scholars as anti-semitic.  But whether that accusation is true or not, every human being has inherent worth and an accident of birth or skin color cannot be grounds for condemnation or for denigration.

[15] Ironically enough, because of the nationalist Hindutva movement in India, many Hindus are now pro-Israel based on the notion that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

[16] Kana Mitra, “Exploring the Possibility of Hindu-Muslim Dialogue,” http://www.interfaithdialog.org/reading-room-main2menu-27/126-exploring-the-possibility-of-hindu-muslim-dialogue, viewed April 19, 2013.

By Meylekh Viswanath

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