A noted Harvard University professor who is a committed Jew recently told of a student from an Orthodox home and strong day school background who had abandoned religious life because his experience at Harvard showed him the falsehood of what he had been taught about Gentiles.
Likely, there’s more – perhaps much more – to this young man’s story and journey. Doubtlessly, other factors were at work. Yet, what strikes as too close to home is the reference to derogatory remarks about non-Jews, the sort of gratuitous and nasty fare that is all too common in our religious life and our schools. Such remarks have become part of our vernacular. I have heard far too much inappropriate talk, specifically including by people who declaim readily about shmiras halashon, of the need to be careful in speech.
It is lamentable that we have to stress the obvious principle that no individual or group is elevated by putting down other people. Groups and individuals are elevated by what they do, not by the behavior of others. For Jews, the concept of chosenness arises only out of our living sanctified lives in accordance with the Torah’s commandments. When we speak pejoratively of Gentiles, we may in a sense diminish them, but for sure in the process we are diminishing ourselves.
We also come dangerously close to the forbidden zone of Chilul Hashem, of desecrating G-D’s name, by deprecating for no other reason other than that they are not Jews those who are created in the image of G-D. It pains me to say that some of the things I have heard are a form of nivil peh, of vulgarity.
There are, we must acknowledge, deep and still open emotional and physical wounds arising from our encounters with the outside world, most horrifyingly in the ineradicable experience of the Holocaust. The admonition expressed here is not intended to soften our feelings about the murder of millions of Jews or the centuries of persecution that preceded the European Churban. Nor should we turn a blind eye toward contemporary anti-Semitism or to cultural excesses and life-styles that are antithetical to Torah values.
In fact, derogatory language against Gentiles generally is not intended to express hostility to that which merits hostility. In a curious way, the impact, if not the intent, of blanket negativism toward non-Jews makes the inadvertent point that it is not anyone’s wrongful actions that are evil but merely one’s status as a non-Jew. This notion is at once absurd and abhorrent. It is also rather poor strategy for the Jewish people. After all, there are only a handful of us and I very much doubt that G-D put us on this earth to wage war against six billion of its inhabitants.
Even if as I have suggested the tale of the Harvard student has more to it, it remains that some in our ranks are repelled by the words that they hear about Gentiles and, as a consequence, they move further away from Judaism. Surely, kiruv efforts are being undermined by inappropriate language and attitudes.
Those of us in the yeshiva world who have become inured to and accepting of the language that I regard as wrongful are likely to be critical of what I have written here. My suggestion is that they reflect on the example of Torah leaders whom we turn to for guidance. In my experience, I never heard such transcendent leaders as the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood or Rav Moshe Feinstein or Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky or Rav Pam ever employ the kind of language that is so promiscuously used these days by lesser figures in our community.
My further suggestion is that they keep in mind that no one is ever elevated by putting down someone else.