Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The 'Acceptable' Prejudice

We Diminish Ourselves By Denigrating Non-Jews

The following appears in this week's issue of The Jewish Press.

Whether at home or in the office, while shopping or traveling, or in other places and ways, for even the most insular among the relatively small number of American Jews who are distinctive in appearance and severely limited in their outside contacts, interactions with Gentiles is an ongoing experience. In work settings, schools, health care situations and other common interactions, what is evident is a sense of civility and respect. This is, of course, as it should be.

There are halachos or religious laws that provide guidance for these contacts. I am not competent to discuss them. Curiously, few who are competent have much to say about the complicated and expanding array of issues arising from our inevitable engagement with non-Jews, that is, unless we accept as guidance - as we must not - statements that non-Jews are no good and anything deprecatory about them is the appropriate hashkafa or religious outlook.

We have speeches, pamphlets and books expounding and expanding on nearly every nook and cranny of how we are to live as religious Jews in contemporary society, yet there is little to turn to on a question that affects most of us on a daily basis. We need to be enlightened regarding what is permitted and what is not, specifically how to deal with situations that are faced with regularity.

We need direction about what Talmudic Sages refer to as Darchei Shalom, the idea that for purposes of civil society, it is necessary to be civil and even caring toward non-Jews. There is the apparently corollary principle of aivah, of avoiding enmity. We are instructed - Rambam writes that we are "commanded by the Sages to bury their dead, visit and help their sick, provide charitable assistance." We certainly must greet them, as Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky and other Torah leaders of past generations made a point of doing.

In our yeshivas and day schools, students are not taught these religious obligations toward non-Jews or other religious sources that mandate elevated behavior and the avoidance of Chilul Hashem or the desecration of G-D's name in our interactions with Gentiles. I am extremely reluctant to criticize yeshiva faculty because they invariably work with great dedication under difficult conditions and are woefully recompensed for what they do. However, in this area there is an excess of mis-teaching, of the use of language and the conveyance of attitudes in a fashion that is inappropriate and harmful. There is a tendency to emphasize brief statements about non-Jews that have limited or no halachic import and which are taken out of context, while clear teachings that require civility in our behavior and language are ignored.

We need to have courses and material that teach our teachers how to teach about non-Jews. A good place to start is the discussion in Tractate Baba Kamma, p.113, utilizing the valuable ArtScroll notes.

In an article on the Black revolution and Orthodox Jews published forty years ago in Agudath Israel's Jewish Observer, I argued that while there is no obligation for Jews to become involved in the civil rights movement, a position that I have maintained ever since, there is also nothing objectionable about making a contribution to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Transcending the utilitarian principles of Darchei Shalom and avoiding enmity is the theological teaching that we are all created in the image of G-D. It is, admittedly, a challenge to translate this vital concept into a code of daily practice. At a minimum, it proscribes racism, a point that was also made by Rav Kaminetsky in a speech that was recorded. In a word, racism is sinful.

The Darchei Shalom requirement does not establish the obligation to treat non-Jews in the way that we are obligated to treat Jews. In much the same way that the concept and reality of family impose responsibilities that are not extended to outsiders, the ideal of a sanctified community establishes norms that do not pertain to those who are not members of our community. In a broad sense, this can be referred to as consanguinity or the state of a close and therefore special relationship. As a notable illustration of this idea, the Torah requires that we not impose interest charges on loans we make to fellow Jews, a requirement that is entirely inapplicable to loans to Gentiles.

Whatever the boundaries of what may be referred to as sanctified parochialism, there is no excuse and certainly no justification for the coarse and deprecatory language about non-Jews that is heard far too frequently in our circles. The following lines echo what I have written elsewhere on this important and painful subject. They were impelled by several incidents that I regard as untoward, as well as what I was told by a noted Harvard University professor who is a committed Jew about a student from an Orthodox home and strong day school background who had abandoned religious life because, he said, his experience at Harvard showed him the falsehood of what he had been told and taught about Gentiles.

Likely, there was 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 student's reference to derogatory remarks about non-Jews, the sort of gratuitous and nasty fare that is 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 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 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. A respected rabbi who has achieved much in outreach told me recently that he knows of a great number of instances where insensitive or racist remarks by religious Jews resulted in persons who were in the process of returning to Judaism being lost.

Those of us in religious Jewish life 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.

They should reflect, as well, on Rambam's concluding words in his chapter on our obligations to non-Jews. (The Laws of Kings, chapter 10, par. 12). He cites a passage from the daily Ashrei prayer, "G-D is good to all and His mercy extends to all His creations" and then concludes, "The ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness and its paths are peace."

Finally, we must always be mindful that no one is ever elevated by putting down someone else.