Thursday, January 20, 2011

Must Orthodox Jews be Racist?

I think we're all comfortable saying that there are many Orthodox Jews who are racist, and that there might even be a correlation between how frum you are recognized as being, and how racist you are. This makes a certain degree of sense, as frummer Jews tend to be live in more insular communities, and more insular communities tend to be racist.

So, we more modern Orthodox Jews pat ourselves on the back, and tut-tut those backwards Chareidim for their primitive perspectives. But how much better are we? Don't the doctrines of Orthodox Jewry, e.g. the belief that the Jews are the Am ha-Nivchar (chosen people), necessitate a degree of racism?

A few weeks back, Rabbi Harry Maryles had a thoughtful post on his blog about a story in Lakewood where a few yeshiva kids had apparently called a bus driver a nigger. He wondered what could cause such kids to do something so inhumane, and concluded they had been imbibing the soft racism of their parents or teachers, or who had misunderstood "our status as G-d's chosen people."

While believing your people to be the chosen people does not necessitate using racist slurs (just because you're better than everyone doesn't mean you have to be a jerk about it, I guess), I think it really does mean that you think you are better than other people. That your people is worth more than other people. That your people are more loved by the G-d of everyone than His other people. That by your very nature, even absent any actions you might commit, you can be holier than someone else. And no matter how you pretty this up, there doesn't seem to me to be a way to separate this sentiment from racism. I think in any other segment of the populace, we would find these beliefs repugnant. If WASPs thought this, we would find them racist. Why is it different when it's us?

Last week, Rabbi Pruzansky wrote about the two letters that had gone out in Israel decrying the mixture of Jews and Arabs. One letter, signed by Rabbis, purported to prohibit the sale of property by Jews to Arabs, and was widely condemned by Jews everywhere, and the other, signed by Rebbetzins, urged women not to have relations with Arabs, and was not so widely panned. Rabbi Pruzansky seemed to object to the letters only because they appeared impolitic, and represented halachos sh'ein morim kein (laws that we do not publicly teach because they make us look bad). He had no problem with the actual substance of the ban or discouragement, and he attempted to explain why the segregation mandated by the Torah cannot be compared to the Nuremberg Laws:

His argument seemed to be that the Nuremberg Laws were written out of hatred for Jews, and are thus repugnant, but the Torah's laws celebrate the love of Jews and therefore are not repugnant. In his words:

The [Nuremberg Laws] did it out of racial hatred and pure evil; the Torah does so out of a need to preserve the unique character of the Jewish nation that would convey the divine idea to the world. The former was vile and odious, and the latter a reflection of God's love for the Jewish people and for mankind. But a simpleton will only look at the results and, seeing the same prohibition, conclude, "it's all the same." It is not all the same, and that shallowness is more polemical than it is sincere.

At the risk of sounding like a shallow polemicist, I don't think I see a difference. The fact that the results are the same is a very profound argument. I mean, had the Germans forbade Jews to purchase property out of love for German property, would we have found that okay? I don't think so. If they did it to preserve the unique character of the German race, would that have been okay? If they claimed that was why they did it, would we believe them? More importantly, would that make it better?

A friend of mine who is a very big fan of Kahane (who I think was a racist) once tried to justify to me Kahane's racism by quoting Kahane as saying that "it's not that I hate Arabs; I just really love Jews." That didn't help, in my eyes. And it's the same thing here. Saying "I just love white people more" is obviously a racist sentiment.

But oddly, this attempted justification seems to be the best answer Judaism has been able to give to explain the presence of racist halachot. I'm referring to the "family" explanation. This is even favored by more modern rabbis in OJ, such as Gil Student (I think) and Rabbi Pruzansky.

Pruzansky: So why does the Torah - which, after all, posits that all human beings are created in the image of God - discriminate between Jews and non-Jews in certain laws? Because Jews constitute one family (that's why we always argue with each other), and family is allowed to treat non-family differently; otherwise, there is no purpose to family. Thus, we are enjoined to "love your neighbor as yourself," but I am allowed to love my wife and children more than I love your wife and your children. As a Jew, I am commanded to love Jews more than I love non-Jews, not because there is anything wrong with non-Jews but because Jews are family. It is not immoral to distinguish family from non-family; it is right, natural and proper.

At the risk of being crude, this strikes me as BS. This sounds facially logical, but if you actually think about it, it's pretty fallacious. The first question it begs is that what makes Jews considered a single family, but not all of humanity? Maybe all white people are a family? Maybe all gentiles are a family? If you want to say that all of humanity is too big to be a family, I would ask, why? There are millions of Jews today whom Rabbi Prizansky evidently considers family; that seems like a ludicrous amount of people to consider family. There was a time two thousand years ago when I doubt there were that many people in the entire world. And now, we can easily imagine considering them family, but not the other six billion people? What's the practical difference?

And if you want to say that all of humanity can't be considered to be a single family, because then no one will not be family, I would say that's also ridiculous. What you're doing, then, is defining family as an inherently exclusionary club. The whole point of being in a family, then, is to deny my resources to other people. And why is that "right, natural and proper"?

And obviously, Rabbi Pruzansky does not consider me to really be just as much his family as his own actual family - but he considers me closer than his gentile coworker. We've created a new connection, a new family structure, whose whole purpose is to entitle me to better treatment from Rabbi Pruzansky (whom I have never met) than to which his coworkers are entitled. And it is based entirely on race.

Again, if white people thought this way, would we hesitate for a second in calling this racist?

The second question he begs is that who said you should treat your family better than my family? The pasuk he cites - And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself - directs the opposite inference! Now, I can see why genetics would drive such a conclusion, or why we would want to think this way, but why should an Omniscient, Ultimate Benevolent G-d endorse such a perspective?

Third, I think this is BS because it's not as if the benefits we are denying to gentiles are based on familial affection. I could see it maybe if we were commanded to give Jews more charity than we give non-Jews; fine. But how is not selling them property, or refusing to marry them based on family? Selling one's house and marrying someone are two activities one does not associate with doing particularly with one's family.

In conclusion, this is very troubling. I don't think there's a way to square this circle.


Eric said...

Interesting points Vox. I agree that there is an inherent racism in many insulated, Charedi communities.

It is important to remember that we are not only described as the "Chosen People," but are given a role of acting as a light upon the nations.

Part of acting as a light upon the nations is to be a part of them (though I prefer Jews living in Israel) and act as an example. Being racist is not being a light upon the nations.

jrs said...

<< I don't think there's a way to square this circle. >>

that's the bottom line, and totally correct.

Still, in practice, Orthodox/frum social mores & values definitely do evolve over time---however slowly, incrementally, always insufficiently for progressives, and despite the inevitable, clueless 'official' protests that 'our values" are timeless & unchanging.

In any case, there's no excuse for frum people making racist comments, or harboring racist attitudes.
But characterizing a kid uttering a racial slur as "inhumane" is way over-the-top, PC thinking. Using a racial slur comment is mindless, hurtful, a chillul hashem, and disturbing mostly in what it reveals about the kid and---as you rightly observed---his home influences, and the larger values of his community.

'Inhumane,' OTOH, is doing something deeply degrading, emotionally or physically, to another living being. Context is important, too: Deliberately, saying, "Hey fatso, lay off the desserts!" to someone who's anorexic & suicidal is obviously inhumane. In this case, presumably, the driver's psyche was not so utterly fragile that this epithet was likely to shatter her (it sure didn't sound that way).

Vox Populi said...

>But characterizing a kid uttering a racial slur as "inhumane" is way over-the-top, PC thinking. Using a racial slur comment is mindless, hurtful, a chillul hashem, and disturbing mostly in what it reveals about the kid and---as you rightly observed---his home influences, and the larger values of his community.

First, just to clarify, that wasn't me who wrote that, but Rabbi Maryles.

Second, I don't really object to calling racial slurs inhumane conduct. To me, inhumane just means lacking basic decency and human kindness. You don't have to be a Nazi, or be trying to kill the person you're wronging. You just have to be capable of negating the worth of the other person to you to the extent that you feel comfortable hurting her with racial slurs in public.

Vox Populi said...


I don't have a problem with acting as an ideal or role model for others through virtuous conduct, and thinking yourself to be better than others because of that. If you're better, you're better. I object to the idea that Jews are intrinsically better. That they inherently have more potential. That while others may join our quest, they cannot be born into it like we are. The way we gained this privilege is not through our own conduct, but through the conduct of our fathers, which I find to be a profoundly unfair idea.

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