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Isn't It Racist To Believe That Jews Are Special?

Isn't It Racist To Believe That Jews Are Special?

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Question:

Isn't it racist to believe you're special because you're Jewish? How is that any different from the Nazi belief in the "superiority" of the Aryan race, for example?

Answer:

I think that everyone would agree that there is nothing wrong with feeling proud of who you are. There is nothing wrong with diversity. G‑d created a magnificent world, a wondrous panorama of colors, forms and personalities. Today we recognize that this diversity is so essential to the nature of things that anyone who tries to struggle against it is fighting against the sustainability of life itself.

Read the Ohr haChayim (R' Chayim Atar, Morocco/Israel, 1696–1743) on Genesis and you will be delighted by his comments on this diversity. Other classic commentaries describe how the world contains every sort of opposite—just as a sphere is made of opposing poles—so that it will reflect the boundlessness of its Creator. Perek Shira, one of the most ancient midrashim, brings out something even more delightful: That each creature, as G‑d created it, believes that it is the most lovely and ultimate of all creatures on the planet. Not only the horse and the lion, but even the slimy, warted toad cannot imagine a creature more beautiful than itself that could sing a song more melodious than the song it croaks out each day. The same with the jackal, the vulture and even the pesty little mosquito—who believes that all creatures were created by a loving G‑d just to provide him with blood to drink.

As it is with the species, so it is with each person—for each person, the Maharal of Prague writes, is a species on his own. We raise each child to know that there is something special about him or her, something unique that no one else who ever was or ever will be will ever have. It doesn't take much persuasion—it is the nature of the human being to believe it intuitively, even before he is told. We encourage it, so that the child will grow and be able to take on the world. To take that away from the child is to destroy the person inside; to encourage it is to give life, courage and strength.

And so too, with every social entity by which we human beings arrange ourselves: Ethnocentricity is not something to be fought and crushed. Humankind does not require homogenization. To do so is to fight and crush the inherent nature of human beings. If a people are not proud of themselves as a people, believing that they have something that no other people can provide, then they have no hope to survive as distinct cell of humanity. We will lose their art, their wisdom, their heritage—all that they have to contribute to the rest of us, by G‑d's design.

Do you really believe that humanity should melt into a homogeneous mush? Such was the ideal of America at the turn of the 20th century. I grew up in Canada, with Lester Pearson's and Pierre Eliot Trudeau's ideal of a colorful patchwork. Mush, in my mind is rather pale and monotonous fare, the antithesis of life.

When is pride dangerous? When it is a sickly pride. When it is pride in the wrong things. When it leaves no room for others. When it blinds its bearer from seeing his faults. And when—and I believe this to be the core of the matter—when one is so proud that he cannot recognize anything greater than himself.

The German nation after the First World War was sickly in this way. And not without reason. An entire generation was missing. The youth were angered at the failure of their fathers, that they had stolen German pride and left them with an inheritance of shame. It was a culture of rejectionism, where the old had to be thrown out simply because it was old and anything shocking and radical was embraced just for the sake of being shocking and radical. Atonal un-music, Dada non-art, rampant pornography and such violence on the streets that had not been seen in German lands for hundreds of years were all symptoms of a society suffering a serious systemic pathology. From this it is not difficult to see a lethal sort of pride arising, a pride that was not only out to destroy the world but semi-consciously to annihilate itself as well, as the phoenix diving into its pyre.

When I look at the pride of the Jewish People, I see none of this. In what do we pride ourselves? Look to the Talmud again: "What are the three traits of this nation? They have compassion, they have a conscience and they enjoy acts of kindness." Jews pride themselves in their intellectual powers, as well. Not an unreasonable pride, given the track record.

Yes, we are not without blemish. The Jews of Europe bore scars from the ugly anti-Semitism of those lands. It's hard to be in love with those that hate you and murder you. There was spite born from that experience—but that only makes it yet more amazing that kindness and compassion nonetheless survived in the Jewish heart.

We have a long history of self-examination and criticism, from the Torah, the prophets, the Talmudic sages and all the way to this day. We have laughed at ourselves, cried about ourselves and chastised ourselves continually throughout our long and painful history. We blame ourselves for being stubborn and for giving in too easily, for being too haughty and for lacking pride. Too often, the self-blaming gets out of hand—so we blame ourselves for that, as well.

Do we leave room for others? I know of no other tradition that openly states, "the righteous of the nations have a share in the World To Come." No need to become one of us. Sure, there are some basic rules, but they are rules that leave much leeway—and mostly rules basic to the stability of a healthy society. Keep those rules, we don't care who you are—you're in.

We not only leave room, we are open to learn from others when it does not conflict with our root beliefs, as Maimonides writes in his code of law, "Take the truth from whence it comes." The great "pillar of Jewish law" cites Aristotle, Galen and many of the Arabic philosophers with deep respect. To quote the Talmud once again, "If they will tell you there is Torah among the nations, do not believe them. But if they will tell you there is wisdom among the nations, believe them."

As I stated, the core of the matter is to recognize that there is something greater than yourself. Without that, pride becomes arrogance, a sickness we are told to shun to the furthest extreme. In fact, without Torah, our sages taught, the Jew is "the most brazen and shameless of the nations." Even with Torah, a person's free choice is never taken away. There are those who use Torah as a hammer to build their throne of misled pride, for all to bow down to their scholarship and erudition. Even the Torah can be abused.

But when a Jew allows the Torah to guide him (rather than he guiding the Torah) when he accepts that he is here not for his own pleasure or pride or fame, but with a purpose, a mission given him by the Creator of All Things—then that Jew is able to balance both pride and nothingness in a single scale. As you wrote yourself, by recognizing that he is a Jew, he sees himself that much more a member of humanity. For what is his mission? To conquer? To dominate? No, it is to enlighten, to bear the torch lit by Abraham our father almost 4,000 years ago, until the entire world is afire with the luminance of that wisdom, until "all the world will work together as though they had one shoulder" in peace and in brotherhood.

Should I be ashamed that I want my daughter to marry a Jew and only a Jew? Am I a Nazi for my pride and my conviction? Should I be condemned for wanting to keep that flame of Abraham alive?

On the contrary, I believe it is those who demand that we assimilate, who cannot bear that there be a people who dare stand out from the background, who dare to preserve their heritage and their mission despite every attempt to crush and beat them to the ground—they are the true bigots. They are the ones who are out to destroy the beauty G‑d made in His creation, to destroy the very essence of life.

We are proud to be Jews and we are proud to be proud. We don't wish to be anything else and we don't wish our grandchildren to be anything else. To us, there is nothing more magnificent than to be a Jew and nothing more disastrous than to lose one. Because every Jew is a precious flame, a burning bush that will not be consumed, an eternal torch that no one has the right to extinguish—not even that Jew himself.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
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Discussion (323)
July 16, 2014
Every ancient nation was chosen by its gods, and chose their gods
For some reason, the people of the Roman Empire chose the Gd of the Bible.
And that meant they chose the Bible, and the Bible says that its Gd, like all the ancient gods, chose the nation that chose to worship Him.

They didn't have to choose Israel's Gd. But they did, and by doing so, they chose the biblical statement that Gd chose the Jews.

Choose another ancient god (Zeus?). Zeus did NOT choose the Jews. Poof! No more problem about "chosen".

But if you choose Israel's Gd, you are choosing the Gd Who chose Israel.

Every people is chosen by its own god(s). But do you choose to worship the gods of your ancient ancestors? Or do you choose to worship Israel's Gd?

Up to you.
Noah
San Diego
July 15, 2014
It is quite naive and headless to claim and believe that somebody is chosen ,which means others are not. It is an elitist idea. There are four religions of Middle Eastern origin- Zoarasterism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A few of Indian origin like Hinduism, Buddhaism, Sikhism, Jainism, Bahaism, There are also Shintooism in Japan and Confuciusism in China.

Judaism is around 4000 years old, Christianity 2000 plus years, Islam 1400 years. Hinduism around 5000, Sikhism is quite new . Sikhs are extremely hard working, do not believe in fasting and they have achieved a lot in Military, Civil services, as professionals, in trading, in Industries , in finances etc. Yet, they do not claim they are the chosen people.

The idea of Chosen people have become outdated. The more correct and pragmatic concept is every body irrespective of religion is judged by his/her education, training,achievements and contributions to the society, community, country and the World.
Anonymous
USA
June 23, 2014
Christians say everyone except Christians is damned for all eternity
Does that make them "racist"?

Of course not. Nobody is born christian. Every Christian is a convert.

While the Torah does NOT say that only Jews are going to heaven, & everyone else is damned eternally.

Instead, we say the righteous "of all nations" have a portion in "the world to come".

We don't require others to be Jews either by birth or by belief or by practice.

They CAN, though. Like Christians, we allow people to become Jews. We welcome those who truly want to do all 613 commandments, while Christians welcome all those who truly want to believe the impossible. Either way, those who want to make the effort are welcome.
Bobby
Los Angeles
June 17, 2014
The Chosen People of G-d?
B"H
At Vayikra (Leviticus) 26, and later at Devarim (Deuteronomy) 32, there are many prophetic statements concerning the people of Israel, and what would occur should certain parameters be met. Some have called these sections "The Curse and The Blessing". If you stop and read it carefully, and compare the history of the Jewish People there are events which have matched those lines of text almost verbatim. Whether you believe Moshe himself wrote the Torah, or that Ezra, and the 70 elders reconstituted it from remnants found under the foundation of the 1st Temple, those texts predate most of the events which are described, and are therefore still Prophetic, and because they were fulfilled in actual historically proven events, I would suggest trusting in the Torah to a high degree. Most of the Jewish People I have met have always been caring people, and very concerned with the welfare of others, to include their enemies. To serve G-d in Joy and in Harmony with all, He chose us.
Anonymous
Pasadena, CA
June 16, 2014
Is being a Jew something special or prejudice?
When God first created this world, he created one nation and he gave that nation an inheritance and only that nation is responsible for the rules and regulations that govern that inheritance. The responsibility of that inheritance is to be guardian of the world. It is the responsibility of these inheritors to keep God's earth safe from harm, to protect all nations, to make all nations one with God in mind, heart and soul. That is what Jesus was trying to accomplish when he sacrificed himself on the cross. That is why God choose Israel as the central sight for these inheritors. They have to govern the whole world from there. They are responsible for keeping the peace on a world wide scale. That is what it means to be chosen, but only the true inheritors can make this happen, no one else. That is what is meant by one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all (not some). That is the job of THE CHOSEN ONES. Read your bibles(page for page).
Alona Israel
Covington
May 29, 2014
Then again...
After watching Rabbi Manis Friedman's video, "Jewish Theology, Lesson 3", I might understand the idea of ontology and role a little better.

His notion of the divine soul/spark within the Jewish person being the means through which the Jewish people are empowered to fulfill their role as a light unto the nations does make some sense to me.
Noah
USA
May 29, 2014
We are in agreement
To Steve and Ruth: I agree with you both in every single way.

But Chabad philosophy does teach that the soul of a Jewish person is on a supremely higher level than that of a non-Jew.

I am using the original question posed above as a means to voice my disagreement with this view. I should also add that this disagreement is shared by many Orthodox Jews.
Noah
USA
May 27, 2014
Humble Service
I so resonate with the responses about humble service, as exemplified by our forefather Moses. He stood in such stark contrast to Pharaoh, who thought he was the Lord over the world, instead of Moses, who knew he was a servant to the Lord and his people. As previously fleshed out here, racism was not the real issue, the real issue was a kind of supremacist viewpoint. True humble service has no room for supremacist worldviews.
Steve Gold
Tucker, GA
May 27, 2014
Racism? it's the Human Race
I am Jewish, I would never accuse the Jews of racism. We have a long history of tolerance, but like all people, there are people within Judaism who do discriminate. Sadly, this happens. As to Light for All Nations, I have to believe we each hold a candle within, which is the human soul, as i itself, the letter can be perceived as a light. We all spark each other when it comes to mitzvots, but others do not necessarily share our mitzvots, and that's how it's meant to be, and in other words, how The Story is written. In the word script is "crypt" if you listen closely to words, and I do. I think what I am trying to say, is that one has to be careful about calling A light to all nations a Jewish "thing", because if you weren't Jewish, wouldn't you feel sensitive, even slightly about this? Even perhaps, slighted? I believe sensitivity in all things is Key, and humility reigns. We're all in this together. A Jewish Messiah would be a person totally immersed a Creator's equality.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
May 26, 2014
For Rabbi Freeman
Thank you Rabbi for your response. And I humbly state that I agree with every word of your response to me.

But again, my point, and I believe the point of the original question, is not about being chosen. The questioner doesn't say "chosen", they use the term "special". Special implies that there is something unique (spiritually) that becomes the basis for the choosing itself.

I am unaware of any teaching that the kohanim were on a higher spiritual level, or more special if you will, when compared with that of the rest of the nation of Israel.

Rather, as you state, the kohanim were chosen for a specific role on behalf of the Jewish people, just as the Jewish people have a specific role to fulfill as priests/lights unto the nations.

By the same reasoning, and because all humanity was made b'tzelem Elok-m, I see no reason for anyone to assert an ontological difference between any group of people based on their role.
Noah
USA
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