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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 (309)
December 26, 2013
To Tolga
Tolga cites,"Wat are the three traits of this nation? They have compassion, they have a conscience and they enjoy acts of kindness"

& responds thus:

"If you don't want/refuse a guy from another race although he has above qualities, yes you are a racist.

As Jews you are on a mission of God , a mission which is about goodness of all human kind who are completely equal about their rights and you need Jews to accomplish this mission, only so is it defendable not to marry the good non Jewish guy.

Response:
There are many Jews of many places & colors. If the Jew who wants me has those qualities, and we are compatible, the "race" doesn't matter. (There is no such thing as race. We all belong to the human race. Maybe you mean color? There are Jews of all colors.)

If a person, of whatever color, is not Torah-true, then his merits fall short. A Torah-true life is essential. If I wed someone not Torah true, the marriage lacks Torah richness.
Shoshana
Cinncinnati
December 26, 2013
"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? "

"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.

If you don't want/refuse a guy from another race although he has above qualities, yes you are a racist.

As Jews you are on a mission of God , a mission which is about goodness of all human kind who are completely equal about their rights and you need Jews to accomplish this mission, only so is it defendable not to marry the good non Jewish guy.
tolga
December 24, 2013
thank you, Steve Gold. we need more rationale and compassionate individuals such as yourself to change the face of Judaism today. Your comments are much appreciated.
Anonymous
December 23, 2013
Re: Isn't it racist to believe that Jews are special ?
From an outsider's point of view, if the Jewish people went through what they went through over many centuries and not only survived but have their culture , language and faith intact , they deserve to feel special. I hope you never let your heritage get watered down by the popular /dominant culture of the time.
Anonymous
December 23, 2013
Cultural Heritage
A cultural heritage should be chosen, I think. My Bahai daughter chose for her children to remain Jewish and herself active (converted) in her Reformed Temple even though the children's Jewish father found someone new and converted to Christianity, choosing the cultural heritage for his new family, I suppose you could say. Anyway, the children are all grown now and not a bit confused, it appears! The "firsts", the steps, the adopted, the combined (siblings) even get together at times!
Anonymous
December 23, 2013
It is true that a child has no control over the circumstances of their birth.
He should not be penalized for those circumstance. He should be treasured as should any child.

But I don't think the rabbi was calling PEOPLE mush.

I think he meant the homogenization of cultures.

He urges every culture to maintain its richness, to avoid being lost in a mixture with all other cultures.

The children born of mixed cultures must be respected for what their mixture can offer.

If the young adults who are about to marry have a rich cultural heritage, the fullness of that heritage deserves to be preserved and upheld by both partners in the marriage, rather than being lost to the next generation.

Children of mixed marriages are often confused. Are they this or that? Which parts of each?

Young couples in love find it difficult to care about the well being of nonexistent unborn children. But once the children come, I have seen men weep, learning too late that they have lost the chance to hand down the richness of their spiritual heritage to their children.
Inanna
Knoxville
December 22, 2013
Even in an interfaith marriage, children do not have any control over this circumstance of their birth. Still, it has to be an advantage to grow up amidst a rich cultural heritage with an extended family.
Elaine Thompson
December 21, 2013
Pride and humility
Much of the Rabbi's article revolved around pride and I want to put that in perspective. The Torah says that Moses was the most humble man in the world. Shouldn't we try to emulate our patriarchs? What does it mean to be humble? H. Parker says it means giving credit to G-d and we see that in the Torah, Deut 8:18 But you must remember the Lord for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth" Moses was prevented from entering Israel because he failed to give G-d credit. Deut 32:51 You betrayed Me in the midst of the children of Israel at the waters and because you did not sanctify Me before Israel. How can we achieve humility so that our heart matches our actions? By understanding the other person, seeing yourself in the other, especially those things you don't like about the other person because that is always a good sign that same facet exists within you.That is humbling and it enables you to connect with the other person genuinely rather than only doing so because it's a mitzvah.
Marty
Denver
December 20, 2013
"Mush"
I wrote some time back and do so again: People have no control whatsoever over the circumstances of their birth.
Elaine Thompson
December 20, 2013
In a country whose people originate everywhere, people are going to marry others from other cultures
One or both of the original cultures will be lost, and the children will only have the generalized American culture and none of their own.

I know someone who says, "I'm a mutt." I.e., some American Indian ancestors, some Irish, some from various other cultures. The United States is full of such people. They lack an "old world" identity and they lack an Indian "tribal" identity, but they have the generalized "American" culture, and the mini-culture of their own families.

I recall, as a child, feeling privileged that, unlike the other kids in my elementary school, I had parents who spoke another language and we had songs other than the ones in the school song book and stories other than the ones everyone knew, and holidays of our own.

Anyone who HAS a distinct identity has a rich heritage.

Many Jews now have only a "common sense" (as they assume) which consists of Jewish values handed down w/o being known as Jewish.

Learn, see, guard Torah treasure. Know what is yours.
hymie
Nawlins
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