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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. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Discussion (364)
June 18, 2016
To Cheryl
What is "Excellent"?

The rabbi's explnation? Or one of the comments?

Thank you for any response.
Daniel
Buffalo
June 3, 2016
Excellent!
Cheryl
Texas
June 2, 2016
Read Exodus chapter 19.
Gd says that the Children of Israel are a "peculiar treasure" to Him. Gd says the Children of Israel are "a kingdom of priests and a sacred nation".
Deuteronomy 7:6
"For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth."
Deuteronomy 14:2
"For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth."
This is a heavy responsibility. A burden.
Many Jews try to escape this burden.
It is hard enough to obey 613 commandments.
It is even harder to endure the resentment of people who think we WANT to be special. They call us racists.
Most Jews would rather not be special.
But Gd requires it. We're stuck with it.
Some of us (a minority) try to keep the biblical commandments & to accept our duty.
The rest do not keep the commandments & deny being chosen.
Barbara
Seattle
June 2, 2016
the hear and now
I see a massive opening of consciousness taking place which will usher in a new era of examining memoir, books, history and ourselves shedding new light on what we have been taught, words of tge sages throughout history. Language, words, contain clues that have been 'deliberately' overlooked as this symphony has both direction being about time and is conducted as in direction. There is another way to view choice and chosen which does augment and enlarge this framework. in truth/ruth
ruth housman
marshfield hills, MA
June 1, 2016
Article on Chosenness ("Isn't it Racist...?)
Thank you, Rabbi Friedman, for this most eloquent defense of particularism! I came to Chabad from Reform, where the notion of chosenness makes many Jews in their ignorance squirm. And given the appalling rise in both Jewish secularism and anti-Semitism worldwide, the article is even more timely and absolutely invaluable.

Another note: Your article includes an exposition where you trace major reasons why Nazism reared its ugly head following World War I. As a former German scholar I would just like to add that the Dolchstoss (Stab in the Back) is often also cited. This was a source of resentment among Germans who felt they were being subjected to especially harsh peace terms under the Treaty of Versailles. The key to understanding the rise in Nazi ideology is the same as that for grasping what drives Islamic radicalism today: the perception that one is being humiliated. And we Chabadniks know what the Alter Rebbe had to say about aggrieved egos!

Thanks again! .
Anonymous
TX
arjewishcenter.com
March 2, 2016
Christian pride?
It is the Christians, rather than the Jews, whose scriptures claim that everyone in other groups must spend eternity being tormented in hell--even kindly decent reverent people.

The Jewish post-biblical scripture says, "The righteous of all nations have a portion of Olam HaBa (literally "the world to come," meaning eternal bliss after resurrection). All are rewarded. "The righteous" includes the merely decent--specifically, the ones who manage to avoid murder, robbery, adultery, cruelty to animals, idolatry, and eating blood. All of these can be repented, making the soul new and clean again. So, basically everyone gets into eternal bliss, regardless of their religions, as long as they are sorry for their errors and try not to do it again.

Given the contrast between these two beliefs, compassion demands that I abstain from joining a group which claims that a majority of all the people who ever lived should be condemned to eternal torment despite being decent.
Charles
Indianapolis
March 1, 2016
I might add that at least one part of the Jewish community is quite into rank individualism in "spiritual" beliefs--as evidenced, I think, by the posts at this very conservative site. I know the joke about two Jews and three opinions, but still there is a cultural structure they respect in the background. In the rank individualism popular today, respect for the structure has disappeared. (Not to be dismissive of my comments necessarily, but I may be all wet on the subject and would be wise to not make any comments at this site.)
Elaine Thompson
Alpena
February 29, 2016
The Protestant Reformation is alive and well! It is clear that nowadays it is every man for himself (or herself)-- that it is a time of personal "revelation" as opposed to respect for tradition and consensus. The individual knows just how it is supposed to be and has the last word on the subject.
Elaine Thompson
Alpena
February 29, 2016
Everyone has a mission and everyone is special
Christianity introduced universality--everyone must become Christian or suffer eternal torment.
The Torah way of life is about much more than theology or philosophy or thought. It is about being faithful to the ONE Who brought us out of Egypt and about loving our neighbor. Jews share the redemption from Egypt & are grateful. Anyone who hungers to join us in this experience and in this loyalty can become a Jew, based on his/her willingness to suffer possible hostility from his former friends and even from his family. It is to test this willingness that such "conversion" is made difficult, but, once accomplished, the person is considered to have shared this same redemption from Egypt and at Sinai and to be covenanted in the same way as the rest of us. Meanwhile all the other groups in the world worship as they see fit, which is fine. The Christian need to annihilate difference is an error. Gd loves variety.
Gabriel
St. Louis
February 23, 2016
Jewish pride?
I am still confused why " Judaism" has kept itself so isolated from others! As a Theology, It is no different than any other! As a philosophy of tolerance, its greater than 5,000 years of existence, as a referenced religion , East and West, the world's culture has recognize Its importance ! I am neither educated enough, nor insightful enought to comprehend the irrational response the world has demonstrated against it! Judaism consolidated prior cultures beliefs and values, and was able to project them over time and space to the rest of the world. Freud may be better able explain the historic antagonism ! I know in public education the rational studious learner, is despised by the not so much dedicated learners. Placed among similar minded , both thrive. Forced together causes conflict, mostly imposed on the rational ! As humans, we are naturally hedonistic! Philosophic, or religious guides can modify that animal nature! Jews ,religious and secular, feel pride in that identity!
Howard
Ma