Dostoevsky used to say that Russians imbibe anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.
Despite the terrible things it portends for our brethren in the FSU, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the news that the RussiState Prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation against Kitzur Shulchan an Aruch (an abbreviated form of the Code of Jewish Law), to determine whether it was racist and anti-Russian. The move came in response to a letter from 500 Russian public figures calling for the outlawing of the Jewish religion and closing of all Jewish organizations. Nothing all that unexpected there.
The news will make many uncomfortable, though, beyond the implications for Jews in other parts of the globe. I’m not supposed to say why, but I will anyway. There are no secrets in the age of the Internet.
Everyone knows that there are indeed items here and there in various texts that we would not like to see brought to the attention of our non-Jewish neighbors on network TV. They make us nervous. How do we explain them when we are put on the spot?
I’m going to talk openly about this, because they don’t make me nervous at all.
I’m acquainted with someone who unfortunately seems to contribute to an Israeli organization intent on winning people away from religious commitment by bombarding them with literature raising intellectual issues that Israeli haredim cannot easily answer. (American haredim, used to the challenges and the approaches that have been offered to meet them, generally find the material laughable.) A few years ago, he sent me a long document that gathered all the uncomplimentary statements that Torah texts made about non-Jews. He absolutely defied me to come to grips with this horrendous violation of decency.
I yawned. Moreover, I told him that I would have no problem reading the report to a room full of non-Jews. Moreover again, I told him that I had pretty much done the same in the past, without pain or untoward embarrassment.
A note I received two days ago helped me frame this more clearly. A new Mormon Tabernacle will soon open in Newport Beach. We non-Mormons were being invited to tour the new facility, prior to its consecration. Now most of the recipients are going to be smart enough to realize that once the new church is up and running, they won’t have a prayer’s chance of entering the sanctuary. Outsiders are banned from special consecrated spaces.
Reserving special privileges for “insiders” is hardly unique to Mormons. I doubt if any of the recipients of the invitation will be offended by the implied exclusivity. To the contrary, the Mormon hierarchy that sent the invitation took a potential liability and converted it into an appreciated social gesture. In the melting-pot of America, others would understand that groups –especially members of revealed religions – can be good neighbors while still forcefully making the case for aspects of exclusivity. Most people of good will do not care if another group claims some exclusivity. Far more important is how that group actually treats those whom they exclude.
A very dear and bright Catholic friend grumbled to me recently that it was not fair that we excluded non-Jews from Torah classes in which she longed to participate. I asked her what would happen if I walked into her church on a Sunday morning, announced that I was Jewish, but was curious to have a taste of the communion wafers. She got the point.
Part of my responsibility as the Chair in Jewish Law at Loyola Law School is to run an annual multidisciplinary event for students and faculty. A few years ago, I chose the topic of how different religious law traditions deal with the outsider. The results were intriguing.
Each representative openly stated that his religion made statements about outsiders that were not very pretty. Each religion had a different way of dealing with them. The Catholic professor readily pointed to incitement to hatred and worse by the early Church Fathers. He explored the historical context in which they were made, especially the intense rivalry between Jews and early Christians. He then calmly announced that modern Catholics simply don’t believe that stuff anymore. They’ve moved well beyond it. They had no problem leaving room for evolution, progress and change.
The Jewish representative (your truly) did not have that option. We see those closer to Sinai as having greater authority, not less. We do not reject the teaching of early generations. My alternative was Halacha. Jews are primarily a legal tradition. Reasonable people – and yes, extremist firebrands – can disagree in realm of the theoretical, but norms that describe action set limits to how far we can ever go. Thus, if a Jew convinced himself that he detested every non-Jew who ever lived, he would have a hard time translating his contempt into action. Halacha would still absolutely and forcefully declare that we do not murder, steal from, or deceive any and all of those people. It would compel him to help support their poor, and to offer a cheery “Good morning!” when meeting one of them. To be sure, there are laws that show special favoritism to members of the tribe. Halacha demands, however, that (in the words of Rav Aharon Soloveitchik zt”l) we deal with all others as respected human beings, even as we deal with Jews as brothers and sisters.
The Muslim, a very decent fellow who was Americanized enough not to try to lie his way out of the dilemma, had a real problem dealing with Islam’s treatment of Christians and Jews, and an even larger one when it came to Hindus, Buddhists et al. He could do little more than shrug his shoulders, and voice his own hope that things might one day get better.
So if the Russian State Prosecutor wants to talk to me, I will tell him to get a life. Yes, Jewish law sustains differences between Jews and non-Jews. No, none of those differences are particularly noteworthy or different from what all religious traditions do. Except that we are, at worst, in better theoretical shape. (I say theoretical because I will not deny that there are Jews who overstep halachic bounds, and act not in accordance with Jewish Law.) We treat Jews better in some regards than non-Jews – all the while demanding that we treat non-Jews better than hundreds of millions of Gentiles treat each other.
However, having dismissed Kitzur Shulchan Aruch as the source of the new wave of global anti-Semitism, I have the glum task of having to report about a new form of that malady, slowly making its way across America.
Supersession is back. The belief, seemingly spurned by Protestant denominations since World War II, that G-d rejected the “old” Jews and replaced them with believing Christians, is making a comeback in mainline Protestant denominations. It spells major trouble for us. I will be writing about it in future posts, BE”H