Is Antisemitism Universal?

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Yesterday, I posted on Jewish anti-Semitism This week’s parshah happens to be an important locus to consider regarding a different question about anti-Semitism, namely, how widespread must we assume it to be? I can easily point to people who believe that it is somehow universal. They divide the non-Jewish world into two categories – those who are openly anti-Semitic, and those who don’t realize they are.

I emphatically distance myself from that view.

Those who see anti-Semitism everywhere usually point to the midrashic passage cited by Rashi (Genesis 33:4) that roughly reads: “It is a halacha and well established that Esav hates Yaakov…” Several factors point to this teaching something universal. The unusual use of the word “halachah” /law suggests an immutable part of nature. The use of the present tense – Esav hates, rather than Esav hated – implies that the Sages were talking about a phenomenon of an ungoing nature, rather than an episode in the lives of Yaakov and his brother. Most frequently, Esav is seen as morphing into Rome, then its successor in the Holy Roman Empire, and finally into Western Civilization. Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer applied it to all non-Jews (Even HaAzel, Melachim 5:1).

On the other hand, the crucial word “halacha” is questionable. There are variant texts, which use “halo” in place of “halacha hi” as in Sefer HaZikaron. A search of a current version of Bar-Ilan shows not a single citation of the passage in the enlarged sense of Esav’s successors until the late 19th century. (This does not prove anything decisively. Many ideas fail to make it to print not because they were not available, but because they were so taken for granted, that they were not discussed. Nonetheless it is interesting that the medrash may very well have meant Esav the person to many people who saw it at earlier times in history.) The Netziv, who does accept an enlarged reading, nonetheless enlarges Esav’s reaction to his brother as well. He tells us that not only was Esav moved by sincere love for his brother, but that this would also recur in history, and that when it does, we should reciprocate it.

I am not going to be foolhardy enough to “prove” which reading is correct. I’ve been telling students for decades that virtually any question worth asking has a correct two word solution: machlokes rishonim/ it is disputed by the great medieval authorities. There may (or may not) be a real dispute here. The depth of regard and love for Jews I have seen in many non-Jews is so deep and widespread, that I would have a hard time believing that even the view that expands Esav beyond the Biblical individual means all non-Jews without exception.

A different source appears in our parsha, at 26:5. In 1887, the Netziv published an entire monograph on anti-Semitism, called Sh’or Yisrael. By that time, the relatively new term was apparently well known enough to Jews that he could use the transliteration אנטיסעמיטים and expect that his audience would read “those who hate Jews.” The Netziv points to Arami oveid avi. The key is the word “oveid.” Some see oveid as always intransitive (i.e. not taking a direct object.) According to them (Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel, Rashbam, Radak, Rabbenu Bechaya), the subject must be Yaakov, and refers to his wanderings. Others, however, argue that oveid can at times be transitive (see Marahal, Gevuros Hashem chap. 54), justifying the rabbinic treatment of this verse as referring to Lavan, with oveid used in the sense of [attempting to] destroy. As we say in the Haggadah, Lavan was worse than Paroh, because the latter tried to kill only the males, while Lavan would have killed all of Yaakov’s entourage had his hand not been stayed by G-d. Some (Mechokekei Yehuda, Malbim) have it both ways, essentially agreeing with Ibn Ezra, but leaving room for the derashah (rabbinic exegesis) because otherwise the verse should have read Avi Arami oveid.

In his essay, Netziv finds the derashah of pivotal importance. Chazal mean to tell us that we can never expect to uproot anti-Semitism, especially in exile, comparable to Yaakov’s stay with Lavan et al. The word “oveid” is in the present, suggesting continuing action. Lavan will continue to try to destroy the Jews at all points in history. Antisemitism expresses itself in two ways, both articulated by Lavan and his sons. It sees any and all Jewish material success as illicit, and presumed gained only by theft from them. And it sees Jews as embracing a code of conduct and a system of values so foreign to them, that they treat Jews as an alien species. Antisemitism has a function – it reminds Jews that they need to stay separate and distinct. It is not a constant force, but is quashed at times by Hashem responding to our entreaties. This itself has a positive effect, as Jews are reminded that their ultimate ally is G-d, to Whom they must turn for any security till Moshiach arrives.

Interestingly, though, there is no claim by the Netziv that all non-Jews take part in this. There are always some who do, carrying on the work of Lavan, but he does not universalize the Lavan model.

Food for thought.

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13 Responses

  1. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “…hundreds of years of Jewish life are full of the notion that Torah scholars should weigh in on all sorts of topics in Jewish living, even when they could not back up their advice with a formal halachic argument. The concept of bowing to the Torah-generated intuition of a Torah scholar whose mind was shaped by Torah reasoning was a long-standing fixture of Jewish life”

    I agree. I think that many shomrei torah u’mitzvos, both chareide and centrist, accept the above general points. Some people may prefer not to use the term “Daas Torah”, perhaps because they feel that the term became politicized, or they fear that it implies infallibility, and absolute, monolithic authority.

    Nevertheless, I think Centrists do not necessarily draw an absolute line, and say that rabbinic authority is only limited to what is explicit in the four sections of Shulchan Aruch. They do agree to the important general aspects referred to above.

    The concept of being subservient to anyone, whether to Hashem or certainly to mortal Talmedie Chachamim(Rabbi Akiva equates the two partially), is at loggerheads with the modern concept of personal autonomy. However, even after accepting Divine and human authority, there still is room for originality, individuality, and decision-making in Avodas Hashrem, as stressed by the Gra in his commentary on Mishlie.

    One might argue as well, that Daas Torah is sometimes taken too far by some among the Right, and that perhaps individuals should sometimes be making decisions on their own, instead of deferring to others. Nevertheless, one’s inclination certainly leans towards autonomy, so anyone making the argument for the need for more autonomy in the communal and personal decision- making process probably should keep their own biases in mind.

  2. ja says:

    “I don’t know what you mean with your statement “As a grammatical phrase…” The Netziv apparently was able to deal with it.”

    In haamek davar the netziv doesn’t deal with the girsa of halacha hi at all. He does deal with an enlarged understanding of esav, but that’s not being disputed.
    (Maybe he says this in Shor Yisrael, but I didn’t gather that from R Adlerstein’s presentation.)

    I don’t have Even HaAzel available to check, but RIZM may just have used the expression conceptually. Colloquially, “esav soney l’yaakov” has become an expression which can have independent truth, and there are other mekoros in chazal for such a concept (E.g. loma nikra shema sinai, mishum yarda sinah la’olam). As long as he agreed to the truth of the statement, it wouldnt imply that he thought the correct reading is halacha hi. Maybe R Adlerstein can clarify.

  3. ja says:

    “actually, it could well be that all the other halo hi beyaduah statements creates the context by which other girsaos were read into the mesorah and that halacha hi is the original and correct girsa.”

    No, what I was saying is that you don’t really even need the alternate girsa to conclude it’s an erroneous reading, because the other statements of this nature are all halo hi beyadua, and halacha hi is not correct in context.

    “I don’t know what you mean with your statement “As a grammatical phrase…” The Netziv apparently was able to deal with it.”

    All I can tell you is that I know a few t”c and roshei yeshiva who’ve agreed, when this was pointed out, that halo hi is correct – but on this blog this is the second time that someone’s objected to the correction (last time was in a different thread). Anyone who learns midrash regularly knows that such mistakes in the text are common and corrections need to be made on the basis of probability and contextual sense. This is quite clear-cut as such correction of girsaos goes. It’s very rare to get 100% proof.

    “Being m’shanah a halacha is yehareg v’al yaavor according to a Rav Elchonon in Sanhedrin (I can get the exact makor if someone needs it).”

    Halacha hi would be an expression, not a halacha to follow. Yam shel shlomo is talking about halacha that one follows, as in SA. (One should not distort torah in any case).

  4. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Maybe this quandry is enough reason to do away with Torah blogs altogether”

    I was not referring to this type of blog in my comments. I meant A) on different on-line forums, I believe more sensitivity should be used if discussing this topic, and B) some people on other blogs have a complaint about an attitude expressed by some people in real life.

    I agree with you that we can not distort Torah. Hashem is a Rachaman(All-Merciful), and authentic Torah hashkafa can not be considered racist, G-d forbid. Beyond the topic of the post, if something appears not in sync with twenty first-century egalitarianism(eg, avodim k’naanim), one answer could be that we do not comprehend the ways of a Merciful Creator.

    But getting back to this topic, I think the problems are not in sources themselves, but rather the spin that someone puts on them. I am sure that any other religion, l’havdil, also has “negative” sources. From an historical point of view, Judaism has nothing to be ashamed of in the way it relates to outsiders, over history.

    Also, theoretically, I see nothing wrong in not explaining every source publicly; I don’t think that this would be a violation of distorting Torah(I have seen a similar quote to yours from R. Elchanon, in the name of Yom Shel Shlomo in Bava Kama 4:9 ).

    In any event, there are plenty of nuanced sources, if one is open to them. I recently saw, for example, a letter from Rav Simcha Wasserman Zt’l in second volume of Kovetz Maamorim in which he emphasized the Mishna in Avos of “Beloved is person who was created in Image of G-d”, and had a nuanced view in general.

    I think that because of the unfortunate publicity in the various secular media given to this topic, more people will indeed take to heart the advice of Chazal to be careful and sensitive when expounding Torah hashkafa.

  5. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    S. (#4) wrote:

    Many ideas fail to make it to print not because they were not available, but because they were so taken for granted, that they were not discussed.
    I’m curious about this. Can you give an example of an old idea which failed to be written for this reason?

    A few come to mind. In academic circles, it is frequently charged that our idea of Hashem’s Oneness is a product of the Gaonic and medieval times, af”l. People like the Rambam “invented” the notion of a unique, monolithic One. There is no mention of this in earlier sources, which obviously (to them) took the notion of Hashem Echad to mean that of all the gods available, Jews opted to sign a loyalty pact with only one of them. (For those who even care to deal with such charges, I think the gemara at the end of the third perek of Pesachim may be refutation enough. The gemara says that the fulfillment of the promise ביום ההוא יהיה ה’ אחד ושמו אחד (On that day Hashem will be One and His name One) will take place when we no longer require two different blessings for good and bad tidings. In other words, the Oneness of G-d requires us to fully understand His all-encompassing nature, that all phenomena without exception – even the ones we, in our limited comprehension, see as antagonistic to each other or to the nature of G-d as we understand Him – indeed flow from him. A very Maimonidean formulation, right smack in the ancient Talmud!)

    Another example is the idea of ikarim, of principles of faith. Some academic scholars insist that there were no such things in days of old, that Judaism was a religion of activity, but not of faith and/or dogma. The fact that principles became a concern only when Jews had to justify their beliefs relative to competing faiths is evidence to them that such principles did not exist earlier. The alternative explanation (the one I believe is true) is that widely held beliefs did not need to be spoken about in earlier generations.

    Still another example is the much maligned concept of daas Torah. In some circles it is a rite of entry to renounce all belief in it, and see it as an idea floated by rabbis in the late nineteenth century to shore up waning authority. After all, the phrase (in the context that it is used today) did not appear at all until then. In fact, as many have demonstrated (most recently in that wonderful defense of haredim in Azure http://www.azure.org.il/ [free registration required]) hundreds of years of Jewish life are full of the notion that Torah scholars should weigh in on all sorts of topics in Jewish living, even when they could not back up their advice with a formal halachic argument. The concept of bowing to the Torah-generated intuition of a Torah scholar whose mind was shaped by Torah reasoning was a long-standing fixture of Jewish life. Because no vocabulary was even necessary to talk about what people took for granted, some in later times would assume that the concept had never been there.

    Michoel (#3) –

    Of course it is the latter! I would never use language like that about someone half as great as Rav Isser Zalman.

    Your two options are indeed quite different. Although R’ Isser Zalman seems to expand Esav even beyond where others do, in the context of what he is saying – defining a war as an obligatory one – all he needs to do is assume the presence of antisemites around the globe. He does not need to assume that all individuals harbor this feeling.

  6. Shira Schmidt says:

    There is an interesting treatment of the controversy over the sincerity of Esau when he “kissed” Jacob in Parashat Vayishlah. This symbolizes the controversy today whether or not a true modus vivendi is possible between Jew and non-Jew/Esau/Edom/Rome/Christianity. Nehama Leibowitz a”h, aunt of my late husband, brings some of the sources in her gilyonot, and also in her Studies on the Sidra. This particular chapter is available on the internet as well.
    http://www.jafi.org.il/education/torani/nehama/vayishl.html
    Nehama, a”h, gave this shiur on the radio in the early days of the State, in the heyday of Brit Shalom (Buber, Bergman, etc.) and Prof. Hugo Bergman strenuously objected to Nehama closing the shiur with a commentary supporting the pessimistic side. He fired off a sharply worded letter to Nehama, and she answered him even more sharply. The tete-a-tete ends with Bergman’s rejoinder. You can read the original set of letters in Hebrew in Pirkey Nehama (ed. Gavriel Cohen) and the English translation in. Leah Abramowitz’s “Tales of Nehama: A Journey into the Life and Teachings of Nehama Leibowitz.”
    http://www.israelbooks.com/bookDetails.asp?book=42

  7. Michoel says:

    ja,
    Actually, it could well be that all the other halo hi beyaduah statements creates the context by which other girsaos were read into the mesorah and that halacha hi is the original and correct girsa. I don’t know what you mean with your statement “As a grammatical phrase…” The Netziv apparently was able to deal with it.

    Baruch,
    In your 3rd comment I agree you are making a good point. At the same time, if blogs can only (comfortably) present certain sources or ceratin understanding of sources, there is very big problem. Being m’shanah a halacha is yehareg v’al yaavor according to a Rav Elchonon in Sanhedrin (I can get the exact makor if someone needs it). Self-censorship to put forward a particular view of what the Torah says is very presumptuous, is it not? If Hashem said it, who are we to eidt it? And presenting a limited view with “offensive” passages left out is a form of censorship. I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe this quandry is enough reason to do away with Torah blogs altogether.

  8. ja says:

    There are a series of statements omar r yochanan omar r shimon bar yochai halo hi beyadua (etc). This is the only one that reads halacha hi beyadua and is almost certainly an erroneous reading, even without the existance of alternate girsaos, and those who quote halacha hi byadua notwithstanding. As a grammatical phrase, halacha b’yadua makes no sense in context.

    As the previous commenter noted, this maamar in context is speaking only about esav and yaakov as individuals. We already know that esav hates yaakov, “Vayisnaeyhu.” This is how Chazal derive (halo hi beyadua) that esav hates yaakov. The only “news” in this maamar chazal is that despite this, nichmeru rachamov.

  9. Baruch Horowitz says:

    I think that there is great value in presenting the “universalistic” side of the way chazal saw the nations of the world. Nevertheless, as Rabbi Adlerstein implies in the first paragraph, there will be those who will insist on the “particularistic” means of interpreting this particular chazal. A few general comments:

    1) I believe that everyone– no matter what their ideology is– in order to maintain bechirah chofshis(free will), must assume that if a particular individual has an overwhelming urge to hate a Jew, then he or she must have a corresponding ability to overcome, or even sublimate it. No matter what source one brings, I believe that this is correct.

    2) Much has to do with how one presents, and gives weight to sources. One can put a spin on anything in Chazal, Rishonim and Achronim, and for example, present and promote a “Save the Whales” ideology based on Chazal. If one is presenting a particularistic point of view in writing or in speech, one must do so with sensitivity, and present all sources, particularly those that highlight Tzelem Elokim, Divine Image of all mankind. Chachamim hezaharu b’divreichem!

    3) We should realize that there are hate-sites that distort what the Talmud says, and we should not help them further by what we say and write, as they monitor this as well. Also, sincere Jews–observant and non-observant are turned off by what is perceived as an incorrect attitude on the part of some. I see these comments too often on the Frum Jblogs, and I have a list of some which I responded to. I will be happy(or unhappy) to e-mail an example to anyone.

    We must emphasize “s’hyhei sheim shomayim misahev al yadcha”–that people should want to admire Hashem and His People. So there is indeed benefit in trying to present a nuanced view on the particular divrei chazal that is the subject of this post.

  10. S. says:

    Its hard to believe the constant uncritical repetition of the supposed halakhah without regard for its context (in general, not here).

    After all the source does not say, “הלכה בידוע שעשיו שונא ליעקב,” but it says, ר’ שמעון בן יוחאי אומר: הלכה בידוע שעשיו שונא ליעקב,
    אלא נהפכו רחמיו באותה שעה ונשקו בכל לבו,” while considering the question of whether Esav was sincere when he met Yaakov, and concludes that he was!

    In other words, the very source of the phrase comes from the specific consideration of the historical persons of Esav and Yaakov, rather than them as archetypes (even though this maamar was later taken to refer to archetypes) and this very source gives an exception to the rule, which at the very least proves the existence of exceptions.

    Finally, certainly in the United States, our own experience shows that as an immutable הלכה this is not true. Thus, if we take this out-of-context line as the literal meaning of a maamar Chazal then the result could well be a diminished respect for Chazal, for we see that as an immutable law it is not true.

    Many ideas fail to make it to print not because they were not available, but because they were so taken for granted, that they were not discussed.

    I’m curious about this. Can you give an example of an old idea which failed to be written for this reason?

  11. Michoel says:

    “I emphatically distance myself from that view.”
    After reading through this article, it is unclear to me if Rabbi Adlerstein is distancing himself from what he believes is the shita of Rav Isser Zalman or if he is distancing himself from an some individual’s expansion of that shita. If the first is true, it would be much more fitting to say that “I understand the shita of those that disagree Rav Isser Zalman much better.” In any case, I’d appreciate it if Rabbi Adlerstein could clarify.

  12. Norm says:

    See Pachad Yitzchak (Chanuka 15:3) that explains why “Halacah Esav soneh Yaakov” does not apply to Yismael.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    Is the USA considered to be an offshoot of Esav or something else?