Are We Jewish Rednecks?

By Rabbi Reuven Tradburks

[R. Tradburks is the rav of Kehillat Shaarei Torah in Toronto, the President of the Toronto Vaad Harabonim and former Director of its Beis Din, and a former Board member of AJOP]

Gary Rosenblatt addressed an issue in his column in the Jewish Week, which we don’t like to admit. In both the lead up to the election and the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama, orthodox Jews expressed opposition to Obama that had little to do with his policies or his political ability. He is a muslim, he will be terrible for Israel, he doesn’t like Jews, I am suspicious, who knows what he will do.

There is a tendency, I believe, in our world to paint the world in the paradigms of Yaakov and Esav – good versus evil. But we often paint the wrong people with the Esav label.

There are Esavs in the world. There are people who display principles and attitudes that are dark and evil. Arafat, Hamas, Hizbulla, Aryan Nation, Ahmenidijad.

But Obama is not one of them. He is an intelligent, liberal thinking man of integrity and great rhetorical ability. You may not like his attitudes or his platform. But that is a discussion in the realm of ideas not in the realm of good and evil. He is a good man, a man who wants good. The pursuit of universal health care, of helping the working poor, of raising the image of democracy and America in the world arena are all good ideas. Whether they will cost too much or whether his policies are the best way to help people receive health care, to increase their economic well being and whether his view of America in the world is the best way to bring freedoms to the world can be debated. But the pursuits are all good – and they are things that we, as Jews, believe in.

“I am concerned about a leader with insufficient experience”. That is a fair statement. “He will be terrible for Israel” is totally speculative and unjustified.

There is a simplicity of thinking that we should not fall prey to. And I think the paradigms of Yaakov and Esav may be the root cause – not the paradigms but how they are applied.

The Torah and Medrash paint pictures. Esav looks lovey dovey – but he is trying to bite Yaakov’s neck. Ephron looks magnanimous in offering Avraham Maarat Hamachpela to bury Sarah – but Avraham knows the truth – Ephron wants his money and he wants a lot of it. Don’t be fooled by what meets the eye – there is much more than meets the eye.

This is a great lesson. And dangerous. Sure, there are duplicitous people in the world. Tricksters. But the entire world is not populated by tricksters.

We have all heard kids come home from yeshivas talking of shvartses and of goyim and seeing the world as “us versus them”. There is plenty for us to avoid in our world. But the entire world is not good versus evil, is not “us versus them”. It is not us versus them within the frum and non frum and it is not us versus them in the Jewish and non Jewish world.

We live in a complex and nuanced world. There are tricksters and there are fine, principled non Jews. There are evil and there are educated, dedicated non Jews working for our good.

I often feel this picture of us versus them, of good versus evil, of Yaakovs and Esavs is the dominant picture of how to view the world. It is taught in our schools from the earliest age and is reinforced all the way through Yeshiva. But it is not tempered with nuance, with subtlety of application, with an appreciation of the complexity of life and of human beings. And part of this is the insularity of our world – we meet too few highly educated, kindhearted non-Jews who share many of our values.

But I don’t know how we can change this, how we can impact our system of education, of Jewish media, of teachers and influencers to adopt a more subtle, nuanced and accurate view of the world. And how we can become more worldly, more aware of the wonderful parts of the non-religious and non-Jewish worlds.

We should not become Jewish rednecks. It would be a great disservice to our Torah in the eyes of our fellow Jews and in the eyes of the world.

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24 comments to Are We Jewish Rednecks?

  • Bruce Epstein

    You paint Jewish opposition to Obama as having “little to do with his policies or his political ability”. You are correct that this opposition is not based on Obama’s policies, since he has never done anything. Therefore, determining his positions on Israel is speculative. However, it is far from “unjustified”. Based on his associations, his own statements, his advisors, and his supporters, it is quite justified for all those who support Israel to worry about an Obama administration and to have opposed his candidacy. I hardly think that Jewish opposition to Obama is based on a simplistic view of good vs evil or is determinative of one being a “Jewish redneck”.

  • BetChesed

    Thank you for this piece. I pray that it will help to stop much of the baseless slander of Mr. Obama that has been occurring. Realistic critiques of Obama are fine of course, but many that have been raised by the orthodox community are xenophobic. These irrational critiques have helped to make frum Jews look insane and racist in the eyes of potential baalei teshuva.

  • anonymous

    Obama stood at the platform of the potential Oregon voters and declared, ” Iran does not pose a threat to us.” ?! Is this man kidding? that’s just it- he was not. Obama has also voiced his opinion that the major checkpoints in Israel should be dismantled! His non repentent friend and speculated ghost writer for his “Dreams of my Father” book is Bill Ayers. The last time I checked Louis Farrakhan wasn’t exactly exactly happy to have us Jews around.

    Our comments-which I have never heard, yet so many people have said they have heard from frum Jews, are not great.

    You want to know how we can change this? I want to know is how we can change so much complacency on how the Jew and ISrael is viewed to point it is viewed as not needing security at it’s major checkpoints. I want to know how Obama could possibly verbally express unconditional talks with Iran’s Achmajinadad. That’s what I want to know. I have taught my children that it is a great day when a black man can be voted into the presidency of the United States, yet this particular man is the wrong choice.

    I really don’t think what may be in store for us in this upcoming year with regards to it’s potential danger should be compared with the discussion of Jews who apparently have potty mouths and lack middos. I myself woudl not speak this way, yet I can imagine their fears and having heard some of Obama’s speeches and interviews on Israel and security for both Israel and America, I don’t blame them.

  • yy

    I agree with the first commentor that it is far from unjustified to fearfully balk at O’s attitude towards the M.East politics. That this format is being used for flinging out such an unfounded accusation seems highly provacative.

    I also find it curious that the writer is constantly equating “educated” with the forces of light. This is classic liberal thinking but far from grounded in solid evidence. In fact we find some of the most educated people today are heading virulent anti-zionist campaigns! Let alone all those wonderfully educated Nazis…

    Similarly I’m taken aback at how easily you determine whose a “good” man. Personally I’m also impressed by how nicely he comes accross as being genuinely caring. Still I’ve picked up plenty of signals that he’s as politically calculating as the best of ‘em. So who knows.

    That you want to encourage us to give him a chance to prove himself – Sure. %100. That we should be particularly careful to not err on the side of superficial, skin associations – Absolutely. But all this is a far cry from guilt-tripping us into lusting after the worldliness that you find so ennobling!

  • Nachum

    Someone who lives in Canada has a lot of chutzpah to tell Americans how they should feel about their politicians.

    It’s not the first time I’ve encountered self-righteous Canadian Orthodox Jews telling us in the US that we’re a bunch of racists, but it’s still troubling.

    And I say this as someone who, while strongly opposing Obama from day one, recognizes that there’s a lot of racism out there. But there are boundaries, just because many frum Jews seem not to recognize them. I don’t tell Canadian Jews about their Muslim problem…

  • Tal Benschar

    “There is a simplicity of thinking that we should not fall prey to.”

    What I find curious is that there is no consideration of the simplicity of thinking on the pro-Obama side. I cannot remember a shallower level of campaigning than we saw in the last election.

    What did Obama stand for? “Change.” Change to what? No one knows and no one in the campaign made much effort to explain or define it. There was a distinct lack of discussion of policy positions from the Obama campaign and his supporters. Ask ten Obama supporters what “change” means and you will get ten different answers.

    Beyond that, all one was left with was the candidate’s youth, undoubted rhetorical skills, the fact that he is of the opposite party to that in power, and the novelty of a black man running for and achieving the highest office in the land. All rather thin gruel if your interest is policy.

  • The Contarian

    Nachum

    Are you sure that Rabbi Tradburks is a Canadian?

    Secondly, I was born and brought up in Canada and have lived in the US for almost 40 years.

    It is not that Canadians are Tzadikim. It is just that we did not grow up with US racism with our mother’s milk nor did we live in an enviroment of black-jewish competition. We can thereforw be more objective when it comes to the anti-back feelings held by our co-religionists.

    The Canadian divide is not race but langauge. The paranoia and anti-French sentiment exhibited by Montreal Jews when The Parti Quebecois won the provincial election in 1976 equalled if not far surpassed that of today’s Brooklyn.

    The wisest comment on that Quebec election was uttered by Rabbi Leibel Kramer of the Lubavitch Yeshiva. He could not understand what all the fuss was about. “So What”, he said, “Now we will speak Yiddish with a French accent rather than an English one”.

    That is what we Canadians are telling you. Why are the results of the US election a Jewish issue.

  • Joel Rich

    Kach mkublani mbeit avi abba:
    “Do not say things. What you are stands over you
    and thunders so I cannot hear what you say
    to the contrary.”
    –Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Only time will tell what President Elect Obama is, until now all we really have is a lot of words.
    KT
    Joel Rich

  • David N. Friedman

    Rabbi Tradburks offers his apologies for us as supposed rednecks when we are certainly not. This whole line of reasoning demonstrates the power of accusation we have allowed the left to wield against us, to define our values. In truth, this is a contrast of values and a contrast which paints a very positive picture of *us* in competition with their own. It is not “us vs. them” as a means to destroy them from our perspective–this is THEIR stand against us.

    Therefore, to highlight why we are different, why we are set apart has always been the Jewish way and this is no time to abandon that stand.

    I am not about to be shamed by ridiculous accusations that we are “rednecks” any more than my ancestors were shamed by not loving the Czar–or whatever.

  • Lawrence M. Reisman

    “Someone who lives in Canada has a lot of chutzpah to tell Americans how they should feel about their politicians”

    We Americans do it to the Israelis all the time.

  • Daniel

    This is a breath of fresh air.

    I voted for McCain. Both for McCain, and against Obama.

    Yet,
    Torah demands we see every color in the spectrum of human interaction.

    To paint over the color-spectrum of life with simplicity-masks of Black and White is to reject the elegance of Creation.

    kol hakavod.

  • Steve Brizel

    Yasher Koach on a finely nuanced article on an important issue. One should certainly be able to support or oppose any candidate’s POV with using the political equivalents of expletives deleted.OTOH, considering the questionnable nature of the sources of such comments as well as the less than stellar nature of the publication cited in the article, IMO, a few inappropriate comments have now been utilized to point fingers and allege that a problem exists when in fact, no such problem exists. WADR, I also reject the Esau analogy. Regardless of the fact that we read Parshas Zachor twice a year, I have never seen anything beyond am excessive numbers of a lchaim for no reason whatsoever at a Kiddush to even remotely suggest that it would lead to improper actions. In fact, one would have to look very hard in Jewish history of any such instances , as opposed to the progenitors of the Crusades or Jihad.

  • cvmay

    The tendency to understand world issues as either BLACK or WHITE is part and parcel of today’s education. The color ‘GREY’ takes strength of character to teach and even more so to be understood.

  • Dovid Zauderer

    As a pulpit rabbi, i think Rabbi Tradburks can appreciate the power of the position, as well as the impact a charismatic spiritual leader can have on his congregants over a long period of time. This alone is enough to cause great concern for any thinking Jew … for Barack Obama has been sitting in Pastor Wright’s congregation and listening to his vitriolic, hate-filled – and, yes, anti-semitic – “derashos” for many years. My only hope is that Mr. Obama was talking during the “davening” and speeches, and none of the Pastor’s “torah” sunk in. G-d help us.

  • David Berger

    The assertion that Obama “will be terrible for Israel” may or may not be correct. I agree with Rabbi Tradburks that it is speculative and—in its unqualified form—unjustified. Nonetheless, because there are substantial grounds for making this assertion (though there is also evidence to the contrary), it is an inappropriate example to support the thesis that many Orthodox Jews are rednecks.
    Regrettably, the phenomenon that Rabbi Tradburks laments can be supported by other evidence. He notes, to take but one example, the use of the term “shvartzer” by a significant number of English speaking Orthodox Jews. Let me add to this an account of an experience that I had at a wedding this week, which is the real stimulus for my writing this comment. A young man came to me in my capacity as a historian, and in the context of Obama’s victory, asked whether German Jews before the Nazi period were as confident of their security as American Jews are today. I told him that I would respond in the abstract, but that he needs to know that I consider the analogy completely misplaced.
    A wedding was not the appropriate setting for an expression of my full concern about this question. But I wondered to myself if people who make this analogy ask themselves whether anyone expected Hitler to appoint a Jew who belongs to an Orthodox shul as his closest aide. I did not vote for Obama, and I worry about his position on Israel. But Rabbi Tradburks has ample reason to be concerned about bigotry toward blacks in particular and non-Jews in general in too large a segment of the Orthodox community.

  • Reuven Tradburks

    The point of my article was only tangentially about Obama. It was more about the tone and texture of differences.

    Once a person is identified as not being on my team – because he is black or not frum or not jewish or is modern or is haredi – once he is not on my team, I check my civility at the door and proceed to level whatever types of criticisms i like. This is what i meant by redneck. Having lived in Alabama, there is a colloquial use of that term – people who lack subtlety, lack nuance, are heavily opinionated, and discriminate based on religion, color or “team” affiliation.

    The “team” syndrome permeates political discussion. There is plenty to criticize Obama on in his platform – or in the paucity of his platform. But the discussion should be in the realm of ideas. Not in calling him evil or categorizing him into some box or other. I was not really that interested in an American political discussion, though we have 5 American voters in my family.

    I would like to see a broadening of our ability to identify the goodness in the world that is beyond our “team”. The goodness in the haredi world, in the modern world, in the non frum Jewish world, in the non Jewish world. We must be vigilant in identifying things we disagree with, which we reject on principle. And we must be vigilant in acknowledging the goodness in the world beyond our team.

  • sima ir kodesh

    “Someone who lives in Canada has a lot of chutzpah to tell Americans how they should feel about their politicians”
    We Americans do it to the Israelis all the time, by Lawrence M. Reisman

    Since Israel is my DIVINE INHERITANCE, each and every Jew has the right and obligation to secure and oversee their inheritance, with words and actions to all involved. Canada is my neighbor and what transpairs in my neighbors house is not my business.

  • Mike S.

    It is usually very easy to distinguish between concerns about a candidate’s experience or positions, whether on Israel or any other issue, from racism and paranoia. In the first place, the former does not mention the candidate’s race or religion or supposed descent from Cham. And the former recognizes that, even if one disagrees, the candidate usually has some sensible reason for the policy one disagree’s with. And that there are constraints on what US presidents can do, and how fast and how far American policy can change. I heard plenty of both kinds of comments during the campaign. Within the Orthodox I heard many racist and paranoid statemnts about Obama. In other arenas in which I function, I heard those kinds of statements mostly about Gov. Palin and Sen. McCain, and even more so regarding President Bush.

    With regard to Israel, it is worth remembering that President Nixon, who was both an antisemite and a crook, did come to the aid of Israel during the Yom Kippur war. And that President Bush, who is widely regarded as a friend of Israel, I believe sincerely so, has pressured Israel in to concessions to move the “roadmap” and “Peace process” forward. The fact is that both the situation in the Middle East, and American politics constrain the room that any President has to maneuver in the Arab Israeli conflic. And, for that matter, israeli governments are also constrained.

  • YM

    A couple of years ago, my wife and I had the zchus to share a Shabbes meal with Reb. Ruchoma Shain. During the meal, I asked her what the German students who were studying at the Mirrer Yeshiva during her time living in Mir (1931-1938) thought of their nation’s leader (yemach shemo). She said that their response was “at least he is good for Germany”.

    At that moment, I think that I reached political maturity.

  • yy

    Re. the author’s comment, #16, let me first repeat the gist of my first note,#4:

    “That you want to encourage us to give him a chance to prove himself – Sure. %100. That we should be particularly careful to not err on the side of superficial, skin associations – Absolutely. But all this is a far cry from guilt-tripping us into lusting after the worldliness that you find so ennobling!”

    Now – I appreciate that you’ve clarified your thesis, since your post came accross much more shallow and provacative. You now say you merely want “to identify the goodness in the world that is beyond our ‘team’”. WONDERFUL. I’m also fully with you in seeking to civilize the coarse, my-team political egotism that has infiltrated too much Orthodox Jewish thinking. Yet your sizing up the problem as simply an expression of our lack of education the fine nuances of the big world is a GROSS moral leap!

    There are reasons that Jews tend to favor their “team.” Powerful, historically and theologically based reasons. I’m sure I don’t need to educate anyone on this site about them. That people go to the extreme in upholding a truth is of course a problem and for that I support your concern about a rednecking tendency. But please… don’t go to the other extreme.

    The problem’s emerging from my team-first mentality, when that team is G-d’s team, cannot be resolved by equating all teams as equal! Rather we must learn to distinguish between the “my” and G-d”.

  • Bob Miller

    The article is a fantasia of wishful thinking, and I reject its rosy rendition of Obama categorically. Too many facts are known that point in the opposite direction.

  • Gershon Seif

    Rabbi Tradburks,

    After reading the comments, including yours, it seems the intention of your article: to appreciate nuance and shades of gray, was missed by many readers. Those critical of your article who assumed it was all about the elections, proved your point. Pity. It was a refreshing piece to read. I remember you from the old days at OS as always thinking and not getting led by the crowd. Seems you’re still at it 27 years later!

  • JoeSettler

    Unfortunately, far too many people are responding to valid criticism of Obama’s statements and positions with denouncements of racism.

    And as for his positions on Israel, we’ve already had a heads up (and I don’t mean with Robert Malley).

    From his own mouth, in a detailed interview with the Jerusalem Post, Obama’s answers on various questions regarding Israel give serious cause for concern, but more importantly, the way he chose to phrase his answers leaves no doubt in my mind that Israel is going to be in for a very rough ride with him.

  • Tammy B

    I cannot believe what I am hearing from the Jewish Communities. First, I am not a Jew, but I am a Christian that loves the jewish race and every other race because we are suppose to love everyone. Second I am black and female. So I hope that you can already see the battles that I face here in America alone. (I live in the south) I do not agree with alot of Obamas’s views but pray for him because he is our president and will continue to need all the prayer that he can get and I pray that God will guide him in everything he wants to do. God still hears our prayers you know. To be racist or say racist comments just because the man is black is a problem. Hate is a sin. Praying for someone that needs it is not a bad thing. I have been to lots of churches that taught “hate others but love eachother” and I only stayed at those churches simply because “how you know that some people have been lead wrong and seek the truth.Although at the same time I know that you cannot change evryones veiws. A lot of white people that I know have said horrible things and lies about Jewish people that were untrue. I studied and learned more and more on my own despite what I’ve heard from my people and whites about God and Jews alike. Even though I am christian I serve the same God and everyone knows that if it weren’t for the Jews there would be no bible for us christians in the first place and the Lord will deal with people who hate his people. I am so sad that (some) Jewish people are even speaking racist comments in the first place. Hate the veiws not the color. I have been fighting for the right to even speak positive about Jewish people in some of the churches that I have been to and around some of my white friends who think that you guys have too much power and to much money but I will continue.I have told them that the problem is that we both christians and Jews are allowing to much of everyone elses veiws affect us more than God. If there is an atheist in my child school or a muslem or buddist I could care less because I can’t stop them for being here if they are legal. But what I don’t like and will not tolerate is when they tell me not to let my child wear a shirt with I love God on it are that he cannot pray silently to himself at recess because it is violating their constitutional rights. What about our rights to even say his name (God) without someone getting offended. Isn’t this country suppose to be based on In God we trust anyway.I have first been through a great deal of racism here in America. I have a degree in Desktop publishing and saw an help wanted sign at this printing company. So I called my friend who was in the same field that I am in with the same amount of education to see if she was interested also. So I walked in and asked to fill out an application and the first thing told to me was “oh you have to have exsperience. I said I do. Oh at least 4 years exsperience. I do. Oh well at least 11 years experience. Just when I was about to give my resume the manager walked up and said that the job had just been filled and that he’d forgotten to take the help wanted sign down. Ok, I left out and my freind had arrived and I told her what they had told me. She went in anyway saying that she would still leave her resume anyway incase that the other person don’t work out. Well to make a long story short she wasn’t in there for even 5 min. and got the job. My school instructor had warned me of such racism in my field of education but I did not believe her. My gandmother is half white and cherokee indian. So I had too learn quickly about not being given a chance because of my race. My family has had it bad on both black white and indian sides. My great grandmother was raped which is how she is half white and indian and looks more white than indian with hazel blue eyes and pale white skin. Then she married a black indian.I don’t understand why everyone hates eachother because of their race. The only thing I could think of was because of power. I pray that everyone will love eachother and not try and step on Christians and Jews beliefs because of their own. I could have hated whites for giving me a hard time in life, or I could hate blacks for disliking me because I was tall dark brown with dark reddish-brown hair and they would call me white girl because I was very thin or hate other christians because they think that I am trying to be jewish because I adore the way they try to live their lives in general. But I don’t hate any of them.I hate the sin in them not the person and I pray for them. Whether he is our president are not we do have a voice people and need to use it especially if he is fooling himself about Israel and Iraq. Godbless everyone and I hope that everyone will let their voice be heard. God will not let anything happen to his people, I strongly believe that whether or not he is being ignorant or not.