Election Result

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Even with the surfeit of silliness passing these days for “Torah commentary”– the manufactured “midrashim,” “original interpretations” and Biblical passages turned on their heads – I was flabbergasted to read a homily disparaging the Chafetz Chaim.

The Chafetz Chaim, of course – Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan – was renowned for his saintliness and sagacity, and for his monumental works on Jewish law, including two on the laws against slander. When the Polish sage died, in 1933, The New York Times’ obituary noted that he had shut down his store when he realized that its success born of his renown was imperiling other local storekeepers’ income.

What exercised the contemporary sermonizer, whose words appeared in an Israel-oriented magazine, was the Chafetz Chaim’s comment on an undisputed halachic ruling, that even a sinner, if Jewish, can be counted as part of a prayer-quorum. The Chafetz Chaim had elucidated the reason behind the ruling: “Even though he is a sinning Jew,” the great rabbi explained, “his holiness endures.”

The magazine-homilist, a Jewish educator, found that statement “not so enlightened,” indeed “particularly problematic in an era when racism has fallen out of favor.”

Racism? To most of us that word implies mistreating, or at least disliking, someone because of his ethnicity. There are observant Jews who are racist; observance, unfortunately, doesn’t preclude any of a number of irrationalities. But affirmation of “Jewish election” – the concept that the Jewish people was chosen by G-d to be a holy nation with a holy mission – has about the same relationship to racism as a sizzling steak has to a slab of cold tofu. (No angry e-mails, please – I like tofu!) For that matter, Jewish chosen-ness is a belief held by many non-Jews as well.

And what sort of “racism” permits its targets to switch races? While Judaism doesn’t encourage conversion, anyone not born Jewish but willing to undertake commitment to the faith’s laws and undergo the conversion process is fully welcomed into the Jewish people. Does David Duke let Pakistanis join his whites-only club? Would Louis Farrakhan let Mr. Duke become an honorary black?

The bottom line: Jewish chosen-ness, from the Jewish perspective, entails no disparagement of others. It is not a license but a responsibility, to live by the laws of the Torah and to set a holy example for others – to shine forth in belief and behavior as the prophet Isaiah’s “light unto the nations” (42:6).

But, yes, even one who has failed to shoulder that responsibility doesn’t thereby lose that responsibility, or his status as part of his people. The relative who let you down, even terribly, remains your relative.

The derivation itself of the concept of a prayer-quorum implies as much. The Talmud divines the requirement of ten men for a public declaration of G-d’s holiness (like, for example, the recitation of the Kaddish) from the use of the same Hebrew word, b’toch – “among” – in both the verse “And I will be [declared] holy among the Jewish people” and the verse “Separate yourselves from among the congregation,” the latter concerning the followers of Korach, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron. Since the word “congregation” – “edah” – in that latter verse is in turn used in yet a third one, “How much longer, this evil congregation?” (referring to the ten Jewish men who scouted the Holy Land and delivered a misleadingly discouraging report), the Talmud concludes that a “holiness” prayer-quorum requires ten Jewish men (Berachot, 21b).

And so the very source of the quorum is rooted in references to sinners. That speaks loudly about the Jewish faith’s demarcation of Jews as special, sinners and all.

Maybe the contemporary educator is not aware that the concept of Jewish election itself dates somewhat farther back than the Chafetz Chaim, to the Torah itself. Or maybe he is, but rejects the idea nonetheless, choosing to see it as “racism.”

I suspect he doesn’t really deny what is, in the end, a basic Jewish conviction; he’s just uncomfortable in our universalist times with the notion that the Jewish faith sets Jews apart (the essential meaning of the Hebrew word for holy, “kadosh”) . But I think that he knows it does and, deep down, accepts the fact. That alone could explain why, as the biographical note at the end of his essay states, come fall the writer will be joining the faculty at a Jewish day school in California.

Not a Catholic, Muslim or Hindu school. A Jewish one.

© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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6 Responses

  1. Menachem Lipkin says:

    I find it journalisticly troubling that Rabbi Shafran has not sourced the article and author he’s criticizing so vociferously. From a mere handful of out of context quoted words we are forced to accept Rabbi Shafran’s interpretation of the intent of this author.

    What I will say, given the little information we do have, is that maybe this author is troubled by, what appears to be, the level of actual (not semantic) racism that does exist in the frum community. (Rabbi Adlerstein wrote on this topic back in November.) I’m sure Rabbi Shafran would agree that the Chofetz Chaim would be greatly distressed by the level of elitism the concept of “Jewish Election” has engendered in the Torah community.

    [Editor’s Note: Perhaps not so troubling. I suspect that R Shafran found mentioning their names a gratuitous blow at the individual behind the offensive remarks. Halacha might very well allow it, but it’s hard to be meikal in issues of lashon hora while you are writing about the Chofetz Chaim. It happens to be that the source is NOT available to non-subscribers, so there was nothing to be gained by mentioning it]

  2. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The current fashions and political correctness will fade and the Jews will still be around, just as for the last 4000 years. We don’t have to get worked up about it. The fashions of heterodox Judaism of yesteryear as well as the bygone empires are just footnotes of history. People use buzz-words without even bothering to think about what they mean. Racism means something bad and you pile it onto your opponents. Once people could yell Commie, but that is out now. Fascist is still a bad word. So it goes. Our evil inclination works full time to keep us from learning Torah, so we read that stuff which is not. Thanks for not providing the reference.

  3. Raymond says:

    To me, the issue begins and ends with the very idea that anybody would make a disparaging remark against such a saintly figure as the Chovetz Chaim. All the Chovetz Chaim was doing was stating, in a somewhat different way than is described at least four times in the Torah, the idea of the Jews being G-d’s Chosen People.

    If Chovetz Chaim is a racist, then G-d apparently is as well. The blatant absurdity of such a notion, is exactly why that man who insulted the Chovetz Chaim, does not deserve our respect or even our extended comments.

  4. Charlie Hall says:

    from Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik’s *Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind* (p. 61):

    “From the standpoint of the Torah, there can be no distinction between one human being and another on the basis of race or color. Any discrimination shown to a human being on account of the color of his or her skin constitutes loathsome barbarity. It must be conceded that the Torah recognizes a distinction between a Jew and a non-Jew. This distinction, however, is not based upon race, origin, or color, but rather upon k’dushah, the holiness endowed by having been given and having accepted the Torah. Furthermore, the distinction between Jew and non-Jew does not involve any concept of inferiority but is based primarily upon the unique and special burdens that are incumbent upon the Jews.”

  5. Nathan says:

    Many Arabs and Muslims are very racist, yet they are rarely criticized for it.

    It seems that people prefer to focus on criticizing Jews.

  6. The Contarian says:

    Rabbi Shafran states

    There are observant Jews who are racist; observance, unfortunately, doesn’t preclude any of a number of irrationalities.

    That can be interpreted in two ways. The first lees likely and the second more likely.

    1,Rabbi Shafran equates racism with irrationality.

    2. An observant Jew who is a racist is irrational but nothing worse.
    he is comaorable to an Observant Jews who thinks the world is flat or that if he takes an umbrella it will not rain and vice vers.

    I must heartily disagree. Racism is a cancer. It denies the Tselem Elokim of a whole group of people. It leads to prejudgements that are dehumaizing both to the recist and the people he is racist towards.
    Those pre-judgements make the racist stupid and cloud his decision making abilities.