A Worthy Thought

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Two South Carolina Republican Party chairmen were roundly denounced recently for invoking “stereotypes about Jews,” as the Anti-Defamation League declared, that will “reinforce anti-Semitism.”

What Edwin Merwin and James Ulmer did was write an opinion piece in an Orangeburg newspaper, defending a senator under fire for shunning congressional earmarks. Unfortunately for them, they chose to make their case for fiscal responsibility in part by noting that financially successful Jews “got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves.”

The GOP chairmen could certainly have made their point without mentioning wealthy Jews; any number of pennies-to-riches examples, without reference to ethnicity or religion, would have sufficed. And so, apprised of the insult taken by some, they promptly and “deeply” apologized to “any and all who were offended.”

One of the contrite commentators explained that he had been quoting “a statement which I had heard many times in my life, truly in admiration for a method of bettering one’s lot in life.” And he insisted that, however ill chosen his example, he had “meant nothing derogatory by the reference to a great and honorable people,” categorically rejected anti-Semitism and begged “[those offended to] accept my deep felt apology.” Good enough for me.

Not, though, for the ADL’s Southeast Regional Director, who called the apology a mere “first step” that “doesn’t go far enough” – provoking the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto to suggest that “the ADL is doing its part to combat one stereotype: that Jews have a sense of humor.” Harping on a hapless comment after a clear apology does seem somewhat puzzling.

More puzzling, however – at least to me – was the umbrage-taking in the first place. Why is imputing fiscal responsibility to successful Jews offensive? It isn’t as if the South Carolinians insinuated that such Jews are dishonest or even miserly. They simply attributed to us Hebrews – at least the materially successful among us – a keen awareness of the fact that even a small thing has value. When exactly did frugality became bad?

My guess is that it was around the time the wildly wasteful consumer culture all around us took hold, when people began to make “living in the moment” (or, less charitably put, “ignoring the future”) a high ideal. But whatever the origin of its abandonment, the idea that everything has worth is not shameful. In fact, it’s thoroughly Jewish. As the Talmud puts it, “Each and every penny contributes to a large sum” (Bava Batra, 9b).

As it happens, the Jewish ideal of valuing even the smallest thing goes beyond the realization that things add up. It is a recognition of the inherent value of every thing.

In mere weeks, Jews in synagogues the world over will read the Torah portion in which our forefather Jacob, after transporting his family and possessions across a river, took pains to cross back over again, endangering himself. The Talmud conveys a tradition that the reason Jacob returned was to retrieve some “small jars.”

“From here we see,” the Rabbis went on to explain, “that the possessions of the righteous are as dear to them as their bodies.”

That comment is not counseling miserliness; Jacob is the forefather emblematic of the ideal of “truth” or honesty. What the Talmud is conveying, rather, is a quintessentially Jewish truth: Material things, no matter how seemingly “worthless,” have worth.

So does money. A dollar can buy a drink or almost half a New York subway fare. But it can also buy a thirsty friend a drink, or a get-well card for someone ailing, or almost half the fare for the ride to the hospital to deliver it in person. It can, moreover, be put into the pushkeh – the charity box found in many Jewish homes and every synagogue – or given as a reward to a child who has performed a good deed.

Possessions are tools, in their essence morally neutral; put to a holy purpose, they are sublime. And so, Judaism teaches, valuing a simple, small coin can be a sign not of avarice but of wisdom. And what is more – and even more important – just as small amounts of money can in fact be worth much, so can small acts of goodness.

No simple kindness, no word of encouragement or comfort, no few seconds of patience, is without worth. All, in fact, can be diamonds.

The “taking care of the pennies” contretemps might seem a minor matter. But if it gets people thinking about the significance of small things – be they money or actions – well, it might just turn out to have been something rather worthy itself.

© 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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21 Responses

  1. Gad Frenkel says:

    ” but the image of the South was that it was dangerous to be a Jew. I never felt it.” Comment by L. Oberstein

    I don’t know what Disneyland my esteemed Lantsman L. Oberstein grew up in, but he surely must remember the Shul in Montgomery that was bombed. I know that I remember, as a 5-year old, my older brother coming home early from Hebrew School one afternoon because of the bomb found outside of our Shul. Not to mention the ever presnt Ku Klux Klan who hated Jews almost as much as they hated Blacks. But perhaps I only noticed these things because of the “pathology” of my “trauma as (a) second generation survivor”.

    Gad Frenkel

  2. L. Oberstein says:

    #16 invokes Auschwitz.Does he imply that all goyim are Nazis, that any remark , insensitive or even prejudicial is just a stop away from genocide. Perhaps, the opposite is true.see # 17 which is insightful.”Those who are hurt in a particular way are vulnerable “. The generation of Holocaust survivers is getting older and passing away, but maybe their children have been wounded by growing up with that trauma as second generation survivors. Perhaps the solution is therapy , not lashing out at others who don’t share this pathology.

  3. One Christian's perspective says:

    The Passover Seder is a beautiful experience of God grace toward His people enslaved in Egypt and the fulfillment of a promise He gave to Abraham. I hope I have not offended anyone by sharing my experience. I realize my experience was a bit different that one shared by so many kinsmen of those ancient Hebrews and even modern ones today. I couldn’t share the Seder as you would…but….I could relate to the pain, suffering and deliverance. It was a priviledge and honor to be part of this sacred feast.

  4. AmusedMemphian says:

    Gil – you only moved to Memphis recently, how would you know what Memphis was like 40 years ago?

  5. One Christian's perspective says:

    “I find that many people are thin skinned and see anti-semitism, racism, etc. when it is not intended. The answer to that is that ,you may not realize you are a racist,but deep down , you are and this shows it. That is the way the victim looks at it. It comes from their own insecurity or lack of self esteem.” – Comment by L. Oberstein

    From my own experience, I believe it also comes from the pain of deep wounds and hurts that have not yet healed and continue to throb and distort our perceptions ….. until God changes it. For me, forgiveness was the beginning of sanity and through that long and painful process, I realized broken people – those who carry their own unconfessed sin and the sin of others upon them – hurt other people. Those who are hurt in a particular way are vulnerable and more sensitive to a repeat performance. Triggers remind us of that hurt just as if it just happened. Those who hurt are those who have been hurt – a perverse way of creating other images of their pain. The story of Joseph was for me a beautiful picture of my journey from betrayal to wholeness. Years later, a Passover seder revealed to me in a night of revelation and awe that a victim only comes out of their suffering when God comes down, becomes an active player and redeems and delivers them according to his plan. God’s healing brings us back to being human created in His image with His ability to forgive and love those who hurt us. Forgiveness removes the pain and the stain/picture loses its power to hurt. Hurt people are not far from God’s mercy and grace and His willingness to heal them…..if and when we are willing.

  6. Jewish Observer says:

    “I find that many people are thin skinned and see anti-semitism, racism, etc. when it is not intended”

    – I am amazed that we can make this sort of statement so soon after Auschwitz. I can;t imagine a children of survivors or gradchildren of non-survivors could ever say this

  7. Pinchas Giller says:

    As a southern Jew, I must agree with Gil and admonish Rabbi Shafran for some short-sightedness. The remark by the chairmen was the tip of an iceberg of animosity and anti-semitism. I knew it in my childhood and was shocked to see it recur, so mindlessly, in this context. The ADL was correct to be as vigilant as it was. They look out for the interests of all Jews, not merely those cocooned in safe urban cloisters.

  8. Gil says:

    Don’t get me wrong; I believe that after the apology, it is important to let the matter drop. That doesn’t mean that the ADL should not have initially responded strongly.

    Montgomery has a lovely Jewish community. There is a great difference between very small towns in the South (and I think elsewhere) and larger cities. I have had the curse, and blessing, of experiencing both.

    Clarksdale, MS, in the 60’s and 70’s, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, which had heavy Jewish involvement, was hell on earth; that is, unless you were like most of the Jews who saw nothing wrong with belonging to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and tried to assimilate as much as possible. The local reform Rabbi was even involved with the John Birch Society, which always associated Jews with various communist conspiracy theories.

    Memphis, TN, 76 miles north,was the exact opposite. There was, and is, a strong Jewish community. We had the largest Orthodox synagogue in the US. All types of Jews would attend the 3, later 2, synagogues. Some were completely frum; some were no different than reform in observance. Everybody got along.

    The 10,000 Jews were so tight, and there was such a sense of community, that Jews really didn’t socialize with non-Jews that much.

    I would strongly suspect that the 2 politicians that misspoke came from the 1st type of community.

    It’s not always possible, for a variety of reasons, for people to pick up and move to a larger community. And, I can assure you, bad words can lead to even worse physical abuse.

    Sometimes Jews, like Rabbi Shafran and my neighbors in NY and NJ, need to understand that there are still Jews who do not live in large population centers. A little rachmanut, and some understanding, might provide more encouragement for these people to stay Jewish, rather than to run away to avoid the scorn of the majority.

  9. One Christian's perspective says:

    “No simple kindness, no word of encouragement or comfort, no few seconds of patience, is without worth. All, in fact, can be diamonds.”
    – Avi Shafran

    Rabbi Shafran, there is such wisdom in your choice of words. How we react to harsh words and deeds can make a situation better or worse but your words: kindness, encouragement, comfort, patience speaks of love not revenge. In studying Genesis this year, my Bible Study group just this week read of Abram rescuing Lot. I saw that Abram was a righteous man and a wealthy man – attributed to God’s blessing. When I read that his neighbors, the Amorites, were allied with him , I pondered what did Abram say and do to them that would promote such loyalty.

    I believe you answered my question. Abram had to have been a blessing to them. He gave out of his heart, “diamonds” to his neighbors …… over and over and over again.

    Initially, on first reading your article, I thought you were being far too kind. Yet, when I got to the end of the article and read your next to last lines, I remembered Abram. On reflection about my initial thoughts, I realized that I thought as I did because too often , my choice of response to hurtful things is to offer shards of glass when I could have offered showers of diamonds.

    Thank you for being Abram to me.

  10. Phil says:

    A clerk at an auto parts store used the expression “Jew ’em down” in front of me. I told him that I was Jewish, and started to walk out. He apologized profusely, explaining that it was just an expression he heard growing up, and he really meant nothing by it. It went on and on, and I could tell he was truly remorseful. I said to him, “Listen, I’ll give you ten dollars to forget the whole thing. No, make that nine. No, eight.”

  11. Miriam says:

    Gil: Maybe if you had grown up in a small town in the South having pennies thrown near you with people making remarks about cheap Jews…

    Chicago: To contemplate that the politicians who made the comment were being complementary is a display of naivette.

    I think you’re both onto something.

    But after the public apology, I think it’s time to accept.

    I once heard that’s the meaning in “gam Charvona zachur latov” (Charvona should be remembered for good, the last line in a prayer on Purim). Charvona was originally on Haman’s side, yet he spoke up to offer Haman’s gallows when Achashverosh had turned against Haman. So we accept his change of heart, however self-serving.

    Because if we never accept the apologies, they’ll just stop apologizing.

  12. Ori says:

    Chicago, would you say that any comment about Jews made by gentiles is a trial balloon by antisemites?

  13. L. Oberstein says:

    Gil, what town did you grow up in? I come from Montgomery,Alabama and you can’t get more South than that. There were periods of greater anti semitism when kids in my Junior High started making stupid comments like “that is very Jewy” whatever that means. I never understand why, all of a sudden, it appeared. But, no one ever bothered me personally, it was just talk. Maybe it had to do with the Northern Jews who came in and agitated and then left town in a hurry. The Deep South was very much under attack and that causes this type of reaction. I don’t think that the White Citizens Council denied Jews membership. We lived in harmony and got along with blacks and whites, but the image of the South was that it was dangerous to be a Jew. I never felt it.

  14. Chicago says:

    As a public relations director, the author is trying to find a silver lining and a lesson to learn.

    The ADL works day and night to prevent Anti-Semitic comments no matter how insignificant from continuing. They know full well that a small ssemingly innocuous comment is merely a trial balloon to see how far they can push the envelope. It is healthier for Anti-Semites to blog or talk in McDonalds about Jews, than for them to express it in public.

    ADL is simply seeing the future and is reacting appropriately despite the pettiness of the issue. To contemplate that the politicians who made the comment were being complementary is a display of naivette.

  15. L. Oberstein says:

    You are right when you write “more puzzling, however – at least to me – was the umbrage-taking in the first place. Why is imparting fiscal responsibility to successful Jews offensive?”
    I find that many people are thin skinned and see anti-semitism, racism, etc. when it is not intended. The answer to that is that ,you may not realize you are a racist,but deep down , you are and this shows it. That is the way the victim looks at it. It comes from their own insecurity or lack of self esteem.
    How about when Erdegon of Turkey exhorted his people to be more like the Jews and learn how to be prosperous, or something like that. Did he mean it as anti-semitism, he certainly didn’t see it that way.But, since we have a beef with him at the moment, we did see it that way.
    In the eyes of some all of us orthodox Jews are racists, homophobes, anti-women, anti pluralism, anti-everything else modern and worthwhile. I don’t know if we can do anything about it but smile and move on.

  16. Gil says:

    Maybe if you had grown up in a small town in the South having pennies thrown near you with people making remarks about cheap Jews, you would be more sensitive to people who have experienced this type of anti-Semitism directly. As a child, I did not find anything funny about the often repeated “joke,” “How come Jews have such big noses? Because air is free.” There was nothing more positive to this than having been repeatedly beaten up for killing Yoshke.

  17. Nathan says:

    South Carolina was the state that started the American Civil War.

  18. Harry Maryles says:

    I agree completely with you. And I do not see their comment in any way offensive in the first place. Like you – I see it as complimentary.

    I suppose all the fuss is about the inference of that comment that ‘Jews are cheap’. That is an old negative stereotype about us I suppose but I do not see their comment in any way meaning this. Nor do I think non Jews even think that anymore.

    In fact their apology was unnecessary and – that they made it at all is due only to a hyper-sensitivity to political correctness.

    In my view this fellow from the ADL really ought to get a life. If this is the best they can come up with then I question the very existence of the ADL.

    As such I – for one – apologize to these two South Carolina Republican Party chairmen for being unfairly criticized in the first place.

  19. Baruch Pelta says:

    FWIW, I’m very happy that R’ Shafran has spoken out against this.

    Continually, we see people being accused of anti-semitic sentiments or expressions when clearly there’s simply nothing there. It’s very admirable that the ADL is so firmly committed to klal yisrael and is willing to take on prominent voices from all sides, but at a certain point, it starts to look like a witch hunt

  20. Ori says:

    It seems the ADF is in the business of finding antisemitism, so they’ll look for it anywhere except in their political allies. When they can’t find real antisemitism, they find stereotypes and pretend they’re antisemitic.

  21. tzippi says:

    Reading your last paragraph, would that people think in such terms. I would think that this knee-jerk reaction is due to Shakespeare more than the current climate, and shades of Shylock. To people thinking that way, any such statement constitutes fightin’ words.