A Torah perspective on racism

We are all shocked at the senseless murder of George Floyd and we stand together with all who fight racism, bigotry and hatred.  We reject those who have responded to this murder by rioting and looting.  At the same time, now we, Torah observant Jews, must utilize this opportunity to speak out against racism, bigotry and hatred in this country. Though we hope they are few, we know too well that there are unfortunately some in our community who may justify racist behavior.  In an effort to engage in productive communal introspection, I’d like to address some justifications that I have observed.

First, some point to the idea that halacha Esav sonei et Yaakov, Esav hates Yaakov. For thousands of years, Jews have been persecuted wherever we have been. Indeed, there are a number of Talmudic statements that reflect the low moral character of the pagan in Talmudic times who persecuted us. As such, it has been claimed by some that Jews will always be hated, and it is therefore natural for Jews in America to have a distrust or even antipathy for anyone who isn’t like us.

Secondly, I would imagine that racism might be more prone in any group with a philosophy of withdrawing from secular society. If we as the Jewish people condemn outside culture, then it is not a far leap to condemn the people who represent that culture. Perhaps it is not a much farther leap from that to make racist and ethnic slurs and speak derisively against those people. I remember listening to a podcast almost two years ago entitled “Headlines” that is hosted by Dovid Lichtenstein. He was discussing the topic of racism in the orthodox community. One of the guests that he had on the show is named MaNishtana, a New York based African-American Orthodox Jew born to two African-American Orthodox Jewish parents who was at the time earning his second Rabbinical ordination. When asked if he experienced more racism from more right-wing as opposed to modern orthodox Jews, MaNishtana replied that he experiences racist behavior from all types of orthodox Jews. Though we might not want to see it, it is apparent that the modern orthodox community is also guilty of racist behavior, ethnic slurs and the like.

I wondered why that was so, and have thought of one possible theory. My hope is that if we can understand the thinking behind such harmful behavior, we can design interventions to try and stop it. I wonder if some have a propensity to try and make themselves feel good, by putting others down. Perhaps if one is looking for a scapegoat to mock, he considers the clear halachic prohibition against having fun at the expense of a Jew, and turns on the non-Jew instead (notwithstanding the fact that there are many Jews of color). Maybe you can make an argument that it’s not technically forbidden, but to me, that argument is completely irrelevant. First of all, in practice, it’s just not possible to divide common decency between a Jew and non-Jew. Does anyone honestly think that they can use ethnic slurs against non-Jewish minorities and not act the same way against Jewish minorities? Does anyone honestly think that they can gossip all they want against non-Jews and not gossip against Jews? Our speech and our behaviors don’t just hurt their recipients; they impact us as well.

Additionally, on a more basic level, the Rambam writes at the end of Hilchot Avadim that we should treat non-Jews with respect because we as descendants of Avraham Avinu are “rachmanim al hakol.” We are merciful towards everyone. Furthermore, he writes, “v’chen b’midotav shel Hakadosh baruch hu she’tzivanu l’hidamot bahem hu omer v’rachamav al kol maasav.” So too, in speaking of the Divine attributes, which He has commanded us to imitate, the psalmist says: “His mercy is over all His works.” We as Jews must not engage in this behavior.

Rabbi Mayer Schiller, the very popular Chasiddish Rebbe in MTA, once said there’s another basic reason why we shouldn’t be racist philosophically, notwithstanding certain conflicting Talmudic statements. At the end of the day, what kind of Ribono shel olam, what kind of God, do we want? A God who hates and despises others? Is that what we truly believe of the non-Jewish world around us?

We must stand shoulder to shoulder with those minorities who are subject to racism, hatred and bigotry, but we must do more. We must use this senseless murder as a catalyst to educate our community. We must talk about the dangers of ethnic slurs, about the dangers of disparaging minorities, about the danger of what these words and deeds do to us, our community, and the world.

As people of the Jewish faith, we are children of Avraham Avinu. It is our role in this world to model the ways of God, who is merciful to all His creations. May God help us do so.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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