It’s been many years since I’ve heard the question, is it good for the Jews, uttered even in jest.
To see it headline a major newspaper like the New York Times and be applied in the context of a power couple, who happen to be Jewish, is unnerving and dare I say appalling. Why does it matter that Ivanka and Jared Kushner are Jewish? Why does it matter that they are labeled Orthodox Jews? Why would anyone think that they or any other person speak for the Jews? No one speaks for all of the Jews. Indeed, the very idea that pundits or talking heads on television or social media figures appear to speak for the Jews, because they happen to identify themselves as being Jewish, is ludicrous.
I speak only for myself. The fact that I’m Jewish is irrelevant. Using my religion to advance a cause is inappropriate. Similarly, disagreeing with someone’s point of view does not justify attacking the person because he or she happens to be Jewish. It’s just another form of anti-Semitism. The fact that the attacker may also be Jewish does not excuse this kind of misbehavior. Ruth Wisse, a retired professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, was once asked what do you call a self-hating Jew. Her answer was immediate and unflinching. She responded an anti-Semite.
Unfortunately, history is littered with the remains of so many actual, self-proclaimed or so-called former Jews, who practiced anti-Semitism. There is no justification for this kind of disreputable behavior. Indeed, Jews who suggest they are the good Jews because they espouse a certain point of view and those others, who espouse a contrary opinion, are somehow bad Jews, are just reinforcing a classic anti-Semitic trope. Two Jews, like anyone else, should be able legitimately to argue about policy without being demonized.
Why is it so difficult to have a civil discourse about ideas without name-calling, invoking the canard of the interlocutor somehow being evil or having a lack of virtue or accusing him or her of being a bad Jew? The latest twist in this ongoing saga is also incomprehensible. It has been suggested by some, who should know better, that a person’s political affiliation should be determinative of whether the person receives an aliya or not. Has the world really gone this mad? Can’t people disagree, without suffering untoward consequences? It is so wrong to express a dissenting point of view?
I have often wondered about this when it comes to the Biblical figures Dathan and Abiram. The Bible records their sin was to plan and execute the Korach rebellion[i]. As a result, they met their just fate through divine intervention[ii]. However, there is more to the Dathan and Abiram saga than this finale. They were opposed to leaving Egypt and voiced their dissent, as noted below. However, they were not punished because they shared dissenting opinions.
The Midrash[iii] and Talmud[iv] provide greater detail about the sordid history of Dathan and Abiram. It begins with their fateful encounter with Moses, when he saves Dathan from being killed by an Egyptian overlord. The next day Moses finds Dathan violently quarreling with his brother-in-law Abiram[v] and cautions them not to do so. Their response was to accuse Moses of lording over them, questioning who appointed Moses to be their judge. Despite being saved by Moses, Dathan and Abiram proceeded to inform on him to Pharaoh about his killing an Egyptian. Ironically, this was the very Egyptian who tried to kill Dathan. In effect, Moses was forced to flee Egypt because he intervened to save Dathan.
The Midrash[vi] reports Dathan and Abiram also committed a number of other wrongful deeds. This included planning and actively participating in the Korach rebellion, as well as, violating the commandments against hording the manna on weekdays and going out on the Sabbath to gather in the manna. However, the Midrash[vii] records they nevertheless had some redeeming qualities. It seems that when the Egyptian taskmasters ordered them to strike a fellow Jew, they demurred and took the resulting lashing themselves. Interestingly, the Maharal of Prague[viii] even finds some positive aspect to the constant dissent by Dathan and Abiram against Moses. Their irrational and malicious opposition to Moses isolated them and made Moses’ righteous teachings of the Torah all the more compelling.
Dissent and debate are not necessarily negative. As the Mishna in Avot[ix] recognizes they can be useful and serve a positive purpose. Thus, as the Meiri[x] explains, when the purpose of the debate is a quest for understanding and truth then it is noble. Discussion is good because the truth is revealed through legitimate debate. In this regard, it is noteworthy that even in the trying circumstances of the Korach rebellion, Moses attempted to engage Dathan and Abiram in a discussion; but they refused even to meet with Moses[xi]. As the Malbim[xii] explains, they didn’t seek the truth, but only sought victory and personal advancement. It is inappropriate to seek to undermine someone because of personal ambition and plain contentiousness. However, expressing heartfelt, genuine beliefs in a debate, as a part of a collaborative process seeking the truth, is not only acceptable, it is to be cherished.
The Talmud[xiii] discusses how Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai debated for three years without resolution. A heavenly voice announced that both expressed the words of G-d, but the law was in accord with the views of Beit Hillel. The Talmud went on to ask if both were, in essence, correct, then why was the position of Beit Hillel privileged to be accepted as the law. The Talmud answered, this was because they were respectful and forbearing, showing restraint when they were confronting opposing points of view. Moreover, they would study and teach both their own and the other point of view and, when presenting a discussion on the matter, they always expressed the opposing point of view first before their own.
Debate and discussion of issues is essential to good decision-making. How else to assure that all sides of an issue are analyzed? Absent the challenge of a dissenting perspective, all too often relevant issues can be overlooked. Consider, for example, the rule that if the Sanhedrin reaches a unanimous decision of guilt in a homicide case then the case is dismissed[xiv]. This is because there are no real open and shut cases and the Sanhedrin is obviously not doing a thorough job, unless someone finds some mitigating circumstances or issue and dissents.
Differing opinions are a part of the human experience. We all don’t see life the same way and that’s natural. It’s no different now than it was at the very beginning of the Jewish people in ancient Egypt. Indeed, the Midrashic view of the Egyptian experience bears a striking resemblance to modern times. Eighty percent or more[xv] of the Jewish people had fully assimilated into Egyptian society and never left Egypt during the miraculous redemption. It is eerily similar to the conclusions reached by the Pew study[xvi] about the present state of Judaism in America.
Some of the Jews in ancient Egypt were very successful. They enjoyed patronage by those in power, becoming a part of high society and the establishment[xvii]. Not everyone experienced the brutal existence of being a slave in Egypt[xviii]. This included Dathan and Abiram, who were a part of the governmental apparatus of Egypt. When the time came to leave, they elected not to do so and remained behind with Pharaoh[xix]. They also accompanied Pharaoh when he pursued and sought to recapture the Jews, who left Egypt in the Exodus. Yet, they somehow managed to avoid being engulfed by the Red Sea with the Egyptian army and rejoin their brethren.
It is suggested this may have occurred because Pharaoh intentionally put them at the front of his military column, when crossing the dry bed of the miraculously split Red Sea. After all, why not put the collaborating Jews in harm’s way, as a shield for the Egyptian army that followed? This is reminiscent of the images of the Germans entering the Warsaw Ghetto, who similarly placed the collaborating Jewish Ghetto police in the lead. Dathan and Abiram, as an advance team in the forefront of the Egyptian column, might have caught up with the rear guard of the Jewish people as they were exiting the Red Sea bed. It was only after all the Jewish people safely exited that the Red Sea came crashing down on the Egyptian army pursuing them. Notwithstanding the miracle they had just witnessed, the unrepentant Dathan and Abiram still sought to convince their brethren it was better to return to Egypt[xx]. However, their rhetoric was unconvincing.
Did Dathan and Abiram represent the Jews before Pharaoh? They likely did and Pharaoh may have even believed that they, not Moses, were telling him what the Jews really thought. However, in point of fact, they were only pursuing their own self-interests. Why are some still fooled by this charade?
Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein reports[xxi] on another such fateful encounter by a Jewish advisor to another leader, President Roosevelt, during World War II. It was in response to the Rabbis March in October of 1943, when more than 400 mostly Orthodox Jewish Rabbis marched on Washington. Their purpose was to urge the United States and its allies to take action to stop the destruction of the Jews in Europe by the Nazis and their cohorts. President Roosevelt refused to meet with them on the advice of a Jewish advisor, who reportedly told him it was not necessary to do so. He argued that ‘those Jews’ were not his kind of Jews. In essence, he was purporting to speak on behalf of the good Jews, like him, who counted. They wouldn’t have bothered the President in a time of war and distracted him with requests he try to save those other Jews in Europe.
Has anything changed since then? Dathan and Abiram may no longer walk the Earth; but the scourge they engendered is still extant. It masquerades in the guise of pious pronouncements by self-appointed experts and spokespersons, who may even believe, because they are Jewish, they actually know what Jews think. However, other than some personal perspective that is often the insidious result of projection, there is no such thing.
The Midrash[xxii] reports that there are 70 different faces to the Torah. The kaleidoscope of views about world affairs is even more varied and reflects each person’s individual life experience. Even the views of such an illustrious and wise a leader as Mordechai, of Megillat Esther fame, was only acceptable to a majority of his brethren[xxiii], not everyone.
Those in the news media or social media and anyone else for that matter, don’t speak for me or any other person, as a Jew or in any other capacity. They are not divinely inspired prophets. If only they would make it clear they are only expressing personal points of view and stop saying they are Jewish. That would be good for the Jews.
[i] Numbers, Chapter 16.
[ii] Numbers 16:23-33.
[iii] Midrash Tanchuma, Shemot, Siman 10 and Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera, Siman 6.
[iv] See, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Megillah, at page 11a, and Sanhedrin at page 109b.
[v] Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, Shemot, 2:13.
[vi] Midrash Tanchuma, Shemot, Siman 10.
[vii] Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 5:20.
[viii] In his work, Gevurot Hashem, Chapter 19.
[ix] Avot 5:17.
[x] In his commentary on Avot 5:17.
[xi] See Numbers 16:25 and Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 110a, as well as, Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 18:12.
[xii] In his commentary on Avot 5:17.
[xiii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin, at page 13b.
[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 17a. See also Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Laws of Sanhedrin and the Penalties within their Jurisdiction 9:1.
[xv] See Rashi commentary on Exodus 13:18 and 10:22, as well as, Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael on Exodus 13:18, Mechilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 13:17, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 11:10 and Midrash Tanchuma, Beshalach 1:4. See also Ezekiel 20:8-9 and Radak commentary thereon.
[xvi] Pew Research Center-A Portrait of Jewish Americans, dated October 1, 2013.
[xvii] Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 14:3
[xviii] See Meshech Chochma, Parshat Vayera 8 and Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 3:5, at page 17a.
[xix] Targum of Yonatan ben Uzziel, Exodus 14:3.
[xx] Midrash Tanchuma, Shemot, Siman 10.
[xxi] Were We Our Brother’s Keepers? The Public Response of American Jews, 1933-1944, by Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein (1985).
[xxii] Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 13:16.
[xxiii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at page 16b.