Of Savages And Civilized Men

By the time this article is published, much will already have been written and spoken about the American Freedom Defense Initiative’s very crude ad that was placed in the most public of New York City spaces — our subway system.

“In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

My friend and colleague Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, published a fine op-ed piece in The New York Times about this, and I would imagine that countless rabbis — not to mention priests, ministers and imams, have addressed themselves to the issue.

At the risk of possibly doubling over some of what has already been said, I want to try and look at Pamela Geller’s (she of the American Freedom Defense Initiative) unfortunate effort at Israel advocacy from a uniquely Jewish perspective — one that is two thousand years old, and as relevant today as the current controversy.

Interestingly, this perspective that I think best and most authentically frames the aforementioned issue is rooted in a comment on the Torah portion that we read in synagogue over the first two days of Sukkot. The Torah portion itself was from the book of Leviticus, dealing primarily with an overview of the biblically mandated Jewish festivals. But before that particular section of the reading, there was a command not to take a newborn ox, lamb or goat from its mother for a sacrifice for a full week after its birth, nor to slaughter an ox or lamb and its offspring on the same day.


The verses that immediately follow these commandments make it clear that there is a straight line to be drawn between the way we act, even and perhaps especially in communal matters of ritual, and the way God is perceived in the broader community. Says the Torah: And you shall not profane my holy name, and I shall be sanctified amongst the people Israel, I am the Lord your God. How we treat helpless animals- even those we intend ultimately to offer up as sacrifices- reflects not only on us, but also on God. In fact, Judaism will ultimately broaden this teaching to include absolutely everything that we do in the public domain. As Jews, our behaviors reflect not only on our own dignity and values, but also, as it were, on God’s. When we behave in a way that reflects well on Torah and its teachings, we are sanctifying God’s name- or, as the rabbis would have said, we are engaging in Kiddush Hashem. And when we engage in behaviors that lead others to think that the Torah and its values are crude and/or cruel, we are engaging in just the opposite: Chillul Hashem- causing God’s name to be profaned. n the pantheon of egregious sins in Judaism, causing God’s name to be profaned in the public arena is a major wrongdoing.

In the tractate of Bava Metzi'a in the Jerusalem Talmud, a story is told of the famous Pharisee leader Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach, whose life bridged the second and first centuries before the Common Era. Rabbi Shimon was a merchant of flax, and his students wanted to make life easier for him by purchasing a beast of burden that would carry his merchandise. To that end, they purchased a donkey from a group of Ishmaelites, and brought it back to their teacher.

When Rabbi Shimon examined it, he discovered that there was a precious stone tied to the donkey’s neck. The students exulted; “Now you don’t have to work at all,” they said. “Why,” asked Rabbi Shimon? They replied that the donkey had been purchased from Ishmaelites, and he could keep the stone.

Rabbi Shimon immediately instructed them to return the precious stone to the Ishmaelites. The students were stunned. “But why,” they asked? “Even according to one who forbids theft from a non-Jew, that which the non-Jew loses by mistake is not forbidden to us!”?

But Rabbi Shimon was insistent. And when the students returned the precious stone to its Ishmaelite owner, he joyously proclaimed “Praised be the God of the Jews, who has a nation of people like Rabbi Shimon. Had I sold the donkey to an Ishmaelite, he would never have returned the stone!”

When Rabbi Shimon’s students returned, he said to them “What did you think, that Shimon ben Shatach is a barbarian? I wanted to hear that Ishmaelite say ‘Praised be the God of the Jews’ more than all the money or rewards of this world!”

From where I sit, what the American Freedom Defense Initiative has done is cause a significant Chillul Hashem in the public arena- the exact opposite of what Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach would have prescribed. And what is particularly sad- and troubling- is that Pamela Geller and her supporters don’t even seem to know it. And perhaps even worse- they may indeed know it, but seem utterly not to care.

I am no bleeding-heart liberal, and I have less than no sympathy for those who would and do, in the name of jihad, engage is senseless and yes, even savage violence against innocent people. The strain of radical Islam that preaches violent jihad is a mortal enemy of our way of life. I believe that most Americans, and most western leaders, understand that.

But painting all of Islam with the same brush, as that ad not so subtly does, merely serves to alienate good people of all faith communities from the cause of a safe Israel. In so doing, it violates what Shimon ben Shatach was trying to teach two thousand years ago. Caring about how our tradition presents itself to the outside world matters- greatly. Support of Israel is tenuous enough; alienating members of other faith communities from Israel’s cause is a losing strategy, and does nothing good for Judaism as a whole. The deeds of the truly savage are a threat not merely to Israel, but to all who cherish life and hold it dear. Thumping our chests in public accomplishes only the opposite of what we would like…. and, most importantly, it is a Chillul Hashem.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.