Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Parshas Lech-Lecha

Last week we read Parshat Noach. In Parshat Noach, man abandons something that today would be more sustainable to our environment—vegetarianism. Concerning Parshat Noach, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote, “For years, I was brainwashed with a religious mantra that ‘Humans are the pinnacle of all creation.’ If you say it enough times, you start to believe it and it feels really great. We are the purpose of everything. Everything else is here for us.”

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s discourse of how a mantra can be used to brainwash our people is important to the selected verses of this week’s parsha. Bereshit 16:12 states, of Ishmael, that “he shall be a wild ass of a man; His hand against everyone, And everyone’s hand against him; He shall dwell alongside all his kinsmen.” Observant Jewish youths, especially those who are raised with a Religious Zionist upbringing, typically interact with this text with an accompanying commentary that describes the word “Pereh Adam” it has become a mantra for many in the religious Zionist world. I must warn you, the commentary is racist and repugnant, and it should bother us. Baba Batra 16 states that “the word פראdescribes a wild donkey, an animal that has not been domesticated. The angel told Hagar that the son she would bear would be genetically very similar in his character to this wild animal. This would be due to his having part of the genes of his Egyptian mother.” Baba Batra 16 continues with a long racist rant explaining how Ezekiel 23, 20, midrashic literature, and Genesis 21 all highlight this repugnant theory – that Arabs are somehow beneath us.

So why address this? The Torah has some despicable content. I believe that as Reform Jews, we need to refute this commentary and others. However, we cannot deny that misguided commentaries exist altogether –commentaries that become mantras and posit humans are superior to animals or claim Arabs are subhuman. I bring this mantra to our attention because it is easy while in a Reform bubble to lose sight of how much of the rest of the Jewish world has chosen to interact with this text. Many Reform Jews are unaware of these verses and how they have been perverted. We cannot ignore this mantra any longer or afford to be silent. It does our Palestinian and Arab-Israeli neighbors in Israel disserve, it does our movement a disservice. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. We must be prepared to confront others and challenge these commentaries. Let this commentary be remembered today and let us refute hatred and bigotry in our communities always in the future.

Ken yehi ratzot

 

 

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is a third year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native of Israeli-American nationality, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both a M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European anti-semitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience from teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading Shabbat and Holiday services at Greenwood House in Trenton, New Jersey, and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently, in Cincinnati, he leads services for Beth Boruk, in Richmount, IN and teaches at Adath Israel in Cincinnati.
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