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Spiritual resistance: Purge your own prejudices

When we are targeted with hate, we must fight it, but we must also ensure that hatred and bigotry do not exist among ourselves
Members of the Jewish community gather outside the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, in New York on December 29, 2019, after a machete attack that took place the night before inside the rabbi's home during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. (Kena Betancur/AFP)
Members of the Jewish community gather outside the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, in New York on December 29, 2019, after a machete attack that took place the night before inside the rabbi's home during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

The year is now 2020 and after decades of progress, prejudice against Jews has (somehow) managed to worm its way back into the public consciousness. The last several months of the 2010s showed us how pernicious and rapid the return of anti-Semitism can be. Now, even in places where Jews thought themselves inoculated against hate, hate rears its ugly head.   Countless statements have been written about the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism in America and around the globe and countless tactics have been suggested to combat it, ranging from arming ourselves in Jewish spaces, to deepening allyship with members of other marginalized identities, and to strengthening our ability to work with those in power. While we focus on these external mechanisms to protect ourselves and our co-religionists around the world from acts of senseless hatred, we need to equip ourselves with internal strategies to see what we could be doing better in the current moment.

Among these internal strategies is the cultivation of hope amidst despair and the nurturing of resilience in a context of fatigue. My focus here, however, is how we can uproot from within ourselves that which we despise most in others. When we see ourselves targeted with hate we must fight it, but we must also take the opportunity to ensure that the characteristics of hatred and bigotry will not exist within ourselves or our community. Thus, now is the time for spiritual resistance.

But what is spiritual resistance? For me, the term is typified by seeking positive reactions to negative forces in the world. This not only means activism and advocacy but also includes a process of looking inward to ensure that we represent the opposite of what we detest in the world.

The steps to spiritual resistance follow a simple rubric:

  • When we encounter evil, we should respond in a manner designed to erase that evil,
  • When we see arrogance, let’s vow to be more humble.
  • When we see bullying, let’s pledge to be more empathetic.
  • When we hear blatant lies, let’s re-commit to living a life that honors truth.
  • When we observe greed, let’s locate the greed in us that needs to be addressed.
  • When we become aware of systemic racism, sexism, and hate from national leadership or from individuals with whom we interact in our daily lives, let’s work to uproot those evils within ourselves.

These guidelines are only an entry point into changing behavior through positive thought. A teaching attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidut, states that a truly righteous person sees themselves within the sinner. He teaches:

Your fellow is your mirror. If your own face is clean, so will be the image you perceive. But should you look upon your fellow and see a blemish, it is your own imperfection that you are encountering — you are being shown what it is that you must correct within yourself.

Relatedly, writing in the first half of the 20th century, with anti-Semitism running rampant throughout Europe, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook wrote:

Everyone must know and understand

that within them burns a lamp or candle.

No one’s candle is like another’s,

and no one lacks his or her own candle.

Everyone must know and understand

that it is their task to work to reveal the light of

that candle in the public realm.

And to ignite it until it is a great flame

And to illuminate the whole world (Orot HaKodesh).

Based on the beautiful words of these religious luminaries, the spiritually honest person, therefore, cannot critique another without seeing some fault of themselves within the critique they’re making. This is why Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox Social Justice Movement, is now launching our 2020 Anti-Racism in Orthodoxy Campaign this month. Now, when Orthodox Jews have been violently attacked all over the world, we must not only double down on our defenses but also enhance the spiritual work that ensures our roles as moral models, in the process uprooting the same evils within our community that we seek to combat on the outside.

The Baal Shem Tov’s and Rav Kook’s words are our task today. It is easy to fall into traps that allow us, in our fear and fervor, to cultivate racist approaches ourselves. Often, we may become more militant than necessary and lose some of our values in our zealotry. When anti-Semitism puts us on high-alert, we must remain vigilant to combat this ancient evil, but never grant it primacy. That’s how hearts filled with hate win, controlling our discourse and throwing us off our mission to be a holy nation. Instead, we must always live our mission to promote Torah mitzvot along with menschlichkeit; fostering justice; building holy families and communities; and showcasing acts of love and kindness each day. Only by maintaining our own light will we be able to increase the combined light in the world so that the darkness of bigotry and hate will, one day, be eradicated forevermore.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of seventeen books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.

The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of seventeen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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