Jonathan Muskat

What is our responsibility to fight stereotypes and bias against Jews? When ‘personal Kiddush Hashem’ and ‘public Chillul Hashem’ collide

A few weeks ago, an article was published in the Daily News about the prejudice that a Hasidic man encounters every day in New York City.  The author wrote that he was standing in a West Village bar and a friend’s husband cornered him and said, “Let me ask you this. A year ago, a Hasidic man in a van side-swiped me and drove off. What do you think about that?” And this story made me wonder. To what extent should we be concerned about what other people think of Jews? Does this story demonstrate that people will always be biased against Jews or Orthodox Jews or maybe a certain type of Orthodox Jews? If, indeed, they are biased, to what extent must we try to fight such bias and stereotype? How much should we care what others think?

The value of creating a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s Name) and avoiding a Chillul Hashem (profaning God’s Name) is certainly a part of our Torah tradition.  Indeed, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Bava Metzia 2:5) tells the story of Shimon ben Shetach ordering his students to return a jewel to a non-Jew even though by Jewish law they were entitled to keep it.  Shimon ben Shetach did this because it was important for the non-Jew to have a favorable impression of God and the Jewish people.

Certain cases of Kiddush and Chillul Hashem, however, are not so clear.  What if my personal Kiddush Hashem is perceived as a Chillul Hashem by the public?  For example, what if I am a guest at a relative’s house who normally doesn’t observe Kashrut standards, but he tried to prepare a kosher meal for me, but I determine that the food does not have an acceptable Kashrut standard.  If I tell him after he prepared the entire meal that I can’t eat the food, he may likely feel that we orthodox Jews are stubborn, inflexible and insensitive to others.  Am I performing a Kiddush Hashem by upholding my standards of kashrut, or am I performing a Chillul Hashem by appearing callous to his feelings?  If someone protests the Israeli government’s decision to allow a movie theater to open on Shabbat, is he causing a Kiddush Hashem for protecting the honor of Shabbat or is he causing a Chillul Hashem because secular Jews may view orthodox Jews as intolerant and insensitive to the rights of other people?

Rav Lichtenstein addressed this question by distinguishing between whether the public’s set of assumptions and standards differ fundamentally from ours.  As an example, an ideological supporter of permissiveness, of someone who believes that everyone should have the right to do whatever he wants as long as he causes no harm, will sharply criticize the restrictive world of halacha.  Since this ideological supporter of permissiveness has an entirely different set of assumptions than a traditional Jew, we need not bend our own personal Kiddush Hashem to accommodate his worldview even if it means that he thinks that we are a backwards, immoral nation.  However, we must be concerned about criticism issued out of a proper moral perspective, whose basic assumptions we do share.  For example, when a business colleague says, “I like doing business with non-Jews because they pay their bills on time, as opposed to Jews who don’t pay their bills on time,” then we should care about this public perception of Chillul Hashem because paying your bills in a timely manner is a value that we should share with the outside world.

Therefore, I don’t believe that refraining from eating at a host’s house or protesting a decision to open a movie theater on Shabbat is necessarily a Chillul Hashem even if the public in either case will think poorly of you and of orthodox Jews in general.  (Whether protesting the Israeli government on a religious matter is wise thing to do is a separate question.)  However, I believe that there is one other critical factor in addressing this issue, and that is motivation.  The source for behaving in a way that effectuates a Kiddush Hashem is in last week’s parsha, when the Torah states, “V’nikdashti b’toch Bnei Yisrael,” that God should be sanctified in the midst of the Bnei Yisrael.  But there is another source as well.  The Torah also states, “V’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha b’chol levavcha u’v’chol nafhsh’cha u’v’chol m’odecha,” that you should love God with all your heart, soul and strength.  Our Sages derive from this verse an obligation to give up your life, if need be, for the sake of Kiddush Hashem.  But the key word here is love.  Kiddush Hashem must be motivated by love of God, not by hate and disdain for the other.  When we make decisions to promote God’s values, these decisions must not be tinged with a feeling of disregard for those who may not keep Kosher or those in secular society who do not observe the Shabbat restrictions.  Fighting to uphold values is Divine, but fighting individuals is not.

The stereotype of Hasidic Jews illustrated in the Daily News article is most unfortunate, and, for that matter, so is any stereotype of orthodox Jews or Jews for that matter in the broader world.  Do we have a responsibility to fight these stereotypes?  Must we care what others think?  The next time we are confronted with this question, let us first ask ourselves two questions:  do we share the same set of values and assumptions as those who are judging us, and what is our motivation.  God made us ambassadors to the world at large, so let’s make Him proud.

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