Why We, As Orthodox Jews, Need to Oppose Racism
Articles in The Commentator about the Confederate flag expressed differing opinions on whether or not the flag was a racist symbol. The given was that if it was, then the flag’s display was unacceptable. I totally agree that we should strongly oppose any expression of racism. An article is needed because of the current climate in the Orthodox community: accepting the norms of Western liberalism without showing Halakhic sources is not accepted. Fifty years ago a commitment to human rights and opposition to any discrimination based on race, gender, or religion was a goal that Orthodox (and non-Orthodox) Jews fully supported. This commitment was rooted in man being created in God’s image and the commonality of all humans being descendants of Adam and Eve, a biblical source.
The after-effect of the horrors of the Holocaust and the lack of a serious ongoing campaign to save Jews by the Western countries has eroded trust in Western liberalism. The remarkable emergence of the state of Israel has been achieved despite ongoing hostility from its Arab neighbors. This has led many religious Zionist rabbis to reject Western notions of morality as conflicting with authentic Jewish morality.
The Mishnah in Sanhedrin Chapter 4 that states “He who destroys one life is as if he destroyed an entire world, and he who saves one life is considered as if he saved an entire world” is often cited. However there are two textual versions. One version adds the word “Jewish,” restricting the statement to describing the value of a Jewish life. Our printed versions of the Bavli and the Yerushalmi differ, and there is a contradiction between two references and the statement in the Maimonidean code. These two traditions are reflected in other sources as well. While the simple meaning and the context of the Mishnah in Avot (3:14) discussing man being created in the Divine image relate to all human beings, there are commentators who again restrict the Mishnah to Jews. Regarding the Mishnah in Avot, it is clear that that is a minority reading.
With respect to racism—in a strict Halakhic context Judaism does not distinguish between races. There are no racial limitations on anyone who wants to convert. It is possible to interpret the curse on Ham, the son of Noah, as not limited to his son Canaan and his descendants, but as referring to all those of African ancestry. This does not justify feeling superior to Afro-Americans.
There is a fundamental philosophic disagreement between Yehuda Halevi, who sees Jews as a higher order creation than other human beings, and whose perspective is echoed by kabbalistic and Hassidic thinkers, and Maimonides. Maimonides considers those who accept the teachings of Abraham to be equal descendants to those who are born Jewish; he sees any Jewish superiority as emerging from our following the commandments of the Torah. This disagreement is relevant to our discussion. Rav Kook, who fundamentally follows Yehuda Halevi, found a way to combine a belief in intrinsic Jewish superiority with universal concerns. Followers of his son however were prone to view non-Jews as inferior and to respond to them accordingly.
In analyzing an authentic Jewish response to issues in modern life, there are frequently few precedents in Halakhah to guide us. The multiplicity of sources reflecting differing perspectives gives support for conflicting views. In this case two approaches can be helpful. The biblical descriptions of both Abraham and Moses stress their concern for others and commitment to justice. Abraham prays for Sodom and Moses protects the daughters of Jethro.
Three different Halakhic concepts reflect concern for all humans without distinctions based on their race or gender:
1) Human dignity -- “Kevod haberiyot”: Because some claim that ‘Adam’ may refer only to Jews, the use of the term “beriyot” clarifies that it includes non-Jews.
2) Ways of peace -- “Darchei shalom”: Maimonides connects this with emulating G-d, who is merciful on all that he created (Hilkhot Melakhim 8:11).
3) Doing what is straight and good -- “Viasita hayashar vihatov”: The Netziv’s interpretations of the word “yashar” includes treating non-Jews fairly as demonstrated by Avraham in praying for Sodom.
Two others speak to Jewish responsibility when interacting with non-Jews to leave a positive impression that will lead them to accept monotheism:
1) Being a light to the nations -- “Or lagoyim”: Which is understood as the mission of the Jewish people to the non-Jewish nations to lead them to adopt monotheism.
2) Sanctifying G-d's name— “Kiddush HaShem”: In both the Talmud Bavli in Yoma and the Maimonidean code the impression that the Jew’s behavior makes on the “beriyot”—humankind—is critical.
Maimonides in many places says that most commandments serve to refine our character. There is a significant ethical dimension to Jewish law and observance. Racism and other manifestations of devaluing categories of humanity without relating to their individual worth fail to meet these criteria.