By: Rabbi Jeremy Wieder  | 

Racism in the Orthodox Community

The following is an edited transcription of a sichah delivered by Rabbi Wieder to his shiur on November 17th, 2016.  The presentation has been edited with minor revisions, but still maintains much of the oral character of the original presentation.  A special thanks to Rabbi Wieder’s students Sam Berkovitz, Judah Kerbel, and Daniel Shlian for their work on the transcript.

I wanted to address one issue that was brought to my attention that I found to be very disturbing. And it’s an issue that I have probably addressed in the past but apparently it needs to be re-addressed. It has come to my attention that there were multiple behaviors during an Election Night party that could be understood, with very good reason, as racist.

I don’t really care for the purposes of this conversation who you voted for. I don’t care who you think is better for the country, who is worse for the country. I don’t care about those issues. I am, however, deeply disturbed—deeply disturbed—that any students here should express such an attitude.

Unfortunately, racism runs deep in the Orthodox community. I can’t tell you numbers, but I can tell you that it is a very, very real issue. But this is something that brings it very much to the surface.

Racism itself is deeply, deeply immoral. I don’t think I need to elaborate on that. And if I need to, I suspect the person on the other end is not going to be really engaged in a conversation with me anyway. However, I think that as Jews, it is particularly troubling to find those who express racism. There might not be another group—maybe African-Americans in this country could give us a run for our money—but there probably hasn’t been another group in the last two thousand years who have suffered more because of what we would term racist behavior—we might call it anti-Semitic, but that’s what it is, it’s racism—racist behavior of others. Probably not a single group. We have done much better in this country than the African-Americans, relatively, but for 1600, 1700 years before, our existence was miserable, both under Christendom and Islam, because we were singled out, because we were discriminated against, because we were oppressed because of our religion. The idea that Jews should be, at their core, racist, is repugnant. Some of this is a product of people who spend time in Eretz Yisrael, where it is easier to understand why people develop racist leanings against Arabs. It’s unacceptable, by the way. It’s unacceptable in the context of Arabs as well. Make no mistake about that. This is not about your position on the peace process - no matter your view, racism is intolerable. You have enemies; that’s not an excuse for racism.

Many years ago, and I think I’ve told this story, I was in Yeshiva for Shabbos.   And I spoke about the question of the conflict, or seeming conflict, at least, between what we perceive as moral and what the Torah sometimes mandates. And in the context of that discussion at a tish, I pointed out that Avraham Avinu challenges the Ribbono Shel Olam on this question. In other words, he says “Halilah lakh haShofeit kol ha-aretz lo ya`aseh mishpat,” “far be it from you: shall the Judge of the earth not do justice?” (Bereishit 18:25)  I remember in the course of that discussion, talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, specifically about the view that has been espoused by some in that context, although maybe more broadly applicable, that there is no “lo sirtzach,” (Shemot 20:12) prohibition of murder, by a non-Jew.  And I said I found that view particularly disturbing, for a very simple reason: if you say that there’s no “lo sirtzach” by a non-Jew, or by some groups of non-Jews, what you’re basically saying is that there are humans and sub-humans. You don’t get much more racist than that. And then, a student at the tish said, that maybe that’s what we’re supposed to believe.  So I said to him: Imagine that you go up to heaven—or not heaven, probably the opposite place—and you meet Hitler, yemach shemo. And he approaches you and he has a very simple discussion with you. He says, you know what, you and I both agree that there are humans and there are sub-humans. And the only thing we’re arguing about is who are the humans and who are the sub-humans? It’s a machlokes in metzius (dispute about realia)?! Is your response to him that the only reason why he’s wrong is because we’re right and God told us so?! You mean, if in fact you didn’t accept the premise of our argument that we believe in the Torah and God chose us and so on—if not for accepting that, you mean that what the Nazis did was okay? That treating Jews as sub-humans—that treating any group as sub-humans—was okay? Our only response would be because we’re right? Really? To me, it was just staggering.

We, of all people, of every nation on the face of the earth, should understand the poison of racism. So I don’t care who you voted for, I don’t care who you think will make the better president for the country or the less bad president for the country.  But the idea that you should behave in a racist fashion?  Let me make this very clear: the President-Elect of this country has made many racist statements. There’s no question about that. It’s not umdena (an educated guess), it’s not shemu’ah (hearsay), you only need to listen to what he said. The nature of his racism, the extent of his racism, you can have a discussion if you like.   But bottom line is that he has made racist statements.   I assume that no person, no decent human being who voted for him, voted for him because of his racist statements. They voted for him—and I think this is true for most of the country who voted for the President-Elect—voted in spite of them. They’re so upset at everything else that they think that the other things are bigger problems. You can agree or disagree, but I think that most of the people who voted for him are decent people and who are not racist. Sure, there are racist people on the right, racist people on the left, of all different kinds. But to have voted for him davka because you are sympathetic to the racism? That is despicable. There’s nothing more deplorable than that.

And so for students here to behave in a racist manner?  I know—I know that there are students in this institution, people in our community, people in every community—that there are plenty of people who are racist. But most of them, at least, have the sense to not display it publicly. But the idea that in this place, in this yeshiva, people should openly express racist attitudes? To me, it’s absolutely astounding. It’s absolutely astounding. This country needs a lot of healing. There are major fractures. There’s no place in it for any kind of racist behavior. And again: we, as a people who have suffered so much should understand how bad it is. If the basic principle of the Torah is, as Hillel taught the ger—it’s better formulated in the negative: “De`Alach seni la-havertakh lo ta`avid”, that which is repugnant to you, don’t do to somebody else.(B. Shabbat 31a)  So I think it’s important that people raise their voice in a maha’ah (protest). I think that everybody needs to understand that this type of behavior is not okay. This behavior is simply not acceptable. If we stand by and say nothing, they say, “ho`il va-havo yasvei rabbanan ve-lo mahu beih, shema minah ka niha lehu, “Since the rabbis were sitting there and did not object to it, it can be inferred that they agreed.”(B. Gittin 56a) It’s not niha li, and it shouldn’t be niha to any of you. Good Shabbos.