When “Chosen” Becomes Racist
“Were you by the tisch last night with Rav Schachter and the guest speaker?” I was asked by my friend Shabbat morning Parshat Beshalach.
“No. How was it?”
“The guest speaker gave the most rigorous defense of Torah Umadda I’ve ever heard at YU.”
Intrigued by this description, I decided to go hear the visiting speaker at YU for Shabbat myself. He was scheduled to give a speech in the YU cafeteria for seudah shlishit about why you must believe in yourself. It sounded interesting, and I looked forward to hearing what he had to say. What followed, however, was the most disturbing speech I have ever heard at YU, and one that I hope to never hear again.
The speech, meant to be an inspiring one encouraging everyone to fulfill their potential, focused on our potential as Jews. The speaker showed how Jews are worth more to the world than non-Jews, despite our relatively minor numbers. Pointing to the percentage of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, he calculated that Jews are worth 112 other people. He also compared the Jewish nation to the Muslims and their relatively small percentage of Nobel Prize winners, and concluded that it would take 44 billion Muslims to contribute to society what the small population of only a couple of million Jews have contributed.
These claims troubled me. While it is certainly true that Jews have been awarded many Nobel Prizes, this does not translate into Jews being worth more than others. Since when do we judge people’s value and humanity by the amount of Nobel Prizes they have? Additionally, most of the Jews who won the Nobel Prize weren’t religious, and a lot of their grandchildren aren’t Jewish anymore according to halacha. Does this prove, according to this guest speaker, that non-religious Jews are worth more than religious ones? A nation’s contributions to science, math, and the like does not speak to that nation’s value and humanity. I think it would have been fine, and probably accurate, for the speaker to claim that as Jews we focus on education and therefore have been very successful in certain fields. We are lucky to have this leg up. However, to state that Jews are worth 112 others simply doesn’t follow.
I wanted to get up and protest this speech, to shout at this speaker: “This isn’t a Chareidi yeshiva! This is the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy and we don’t believe that here.” I looked around at my fellow students, expecting to see incredulous looks of disbelief that something like this could be said at YU. Instead, I saw rapt looks of attention. I thought - perhaps we aren’t the flagship Modern Orthodox institution we claim to be. I considered walking out, but, sitting directly in front of the speaker, I decided it would be rude. That’s something I now regret. I attempted to stop listening, to focus on something else, but it didn’t work. My ears unwillingly listened and were continually reviled by his extreme words of Jewish elitism.
The speaker told stories of his encounters with non-Jews. The morals of the stories showed that Jews are harder workers and care more about being productive to society than non-Jews do. He spoke about the sanctity and value of life in halacha, but, instead of mentioning human life, he mentioned only Jewish life. He quoted halacha to show that a rosh yeshiva’s life is worth the same as a janitor’s, but he added an assumption that this refers only to a Jewish janitor. Every word of his speech attempted to inspire us, to show us how valuable we are and what kind of contribution we can make in the world, but with every word there was an implicit statement about the non-value of the gentiles. How is this different from what the Nazis preached, that the Aryans were worth more than other races?
Imagine being stopped in the street by a non-Jew and being asked, “What does it mean that the Jews are ‘the Chosen People’?” This speaker would have us respond, “We’re worth 112 of you. We produce more for society than the entire Muslim population put together.” What a chillul hashem that would be. This isn’t what “Chosen people” means to me; nor, more significantly, is this what it means in our traditional sources. This kind of speech may be acceptable in the more right-winged yeshivish world that this speaker comes from, but I’d like to think it’s unacceptable here at YU.
YU wonders why their Shabbat meals don’t attract so many people. Maybe this is why. This isn’t the type of speaker that should come to YU , especially on a SOY in-shabbos when the cafeteria is fuller than a on a regular weekend. This kind of speech is only going to appeal to a small target audience in YU, I hope, and is definitely not conducive for a warm atmosphere. I call upon SOY and the OSL to more carefully vet prospective Shabbat guests and to not invite speakers who will preach such skewed racist views of what “am hanivchar” means. Woe to Torah Umadda if these are its defenders.