Question & Answer With Mottel - The Kernel Of Truth Within Stereotypes
A Simple Jew asks:
My mother once told me, "Another person's opinion of me is none of my business".
While I partially agree with this statement, I think a person must generally have an idea of how he is perceived by others and ensure that his actions are never regarded in a negative light. So, in a sense, another person's opinion of me is certainly my business.
The Gemara identifies the Jewish people as exhibiting three traits: compassion, modesty, and kindness. Yet, the stereotype of Jews is that they are greedy, loud, and rude.
Should we simply disregard such stereotypes as irrational anti-Semitism or should we honestly try to rectify the kernel of truth on which they are based?
Mottel of Letters of Thought answers:
Before we get into the particulars of your question, it's interesting to note a dichotomy in the Torah's treatment of the opinion of others...
On one hand it is stressed in Pirkei Avos (3:10): "He [Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa] would say: Whoever earns the good-will of the creations is the beloved of the Omnipresent, and he who the creations are not happy with, is not beloved of the Omnipresent." In halacha we see an even greater importance placed on what others think - in the form of Maris Ayin - what others could possibly assume by merely seeing one do something seemingly inappropriate.
On the other hand, there is great stress placed on the need to persevere in the face of adversity - no mater what others say. As such we see that the Alter Rebbe quotes a saying of Rabbi Yehudah ben Teima (also from Pirkei Avos 5:20) as the introduction to his Shluchan Aruch: "Be strong like a leopard, light as an eagle, run like a deer, and mighty like the lion to do the will of your Father in heaven." He goes on to explain that "strong like a leopard" refers to the inner strength needed to surmount those who scoff at one's divine service. One must be strong and stick to his inner resolve and initiative to overcome the negative comments and opinions of others.
Returning to your question then, when it comes to encountering negative stereotypes we must also deal with this dichotomy . . .
On one hand we must be strident to rid ourselves of anything that smacks at a negative stereotype or that might lead to a desecration of the Divine name. Besides ignoring obviously negative traits that we may posses, it is important to show others how an Ehrlicher Yid (an upright Jew) ought to act. In my own personal life I try to be generous and humble around others, hoping to break any negative stereotypes they may have (not to be stingy on a tip, smiling and wishing others a good day etc.). On the other hand, prejudice and hate are often symptoms of far more complicated problems - ignorance, personal turmoil in the 'haters' own life . . . there reaches a certain point when the problem is not within our power to correct.
Perhaps the best way to approach the issue is by taking a lesson from the recent Torah portion of "Vayigash". The Torah recounts the reunion of Yosef and Benyomin, saying that Yosef, "Fell on the neck of Benyomin, his brother, and Benyomin cried on his [Yosef's] neck."
On this verse Rashi tells us that Yosef cried for the Beis Hamikdash that was in his brother's territory and destroyed, and that Benyomin cried for the Mishkan that was in Yosef's area.
If these two great tzaddikim are crying for events that will befall Bnei Yisroel in the future, why were they crying about what would happen in the territory of the other brother, and not in their own?
The answer given in Likutei Sichos is that when we see something negative in another that we are unable to prevent, then we must cry to Hashem - to daven - that the person awaken spiritually and rectify the wrong. When something goes awry in our own "territory", then we can't sit back and cry - we must have the resolve to fix it.
What we show to the world is our responsibility to make perfect . . . what more the other thinks - is beyond our power.