Monday, May 21, 2007

"Thou Shall Not Be Prejudiced"

(Picture courtesy of

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen commenting on "Heimishe" Racism :

Do not despise any human being and do not reject anything; for there is no human being who has not his hour, and there is no thing that has not its place." (Pirkei Avos 4:3)

Rav Shlomo Wolbe was a leading sage of Mussar who passed away a few years ago. In an essay titled Klall Olam - the World Community - Rabbi Wolbe guides students of Torah towards a proper relationship with the outside world. A student of Torah, he writes, follows the instructions which are cited in the above teaching from Pirkei Avos. He therefore develops the ability to recognize and appreciate the good in everyone and everything. A Torah student also learns how to recognize that which is not good; nevertheless, when he must criticize someone or something, he does not deny the purpose of that person or object within the creation. The same approach, teaches Rabbi Wolbe, applies to evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of other peoples, as they too have a place and a purpose within creation. Rabbi Wolbe reminds the student of Torah that although we, the People of Israel, have a responsibility to maintain our separate identity and unique role, we also have a responsibility to remember the following truth:

"We shouldn't negate the peoples of the world to say that they have no place in the universe or that their wisdom is not really wisdom; for they were 'created'; thus, without them, the creation cannot reach its goal!" (Alei Shur)

We carry much pain and anger within us as a result of the past and present suffering of our people. In addition, we feel much bitterness over the way most of the world abandoned us during the Holocaust. The current revival of anti-Jewish hatred in many countries is once again causing us to feel isolated and vulnerable. Our feelings are understandable, but we have a responsibility to maintain a balanced Torah perspective regarding the peoples of the earth. As the people of the Torah, we need to remain loyal to the totality of the Torah's vision, including its universal vision for all humankind. I would therefore like to share a story about a prominent Torah educator - a Holocaust survivor - who served as an example of how to respect other peoples in the spirit of the Torah:

Rabbi Binyamin Steinberg was the principal of the Bais Yaakov high school for girls in the city of Baltimore. He was also a close disciple of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, a leading Torah sage. In a biography of Rabbi Steinberg titled "A Matter of Principal" by Hanoch Teller, we find various stories about how he educated his students to respect all human beings and all creatures. On one occasion, Rabbi Steinberg entered a classroom and found the teacher very upset. It seems that one of the students has been entertaining her classmates with a derogatory story about a dark-skinned person. When the teacher told him what had happened, Rabbi Steinberg became incensed. He reminded the students that we don't like it when Gentiles make derogatory remarks about us, and he continued:

"A special level of sensitivity is expected from us, the Jewish people. Our people is one that has suffered immeasurably from persecution. Thus we are expected never to speak or act in a way that reflects a lack of sensitivity. We have been enjoined to respect all people and never to forget the suffering that we have endured."

Rabbi Steinberg then reminded the students of the Divine promise to Avraham, "through you all the families of the earth will be blessed" (Genesis 12:3, 26:4, 28:14). And he added the following comments:

"You ask, 'Who cares about all the families of the earth?' Nevertheless, that's what the Torah says...The People of Israel will be a blessing for all the families of the earth. That means the Albanians, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Indonesians, the African Americans - all the families of the earth. That's what it says in my Torah! "


At May 21, 2007 at 12:54:00 PM EDT, Blogger Moshe David Tokayer said...

In a biography of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook ZT"L I recall reading a quote that went something like this: "I love all of G-d's creation." Then he described every level of creation from inanimate objects at the low end of the scale to Torah scholars at the high end. He said, "I love inanimate objects because G-d created them. I love plant life more. I love animal life more, etc. I love all human beings. I love Jews more. I love Torah scholars most."

That's not an exact quote but it's the gist.

I understood from this that there are definite differences between different parts of the creation and because of those differences he related to them differently. But he still loved everything and everyone because everything is created by G-d.

I was really taken by the acknowledgment of differences together with the overflowing love. Truly a great man.

At May 21, 2007 at 7:38:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this posting, Reb Yosef.

That's what it says in "my" Torah, too!

(PS: Yosef ben Shlomo HaKohen is author of "The Universal Jew," Feldheim Press, an important work of Jewish ethics, written in the form of a father-and-son correspondence, which deals extensively with the Torah's vision of the fellowship of all humanity, as well as the kinship of all creatures.)

At May 21, 2007 at 8:20:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Rabbi Sears: Thanks for the recommendation. I will definitely try to find a copy. However it looks like all the available copies are fairly pricey.

I will keep looking nevertheles...

At May 25, 2007 at 1:13:00 AM EDT, Blogger Larry Silverstein said...

Everyone prejudices Jews. I blame the inherently anti-semitic mainstream mass-media.

We need more Holocaust documentaries and movies.

At May 28, 2007 at 8:04:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

I would love to hear how this Torah squares with the beginning of Masechet Avodah Zarah.

Each nation is brought before HaShem and their achievements pointed out, and then denounced because they weren't for the sake of Torah.

I understand that obviously they still had their place in creation, but if in the end they are made to feel worthless, why in the middle is the story any different?

Of course it's different, but I'm asking why is it different?

At May 29, 2007 at 7:23:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to that Gemora, the nations claimed that whatever they accomplished in the world, they did for the sake of Yisrael, so that Yisrael could study Torah. Hashem replied that they did not do all this for the sake of Yisrael and the Torah; they did it for the sake of their own pleasures and drives. Hashem was not saying that they had no accomplishments; Hashem was denying their claim that all their accomplishments were accompained by the holy intention of helping Yisrael study Torah.

At May 29, 2007 at 7:49:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

@R'Yosef ben Shlomo HaKohen

I appreciate your d'rash on masechet avodah zarah, But:

In the sefer Otiyot d'Rabbi Akiva there is a similar line-up of the letters (competing to be the letter with which the creation is begun) and each one coming before HaShem arguing their case, there each letter brings forth its own attributes and HaShem shoots each one down in turn.

[I drew the parallel because in both cases the petitioners leave בפחי נפש and the format is very similar]

In the case of the nations in masechet Avodah Zarah, they specifically pin all of their good attributes on Yisrael's Torah as if knowing full well that Yisrael's Torah is the only acceptable reason to have done anything. Why didn't they point out how they kept the 7 mitzwoth Bnei Noah?

Which, to me, still leaves the question hanging.

After some thought, I think the answer is more as follows: (and I suggest this alternative understanding humbly, willing to be shot down בפחי נפש if it is wrong :) )

The Torah is the only thing in this world with inherent value.

Nothing else has value in and of itself. Everything else has value only in that it was created by and is sustained by HaShem.

The reason we are told to recognize that everything has it's place and it's day is so that it will not be a stumbling block (for ga'avah) before us. Similarly we as Jews are required to respect all of creation because 1. there is Godliness in it and 2. not doing so would cause ga'ava in ourselves which is the same as denying the Godliness in it.

So, in masechet Avodah Zarah, the nations had nothing to pin their achievements on other than to claim that they were supporting Torah.

I think this understanding is pretty close to the reading of the Notzer Hesed (Rav Yitzhak Issaac of Komarna) on the relevant quotes from Pirkei Avot.

At May 29, 2007 at 8:45:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The passage in Mesechet Avodah Zarah states that the nations failed to fulfill the Sheva Mitzvos, which is probably why the nations did not point out how they kept the Sheva Mitzvos.

At May 31, 2007 at 9:39:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Yup, I stand corrected on the Sheva Mitzvot, I forgot about that part of the discussion. I guess the question becomes, did the nations think they were actually supporting bnei yisrael in their torah? Otherwise why would they all have claimed that?

But I guess I've wandered far enough from your initial post :)

At June 16, 2007 at 12:14:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yosef hakohen is a humble yet remarkable talmud torah possessing the G-d given ability to relate the ancient/eternal teachings to our times. his book"the universal jew" is excellent and should be used in batei knesset widely.
re the previous exchange: amar rabbi akiva, she'hapasuk beginning of breishis 5: "toldot adam...these are the generations of adam, on the day that H" created man(adam)He made him in the likeness of G-d." this pasuk indicates the brotherhood of all humanity.
therefore "v'ahavta lereacha kamocha", you should love your fellow as yourself. the pasuk finishes " I am H'". when you do that you invite the Divine Presence.


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