Judaism and Racism

Not surprisingly, Judaism is opposed. Sadly, however, there are misconceptions among some about what racism is. They point to the status of the Jewish people as the "Chosen people," as a license for a form of racism. Others are racist against Jews because they resent the Chosen People claim.

In all cases, the racist will explain their views with any "because." "I don't hate them because of the color of their skin, I hate them because XYZ." We've all heard that before. Is it racism? Yes. The minute the word "them" in the sentence above refers to any ethnic, national, or religious group, the racist has identified himself.

Who is one allowed to hate, then, according to Judaism? As King David said in the Psalms, "Those that cause God to be hated, those also I hate." In other words, King David expresses his hatred for those who caused the faithful to exchange their love of God for hatred. Those who perform evil deeds are deemed worthy of hate.

Jews have traditionally been in the forefront of the fight for civil rights. That is based deeply in our tradition. And yet, on occasion we will hear of hotheads in the Jewish community expressing racist sentiments towards Arabs. We all know that an ongoing war between Israel and the Arabs exists. We know that, despite our best efforts, peace has not yet broken out. Is it fair to expect one to not be racist against one's enemy?

Actually, fair is not the question. The question is, what does Judaism think? What does God want?

God tells us. "Do not despise the Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land." This is shocking. Egyptians enslaved us, beat us, and threw our male children into the river. Some hospitality! Why shouldn't we despise the Egyptian? They were our enemies! They behaved terribly.

The answer is, it is legitimate to despise the Egyptian who beat you and threw your child into the river. But not every Egyptian did that. There were also more Jews murdered in Poland during World War II than in any other country. There were many Poles who cooperated with the Nazis.

And there were more Righteous Gentiles in Poland during World War II than in any other country. The point being that you can never generalize. Just because someone was Polish didn't mean they were going to kill you. They very well might have risked their own life to save yours.

Jonah the Prophet was summoned by God to go and call upon the people of Nineveh to repent. Jonah did not want to, and attempted to flee. Why did he resist? Because he saw in prophecy that the Assyrians that he would save would someday make war on his own people of Israel. Therefore, he did not want them to repent, so that God should destroy them.

Now, Jonah was clearly choosing the welfare of his own people over the welfare of a future enemy. That might seem fair! But God didn't think so, and through the whale, made sure that Jonah fulfilled his mission. The results was that the people of Nineveh indeed repented and were saved.

After this, Jonah was very upset about what he had done in saving Nineveh. He still didn't get it. You see, Jonah made a fundamental ever. He believed you can be racist against your enemy. How else can we explain his preference to see such a large city destroyed? What he didn't realize was that Israel's battle with Assyria will be Israel's fault, because they will not be righteous. And even if Nineveh would have been destroyed, God would have found the appropriate nation to perform His will and chastise Israel.

Then God makes his point clear by causing a tree that had grown overnight and given Jonah shade, to wither and die. Jonah was distraught about the tree. God rebuked him by saying, "You have mercy on the tree that came overnight and disappeared overnight. Shall I not, then, have mercy on the city of Nineveh, with all of its people and living things?"

In other words, every human being is precious in the eyes of God. Those who perform evil should be taught to repent. If they fail to change, then they may be hated. But to hate a nationality, ethnicity or religion, in toto and through generalization, is against the will of God. Each nation is made up of human beings who have great potential, and who are dear to God.

I hope that the hotheads, who are, thankfully, a small minority, will start chanting "Life to the Arabs, life to the Arabs, death to the terrorists, life and strength for the good people." That's what God wants, life. He wants His creations to love one another.

Converting to Judaism

To become Jewish, there are three main requirements. They are: 1. Acceptance of the divine commandments, 2. Circumcision (in the case of a male only), and 3. Immersion in a ritual bath. Traditional Judaism requires all three of men, and the first and third of women. There is no wiggle room, any element missing invalidates the conversion.

I will not elaborate about those movements that seek to perform conversions without the necessary elements. Such "conversions" are clearly of no use. A ceremony, no matter how nice it is, and no matter how beautiful the certificate, is not a valid conversion according to traditional Judaism. There must be acceptance of Jewish religious observance, circumcision for the man and immersion in the ritual bath for all.

It is on the first element that the controversy rages. How does one define acceptance of the divine commandments? Is it an ultra-Orthodox interpretation? Perhaps merely desiring to identify as a Jew should be enough.

It is fascinating how unique Judaism is among the religions of the world! Not only does Judaism avoid proselytizing, rabbis will actively dissuade potential converts from joining the religion. Contrast that with Christianity and Islam, which both actively seek converts. At some point in history, they did so at the point of a sword. Islam still does this, wherever it can.

Why would Judaism push away potential converts? Shouldn't we expect a religion with so few people to seek to expand its numbers, and thus gain more influence in the world? If Judaism believes itself to be the true religion, why shouldn't it welcome converts?

The answer is, Judaism does welcome converts, as long as they are sincere. And, here is a crucial difference with other religions. Judaism does not require someone to be Jewish in order to be "saved." All that is required is adherence to the seven laws of the sons of Noah, the basis for universal morality. They include not killing, stealing, committing sexual immorality, idolatry, blasphemy, consuming the flesh of a living animal, and a requirement to establish a system of justice.

That's it, that's all that is required. All humans who obey the seven rules have a portion in "the world to come," and find great favor in God's eyes. There is no need to convert to Judaism. In truth, there is a very strong argument NOT to convert to Judaism.

Judaism requires 613 commandments. That's a lot more than seven. Once a person becomes Jewish, that is how intense their required religious observance is. Failing to observe those commandments is a sin, and thus we do not encourage non-Jews to accept that responsibility. It's not doing someone a favor to encourage them to accept responsibility without being completely certain that they are prepared to do so. Once the accept the responsibility, and fulfill it, then their reward is certainly great!

For this reason, traditional rabbis discourage potential converts until such time as they are convinced of their sincerity. If the potential converts keeps coming back, and insists that they wish to join the Jewish religion, then they are encouraged to study the details of the 613 commandments and Jewish religious observance.

Thus, the first requirement of acceptance of the commandments, is meant to protect the soul of the potential converts. We want to make sure they are prepared to fulfill this awesome responsibility. Without this acceptance, there is no basis for conversion.

Now, many wish to convert for reasons other than religion. They may wish to convert for marriage, for Israeli citizenship, or for social reasons. If a person wishes to convert solely for the purpose of marriage or practical reasons, and has no intention of observing Judaism, such a conversion is a tragedy. (Born Jews who are not observant are a separate discussion).

Conversion is a responsibility, not a right. To inter-dating couples, who are considering conversion for the non-Jewish partner, I strongly urge you to avoid nontraditional conversions. While they may alleviate an immediate family pressure situation, such conversions will not be recognized by all branches of Judaism. Should your children become involved with partners from a more traditional background, they may face a very difficult situation when their Jewish status is questioned.

I am not urging you to break up the relationship, but rather consider the consequences. I am urging you to learn about traditional Jewish observance, and consider a sincere conversion which will lead you to living a Jewish life. If that does not interest you, I suggest keeping the status quo and making it clear that one partner is not Jewish. If that partner is the woman, the children will be considered non-Jewish and will need to convert authentically should they wish to change that status. It is your free choice, and should be taken with all due consideration.

Within the realm of acceptance of the commandments there is some disagreement as well. My personal opinion is that the "big three" of Sabbath observance, Kashrut observance, and family laws including mikva, are the absolute minimum. Once the potential convert has agreed to observe these laws, as a starting point, I believe they should be welcomed. More orthodox people may require more of a total commitment. My feeling is that a sincere commitment to the basics is worth much more than a total commitment that may not be as sincere, but rather simply to "get the rabbinate off my case."

Conversion is a highly respected act, involving self-sacrifice and commitment. It should not be any less, and to eradicate the core of commitment is to render it a meaningless, social gesture. Inter-dating couples do not need to convert, if they do not intend to lead observant Jewish lives. Simply to do so in an inadequate ceremony, to assuage the guilt of some Jewish parent, is dishonest at best.

All branches of Judaism should recognize the time honored requirements of conversion, and thus preserved Jewish unity and the core commitment that has enabled Jewish survival throughout the centuries.

The Chosen People

Is there something genetic that makes the Jews "chosen?" Are we simply born different, with greater innate abilities? If so, is that fair to the rest of the world?

While genetics influences many things, and is a legitimate science, I don't believe it has anything to do with Israel's election. Genetics can influence of IQ, health, appearance and other things, but it does not make a nation favored in God's eyes. God created all of mankind, and therefore he loves them all and affords them equal opportunity to come close to Him. Unlike other religions, Judaism recognizes each human being's right to spirituality and fulfillment. It is a perfect spiritual democracy.

So what is the difference between the Jewish people, say, and the Germans? What is the difference between "the chosen people," and "the master race?" Further, are there differences between Nazi Germany and the ancient Egyptian persecution of the Jews? Well, if I'm asking, then there must be a difference!

To my simple mind, it is simple. The difference is in the vision. This is what has completely defined Israel, ancient Egypt, and Nazi Germany. When a people has embraced a vision for the world, they pursue that vision with great vigor and effectiveness. This is as scary as it is reassuring. Scary, because some nations have very troubling visions for the world. Reassuring, because others have very beautiful visions. The ongoing conflicts in the world are the conflicts of competing visions.

For example, Nazi Germany had a vision of a world dominated by a master race. This race was the strongest, and was to thrive by exerting its strength on the weaker nations. They were to enslave them, exploit them, and, in some cases, kill them. Their vision was one of war and "glory," leading them to domination.

For as long as they could, they fulfilled this vision. They created exactly the kind of world they dreamed of. Only when stronger powers with more humane visions intervened were they stopped. There are nations in the world today was equally scary visions. There is an urgent need for the stronger powers with the humane visions to intervene once again.

Ancient Egypt subscribed to the vision of power as well. However, their vision focused on the glory of Egypt, not on some racial supremacy. They had no need to subjugate other nations beyond the strengthening of their own empire. Other races were not deemed "inferior" and worthy of extermination. They were simply the utensils through which Egypt built up its glory.

There was no nation as valuable to Egypt as nascent Israel. Already back then, we had demonstrated our unique talent. Pharaoh's greatest fear was that the Israelites should "join with our enemies and flee the land." If Egypt really didn't like the Jews, they should have been overjoyed had they left the land. Instead, they did everything possible to keep them in Egypt. This is because nascent Israel helped Egypt achieve its vision of being the most spectacular power of the ancient world.

And therein lies the secret of the "chosen people." We are chosen because of the choice that we, ourselves, made at Mount Sinai. We signed on to God's vision. Just as all the other powers achieved, at least partially, their visions, so shall we achieve ours. The sole difference is that our vision is God's vision. It is a vision of world peace, spirituality, high ethics and human fulfillment. Our vision has kept us going for thousands of years. It will continue to do so until it becomes the reality of all mankind.