Dear Inroads editors,
It is no surprise that non-Jews would fall for Yakov Rabkin’s book Au nom de la Torah – as would liberally minded Jews such as Michael Benazon, who lauded it in Inroads (“Where have all the rabbis gone?”, Summer/Fall 2005). Rabkin’s history of ultra-Orthodox Jewish enmity toward Zionism is based on the foundation that the ultra-Orthodox rabbis and sages believed in a universal message of Judaism, loved humanity and were visionaries. After all, many non-Jews have read the endearing tales of Hasidim by Martin Buber and Elie Wiesel and seen the folksy film Fiddler on the Roof. However, the foundation of Rabkin’s book is totally false. On the contrary, all the rabbis he refers to demonized non-Jews, especially Arabs, and disdained Western values such as secular education and rights for women.
Rabkin’s book glorifying racist fanatics made me reflect on my education in yeshivas (Orthodox Jewish religious schools) in Montreal and New York in the 1960s. I have long silently struggled with ultra-Orthodoxy’s contempt for non-Jews in contrast to other magnificent Torah declarations of the supreme dignity of each human being. There are too many Jewish apologists who are proficient in knowing how to sanitize the ugly teachings for the non-Jewish public.
Let us consider what the ultra-Orthodox rabbis Rabkin mentions – Chafetz Chaim, Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Elhanan Wasserman, Moshe Dov Beck, Israel Eichler and especially Joel Teitelbaum – actually preached. Were they paragons of virtue, as Rabkin claims, or the Jewish counterparts of Wahhabi Islam without the cult of the sword?
The fundamental misunderstanding that Rabkin perpetuates is that ultra-Orthodox Jews believe in a universal code of ethics that applies to Jews and non-Jews alike. In fact, there are countless hostile laws against Gentiles in Orthodox Judaism, some of them astonishing. All the classical texts of Judaic law state that the beneficiaries of ethical commandments – love your neighbour, return a lost object, don’t stand idly by when your friend’s life is in danger – are only fellow Jews. A Jew who hits a Jew pays damages; a non-Jew who hits a Jew is liable for heavenly death.1 Even though any mother’s milk is kosher, a Jewish baby should not be breastfed by a non-Jew because her milk spiritually contaminates him.2 In Torah commentaries, a non-Jewish woman is called a zona, a prostitute.3
It is only in the past two centuries, when the Conservative and Reform movements originated, that Judaism was liberalized and its ethics were universalized. There is an unbridgeable chasm between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. Because liberal Jews do not read the Jewish sacred writings in rabbinical Hebrew, they are unaware that the discourse of ultra-Orthodoxy is a universe apart. Moreover, less objectionable words such as “heathen”, “Canaanite” and “Cuthean” were substituted for “non-Jew” by censors centuries ago to disguise the racism in the Talmud and other sacred books. Although some Modern Orthodox rabbis are uncomfortable with extremist interpretations of the Torah, a taboo against washing our dirty linen in public renders the public unaware. Extremist Muslims also were able to live under the radar until the 9/11 attacks and suicide bombings.
One of the fundamentals of ultra-Orthodox Judaism is a distancing as much as possible from the goyim (Gentiles), derived from Leviticus 20:26: “And I have severed you from other people.” For example, ultra-Orthodox Jews wear long black coats and wide black felt hats, even under the broiling summer sun, because clothing is the most visible sign of a distinction between them and the Other: non-Jews are regarded as prone to murder, sexual immorality and theft.4 There is a direct correlation between their abhorrence of the Gentiles and their hatred of the Zionists because the founders of Zionism were secular Jews who wanted to normalize the situation of the Jews in relation to other nations.
Rabkin’s major mistakes are that he relies too much on secondary sources, such as books by Aviezer Ravitzky and Yeshayahu Leibowitz; that his quotes from the primary sources are highly selective; and that, as he admits, he doesn’t speak Yiddish, the lingua franca of Hasidic Judaism. As sociologist and educator George Kranzler wrote in the Modern Orthodox journal Tradition, the Brooklyn, New York, weekly Der Yid, the official Yiddish voice of the Satmar Hasidim, is “perhaps the most influential Jewish publication today.”5 Without the Satmars – the largest Hasidic group in the world – and particularly their revered leader, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887–1979), ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism would now be a footnote to Jewish history. Rabkin devotes much of his book to Teitelbaum and the Neturei Karta, an extremist and weird faction of the Satmars numbering only a few hundred. Understanding their doctrine is of prime importance.
As with all ultra-Orthodox newspapers – which ban pictures of women, sensationalism and sports articles – Der Yid serves as a vehicle to transmit “ethical values” to its readers, especially children. Here are some of the items that have appeared in Der Yid over the years:
Rabbinical proclamation, September 19, 1969: All God-fearing Jews must not study in university. They must avoid its “teachings of heresy” so as not to destroy the “vineyard of the House of Israel.”
Story, April 23, 1986: Teitelbaum was angry that a Gentile overcharged him in a transaction: “God helped me and the goy was struck down by an unnatural death … So should all your enemies be destroyed, O God.”
Rabbinical proclamation, July 8, 1988: Women are strictly forbidden to drive a car because of licentiousness, just as they are forbidden to ride an animal.
Instruction, October 7, 1988: “We are not allowed during the Exile a light unto the nations. We are not allowed to teach Torah to the goyim to convince them of the truth that God is King of the world. Let them be deluded and leave us in peace.”
Prophecy of a top rabbi, February 21, 1997: “When the Messiah will arrive, the world will be filled with God’s knowledge … then God will exterminate all the goyim with the wicked people.”
Story, March 31, 2000: The late Shinover Rabbi saw a letter of a non-Jewish alphabet scrawled on his bench. He screamed, “Help! Do you know how much filth there is within that single letter?!”
Quote from the Kabbalistic book Zohar, January 11, 2002: Before the Messiah arrives, God will exterminate the Arabs in the Land of Israel.
From Teitelbaum’s scholarly output: Gentiles are prone to sodomy; Gentiles are created only to serve God-fearing Jews; Gentiles will die natural deaths while Jews will live eternally (comment on the Messianic hope in Isaiah 25:8: “He will swallow up death in victory”); repentance for sins benefits only Jews, not Gentiles.6
Teitelbaum was not alone. When the Chafetz Chaim – who lived in Poland and was the preeminent ultra-Orthodox sage until he died in 1933 – heard of the earthquake in Tokyo in 1923, which killed 100,000 people, he declared that they were punished because they were not observers of the Torah, and God’s purpose in causing it was to rouse Jews to repent.7 Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, explaining the biblical verse in which Sarah demands that Ishmael (patriarch of the Arabs) be expelled from Abraham’s household (Genesis 21:9–10), said that since the Arabs live a life of idolatry and sexual immorality, the Jews must separate from them.8
Moshe Dov Beck, whom Rabkin interviewed at his home in Monsey, New York, wrote that the soul of a non-Jew is all evil. While a Jew is a unique creation whose purpose is to observe God’s Torah, a non-Jew is naught before God.9 Rabkin quotes Israel Eichler, editor of HaMachne HaChareidi, the weekly of the Belzer Hasidim, on guarding the “holy Torah.” However, Eichler recently published a Talmudic law in his “holy Torah” column that, although it is forbidden to defraud or steal from a Gentile, it is permitted to keep his financial loss in a business if he errs, just as one does not have to return his lost item.10
Rabkin relates a story about the anti-Zionist sage Chazon Ish: when he met Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, he refused to shake Ben-Gurion’s hand or look in his eyes. He might have been interested in a similar story reported last November in the ultra-Orthodox weekly HaModia. Anti-Zionist Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, the Belzer Rebbe, was worried about his vision: “During the checkup, the doctor told him to look at a bird that flew above them. But the Rebbe said that he doesn’t know what a bird looks like for he had never seen one. The reason he never looked up is because he guarded himself from seeing the face of a goy.”11
Rabkin mistranslates Elhanan Wasserman’s statement that the Torah is emphatic that one has to be solicitous of and love the ger, meaning the stranger. Although the word does also mean stranger, in this context the ultra-Orthodox define ger as a convert to Judaism. Indeed, it is heresy to love the alien because it violates the prohibition not to give a gift to a non-Jew, gratuitously, and not to admire him.12 Although one must not cause animosity toward Gentiles, since according to the Talmud one must act “for the ways of peace,” there is absolutely no love for Gentiles in ultra-Orthodoxy. All non-Jews are considered idolaters in the voluminous ultra-Orthodox Responsa.
How on earth can Rabkin repeatedly describe these rabbis, who abided by a theology of hatred, as engaged in the “humanitarian preoccupation” and “global dimension” of Judaism, and possessed with political acumen? Then again, the august New York Times – whose journalists also do not read Yiddish – was duped when it published a prominent, respectful obituary of Rabbi Sender Deutsch, the founder and editor of Der Yid, in 1998.13
One of the very few courageous individuals battling the wall of silence surrounding racism in Judaism is a former ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Yaron Yadan, who founded the organization Daat Emet (True Knowledge) in Israel, and was profiled in a five-page article in the country’s largest-circulation newspaper, Yediot Achronot.14 He has received death threats but nonetheless perseveres. As the ghettos and persecutions are long gone and Jews now thrive in vibrant democracies, we can also fight the good fight.
— Jacob Mendlovic
The author replies
Dear Inroads editors,
I wish to thank Mr. Mendlovic forhis illuminating and thought-provoking letter. I have three points to make in reply.
The issues Mr. Mendlovic raises are irrelevant to what Professor Rabkin is attempting to do in his book: to show that traditional Jewish thought has been opposed to Zionism. Mr. Mendlovic may or may not be correct in his view that the ultra-Orthodox are both racist and sexist. This is not the point. Professor Rabkin argues that the rabbis of all the major Jewish denominations opposed Zionism until they became aware of the Holocaust and the plight of the survivors, and then most Reform, Conservative and some of the Orthodox Jews changed their minds about Zionism. Mr. Mendlovic does not dispute Professor Rabkin’s careful marshalling of the evidence.
Mr. Mendlovic presents a basically ad hominem argument. He wishes to press his charge that the ultra-Orthodox rabbis were and still are racist and sexist. But even if he is correct, his charges do not and cannot detract from Professor Rabkin’s argument. The rabbis can be racist and still oppose Zionism on legitimate religious and practical grounds. Moreover, Professor Rabkin’s book goes well beyond the ultra-Orthodox and encompasses Reform and other liberal Jewish arguments against Zionism.
Mr. Mendlovic’s views, as briefly set down in his letter, are of great interest. But to be effective and convincing, his arguments need to be elaborated and reorganized. The quotations cited should be analyzed and their context explained. We need to know how modern ultra-Orthodox rabbis interpret statements made in the Middle Ages or earlier. And Mr. Mendlovic has to learn to hold his resentments in check and to present his arguments in a balanced and fair manner.
Readers who wish to judge for themselves can now read Professor Rabkin’s book in the recently published English translation, A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Black Point, NS: Fernwood/Zed Books, 2006.