First posted on Times of Israel
Some in today’s American Jewish community seem to ignore or even condone race-baiting against others. Whether this phenomenon is a result of insularity, self-interest, or bald racism, all those who care about the Jewish community would do well to reflect upon how to address this failing. With the current rise in racial tensions in America, now is the time to collectively ask ourselves: What is our responsibility as Jews in the face of threats made against others?
It is a matter of public record that in 1861, after South Carolina had already seceded from the Union, Rabbi Dr. Morris Raphall delivered a pro-slavery sermon from his Bnai Jeshurun pulpit in NYC. Making the case for not going to war, he observed that slavery is sanctioned by the Torah, and instead offered the following reproach: Southerners should carry out slavery in a more “humane” fashion, and Northerners should not denounce “a sin which the Bible knows not.” As he put it:
My friends, I find, and I am sorry to find, that I am delivering a pro-slavery discourse. I am no friend to slavery in the abstract, and still less friendly to the practical working of slavery. But I stand here as a teacher in Israel; not to place before you my own feelings and opinions, but to propound to you the word of G-d, the Bible view of slavery. With a due sense of my responsibility, I must state to you the truth and nothing but the truth, however unpalatable or unpopular that truth may be…
When I learned first of this sermon, I was shocked. What would prompt a very learned and worldly person – someone who lived in a free state and was well known for his outreach to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike – to utter such words?
To put it simply, Rabbi Raphall allowed his concern for Jewish self-preservation to become his moral blind spot. The stakes were high for Jews on the eve of the Civil War: would Jews have to take up arms against one another? Would they become the new underclass after African-American emancipation? How concerned should they be about the anti-Semitic statements made by prominent abolitionists? And lastly, what would the financial consequences be for Jews involved in export? As a responsible Jewish leader, he likely considered these questions and others too in deciding what to say to his congregation that day.
Rabbi Raphall was not paranoid. He was sober and realistic. And yet, with all his good intentions to protect his community and his people, he made the same mistake as some who choose not to intervene when Jews are in danger. He became the paradigm of how completely appropriate concerns about one’s own community might lead to permitting or even to perpetrating racism against others.
There is so much Torah, from ancient to modern, that demands respect, care and protection for the other. But for some today, these adages are simply not compelling. Perhaps these demands sound facile or overly trusting, and do indeed clash with concerns for self-protection. Or maybe these demands have become inconvenient, and are displaced by more personal concerns. Maybe, knowing how Jews have been victimized over our long history, people have become too comfortable with elements of our tradition that express the opposite orientation.
Regardless of why, the result is the same: the commanding moral voice of Jewish tradition seems to be falling on many deaf ears. And it is disheartening to think that the bonds of loyalty to one’s own should translate into indifference or antipathy toward the fate of others. Moreover, if current events are any indication, it has already been proven naive to think that the targeting of other groups will not extend to the targeting of Jews; after all, racism is racism, is racism.
I would hope and imagine that many who end up turning a blind eye to racism or even end up perpetuating it are actually no friends to racism in the abstract. However, it is precisely in the move from the abstract to the concrete that making the right choice does not always come easily. It is for this reason that it is incumbent upon us to confront this challenge openly, honestly, and with a sense of urgency.