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On Orthodox discourse

By Alexander Eterman

Posted June 5, 2004


I recently came across Bashevis Singer's story "Papa and a Forged Promissory Note," and the following passages caught my eye:

He felt a Jewish repugnance for anything to do with the police, the goyim, and the court.

"From what he had read in books, he knew that the gentile rulers of the world were unregenerate villains. They had no notion of justice..."

"Who knows whether he might have to stand with a bare head before the uncircumcised?"

"The promissory note found its way into the hands of some goyishe firm."

"If a Jew is capable of such a wicked deed, how can we blame the goyim?"

"Whoever does not revere the Torah is a Jewish culprit."

"What is the world? It is Jews serving the Heavenly King."

These are not isolated statements, but rather the sum and substance of the story. It is in this vein that the great un-Orthodox writer depicted the ideal, Orthodox, authentic Jewish reality of the late 19th century -- depicted it, moreover, with the greatest of sympathy.

The important question of the degree to which this description resembles reality is a separate issue. All in all, the resemblance is fairly faithful; at the moment, however, I am quite content with the simple fact that this is an apologetic description of Jewry by a Jewish classical writer, or essentially a collective self-description. Therefore, at least as a self-description this text is quite true to life. In other words, this is precisely how authentic Judaism saw and sees itself in the mirror of its own memory.

This is not to say, however, that in "real life" Bashevis Singer's hero (or rather his prototype) was so dogmatic (or, forgive the expression, xenophobic) that in an actual confrontation with real goyim he would eat them up alive. Indeed, the author himself, who is present in the narrative in a visible, tangible, and un-Orthodox way, found it necessary to point out that the ideal Jew was maltreated by a nasty Jew and saved by the loathsome goyishe court. Yet it is precisely against the story's sensible and real background that the hero's ethnocentric self-perception becomes particularly vivid and significant. What is most important, this self-perception earns the reluctant approval of the author himself: a real, authentic Jew must hate the goyim and everything they represent, along with many other things, such as Jews whose views differ from his own. The loss of this hatred certainly means the loss of authenticity. The author, whose viewpoint was not so dogmatic, sees this as his own weakness rather than virtue. If only he had this sort of authenticity, this yidishkeit, this self-sufficiency, this hatred... He heaves a heavy sigh.

Why do I bring up Bashevis Singer? What is this all about? To begin with, it is about the revealing chapter entitled "Animal Suffering and the Gentile" from Rabbi Eshkoli's book Tzaar Baalei Chayim (lit. "The Suffering of Animals", or, in the rabbinical jargon, the Torah injunction against inflicting pain on animals). There the author stumbles into an intriguing area; earnestly, from various aspects, on page after page, he begins to discuss the unexpected issue of whether the prohibition against causing suffering to animals equally applies to gentiles, whose status, according to the Talmud, is below that of animals (dogs, for example -- see below).

At this point Eshkoli's convoluted and vague arguments do not really concern us. Of far greater interest are the things he writes in the process, as well as the style and tenor of his passages. By way of illustration, I will quote several significant examples:

1) Rashi wrote [Pesachim 22 s.v. v'ito] "The dog is honored more than the idolater, for the animal which died on its own is sold to the gentile and the tereifah is given to the dog." In Kovetz Shiurim [Pesachim section 92] the author wrote that one should investigate this text, to see if there is an issue of preventing the suffering of gentiles as there is for animals, for it cannot be learned directly from the animals, as the dog is more honored than the gentile.

2) ...according to the Rashba [part one, 252], "The command about loading up a person, and of course unloading, is due to causing a Jew pain, and this is an analogy from minor to major from the animal," implying it is specifically his fellow the Jew to whom the prohibition against causing suffering pertains, but not the idolater.

3) In the pamphlet Seder L'Yaakov [pg. 396, entry suffering of the animal] the author added that we have found the animal is superior to the gentile, for we are forbidden to give the gentile a gift freely, while there is no prohibition against giving such a gift to an animal.

4) ...the Gaon Rabbi M. Sternbuch shlita [Moadim U'Zmanim, part seven, Beizah 144] wrote clearly that preventing animal suffering is also applicable to gentiles, for it appears that the words of the Chavat Yair apply also to the gentile. For only about a Jew can one say that because of his intelligent soul he understands that it is decreed upon him to suffer. The gentile does not have an intelligent soul, and there is no personal Divine supervision upon him as there is upon a Jew, so we should say that because of the prohibition against causing an animal suffering we are forbidden to leave them in suffering.

5) But the issue appears to me simpler: since there is no obligation to heal the gentile, it is proven that the prohibition on causing pain to animals does not apply to gentiles. It does not seem too difficult for me. The reason why animals get preferential treatment over gentiles is that the animals do not act against the will of their Creator, and why should we heal the gentile so he can go and anger his Maker?! We have found in the Gemara [Kiddushin 82] that since animals do not generally corrupt their ways, they are usually supported, but this is not the case for gentiles.

6) So matters will be clear, we will bring what the Shulchan Aruch says about our issue: a gentile who does not keep the seven Noachide commandments* it is even a commandment to kill, so if he is about to die there is no commandment to save him, and in principle it is also forbidden to heal him, even for payment, unless there is a fear of enmity. Thus rules the Shulchan Aruch [Yoreh Deah 158:1]:

Idolaters...we do not cause their death, and it is forbidden to save them if they are dying. One who saw one of them fall into the sea should not lift him up, even for payment. Therefore it is forbidden to heal them, even for payment, if it were not for fear of enmity (in which case one may do so even for free if he cannot avoid it; one may also try the medicine on [a person of] the idolaters, [to see] if it will help).

It would seem that this is the rule for most gentiles in the world, for robbery is one of the seven Noachide commandments, and in practice a Noachide is liable for the theft of even less than a prutah worth -- yet today's gentiles are not cautious about this, nor do their law courts sit in judgment about it.

7) Indeed, the fact that the gentile does not fulfill the commandments can also be the reason we do not abstain from causing him pain when need be (and not only the reason not to help him when he is in pain). For the Gemara wrote [Gittin 21] that a bill of divorcement written on the hand of a Canaanite slave is invalid, even if afterwards the hand is cut off and presented to the woman. It is clear to the Gemara there that it is not possible to cut off the hand of the slave since it is forbidden to harm him, but the Rashi there [21, s.v. lo] says: "For he is obligated to commandments and it is not permitted to harm him -- and if one did harm him, the slave goes free -- so we are not permitted to harm him."**

The whole reason why it is forbidden to cut off the hand of a Canaanite slave is that in any case he is obligated to commandments like a woman, and it is forbidden to harm one who is obligated to the commandments. This is why my friend the gaon Rabbi Reuven Miletzki shlita [head of the Choshen Yeshuot kollel] deduced that a Jew who bought a gentile as his slave but did not yet circumcise or immerse that gentile in the name of slavery, may cut off the hand of that gentile to write a bill of divorcement upon it.

**...Indeed, in the Shulchan Aruch [ibid. section 2] it is exactly so: "And even if one hit a Canaanite slave he is flogged, for the slave is obligated to the commandments."...

In the Yosef Daat [Gittin 21] it is written that one should apparently draw a distinction between hitting for no reason (which is, in principle, not allowed unless it is for purposes of work and accepting the yoke and discipline, for the slave is obviously no worse than an animal, to whom the prohibition against causing suffering applies) and true harm, like here, where one cuts off the slave's hand. In any case Maimonides wrote nearby [halacha 14], "That is why it is said 'with a rod' (Exodus 21:20), for the Torah only gave permission to hit him with a rod, a stick, a strap, etc., and not to give him murderous blows."...

8) But it is clear that these words are only said when Jews have ownership or control over the slave; it is certainly forbidden to grab gentiles in the marketplace and cause them pain for a Jew's benefit, for he is not their master.

The list of such striking passages may be continued.

A discussion of Rabbi Eshkoli's work quoted above, which took place in a respectable Jewish forum, sparked a typical apologetic reaction. It boils down to the following: the ideas offered by Eshkoli and many other Orthodox Jews pertaining to the piquant, thorny issue of the status of gentiles are merely academic, essentially no more than a case of theorizing in the ancient classical tradition. They are barely more than Jewish halachic semantics! In the real, non-academic world, the conduct and even thinking of Jewish Orthodoxy is determined by other factors which the authors of this reaction (AR) justifiably term social. Therefore an overly visceral discussion of Eshkoli's books should also be viewed as academic.

In my opinion, the AR have aptly noted one crucial element while totally overlooking another complementary one, creating thereby a paradoxical situation of being "a little pregnant". I believe that this oversight is not even the central element but rather sum total of the matter -- and for that reason, there is nothing to counter it.

The AR believe that the line taken by Eshkoli is not a practical, social-moral discussion about the relations between Jews and gentiles or the status of the latter in the Jewish Orthodox framework, but a theoretical, academic, scholarly debate within Jewish theory rather than Jewish practice. If that is the case, Eshkoli's deductions (if his conclusions may even be labeled as such) are not at all a description of collective Jewish behavior. Social conditions, in their opinion, predetermine social practice to the extent that they totally eclipse the theoretical postulates of the old orthodox theory.

The AR are only partially correct. It is true that practical reality is far more flexible than any theory. It is untrue that Eshkoli is so far removed from the practical -- as he understands it. What is much more important, however, is that the AR were not spared Eshkoli's sins -- as we shall see, they too commit the sin of scholasticism.

To begin with, I will gladly cite a vivid example that illustrates the a priori soundness of their position. As we know, Judaism prohibits a Jew from lending money at interest to another Jew. It is no secret that in real life (namely, in the business world), Orthodox Jews have totally ignored this prohibition for a long time (a very many centuries). Nor is it any wonder: obeying this prohibition would practically bar them from any complex economic activity. In essence, a refusal to charge interest means abstaining from any developed financial dealings, not to mention credit -- an unlikely thing to say the least outside the framework of a barter economy.

In this instance, the specific way in which the Jews managed to circumvent this Torah prohibition is of no significance. But what is of interest is something else. Some alternative version of Eshkoli could have sat down and written a treatise devoted to the problem of charging interest among the Jews -- a complicated and worthy topic, particularly since people continue to agonize over it to this day. In all likelihood, such treatises do exist, even though I personally have not encountered any. A work like that would conduct a deep and detailed discussion of the prohibition in question in all its sundry aspects, weighing the pros and cons of solutions found, the proper punishments for transgressors, and so on. An enlightened reader would probably conclude that anyone who charges interest or refuses to give interest-free loans to Jews is a sinner and a heretic, that real Orthodox Jews conduct their dealings without charging any interest, or that Orthodox business does not use bank credit as a matter of principle. At the very least, the reader would decide that this is a highly controversial issue open to serious practical differences of opinion. As we know, this would have been an incorrect conclusion: the issue of interest-free loans has long become hypothetical, and a Jew certainly calculates interest into all his business transactions -- both for the loans he gives (no matter whether to a bank, a colleague, or a company) and the loans he receives. Interest-free transactions exist only outside of the business world, in the purely non-profit domain -- in spite of the divine will clearly conveyed in the Torah. In other words, the gap between theory and practice, between discourse and reality in Judaism may very well be unbridgeable and absolute. Is there any reason we cannot envision this or a similar state of affairs in a different sort of discourse -- the one devoted to the Jewish attitude to gentiles? Can we not assume that theoretical xenophobia is quite capable of existing side by side with humanistic practice?

I will begin my reply with sincere perplexity. Eshkoli's treatise mainly deals with the problem of tzaar baalei chayim. In the course of his discussion the author begins to consider the issue of whether this ban extends to gentiles, whose status, according to the Talmud, is inferior to that of dogs. It is hard to imagine (in this case, we will accept it on faith) that Eshkoli considers this problem as completely real and seriously wonders about the legitimacy of inflicting pain on gentiles. If so, why even worry? There is no doubt that from the point of view of Halacha, today's attitude to gentiles is not determined by this injunction. Thus Eshkoli's discourse is purely hypothetical. Consequently it is harmless, is it not?

Unfortunately, such an approach -- essentially the one taken by the AR -- ignores several fundamental factors. The first and simplest: a discourse that is relatively harmless when dealing with lending interest becomes far from harmless when extended to human interactions, particularly interactions among human collectives. Here, alas, what actively enters the picture is social psychology, which cannot be totally indifferent to theory -- specifically, a theory that attempts to extrapolate from the treatment of dogs to the treatment of humans.

Essentially, the AR would probably agree with this. Indeed, all they maintain is that Eshkoli's academic theory does not provide a clear answer to the question of the actual nature of the relationship between Jewish Orthodoxy and the gentiles, and that in this context, social realities are no less important and fundamental than the literary. Naturally. What they overlook, however, is that the opposite is also true: theory has a clear, though not always direct, effect on social realities; in other words, the social environment determines the nature of social relations only to a partial, a highly partial, extent. If the environment were the only determining factor, relations between human collectives would be very similar over large parts of the globe due to the great similarity between their social environments. Alas, we are living witnesses to the vast diversity of inter-collective relations, rightly attributed to cultural, i.e. theoretical, differences between relevant collectives.

This is more than true where contemporary Jews are concerned: they dwell in alien (from the standpoint of their own Orthodoxy, see Bashevis Singer's story) Western social environments, and according to the AR's formula they should have thoroughly absorbed the social norms of the world at large. However, we know that the extent to which alien norms are absorbed is directly proportional to the extent a Jew is disassociated from Orthodoxy or, what is basically the same, the extent to which he accepts the social theories of the world at large. Thus theory is part and parcel of the social environment, and it is only the product of their merger that actually determines the nature of man's social behavior -- the collective's own theory coupled with the alien social practice. I would add that this is equally true in regard to the social behavior of other collectives living in alien social frameworks -- it, too, is rather characteristic. Recall the North African Arabs living in Europe, or the Chinese living in America, and the arduous social adjustments they have to make in their new environment. Recall also the whites in Africa and India, or indeed the way the European colonizers casually ignored local realities. On the whole, it is very simple: until the new collectives have absorbed the theoretical viewpoints of the old ones, they do not merge. Adherence to the collective's own (old) theory makes full convergence with external practical norms impossible. Unfortunately, the AR seem to have forgotten this commonplace fact.

Thus the ancient theory that marks the Jewish collective has a serious effect on its social behavior, an effect, moreover, that is particularly felt in the Orthodox community for whom theoretical discourse is an integral part of everyday life. There may be different opinions as to the scope of this effect, but the very fact of its presence is difficult to deny.

All in all, it is very dangerous to ignore the effect of theory on the collective it has conquered. We have an excellent example of this in Nazi Germany.

There is no doubt that Nazism started with theory rather than with adaptation to the social environment. The all-European or even Central European realities of the 1920s-30s can hardly be said to have been actual conduits of Nazism -- for if that were so, it would have achieved far more. The Nazi theory (some call it ideology), which seemed totally insane, laughable, and incredible at the start, rapidly conquered the masses despite the realities. Among other things, it gave rise to the hideous anti-Semitic discourse that had an immense impact on those masses. As a result, such a savage, mind-boggling, inconceivable to the 20th century European mind phenomenon as the physical extermination of Jews became possible, and was enthusiastically engaged in by the Germans. What is more, the Nazis continued with this essentially ideological policy, even though it harmed their military and economic interests, up until the very end of the war. This is how far adherence to theory can go.

There is no point in crediting me with an attempt to make a theoretical or practical comparison between Jewish Orthodoxy and Nazism -- or vice versa. The Jewish collective is radically different from the German one, just as radical National Socialism had very little in common with traditional Jewish nationalism. Nazism has merely provided us with a terrifying example of the power wielded by ideology, an example that is instructive from the theoretical and the practical standpoints alike. The Nazi theory succeeded (for a relatively brief time, although who knows what might have happened had Germany won the war) in discarding and nullifying the practical influence of the social environment -- a truly extreme instance of ideological success.

It should be noted that Russian communist ideology never theorized, let alone acted (consciously at least) in defiance of the environment -- therein lies its basic and probably most important difference from Nazism. The socialist hypothesis was in total conformance with the spirit of the time; the tragic socialist experiment was inevitable. The insane Nazi racial theory, densely mixed with obsolete mysticism, was a manifest ideological flop, a reactionary outburst unworthy of an a priori examination -- even though it obviously did not appear out of nowhere.

Jewish Orthodoxy does not pursue, either in theory or in practice, the objective of conquering the world [1]. It does, however, explicitly believe that the Jews are a chosen or a superior collective, the raison d'etre of the world's existence, the sole possessor of goodness and virtue, forced to endure while surrounded by active and total evil, in the midst of beings who are spiritually and physically inferior. Unlike radical ideologies, Judaism never viewed its social theory as a social objective, as a manual for action, as something realizable. The traditional nature of Judaism, its age-old history coated the Jewish social, political, and national theory with a sort of theoretical patina, which certainly fostered its isolation from social practice. We should harbor no delusions, however: this theory has a profound effect on its adherents -- fortunately, this effect is indirect and partially tempered by those same realhistoric facts mentioned by the AR.

All in all, this is a small consolation. In its theoretical form, Judaism looks downright barbaric. Voluntarily, and for no visible reason, it credits itself with the divinely inspired genocide of countless peoples (far more than the seven nations of Canaan). It publicly advocates the total extermination of all nations hostile to the Jews, and capital punishment for anyone who professes a religion or even an opinion that it considers inappropriate -- basically, anyone who disagrees with its views. It advocates open discrimination against gentiles along the entire spectrum of civic and economic rights and duties, and declares their inferiority in the eyes of the law -- even modern law.

To be sure, this is mostly theorizing. Still, theorizing of this type and scale, so ancient and enduring, obviously is not the exclusive domain of the Talmudic ivory castle; on the contrary, it permeates the Jewish world. In other words, it has always been and continues to be a national discourse, a part of living folklore, a central element of education, and a system of social coordinates. Finally, this theorizing quite frequently breaks out into the external realities -- as evidenced by an abundance of unsavory examples. The Jewish Orthodox community, to use a modern term, is a blatantly racist society. It proclaims and nurtures a system of attitudes toward gentiles that is non-egalitarian, discriminatory, and anti-universalist par excellence. In fact, it does nothing to conceal this fact; what is more, it makes it public knowledge, albeit sotto voce, making sure that this dangerous proclamation is not overheard by those it discriminates against. On the other hand, it only sometimes and always partially implements this theory in real life -- more often than not simply due to its powerlessness.

Given the circumstances, the question of practice can hardly be separated from that of theory. We could formulate this thesis in different, simpler, and more functional terms: the social psychology of the Orthodox community (i.e. the ideology entrenched in the collective with an orthodox firmness, to a huge extent forming the backbone of its existence) cannot be separated from its overall social image. In other words, the Orthodox society cannot help being racist and discriminatory -- otherwise it would simply cease to be orthodox.

Eshkoli's book is by no means an instruction manual -- it is merely an excellent example of an unacceptable Jewish discourse. Essentially, it contains nothing special apart from a wonderful selection of material. Nevertheless, let us take a close look at its passages. We should keep in mind that these and similar texts are a constant focus of discussion in Jewish Orthodox society, and this discussion involves even children of tender age. Let us recite its statements (mainly classical quotes) out loud: people of other faiths are beings who are inferior to dogs, causing them pain is possibly legitimate, they lack an "intelligent soul" and this puts them on the same footing with animals after all, in certain cases it is permissible to cut off a gentile's hand, there is no doubt that gentiles can be owned as property, and so on. Can a society that raises its children on such discourse, that tirelessly bombards their minds with these statements, that advocates such statements as part of the ideal reality that is worth striving for (and that will eventually come to pass, with God's help, and the sooner the better) -- can such a society be considered healthy and humane? Can it avoid being contaminated by the conventional, well-known virus of racism? Let us recall once again the horrible example of the Nazis. The Nazis produced and implemented a linguistically similar -- though possibly somewhat more modern -- discourse pertaining to the Jews. In a mere few years that discourse transformed the German people into a band of monsters. Who can guarantee that we who cultivate similar linguistics are completely immune to practical racism?

To conclude: it would be tempting to suppose that all of the above is totally superfluous. What good is empty theorizing? Is it necessary? It is not redundant and banal? Indeed, can anyone seriously give a clean bill of health to a collective that teaches its children hatred and contempt for people whose views and beliefs differ from its own, including people with whom it lives side by side, and at whose expense they often live? What else can we say about a collective that considers it natural that its members living in other countries enjoy all the rights recognized by liberal universalism yet withholds similar rights from people of other faiths living on its own soil? A collective that views humane treatment or simple respect for the "other" not only as divorced from its own interests but actually undesirable in principle, and possible only when its own interests are at stake -- and even then not always? A collective that raises hostility toward its neighbors -- regardless of their conduct -- to the status of a commandment? What is there to argue about?

Alas, it is not all that simple. To begin with, the questions raised above have been asked on numerous occasions -- and have invariably been explained away. Let me give you a typical example.

Question: The Jews have always been active in condemning the anti-Semitic discrimination practiced in various places throughout history, routinely denouncing the gentiles guilty of such discrimination as villains. How, then, can the Jews permit themselves to engage in theoretical and practical discrimination against gentiles?

Classical answer: What can we do? Unlike the others, we are truly the chosen people carrying out God's will. We did not invent this mission -- it was given us by God.

And so, what are we to do now?

Above all, we are not to keep silent. We must remind ourselves and those around us that such an answer can only satisfy the answerer himself. It is tautological at its very core! What is even more important, however, is the fact that this answer will not bring the answerer any peace of mind -- or joy for that matter. As a matter of fact, he should give some thought to the nature of the social equation he has drawn up; after all, it is the perfect recipe for nurturing hatred, the notorious five minutes of hatred depicted by Orwell. Suffice it to recall the already nurtured immanent enmity between Jacob and Esau, Israel and Amalek. Educating a Jew consists to a large degree of teaching hatred.

Yet fostering hatred has never boded well. There are weighty theoretical arguments that support this conclusion. In fact, the Jewish sources contain numerous passages indicating that at least some of the insiders realize that playing with hatred and discrimination is a dangerous game that is liable to end badly. The problem is that such practical pacifists have always been a negligible minority within the Jewish orthodoxy.

Unfortunately, even practical anti-discriminatory considerations have failed for centuries to gain the upper hand in Jewish Orthodox society. The internal ideological factors invariably win over the real interests of Orthodoxy, however vital they may be. The leaders of Polish Hassidic courts doomed their followers to collective death in the Nazi concentration camps by forbidding them to leave their community -- for the sake of protecting the collective Hassidic loyalty. And the Hassidim obeyed.

I believe that the chances of reforming Orthodoxy overnight, let alone changing the thinking of its adherents, are slim. Nevertheless, at least a religious minority is troubled by the questions raised above. I urgently recommend at least removing Eshkoli's treatise and similar texts from the school curriculum -- even if only in non-Haredi educational institutions. The ultra-Orthodox teachers will ignore my advice in any case -- in their eyes, these incredibly dangerous works are mere formative formulae indispensable to collective life. They are not deterred even by the fact that playing with fire always almost leads to a conflagration. What does it matter? They believe that violation of collective rules is far more terrible. Therefore we are not simply churning water.

Finally, let us return to the AR. It seems to me that they failed to think through the simple idea that they had almost finished expressing and that I merely elaborated upon: social practice is inseparable from social theory and social discourse, but only to the extent that theory is inseparable from practice. They form an intricate alloy that defines the real image of any collective. Thus an ancient discourse may be highly dangerous, even if ninety percent of its contents remain purely theoretical.

[1] Although it certainly dreams of it.