Friday, May 15, 2009
Rabbi Avi Shafran: Not a license... a responsibility ~
Even with the surfeit of silliness passing these days for “Torah commentary”– the manufactured “midrashim,” “original interpretations” and Biblical passages turned on their heads – I was flabbergasted to read a homily disparaging the Chafetz Chaim.
The Chafetz Chaim, of course – Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan – was renowned for his saintliness and sagacity, and for his monumental works on Jewish law, including two on the laws against slander. When the Polish sage died, in 1933, The New York Times’ obituary noted that he had shut down his store when he realized that its success born of his renown was imperiling other local storekeepers’ income.
What exercised the contemporary sermonizer, whose words appeared in an Israel-oriented magazine, was the Chafetz Chaim’s comment on an undisputed halachic ruling, that even a sinner, if Jewish, can be counted as part of a prayer-quorum. The Chafetz Chaim had elucidated the reason behind the ruling: “Even though he is a sinning Jew,” the great rabbi explained, “his holiness endures.”
The magazine-homilist, a Jewish educator, found that statement “not so enlightened,” indeed “particularly problematic in an era when racism has fallen out of favor.”
Racism? To most of us that word implies mistreating, or at least disliking, someone because of his ethnicity. There are observant Jews who are racist; observance, unfortunately, doesn’t preclude any of a number of irrationalities. But affirmation of “Jewish election” – the concept that the Jewish people was chosen by G-d to be a holy nation with a holy mission – has about the same relationship to racism as a sizzling steak has to a slab of cold tofu. (No angry e-mails, please – I like tofu!) For that matter, Jewish chosen-ness is a belief held by many non-Jews as well.
And what sort of “racism” permits its targets to switch races? While Judaism doesn’t encourage conversion, anyone not born Jewish but willing to undertake commitment to the faith’s laws and undergo the conversion process is fully welcomed into the Jewish people. Does David Duke let Pakistanis join his whites-only club? Would Louis Farrakhan let Mr. Duke become an honorary black?
The bottom line: Jewish chosen-ness, from the Jewish perspective, entails no disparagement of others. It is not a license but a responsibility, to live by the laws of the Torah and to set a holy example for others – to shine forth in belief and behavior as the prophet Isaiah’s “light unto the nations” (42:6).
But, yes, even one who has failed to shoulder that responsibility doesn’t thereby lose that responsibility, or his status as part of his people. The relative who let you down, even terribly, remains your relative.
The derivation itself of the concept of a prayer-quorum implies as much. The Talmud divines the requirement of ten men for a public declaration of G-d’s holiness (like, for example, the recitation of the Kaddish) from the use of the same Hebrew word, b’toch – “among” – in both the verse “And I will be [declared] holy among the Jewish people” and the verse “Separate yourselves from among the congregation,” the latter concerning the followers of Korach, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron. Since the word “congregation” – “edah” – in that latter verse is in turn used in yet a third one, “How much longer, this evil congregation?” (referring to the ten Jewish men who scouted the Holy Land and delivered a misleadingly discouraging report), the Talmud concludes that a “holiness” prayer-quorum requires ten Jewish men (Berachot, 21b).
And so the very source of the quorum is rooted in references to sinners. That speaks loudly about the Jewish faith’s demarcation of Jews as special, sinners and all.
Maybe the contemporary educator is not aware that the concept of Jewish election itself dates somewhat farther back than the Chafetz Chaim, to the Torah itself. Or maybe he is, but rejects the idea nonetheless, choosing to see it as “racism.”
I suspect he doesn’t really deny what is, in the end, a basic Jewish conviction; he’s just uncomfortable in our universalist times with the notion that the Jewish faith sets Jews apart (the essential meaning of the Hebrew word for holy, “kadosh”) . But I think that he knows it does and, deep down, accepts the fact. That alone could explain why, as the biographical note at the end of his essay states, come fall the writer will be joining the faculty at a Jewish day school in California.
Not a Catholic, Muslim or Hindu school. A Jewish one.