Are We A Race & Are We Racists?

We have just finished commemorating our creation as a nation. We recited at the Seder,Vayehi shom legoy – We became a nation there,” and we all spent much time discussing who we are after all these years. But what exactly does it mean to be a Jew? The old question asks, “Are we a race or a religion?” Ben Gurion somewhat disingenuously raised the query “Who Is a Jew?” This was actually a question whose roots are in the Haskalah (see Avrohom Kurman, Yehudi Mihu Mahu, page 99). Rav Saadya Gaon defined our essence for all time as “our nation is a nation only because of the Torah.” Yet, our enemies from both without and within have always tried to define us in various self-serving ways, usually to our detriment and often to our peril. To be sure, we have always believed that while we are a specific people, definable by certain traits and common characteristics, anyone can join us if they follow the time-honored guidelines of geirus, proper conversion. Until recently, the concept of a distinct race has become unpopular in academic circles. Yet, that has suddenly begun to change, with important ramifications for Klal Yisroel.

Just before Pesach, a front page article appeared in The New York Times Review (Sunday, March 25, 2018). Written by a respected Harvard Professor of Genetics, Dr. David Reich, it seeks to reverse decades of rejection of the very concept of race and nationhood. The author, quoting from his forthcoming book, “Who We Are and How we Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past,” contends that political correctness and well-meaning people who fear a new Nazism have ignored or distorted the scientific facts about various groups and “human populations.” The “orthodoxy” that developed about race was that “any research into genetic differences among populations…is located on a slippery slope that leads to…justify the slave trade, the eugenics movement and the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews.”

However, Dr. Reich concludes that “as a geneticist, I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races.’” In other words, science has come full circle to the conclusion that there are, in fact, distinctions amongst various nations and populations in the world.

Reich and his colleagues quote many studies that prove this fact clearly and indisputably, though they struggle with how deal with this somewhat disturbing situation. It seems as if they suddenly discovered that, in fact, the sun circles the earth and aren’t quite sure how to react.

To the Torah Jew, however, this is not only not a chiddush, but one more proof that Am Yisroel can and should proclaim its uniqueness, just as many nations have their own identity and character.

The Maharal (Netzach Yisroel, chapters 1 and 30) teaches that every nation is entitled to its own independence and space without being subjugated by another. Yet, the Torah clearly recognizes the differences amongst various nations. Amon and Moav may never enter into Am Yisroel (Devorim 23:4), while Edom must only wait three generations (Devorim 23:8). On the other hand, the novi (Malachi 2:10) declares unequivocally, “Have we not all one Father? Did not one G-d create us all?” How do we reconcile these seeming contradictions?

I remember a Torah Umesorah convention where someone stood up at one of Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky’s Thursday night question and answer sessions. He inquired, “Rebbe, how do we answer people when they ask what the difference is between us and the Nazis, lehavdil? We believe that we are the Am Hanivchar and they believe that they and they alone are the Aryan race?” Rav Yaakov, in his usual perceptive way, picked up on the fact that the questioner himself was bothered by the issue and he was not just asking dispassionately and hypothetically. “You must know and understand,” Rav Yaakov answered the struggling fellow, “that the Nazis claimed to be the Aryan race in order to subjugate and destroy others. We want to be the Am Hanivchar so that we can have more obligations, more restrictions, and, if necessary and Hashem so decrees, to suffer for our beliefs.”

All of us who heard the d’var Hashem from Rav Yaakov that day will never forgot the essence of our uniqueness as a nation and what it means to be different. Nor could anyone listening ever consider being a racist for a moment. Rav Yaakov ingrained in us all – and I am sure all present did so into their own talmidim over the past four decades – that while every nation carries its own DNA, ours requires us to be avdei Hashem and answer to a higher spiritual calling. In a sense, contemporary science seems to be coming around to Rav Yaakov’s prescient teaching. Indeed, everyone is not the same. We must recognize those differences even as we accept that our own come with requirements far beyond those of the rest of humanity.

Another reason Jews cannot be racists is that, unlike the Nazis who would never allow a Jew to join the “master race” no matter what they did, as we mentioned earlier, almost anyone can join the Jewish people. In fact, today, there are virtually no distinctions among would-be converts since the ancient divisions amongst forbidden nations are completely lost (see Kiddushin 78b and Rambam, Issurei Bi’ah 12:25). Avrohom Avinu is called the father of all mankind (Bereishis 17:8; Yerushalmi, Bikkurim 1:4; Rambam, Bikkurim 4:3) and all geirim are related directly to him (see Maamarei Pachad Yitzchok 37:2). For this, a convert may recite “the G-d of our forefathers” since Avrohom Avinu is truly his father as well (Teshuvos HaRambam, Freiman ed., No. 41). The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (Bamidbar 9:14) adds that although the ger was not with us physically in all our travails and triumphs, his spirit was surely present. The Chidah also explains that the Gemara uses the seemingly superfluous terminology “ger shenisgayer – a convert who converts” because his soul was already at Sinai, even though his physical self did not catch up until much later. Thus, every soul that connects to Am Yisroel is as fully accepted as every other, sometimes even more so.

Now that all this has been said, we must examine what our sages have taught us about the genetic makeup of Am Yisroel. The Gemara (Yevamos 79a) states categorically that “this nation [Am Yisroel] carries three distinct traits. They are compassionate, bashful and perform acts of kindness.” The Rambam in three places records this fact as halacha, indicating that the absence of these middos in a person creates a legal doubt about his or her Jewish ancestry. Sometimes, our innate generosity leads us into trouble (beginning of Yerushalmi Shekalim) and the rabbis had to legislate limits upon certain aspects of our charitable endeavors so that we would not impoverish ourselves (Kesubos 49b and Rambam, Arachin 8:3, Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 249a). Thus we see that we have always understood that the Jewish essence is that of nobility and magnanimity. Although the Torah praises us for our insularity and unwillingness to assimilate amongst the gentiles (Bamidbar 23:9), we are also enjoined to be a “light unto the nations” (Yeshaya 49:6).

With the world rapidly growing smaller with instant communications, there have been ample opportunities for kiddush Hashem, although the danger of its opposite always looms large as well. I fondly remember a video clip someone showed me of a Chinese news channel flashing a picture of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l. At first, I couldn’t understand why that communist nation would be interested in our gadol hador. However, then I discovered the astounding truth. China had been struggling with the phenomenon of thousands of poor people selling a kidney for the princely sum to them of $10,000. Their ethicists, politicians and legal minds were debating whether or not to legalize the process, but they realized that something was very wrong with the picture. Then they heard that an old rabbi in Jerusalem had ruled that people could donate a kidney, but could not sell it as a property. Some of Rav Elyashiv’s talmidim reported that he had quoted the Rav’s Shulchan Aruch (beginning of Hilchos Choveil Umazik) that “ain l’adam reshus al gufo klal – a person has no proprietary rights over his own body” and therefore may not sell any part but he may save a life with it. In any case, a kiddush Hashem was created and a light unto the nations in the farthest of places had been shined.

We clearly are not racists, but like many other nations, we are a race. Our mandate is to be the best human beings and the best Jews that we can be, so that both we and the world will benefit from our presence. If we fulfill that noble ideal, we will surely merit to bring a kiddush Hashem wherever we go and whatever we do.