Friday, November 30, 2007

Adventures in Jewish Bigotry II

Why am I posting to my blog this late at night?

Because I had a fairly disturbing experience tonight when learning with my hhevruta in a beit midrash with a number of somewhat Yeshivish high school students around.

One of the students called another one the N word, and my hhevrusa objected. So we got into a long annoying conversation trying to explain to these kids why using racial slurs is inappropriate. Luckily, some of them understood what we were saying and may have even gotten the message. Others, though, were completely racist, and justified their use of the slur by claiming that it's fine to say accurately-negative things about people who "deserve" it. A few tried to pull that Hham was cursed nonsense out, but I smacked them down by quoting the actual verse and revealing to them the fact that Cana‘an, who was cursed, actually looked just like us and not like Sub-Saharan Africans or African-Americans.

For some strange reason, the crazier ones of them seemed to think that sticking up for the humanity of human beings is something that only "leftist treehuggers" do, but I corrected them when they asked my hhevruta if he is such a person — he's actually a Republican, while I'm the Leftist Treehugger. Which brought up other political issues which I wasn't interested in discussing, such as the War in ‘Irāq, Gay Marriage, and Gun Control.

I'm hoping that we changed a few minds, at least a little bit, and impressed upon some of them the need for sensitivity and recognition of humanity. Even if you insist that the ethnic slur you're using is only being used to refer to the "bums" of that group, that doesn't excuse it — because that's not what people think when they hear it. Slurs are nivul peh (linguistic self-degradation), and using them even to refer to a supposedly "appropriate" subset of a group is mar’it ‘ayin (causing other people to suspect you of doing something wrong even if what you're doing may technically be okay).

But what shocked me the most was one kid's insistence that there's no value, need or obligation to be a nice person. It's like the idea of being a mensch wasn't even on his radar. I blurted out "Are you [even] Jewish?!" when he said that, which probably wasn't the right thing to say (because it may imply that other people don't also need to act human), but there's a reason why we in particular call it "being a mensch" — acting like a caring, mutually-respectful member of a human civilization is one of the primary goals of Yahadut! It always shocks me when people don't understand that what God wants from us is to care about and respect each other.

So I'm just going to go with the hope that the fact that they call me "Mr. [LastName]" is a sign that they consider me a respectable adult (as opposed to it being because they don't know my firstname, or my simply being older and balding or something), and somehow that might give my and my hhevruta's words more weight than if it were just him, who they grew up with and probably consider just one of the guys. Even if I am an UnYeshivish Leftist Treehugger. And when I (iy"H) get semikha and become a rabbi, I can claim Da‘as Torah, and they'll have to listen to me!...


Blogger Ezzie said...

And when I (iy"H) get semikha and become a rabbi, I can claim Da‘as Torah, and they'll have to listen to me!...

...not when you're an "UnYeshivish Leftist Treehugger"! ;)

It's funny hearing people make comments like that and then try to defend it. It's best to have them do so around one of their own rabbeim who won't put up with it - that happened in my HS, and that Rebbe laid the smackdown on those guys from all angles. :)

11/30/2007 3:05 AM  
Anonymous brother reuven said...

"Are you even Jewish??"

Great response. Perhaps not the most rhetorically effective, but you cut to the heart of the matter.

After all, as it says in gemara Yevamot, "Shlosha simanim yesh beumah zo - rachmanim, bayshanim, vegomlei chasadim"

I.E. How to tell if someone who claims to be Jewish actually is not? If they lack compassion, a sense of shame, or generosity.

11/30/2007 8:21 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


A highschool rebbe (although we didn't use that word) of mine once came to my college to be a pseudo "scholar in residence" one shabbos, and a guy there asked him a question he thought was rhetorical, assuming that he would agree with him, and therefore getting "daas torah" style backup for his view in an argument with other people — but then the teacher gave the answer of this guy's debate-opponents, completely taking him by surprise.

Brother Reuven:

Maybe it's time to re-appropriate the true meaning of that passage in a more organized fashion...

11/30/2007 9:20 AM  
Anonymous brother shimon said...

How would you recommend doing it?

I think the key to reading it properly is the term "simanim", as in: signs of identity -- or signs of kashrut in animals.

It doesn't say "Jews are..", it says "You find Jews by looking for.."

11/30/2007 10:01 AM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

"One kid's insistence that there's no value, need or obligation to be a nice person"

I guess Hillel was a leftist treehugger.
"What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole law, the rest is commentary"
A better argument for derech eretz is hard to find.

11/30/2007 5:38 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

And note that the argument that by 'fellow' (brother) is meant kin, ergo a Jew and only a Jew, is countered by the fact that Hillel was speaking specifically to a Gentile.

I mention this because I have encountered the argument that what you should for your brother only applies to and among Jews - both verkrampte Jews, and you-know-what-type of Gentiles, have asserted this. When Jews say it, it is ignorant. When Gentiles say it, it is poison.

11/30/2007 8:31 PM  
Blogger Lion of Zion said...

"A highschool rebbe (although we didn't use that word)"

once, way back in e.s., someone asked me who my rebbe is. i had no idea what he was talking about.

12/01/2007 10:26 PM  
Blogger beverly said...

I ran into a similar comment, although not exactly in a yeshivish environment. A rather forward thinking (orthodox) rabbinical student was giving a shiur on social justice in halakha, and introduced it by saying "many times, it's our friends to the left, the Conservative and Reform movements, that emphasize social justice. Tikkun Olam has come to be the catch phrase of the conservative movement."
Many of the students at the shiur tried to explain to him that while orthodoxy is primarily focused around the letter of the law, Conservative and Reform Judaism take the liberty of replacing halakha with soical justice.

12/02/2007 10:37 PM  
Anonymous said...

OY...if you only knew the shlock I hear at my school. As you know, I teach at an urban public high school in Los Angeles. Our demographics are mostly Latino with high percentages of Armenians. The Latinos and Armenians really don't get along; at least not when out on the campus. In classrooms there tends to be little problems, especially with me. You see, the kids know I don't put with with that shit. (pardon me) I constantly tease them too. I say things like, "Get into groups, and each group must have one Latino and one Aremenian". Then I joke and tell them how I promise they won't get cooties or something like that from the other. Joking, making light of how silly it is to have these thoughts help to break them down.

12/03/2007 12:10 AM  
Blogger ALG said...

Ugh. Yuck. I'm glad you said something.

12/03/2007 2:45 PM  
Blogger Michael Koplow said...

Yasher koahh for not just ignoring this.

My favorite speaker on the Ortho rabbinic circuit in Chicago often tells his audiences that bigotry is not OK, it's not OK to put people down because they're not Jewish, not white, or not our kind of Jewish. Most non-Orthodox rabbis don't bother telling their audiences this stuff (except for maybe the part about other groups of Jews) since they assume they know this already. How sad that this rabbi needs to do so.

Last Shabbat at someone else's table, my wife mentioned the university she'd graduated from about thirty years ago. Someone said the colors there have changed. Naive doofus that I am, I assumed this meant the athletic teams changed their uniform design. My wife replied that the school had always been integrated and diverse, and she liked it that way. Unfortunately, my wife's understanding of what this person meant was correct and mine wasn't.

12/06/2007 12:54 PM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

I don't know how much time you spend in yeshivish culture. I live in it. When this kind of thing happens to me, I don't feel outrage anymore. I'm beyond that. I've developed a sort of weary cynicism about the whole matter.

I can't stand that so many Orthodox Jews are bigots, but for me it's a personal thing. Every time I hear a racist remark from a frum person, and how natural they make it sound, as though it were so obvious that everyone present should agree, I think to myself, "Why am I hanging out with these people?" Nowadays I rarely challenge it directly unless it comes from a friend, but I make sure never to make it seem like I'm agreeing with them.

It's not just about morality. It's also about credibility. How can the very people who seem to be beacons of Torah have such backwards opinions about humanity? What does that say about the Torah itself, or at least the Orthodox interpretation of it?

You can argue all day that these people are racist in spite of their Torah learning, but I know that's a lie, and I think you realize that too. A frum person who wants to be a racist can find plenty of traditional Jewish sources to support such views.

This is one of the reasons I have trouble seeing myself ever going into kiruv. I simply don't have it in me to spin. I'm not prepared to paint an idealized picture of Orthodoxy that I know doesn't exist. If someone asks me about how Orthodox Jews treat blacks, I'm likely to be perfectly honest and tell them that there's a great deal of racism among Orthodox Jews, but that it isn't universal. Not exactly the most inspiring message to give to prospective baalei teshuva. But I'm not going to lie to them and tell them that racism is an anathema to the Torah view. It isn't. There are plenty of legitimate nonracist interpretations of Yiddishkeit, but I'm not going to pretend they're the only ones in town.

At the same time, the last thing I want to do is provide fuel for the obsessive anti-Semites who scour the sources to prove that religious Jews hate Gentiles and want to destroy them. I know that isn't true, either. Racism has about the same relationship to Torah as amulets do. Except that amulets never hurt anyone.

Sorry for my ranting and raving, but then you never want to get me started about Orthoracism. You've learned your lesson.

12/07/2007 9:12 AM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

If someone asks me about how Orthodox Jews treat blacks, I'm likely to be perfectly honest and tell them that there's a great deal of racism among Orthodox Jews, but that it isn't universal.

The same for me when I explain that Dutch society is extremely and rigidly bigoted - but that that is not true for the individual members of the society, most of whom are far from bigotry. The dynamics of the group imposes boundaries that are at odds with many individual members.

At the same time, the last thing I want to do is provide fuel for the obsessive anti-Semites who scour the sources to prove that religious Jews hate Gentiles and want to destroy them. I know that isn't true, either.

Sorry - the obsessive anti-Semites can find such proof everywhere. It's called having a rich imagination.

The same process can also be used to prove from Talmudic sources that Jews are actually aliens from outside the solar system who came here because their own world was dying. Which, several months ago, was exactly what someone tried to convince me of. If you cruise into some of the anti-Semitic websites out there you will notice a wealth of "proof" that malforms whatever source it quotes from to show exactly what the writer wants it to show. Or simply invents whatever source it needs.
[Which reminds me of the person who tried to prove to me that the real Jews were actually the ancient Hindus, based on the Mahabharata ..... The Pandava brothers were clearly Jews (the Semites in retelling the tale evidently changed the five shvatim to ten shvatim - process of narrative elaboration), why even the name of the oldest brother (Yudistira) proved the utter Jewishness...... ]

12/07/2007 3:56 PM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

Do you live in Holland? If not, you don't face the same dilemma. Being Dutch isn't a choice. Being an Orthodox Jew is. I have to justify that decision--not to others, but to myself. When racism seems to sit so comfortably with Orthodoxy, it makes me uncomfortable and leads me to question my own religion.

You're right that anti-Semites don't need proof. There will always be the lot who quote from nonexistent Talmudic tractates and claim that goy means "cattle." But there are some more sophisticated critics out there whose attacks on Yiddishkeit are not so easily dismissed. It is possible to make the Jewish tradition seem grotesque without telling a single lie.

12/08/2007 7:22 PM  
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