How to deal with racism, prejudice and antisemitism: this issue has confronted all of us front and center during this year of Covid-19: Do I need to mention George Floyd, the discovery of 1000’s of graves of aboriginal children assigned to residential schools in Canada and the recent spike in openly antisemitic words and actions over the last year?
Jews have been especially shocked by the uptick in antisemitism; hatred addressed towards Jews in Charlotteville, San Diego, Poway, Boston, and even in Washington aside from Brooklyn, Muncie, Montreal, and Toronto, the larger centres of Jewish habitation.
The Jewish people have endured baseless hatred and persecution defined in recent times as antisemitism throughout history: nevertheless, they have endured as a strong and proud community and have not succumbed to hatred of the other. How have they done it?
Jewish texts and Rabbis advise:
- “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others,” Rabbi Hillel, 1st.century AD *1
- “Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Torah, Exodus *2
- “Care for the widow and the orphan,” Torah, Exodus *3
- “Do not bear a grudge against your neighbour” Torah, Leviticus *4
The State of Israel is heir to this rich biblical tradition: Harkening to the dictum, “Do not oppress the stranger,” Israel has tried very hard to include Arab and other non-Jewish co-residents of Israel in its social fabric. As a result, Israeli Arab citizens are found in every profession in the country, including the government and the army, notwithstanding the Palestinian calumny that Israel practices “apartheid” and “colonialism.”
“Care for the widow and the orphan,” Torah, Exodus *3
Israel has always had a social welfare system that includes universal free medical care, public education and the rule of law applied equally to rich and poor.
Israel has made efforts to share her scientific knowledge with many struggling states all over the world.
Israel continues to be the first to arrive with medical supplies and assistance at every national tragedy, anywhere globally, including the US, most recently at the site of the collapse of the SunnySide condo building in Florida.
In his book, Not in God’s Name, Rabbi Sacks *5 analyzes several biblical stories that he claims have been misread, such as the stories of sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Isaac and Ishmael Esau, Joseph, and his brothers. And, he demonstrates the underlying premise of the Hebrew Bible that God, the Creator of all humans, loves and cares for each of us equally and wants us to imitate Him and always care for each other as brothers.
He posits that although the roots of antisemitism may be part of our basic instincts as human beings, via human foibles such as sibling rivalry, that I have reviewed in a recent post, the only remedy is education in character development that focuses on brotherly love.
How does one achieve this kind of education?
We can look at Rabbis of the last several millennia and their deep understanding of how education can be both meaningful and transformational. Rabbinic teaching uses every possible educational tool to achieve its aims, to educate for a life of brotherly love: These include narrative, questioning, analysis, and repetition. These tools are embedded in every aspect of Jewish life and daily practice. There is no better template for Jewish education than the Passover Holiday Seder, which is celebrated annually by Jews worldwide and illustrates how these principles are put into practice. Let’s look at how this works by analyzing the Passover seder.
- Jewish education begins with the children, and it starts in the home. So naturally, therefore, everything about the family seder is geared so that children will notice and ask questions, from the traditional “four questions,” which are to be asked by the youngest participant at the table, to every other detail of the evening.
- The Passover seder is experiential learning. You tell the story with props and reminders for young and old. For example, Jews are instructed to consume only unleavened bread – matzah – during the seven-day Passover feast. At the seder table, we point to the matzah and say, “This is the poor bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt.”
The matzo serves as a reminder to remember what it was like to be a slave in Egypt and have no control over one’s life. Through tasting the matzoh and the “marror”, the bitter herb, often horseradish, also present on the seder plate, we taste the bitterness of slavery and oppression several times during the evening. We recite the Ten Plagues visited on Egypt while dipping a finger in the wine and removing a drop for each plague to remind us that we also feel for the distress of the Egyptians who suffered those plagues and drowned at sea. They, too, are G-ds’ children and God, and we weep for them as well.
3. You then explain how this is not someone else’s story but your own.
“We were slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. And the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched forearm. And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors from Egypt, behold we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” (Haggadah text)
4. You repeat the ritual every year, regardless of circumstances, whether you are in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 or Montreal amid a pandemic. The Haggadah text states:
“Even if we were all sages, all discerning, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, it would be incumbent upon us to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. And anyone who adds and spends extra time telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, behold he is praiseworthy.”
Magically, studying this text on seder night and reviewing it year after year, the reading comes alive for each one of us in a different way that connects to our imaginations at every stage of life and to our particular circumstances, every year of our lives.
At my own family’s seder table, every year, we shared our family story of having survived the Holocaust in Hungary and having fled Soviet Hungary to rebuild our lives in the safety of Montreal. No doubt you, too, have your escape from slavery story.
I genuinely believe, If everyone in the world could experience a Passover seder night, the hatreds of the world would disappear into thin air.
- Hillel, Talmud Shabbat 31A
- Do not oppress the stranger, Exodus Ch 22:20
- Care for the widow and the orphan, Exodus Ch 22: 21-22
- Do not bear a grudge against your neighbour, Leviticus ch. 19-18
- Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, by Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Schocken Books, 2015