Navigating Antisemitism Through Jewish Wisdom and Tradition

In the wake of the pandemic, the issues of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism have become more prominent than ever. Instances such as the tragic death of George Floyd, the distressing discovery of numerous graves of Aboriginal children linked to residential schools in Canada spanning the last century, and the alarming surge in openly antisemitic rhetoric and actions over the past year have placed these concerns at the forefront of our collective consciousness.

The Jewish community, in particular, has experienced an alarming rise in antisemitic incidents in various locations, including Charlottesville, San Diego, Poway, Boston, and even Washington, in addition to traditional Jewish centers like Brooklyn, Muncie, Montreal, and Toronto.

Despite facing baseless hatred and persecution, commonly identified as antisemitism in contemporary discourse, the Jewish people have remained resilient as a strong and proud community. They have not succumbed to hatred toward others, maintaining their steadfastness in the face of adversity. The question arises: How have they persevered and resisted succumbing to hatred?

Guided by the wisdom of Jewish texts and Rabbis, profound ethical principles have been imparted through the ages:

  1. “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others,” Rabbi Hillel, 1st.century AD *1
  2. “Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Torah, Exodus *2
  3. “Care for the widow and the orphan,” Torah, Exodus *3
  4. “Do not bear a grudge against your neighbour” Torah, Leviticus *4

The State of Israel, deeply rooted in this rich biblical tradition, upholds the mandate to “not oppress the stranger.” In embracing this ethos, Israel has actively sought to integrate Arab and non-Jewish residents into its social fabric. Despite unfounded allegations of “apartheid” and “colonialism,” Israeli Arab citizens contribute across professions, including government and the military.

In line with the biblical injunction to “care for the widow and the orphan,” Israel maintains a robust social welfare system, providing universal free medical care, public education, and impartial application of the rule of law, irrespective of socio-economic status.

Beyond its borders, Israel shares scientific knowledge with struggling nations and exemplifies compassion in times of crisis. It is consistently among the first responders, delivering medical supplies and aid globally, including recent assistance at the collapse site of the SunnySide condo building in Florida.

In his insightful work “Not in God’s Name,” Rabbi Sacks challenges misinterpretations of biblical stories, illustrating a foundational premise: the Creator’s equal love for all humanity. He explores the roots of antisemitism, acknowledging human instincts like sibling rivalry, but advocates character development education centred on fostering brotherly love as the antidote.

How can one attain such a profound education?

Studying the teachings of Rabbis over the centuries shows a deep understanding of how education can be meaningful and transformative. They use tools like storytelling, questioning, analysis, and repetition to promote a life centred on brotherly love. These tools are seamlessly integrated into Jewish daily life. The Passover Holiday Seder is a clear example, demonstrating how these principles are effectively implemented. Let’s analyze the Passover Seder to see how this educational approach works.

  1. Jewish education begins with the children, and it starts in the home. So naturally, 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.
  2. 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 symbolically connects us to the harsh reality of slavery in Egypt, a reminder of the profound lack of control over one’s destiny. As we partake in the matzo and sample the “marror,” the bitter herb—often embodied by horseradish on the seder plate—we encounter the tangible taste of the bitterness of oppression and servitude throughout the evening.

In our ritual, we recount the Ten Plagues that befell Egypt, dipping a finger into the wine and extracting a drop for each plague. This act serves as a poignant reminder of our empathy for the suffering of the Egyptians, who endured those afflictions and met a tragic end at sea. Recognizing them as fellow creations of God, we shed tears for their plight, acknowledging our shared humanity in the face of adversity.

3. You clarify that this narrative isn’t just about someone else; it’s an account of your own experiences.

“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. Each year, you observe the ritual, whether in the wartime Warsaw Ghetto of 1942 or facing the challenges of a modern-day pandemic in Montreal. The Haggadah text confirms:

“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.”

Studying this text each year during Passover and sharing it with others adds a special energy to the reading. It connects to our imagination as we go through different stages in life and adjust to our specific circumstances.

At my family’s Passover table, we have a tradition of sharing our story—surviving the Holocaust in Hungary and escaping to Montreal from Soviet Hungary. Indeed, you also have a story of overcoming challenges.

I firmly believe that if everyone could experience a Passover seder, global animosity would fade away.

Postscript:

On August 2, 2021, I couldn’t resist indulging in a musical satire on the Seder/Passover storytelling. The source of my amusement was a delightful acapella group called 613 and their creation titled “A Lion King Passover.”

 

Footnotes:

  1. Hillel, Talmud Shabbat 31A
  2. “Do not oppress the stranger,” Exodus Chapter 22:20
  3. “Care for the widow and the orphan,” Exodus Chapter 22:21-22
  4. “Do not bear a grudge against your neighbour,” Leviticus Chapter 19:18
  5. Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Schocken Books, 2015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *