A Tale of Two Letters

 (First published as an Op-ed in the Jewish Press, January 12, 2011)  

   Twenty rebbetzins in Israel recently issued a public call to Jewish women “not to engage in romantic connections with Arabs.” The declaration followed in the wake of a number of cases where Jewish women either inadvertently or intentionally became involved with Arab men and suffered grievously as a result.

 More tellingly, it followed the controversial letter of 300 rabbis calling on Jews not to sell or rent homes to Arabs in Jewish neighborhoods. So first their husbands ban real estate transactions with Arabs, and now the wives prohibit social relations. What’s next?

 What’s next should be interesting to behold as opponents of the rabbis’ letter vehemently objected to their psak in the most caustic and sometimes insulting terms, and moralists of all stripes compared the ban on home sales to Arabs to the Nuremberg Laws and the bygone era of discrimination against Jews across the globe.

 The problem, of course, is that the Nuremberg Laws also prohibited social relations between Jews and non-Jews, so the same criticisms should pertain here. But if those criticisms are again lodged by the same critics, does it then mean we have reached a stage in this era of political correctness in which rabbis (or their wives) or Jewish leaders are not allowed to call for Jews to marry other Jews?

 Must we stand mute as the intermarriage rate exceeds 50 percent because we are obligated to pay greater obeisance to ideals of the equality of man and individual freedom of choice – both noble Western values that are rooted in Torah but are never applied absolutely in a Torah (of, for that matter, a Western) context?

 The conundrum that these cases engender is the occasional conflict between Judaism and democracy. Both are illustrious legal and political systems, the former of divine origin and the latter a human contrivance, and both are valued by modern man. But they are not identical. The Torah is not incompatible with democracy, but nor is it synonymous with democracy; if it were, then we would not need the Torah. We could merely consult the writings of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson instead of laboring through the discussions of Abaye and Rava.

 And, ultimately, Judaism is a way of life that connects a person to the Divine and democracy an enlightened form of government that regulates the affairs of man. To conflate the two is to distort both, and to assume that the product of democracy is necessarily superior to the eternal Torah is an act of self-denigration unworthy of serious Jews.

 In truth, I think it was unwise and impolitic for the rabbis to issue a public statement calling for a prohibition of home sales to Arabs. Such proclamations sound jarring to the modern ear and can never be fully understood by people outside the Torah world (perhaps not even by some within the Torah world).

 That is because these ideas reflect the unique value system of the Torah, which has its own constructs, its own logic and its own worldview. It cannot be easily pegged into another philosophical or political framework. Try telling your non-Jewish friend that your son cannot marry his daughter and that you cannot drink his wine; there is no comfortable way to explain it.

 It is for this reason that certain halachot are characterized as halacha, v’ein morim kein, laws that are not to be publicly discussed for fear of being misunderstood. Both the Nuremberg Laws and, l’havdil elef havdalot, the holy Torah, proscribe relations between Jews and non-Jews. The former did it out of racial hatred and pure evil; the Torah does so out of a need to preserve the unique character of the Jewish nation that would convey the divine idea to the world. The former was vile and odious, and the latter a reflection of God’s love for the Jewish people and for mankind. But a simpleton will only look at the results and, seeing the same prohibition, conclude, “it’s all the same.” It is not all the same, and that shallowness is more polemical than it is sincere.

 * * * * *

 It is difficult for me to criticize the rabbis in question because, after all, they were not acting as parliamentarians but as rabbanim who were asked a question of Jewish law by a “multitude” of people. Nor were they scholars drafting an article for a Torah journal in which they were bound to cite all opinions and leave the practical applications to the “local Orthodox rabbi.” They were the local Orthodox rabbis, and were duty-bound to answer a halachic question posed in a way that reflected the truth of Torah and the needs of the community they service. And they did.

 Could one look at the same question and conclude otherwise? Invariably so – such is the nature of any halachic question – but their answer to their constituents, who after all live in the Mideast, not the Midwest, was reasonable and appropriate.

 Why so?

 In truth, the Torah does discriminate between Jews and non-Jews, just like shuls distinguish between members and non-members and countries distinguish between citizens and even legal aliens. And it is well known, and patently clear across the world, that people prefer to live among their own kind – especially minorities. That is why there is a Chinatown, a Koreatown, a Little Italy, a Spanish Harlem, a Boro Park, and hundreds of other ethnic enclaves. That’s not to say you can ban other people from living there (I happen to enjoy a little diversity); it is to say that as a practical matter, people recognize homogeneity makes for a more cohesive community and usually a better quality of life. And that is in the United States, still an oasis of stability.

 In the Middle East, bear in mind that there are Arab countries – Saudi Arabia and Jordan leap to mind – in which land sales to Jews are banned by law under penalty of death. The Palestinian Authority has executed dozens of Arabs guilty of that “crime.” Israeli drivers entering Jordan – a nation formally at peace with Israel, treaty and all – are compelled to remove their Israeli license plates and affix Jordanian license plates, for fear that the sight of Israeli plates will inflame the local population.

 Integration, a splendid ideal, has not been successful in the Middle East, not between Shiites and Sunnis, Egyptian Muslims and Coptic Christians, Iraqi Muslim and Kurds, or Lebanese Christians or Muslims. Nor has it been fully harmonious in Israel, where mixed communities like Lod, Ramle and Haifa often are the scenes of confrontations between Jews and Arabs with nationalistic overtones.

 The rabbis’ letter relates directly to this state of affairs, discouraging the sales of homes and fields because of the fear of intermarriage, the potential loss of Jewish identity and cohesion in the neighborhood, and the danger of inviting (not a foreign but) a hostile element into a Jewish city. The rabbis relied on the Torah’s admonition of lo techanem, which one opinion in the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 20a) interprets as not giving non-Jews a foothold in the land of Israel.

 Now, one can argue whether that applies only to the seven Canaanite nations, or only to idolaters (which Muslims are not), or to all non-Jews. But lost in the halachic discussion is the reality that these prohibitions existed because these groups were perceived as deleterious influences on the Jewish polity; one would have to be blind and deaf to reality to presume that the Arab presence in Israel today (even Israeli Arabs) is innocuous, and that Arabs in Jewish neighborhoods pose no threat. All the naysayers in Israel should be challenged: how many Arabs live in their neighborhoods – in Caesarea, Ramat Aviv, Ra’anana, Re’ut and Shoham? How do they anticipate maintaining security for Jewish residents when Arabs move into Rechavia, Rechovot and Alon Shvut?

 * * * * *

 Some of the critics are being more than a little disingenuous. Others seemed to be troubled more by the theoretical loss of the right of Arabs to buy homes in Jewish neighborhoods than the actual loss of Jewish homes in Gush Katif.

 One very distinguished rosh yeshiva found fault with the rabbis’ letter for, among other reasons, calling for nidui, a form of excommunication, for those who will not heed the ban. He asserted that nidui is not mentioned as a penalty for a violation of lo techanem. But he erred, with all due respect, as the letter did not link nidui with lo techanem but with a separate halacha that prohibits the sale of Jewish-owned land even outside Israel to a non-Jewish anas (terrorist), and renders the Jewish seller also liable for damages caused to the remaining Jewish residents for “unleashing a lion upon them” (Bava Kama 114a, Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 334:43). Clearly, that is the context of the rabbi’s letter, motivated not by anti-Arab animus but by a love of Jewish life and in an attempt to safeguard it.

 There is a reason why the Jewish National Fund has refused to lease land to Arabs for a century; after all, it is the Jewish National Fund. There is a reason why there is a Law of Return that applies only to Jews. There is a reason why most Arabs are exempt from mandatory military service in Israel, a classic instance of discrimination.

 Whether we attribute the exemption to forestalling the psychological discomfort that might be caused to Israeli Arabs who have to wage war against other Arabs, or simply because the military does not trust the Arab soldier to be loyal to Israel (excluding of course the Bedouin, Druze, and Circassians, among the non-Jews who serve with great dedication in the IDF), the effect is the same: Arab citizens of Israel largely do not serve in the military because they do not uniformly see their destiny as part of the Jewish state of Israel.

             Obviously, none of this is relevant in an American context, in a nation that was founded on a non-denominational basis with liberty and justice for all. But removing these laws from Israeli society would engender a fine democracy while eviscerating the potential for a Jewish state.

 Intermarriage poses a similar dilemma to Jewish survival, and it is fascinating that the words v’lo techanem are followed immediately in the Torah by the proscription v’lo titchaten bam (Devarim 7:2-3), “and do not marry them.” It is hard to justify, or explain to an outsider, why in an enlightened, egalitarian, modern society, in which love should conquer all and be the only foundation for marriage, Jews cling to the “antiquated” notion that Jews should only marry Jews. Understandably, a group of Reform Jewish women, right on cue, pilloried the rebbetzins for their audacity in calling on Jewish women not to date or marry non-Jewish men.

 Will the rebbetzins’ declaration elicit the same catcalls from Orthodox circles as did the rabbis’ letter, and if so, on what grounds? Will the Nuremberg Laws be invoked again? Will the right of any American to marry any person serve as the predicate for a contemptuous dismissal of the rebbetzins’ concerns? Certainly, one can argue that lo techanem does not technically apply to Arabs, and argue similarly that the Torah does not technically ban “dating” non-Jews, only marrying them. But these are distinctions without differences. Both prohibitions share a common denominator: they are designed to preserve Jewish identity – as a covenantal people and as residents of the land with which God blessed our forefathers.

 So why does the Torah – which, after all, posits that all human beings are created in the image of God – discriminate between Jews and non-Jews in certain laws? Because Jews constitute one family (that’s why we always argue with each other), and family is allowed to treat non-family differently; otherwise, there is no purpose to family. Thus, we are enjoined to “love your neighbor as yourself,” but I am allowed to love my wife and children more than I love your wife and your children.

 As a Jew, I am commanded to love Jews more than I love non-Jews, not because there is anything wrong with non-Jews but because Jews are family. It is not immoral to distinguish family from non-family; it is right, natural and proper.

 Some critics evidently feared a public relations problem, but they need not have overreacted. They should have calmly explained that there are Torah laws that are designed to foster a communal spirit and brotherhood that is essential to Jewish life. We are not obligated to treat non-Jews as family, but it must be underscored that we are obligated to treat non-Jews fairly, decently, respectfully and with integrity – even in Israel – in a way in which they are able to pursue happiness and fulfillment in life, and, in Israel, as long as they acknowledge Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.

 Indeed, I don’t believe lo techanem means that land in Israel may never, under any circumstances, be sold to non-Jews. But when the Saudis are attempting to buy thousands of dunams in the Galilee and might soon be able to overwhelm the Jewish presence there, it is suicidal to pretend that elementary measures to preserve Jewish life in Israel are somehow unnecessary or inherently immoral.

 Discrimination is a nasty word in an American context, so we should try another: havdalah. When Shabbat ends, we bless God who “distinguishes between the holy and the profane, between the light and the darkness, between Israel and the nations, and between the Shabbat and the six work days.”

 These distinctions might not play well in Peoria or on the editorial pages of The New York Times (or some secular Jewish newspapers), and it is injudicious to make them the focus of the Jewish public persona. But they are real, substantive, and, understood properly, should be unobjectionable to all good people.

 And they are also an important reminder to us that we are one family who share the blessings of our forefathers and who merit basking in the Divine Presence that has guided us back to the land of Israel to test our mettle, our faith in His Torah, and our worthiness for complete redemption.

One response to “A Tale of Two Letters

  1. The human family in which we all live is dysfunctional.
    Like Judah in Genesis 44, we give up our desire for parity when we are able to align ourselves with the interests of our Father.
    “Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come on my father.”