Sunday, May 21, 2006

Unequal Souls

When I was 15, and attending high school in Baltimore, I was once drawn into one of those long, late night bull sessions in the bais medrash. The debate started with an offhand comment that a friend of mine had made as we were walking out after maariv. A small discussion began with a me and a few other kids, but as the debate went on and on and grew louder and more passionate, other students, including some of the older yeshiva boys wandered over and joined in, until the group had grown to about 30 boys.

The topic was whether non-Jews have souls or not. I took the position that they did, although I was certainly no expert on the subject.

Every other boy in the room took the position that they did not.

I was badly outgunned. By the end of the discussion, which finally broke up in the early hours of the morning, I was exhausted, frustrated and angry – still clinging to my apparently unfounded notion that goyim have souls.

People can argue about the ultimate source of morality, but one thing which I can identify for certain is the ultimate source of immorality. It is the creation of a super-race and/or of a sub-race of a segment of mankind. Once this is done, the path has been paved for some of the most heinous crimes of our history.

One can nitpick about whether some of the ancient commandments of the Torah are morally acceptable; Amalek, women’s rights, etc., and the apologists can rummage through their bag of tricks and come up with their rationalizations. We can congratulate ourselves about how moral and socially responsible we are as a people. But, in the end, if the life of a Jew is more important than the life of a non-Jew, then what we have here is racism in the purist form.

I am aware of how inflammatory this issue is. The statements in the Talmud and Rishonim which differentiate between Jewish and Gentile life and property are widely cited in anti-Semitic propaganda pieces, alongside abject forgeries and misquotes. The Modern Orthodox community, at least, has become highly sensitive of what a lightning rod the issue is. About two years ago there was a micro-scandal involving a brief piece published in YU’s Beit Yitzchak Journal, which only mentioned in passing some of the less politically correct opinions.

I am also very aware of how many orthodox Jews are highly moral and fair minded people. So, for those with enough empathy and intellect, religious beliefs do not have to be the determining factor in moral behavior. As with everything else in Torah, one can argue both ways on this issue, and certainly the Talmud is filled with contradictory messages about the laws which govern non-Jews. So those within the orthodox community who are uncomfortable with the Jewish Spiritual Supremacy theories have room to find a way to believe in equality.

But, still, thirty years after my high school debate, non-Jews are still though to be very much ‘less than Jews’ in the yeshiva world. The examples of areas where goyim have reduced legal status are many. I won’t recite them because I do not want to feed the polemic.

If your frum, you may be insulted by all this, and I do not mean this as a general attack on Orthodoxy. But before you click away and forget this, perhaps make a note to talk to your kids about it.

After all, one of my ex yeshiva friends may be their rebbe.

18 Comments:

Blogger Tobie said...

I agree that racism is sadly common amid the Jewish community and am disgusted by the notion that anyone would believe that non-Jews do not have souls or would justify discrimination against them.

In fact, I had a very similar fight with my high school principal. One other girl and I spent at least two hours in his office, arguing about the status of non-Jews.

But I do have to disagree with this: But, in the end, if the life of a Jew is more important than the life of a non-Jew, then what we have here is racism in the purist form.

First of all, Judaism can't be racist . It has nothing to do with race. Any group that allows people if they choose to join cannot be racist. We may, I grant, be religion-ist.

Secondly, I think that every religion has the right to believe that their mission is the correct one, and therefore to value it above all other religions or creeds. Therefore, I think that we have the right to believe that our lives are being lived more correctly than others'. Which, of course, does not justify discrimination.

Thirdly...I'm not sure how to say this... in addition to being a religion, Judaism is in some senses a tribe. Or a family. There are a lot of mitzvot- like not charging interest, etc- that are only commanded re: Jews. Is this wrong? I think that it's justifiable to want to do a favor for a cousin that you would not extend to a stranger.

Does that mean that there is any excuse for mistreating, hating, or discriminating against non-Jews? Of course not. But I do think that Jews may have some excuse to give preferential treatment to their brethren, or to those that share in the mission that they consider most holy.

One other point- I know it's not the main thing- but the question of whether non-Jews have souls is at least partially a question of semantics. What is a soul? From what I have learnt, all humans have a transcendant soul. Jews have an additional something or other. I have no idea what exactly it does, because I'm not really into that mysticism and stuff.

May 21, 2006 8:14 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Wow- just saw the published comment. Sorry for the length.

May 21, 2006 8:14 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

It's really awful. And the worst part (to me) is that because it's a "religious" belief, even people who wouldn't be caught dead making disparaging comments about Blacks (for example) feel that it's perfectly acceptable to believe that non-Jews have no souls. Disgusting.

May 21, 2006 10:42 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

Tobie,

Not to worry about the length – I’m the king of rambling comments.

I agree with your points 1 & 3; that someone can believe that their lifestyle is superior without being prejudiced about others, and that some laws are ‘tribal’ in orientation. Point 1 – about the definition of racism, you may want to re-think. Most definitions of racism are keyed off of the supremacy of one group over another, not the nature of the differentiation. I know that it is an inflammatory term, but I think that JA is right here. Regarding the last point, I don’t think that it matters what a ‘soul’ is to make this issue so disturbing. This link is sort of hokey, but you’ll see the point.

May 21, 2006 11:23 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Re: the racism thing. I just don't see this as the same sort of thing as racism, because we don't believe that we are invariably superior or anything. I think that any group that frees allows members of the other group to join isn't going to be racist. It may be...intolerant or ethnocentric or something, but for me, racism implies a belief that your group is inherently and irreversibly better. Conversion makes that not an issue. Not that I'm disagreeing with you or JA that it's disgusting, but I think that it pays to be accurate with use of these terms.

May 21, 2006 11:42 PM  
Blogger The Jewish Freak said...

DBS: Great post and very important point. I believe that Jews as a religion or as a culture should strive for the best morality that we can muster up. Tobie makes some good points, and I really don't see much actual disagreement between the two of you.

May 22, 2006 12:54 PM  
Blogger Jewelsparkler said...

How interesting. I recall having a very similar conversation. In my case, however, a certain woman stated that non-Jews had hereditary traits of cruelty while Jews had hereditary traits of kindness.

And then she claimed our bodies and souls attack one another, each fighting, the body the unholy vessel, the earth and the impure, while the soul was pure and transcendent.

I stated the two must work in union. God bestowed upon us a body and a soul, hence both must contain an equal measure of purity and good.

I suffered some interesting consequences as a result of this.

May 23, 2006 12:26 AM  
Blogger dbs said...

Jewel,

Yes, the three Jewish hereditary traits "rachmanim, bayshanim, and gomlei chasadim" (compassion, sense of shame and kindness to others). Talmud Yevamote 97a

I hate the whole "body & soul in conflict" idea. We're taught to label so many of our instincs and feelings as being 'wrong'. Far better to Pay attention to them, listen, learn and then make choices.

May 23, 2006 3:01 PM  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

I have this discussion a lot over the issue of violating Shabbat to save a non-Jew's life. We save a Jewish life because of the principle 'Violate one shabbat so that he may observe many shabbatot'. But that principle does not apply to non-Jews. So for non-Jews we say that we violate Shabbat to save their lives for fear of retaliation if we refuse to do so and the gentiles find out. This implies that in Messianic times that we will let a non-Jew die rather than violate Shabbat for their sake.

May 24, 2006 2:58 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

Lenny,

Yes, I didn't mention this (or some of the other more blatent inequalities in the Talmud) because they are often quoted by the neo-nazi and anti-semitic elements. I think that the whole rational for being able to save a jewish life on shabbat is pretty synthetic anyway. Moreover, the prohibition of killing non-jews is midrabanan, which I have a huge problem with.

May 24, 2006 10:07 PM  
Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Ethnocentrism seems to be a key ingredient without which orthodoxy just doesn't function.

In discussions about religion, the typical justification/proof of orthodoxy that proponents frequently use is, "how special we are". While I don't necessarliy disagree with the premise that we have some unique accomplishments, many orthodox people seem to _need_ the idea that for their extra service to God, they are on some higher level.

Indeed if orthodoxy is just one of many alternate paths to God, there are easier roads to follow. And in this sense, the typical beleiver needs to feel superior.

I at least know from my experiences with orthodoxy that all other branches of judaism and all other religion were viewed as shear folly, and that any thinking person would arrive at orthodoxy given half a chance.

May 28, 2006 1:37 AM  
Blogger newagwer said...

AMAZING POST !

Just This past Shabbos, I had a heated debate with my 15 year old son's Chavruso who stayed for Shabbos, on this very painful, hurtful and upsetting topic!!

A sweet, very intelligent and even open minded young man.
He stated that the belief which is propagated in yeshiva ( and I am all to aware of those beliefs , after going through the same yeshiva system , many moons ago!)Is that the Jew by essence is BETTER and GREATER then the non Jew.
He believed that “it must be true otherwise what is special about Judaism”?

I had a heated and non relenting debate with him on the issue and explained that we have a specific purpose (as do the non -Jews) and we have to live up to the expectations, but in no way are we better then other nations or people.

Since I am obviously a lot older and have learned more I used the argument about our duties and expected functions, like a president who is elected to do a job and after the term he goes back to being a nobody.
He was voted to represent the people and given certain privileges and a lot of responsibility, but that puts him in the limelight and open for a lot of rightful criticism if he fails in his duties and especially if he displays poor judgment, and even more so, if he shows loose and low morals /ethics.
It does not make him in ESSENCE a better person then me or any other human being.

The same , I concluded, was with Judaism.
He counter argued, but after 2 hours he relented (maybe he wanted dessert, or to come back for another shabbos!!)

The point I am making is 3 fold.

1. It is our DUTY ( as you mentioned) to talk candidly with our children about these worrying openly racist views.
( which i have done many times already prior to this Shabbos)

2.How in the world , can we as a people still reeling from the effects of near attempted genocide and witnessing and experiencing the brutal murders of our parents, wives, siblings ,, children , friends and neighbors, by the racist Nazis , who used the same rational and beliefs ( as taught in the yeshiva..) that they were the SUPERIOR RACE!?

Now, only 60+ years later , we ourselves (continue to) promote this very same destructive nonsense amongst ourselves in the Yeshiva world!!! it truly is mind boggling!
.
Don't we carry this heavy baggage of being the subjects and at the end product, suffering immensely from this very same sick indoctrination of others?
Don't we have very sensitive feelings on this matter through our long, persecuted, and torturous past?
Horrors brought on us by people carrying this tribalistic superiority nonsense??

(Perhaps in defense though, this subject taught, of the Jew being indeed better then others, is to counter our low self esteem after being bullied and victimized for being Jewish??)

3. the most upsetting and disturbing point of all.

As I am well versed and know firsthand the sources of the Halachik, Kabbalistic, and Chassidic/spiritual philosophy on this matter.

The young 15 year old Bochur was indeed correct about his assumptions.
As according to (nearly) all the above modes of Torah taught and written over the years it does indeed state what he learned!
(Of course I did not tell him that!!!)

I just argued from my own moral perspective and rational.
BUT this is indeed written and taught that the Jews are indeed not only the chosen people BUT are intrinsically greater, higher and have a loftier g-dly soul, unlike the non Jew!!!!
HOWEVER, as I wrote above, being isolated from our non- Jewish neighbors, living in ghettos amongst ourselves, and being stripped of our rights, expelled, , suffering the brutalities and of the inquisitions ,pogroms etc.
It makes sense why this counter boosting moral lifting philosophy was written and taught.

From the time of the Romans,( Gemoroh/Talmud) to recent times , that has indeed been the case
However, now in 2006 most of the above horrors and injustices are non existent
(excluding the rhetoric and hate by parts of the Muslim world over the Jewish state)

we must re educate our young and at least explain the different context social structure, that prevailed in older times.

That can partly explain the writings still taught today.
However, now we are living in an emancipated and democratic society, free to choose and follow our beliefs without prejudice or scorn.
It is high time we extend the same views and philosophy to our fellow human beings!

May 28, 2006 3:01 PM  
Blogger newagwer said...

AMAZING POST !

Just This past Shabbos, I had a heated debate with my 15 year old son's Chavruso who stayed for Shabbos, on this very painful, hurtful and upsetting topic!!

A sweet, very intelligent and even open minded young man.
He stated that the belief which is propagated in yeshiva ( and I am all to aware of those beliefs , after going through the same yeshiva system , many moons ago!)Is that the Jew by essence is BETTER and GREATER then the non Jew.
He believed that “it must be true otherwise what is special about Judaism”?

I had a heated and non relenting debate with him on the issue and explained that we have a specific purpose (as do the non -Jews) and we have to live up to the expectations, but in no way are we better then other nations or people.

Since I am obviously a lot older and have learned more I used the argument about our duties and expected functions, like a president who is elected to do a job and after the term he goes back to being a nobody.
He was voted to represent the people and given certain privileges and a lot of responsibility, but that puts him in the limelight and open for a lot of rightful criticism if he fails in his duties and especially if he displays poor judgment, and even more so, if he shows loose and low morals /ethics.
It does not make him in ESSENCE a better person then me or any other human being.

The same , I concluded, was with Judaism.
He counter argued, but after 2 hours he relented (maybe he wanted dessert, or to come back for another shabbos!!)

The point I am making is 3 fold.

1. It is our DUTY ( as you mentioned) to talk candidly with our children about these worrying openly racist views.
( which i have done many times already prior to this Shabbos)

2.How in the world , can we as a people still reeling from the effects of near attempted genocide and witnessing and experiencing the brutal murders of our parents, wives, siblings ,, children , friends and neighbors, by the racist Nazis , who used the same rational and beliefs ( as taught in the yeshiva..) that they were the SUPERIOR RACE!?

Now, only 60+ years later , we ourselves (continue to) promote this very same destructive nonsense amongst ourselves in the Yeshiva world!!! it truly is mind boggling!
.
Don't we carry this heavy baggage of being the subjects and at the end product, suffering immensely from this very same sick indoctrination of others?
Don't we have very sensitive feelings on this matter through our long, persecuted, and torturous past?
Horrors brought on us by people carrying this tribalistic superiority nonsense??

(Perhaps in defense though, this subject taught, of the Jew being indeed better then others, is to counter our low self esteem after being bullied and victimized for being Jewish??)

3. the most upsetting and disturbing point of all.

As I am well versed and know firsthand the sources of the Halachik, Kabbalistic, and Chassidic/spiritual philosophy on this matter.

The young 15 year old Bochur was indeed correct about his assumptions.
As according to (nearly) all the above modes of Torah taught and written over the years it does indeed state what he learned!
(Of course I did not tell him that!!!)

I just argued from my own moral perspective and rational.
BUT this is indeed written and taught that the Jews are indeed not only the chosen people BUT are intrinsically greater, higher and have a loftier g-dly soul, unlike the non Jew!!!!
HOWEVER, as I wrote above, being isolated from our non- Jewish neighbors, living in ghettos amongst ourselves, and being stripped of our rights, expelled, , suffering the brutalities and of the inquisitions ,pogroms etc.
It makes sense why this counter boosting moral lifting philosophy was written and taught.

From the time of the Romans,( Gemoroh/Talmud) to recent times , that has indeed been the case
However, now in 2006 most of the above horrors and injustices are non existent
(excluding the rhetoric and hate by parts of the Muslim world over the Jewish state)

we must re educate our young and at least explain the different context social structure, that prevailed in older times.

That can partly explain the writings still taught today.
However, now we are living in an emancipated and democratic society, free to choose and follow our beliefs without prejudice or scorn.
It is high time we extend the same views and philosophy to our fellow human beings!

May 28, 2006 3:01 PM  
Blogger OJ said...

Mainstream Jewish belief is that non-Jews do have souls.

The Lubavitcher sect has different beliefs on some things and some of them have seeped into the general Jewish community, as Lubavitchers are fervent missionaries and are always trying to spread their non-mainstream beliefs. People must be on the alert about this serious problem.

By the way, the Ask Moses website is actually a Lubavitcher website and not a standard orthodox one. It should really be called Ask Mendel or something like that. People should be made aware of that and rather utilize sites that give standard Jewish answers.

May 29, 2006 2:11 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

Concerned,

I would put it a different way. Lubavitch has stated outright that non-jews do not have souls, while 'mainstream' jews leave the question alone.

My high school was 100% litvish.

May 30, 2006 10:23 AM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

"Moreover, the prohibition of killing non-jews is midrabanan, which I have a huge problem with."

where do you get this from?

May 31, 2006 3:28 AM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

"We save a Jewish life because of the principle 'Violate one shabbat so that he may observe many shabbatot'. But that principle does not apply to non-Jews."

it doesn't apply to nonobservant jews either though. not racist, just orthodox-biased.

May 31, 2006 3:31 AM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

"I would put it a different way. Lubavitch has stated outright that non-jews do not have souls, while 'mainstream' jews leave the question alone.

My high sc"hool was 100% litvish."

I don't know too many litvishe who think that nonjews aren't created b'tzelem elokim or who think that those who keep 7 mitzvos aren't bnei olam haba. And litvishe are very textual. The nonchassidic texts dont leave a lot of amibuity on the existence of the nonjewish soul. The gemara assumes that nonjews have a chelek in olam haba, and only then excludes those who violate 7 mitzvos, not the other way around. It's no differnet than kol yisrael yesh lohem chelek etc veylu sheeyn lohem in that regard.

May 31, 2006 3:33 AM  

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