Anti-Semitism – The Alternative Method of Separation
The Beit HaLevi cites a fascinating Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:8) about the distain the Egyptians developed towards the Jews in Egypt, as described in the beginning of this week’s Torah reading. Since the onset of Yaakov (Jacob)’s family taking residence in Mitzrayim (Egypt), the Jews were treated well and were respected by the Egyptians. What caused the sudden change in their attitude? The Midrash says that after Yosef (Joseph) died, the Jews decided to stop practicing the mitzvah (commandment) of circumcision, in order to blend in with the Egyptians. When God saw that the Jews were abandoning their tradition in order to assimilate with the Egyptians, God turned the love that the Egyptians had into animosity.
The Beit Halevi finds this Midrash to be very troublesome. He proves that the Jews in Egypt were considered to be righteous people. How could they possibly forsake this special mitzvah that they had? The Beit Halevi derives from various sources that they didn’t actually abolish the circumcision practice completely. Rather, they were concerned that the Egyptians might start to feel hostile towards them, and in order to preempt any hatred, they thought it would help to appear more similar to the Egyptians. To accomplish this, they decided to cover up their circumcision by pulling their skin over the area, which was an inappropriate practice.
And this was precisely their mistake. Logically speaking, they would seem to be correct. But God specifically wants that the Jews should always be distinctively different then the gentiles. Circumcision was the primary aspect which set the Jews apart from the Egyptians. Since the Jews were eliminating this distinction, God employed a different way to create a separation between them: hatred. God always sees to it that we should be separate from the nations of the world, as the verse says (Vayikra 20:26), “And I separated you from the nations to be mine.” The purpose of this separation is for our benefit, because as Jews we have a higher standard for the way we should live. Keeping us separate ensures that we are shielded from being influenced by the gentiles’ way of life. When we fail to keep the separation on our own, God achieves this by means of flaring up hatred amongst the gentiles towards us.
To Act As a Jew
Moshe grew up in Tel Aviv, in a home which valued their Jewish identity, but was devoid of Torah observance. He loved surfing, and before long the hobby turned into a career, and he became a professional athlete, joining competitions abroad. At a certain point, a good friend of his began to draw him closer to Torah, and Moshe slowly began to get more involved in Judaism. Nevertheless, the change remained moderate, and his pursuits in life remained the same.
About a year later, Moshe traveled to Spain and France to compete with world champions. One day, during that trip, he went on a hike, when suddenly, a group of men appeared and pushed him aggressively against a car. As if that wasn’t enough, they yelled at him, “You dirty Jew! Had that French girl not been standing there, we would have murdered you!”
Moshe was extremely shaken up and began to think to himself, “Why in the world do these people despise us?” After a few hours of thought, he concluded, “Even if you try to live as a gentile, they will remind you that you are a Jew.” This was a true wake up call for him. When he returned to Israel, he began to change his life. There was fame, money and luxuries which came along with climbing the ranks of professional surfing, but that seemed to only distance himself more from the pursuit of Jewish values. He slowly began a step-by-step return to Torah. While he retained his hobby of surfing, he realized that acting like a Jew was his true priority in life.
Conformity Brings On Anti-Semitism
Without realizing it, we feel the need to conform to the gentiles’ way of life in order to impress them. People think that if we ‘make it big’ in the eyes of the world, we will be more respected, and treated better. There were individuals throughout history who sadly preached this idea, only to be proven wrong. In fact, as the Beit Halevi says, only the opposite is true. Creating an agenda to find favor in the eyes of the other nations through active assimilation is precisely what triggers anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is the means which God uses to protect our Jewish identity and values. Compromising our standards to conform to the gentiles has the opposite effect.
While one should not actively act in a way which draws negative attention, the way to combat antisemitism is by strengthening our Jewish identity. Reinforcing our distinction as Jews, and guarding ourselves from gentile influences which are detrimental to a Torah way of life, are the most productive things one can do to fight antisemitism. Instead of working on changing the attitudes of others, we need to change ourselves. Treating the true root of anti-Semitism is the most effective cure.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber firstname.lastname@example.org