By Tzvi Freeman
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Hi Steve, I have posted a response to your recent comment on our site.
Please feel free to continue the conversation: "A non-Jew who observes
the Seven Noahide Laws must do so believing that these laws were given
by G-d at Sinai, meaning not merely as laws originating in human social savvy.
Jews are endowed with a unique Jewish soul, because of the unique Jewish mission
in the world embodied in the 613 commandments. This is not an innate source
of righteousness; on the contrary, the additional commandments necessitate an
additional soul. Every adherent to an ideology believes that ideology to be
superior to all other, otherwise they would subscribe to a different ideology.
Seeing Judaism and Jewish revelation as the only authentic Divine revelation
is not a racial statement, but an ideological one. And no one is excluded
from accessing this source of virtue, whether through the Noahide laws or
through conversion to Judaism." Please let me know if this helps,
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein Chabad.org - Rabbis That Care
Thank you for your response. I have addressed these questions extensively in the past with Rabbi Tzvi Freeeman through the blog, but also through private correspondence. I have also studied extensively for a period with Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman here in Atlanta. I appreciate Chabad's openness to engage in this discussion and entertain and publish contrary points of view. Below are two separate responses to you that I just sent over through the blog (the character limitation can be challenging - it does force one to try to be succinct, although sometimes terseness is not the best style for expression):
I cannot accept your statement about the Noahide Laws as an essential tenet of Judaism. I believe that people who have never heard of the Noahide Laws or who might not be considered “ethical monotheists” (e.g. Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, ethical monists) can nevertheless lead righteous lives according to the principles expressed in the Noahide Laws, as taught to them through their own paths. I believe that there are many different valid forms in which spirituality can be expressed, and adherents to each can regard adherents to the others with mutual respect. I do not take issue with the possibility of a unique Jewish soul needed to fulfill a unique Jewish role. I take issue with the flip-side characterization that non-Jewish souls are pretty much all the same and inferior. Perhaps there are likewise unique Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist souls attuned to assist them all with the special, but different roles they all are to play.
Hi Steve, I will respond via email, the more flexible way. Feel free to do the same,
as I do not look at comments unless I am asked to.
I see that you direct a Yoga and Judaism center, so I can understand where you are
coming from. The concept of accepting all ways as being right for different people is
fine in theory, but can't be taken all the way in practice, and is itself an
ideological position. It values so-called tolerance over, for lack of a better word,
[Incidentally, this is indeed the position of Judaism with regard to the Seven
Noahide Laws, that there is no one way to serve G-d. While the seven laws are
universal, they leave much open space for personal input and enhancement into their
own religious life. (This is even possible, surprisingly, within Judaism as well,
but that's another conversation.) However, it is provided that one serves G-d
through the means that He outlines, not that one acts merely out of conscience or
personal opinion and for the societal good, and certainly not out of some sense of
devotion to an idolatrous deity, which many of the paths you mention include.]
Judaism has argued unequivocally that there is only One G-d, Creator of all, and that
to believe otherwise or to worship in any way that suggests otherwise is not only
wrong, but devastating. It is on this point that Judaism brooks no compromise, and
demands of all mankind, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to accept this basic principle.
Most other religions do not comport with this standard, and are therefore deemed
unacceptable, much in the way that murder is ideologically unacceptable to the
western mind, and is not merely not right "for me." This does not mean that
adherents of other religions can do no good; of course they can. However, so long as
they don't do it out of belief in and worship of One G-d, it is good, but not good
We are not speaking here of the adherents, but of the ideologies. A person is
not valued only based on their ideology. There are many good and moral people who
affiliate with other religions, just as there are, unfortunately, immoral Jews. This
has to do with actions, not beliefs. But systems may and should be judged and valued
compared to others. In any event, whether or not it is correct to say that "every"
ideology considers itself "superior" to "every other" ideology, it is still an
ideological question, not a racial one.
I did not say that all non-Jewish souls are the same and inferior. However, to
clarify, all peoples, Jew and non-Jew, have human souls, which while each one is
unique, have a certain common quality, all being part of and attuned to the natural
world. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. Because G-d chose Israel (due to
Israel choosing G-d) to receive the Torah, which entails a unique and transcendent
purpose which is not similar to any other people's, He has endowed us with a unique
and transcendent soul in addition to what we share in common with everyone else. Yes
this was the choosing of a people, a tribe, not "whoever wants." But our tradition
tells us that indeed it was whoever wanted, because other nations turned down G-d's
offer of the Torah. On the other hand, those from among the nations who wished to
accept the Torah did join the people, as the mixed multitude that ascended with them
from Egypt. And membership in this covenant was left open to any who should wish to
join in the future, regardless of race. And the Torah makes clear that G-d chose
Israel, not because of any special quality of their own, but "because He loved your
forefathers," because of the great devotion shown to G-d by the founding fathers of
the Jewish nation, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
While Jewish teaching tends to focus on the specific qualities of the Jewish soul,
I believe it is completely accurate to say that other peoples have their own unique
qualities that they bring to the community of man, coming from within their souls.
Please let me know if this helps,
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein Chabad.org - Rabbis That Care
Is the Lubavitch book Tanya really racist?
Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue has dropped a course on the Tanya, the 18th-century Lubavitch work, after congregants’ protests. One of them, Dan Rickman, puts the objectors’ view; below, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet defends the book’s approach to non-Jews.
YesThe debate about the Tanya is about values rather than freedom of speech, as some have contended.
The Hebrew Bible and classical rabbinic sources contain texts which, for example, command us to look after the stranger within our midst as we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. These sources inspire and provide a basis for living in today's society.
In contrast, other texts have, in common with almost all classical literature, the completely opposite viewpoint and clash with modern sensibilities.
For example, Rabbi Akiva sees the verse "You shall love your neighbour as yourself", as a fundamental principle in the Torah; however he considers that it applies only to Jews. Ben-Azzai responds that a greater principle in the Torah is that the whole of mankind is made in God's image, in other words the brotherhood of man.
The debate around the Tanya is really part of a much wider issue about how we read such challenging texts in our tradition. Joe Mintz, in an article on this page last month looking at racism in the Jewish community, wrote: "The Tanya is stark: ‘the souls of the nations of the world derive from the impure kelipot, which contain no good whatsoever'. Kelipot, or husks, is a kabbalistic concept, meaning the negative aspects of creation."
Although many Lubavitch Chasidim are uncomfortable with this statement, within the Tanya there is no direct counter-text. The view presented is that non-Jews are a different and lesser type of human being than Jews. Complex arguments have been presented to ameliorate this and of course the late Rebbe had campaigned for non-Jews to keep the seven Noachide laws. Nevertheless, the Lubavitch community can take these teaching to a logical conclusion and so, for example, do not accept the use of the Hertz Chumash and other Soncino commentaries on the Bible because they include the work of non-Jewish scholars.
Taken at face value, such teachings are inappropriate for a non-Lubavitch orthodox community. The United Synagogue believes in a "modern and inclusive brand of Judaism". I therefore felt obliged to object to a United Synagogue teaching them as part of our tradition. Notwithstanding that the Tanya's mystical approach to Judaism has great appeal for many people, there are many other places available where this can be studied.
While it is anachronistic to accuse any work before the 19th century of "racism", we have to decide how to approach texts which can be read as such nowadays. Of course, it would be wrong to judge the Alter Rebbe, the author of the Tanya, for this, just as one cannot condemn Shakespeare for Shylock. Both authors were geniuses whose works must be understood and appreciated in their context. There is nothing wrong in studying and teaching the Tanya, just so long as every word in it is not regarded as holy writ. But we would do well to get a grounding in classical Jewish sources first.
If our local church allowed a course of lectures uncritically teaching the racial or spiritual inferiority of Jews, we would be rightly upset and expect it to be stopped. We must not expect less from ourselves than we do from our neighbours. The question is: is "our" racism better than "their" racism?
Dan Rickman wrote his MA on attitudes towards non-Jews in the Talmud.
NoThe claim that the Chasidic classic, the Tanya, is a racist work is astounding. Its accusers are obviously unfamiliar with the vocabulary of Jewish philosophy and mysticism which underlies its text. Let us review the relevant passage:
"The souls of the nations of idol-worshippers are from the other, the impure ‘shells' which contain no good at all, as stated in Etz Chaim 49:3. All the good that the nations of idol-worshippers do is done for their own sake, as stated in the Talmud [Baba Bathra 10b] on the verse ‘The kindness of the nations is sin' [Proverbs 14:34], ie that all the charity and kindness performed by the nations of idol-worshippers is done for the sake of self-glorification."
If the critics have problems with this passage, their complaint is against the Bible, the Talmud and the writings of Rabbi Isaac Luria. The Tanya is merely quoting these sources. Our Bible has more radical statements about the people of Israel being God's chosen people and God's witnesses on earth.
The passage speaks of idol-worshippers devoid of revealed religion. Elsewhere the author of the Tanya makes it quite clear that the "pious of the nations" (gentiles who follow the moral dictates of the Noachide Code) are excluded from the definition of idol-worshippers.
The critics' confusion is rooted in their ignorance of the kabbalistic term "impure shells". In their view this seems to imply that those idolaters are rooted in some demonic or Satanic source distinct from Divinity. In Judaism, of course, there is no such thing of something devoid of Divinity.
Had they attended a class in Tanya, they would have discovered that the realm of "impurity", too, is infused and sustained by the Divine emanations (the "holy sefirot"), without which nothing could exist. The "impure shells", too, are Divine creations for the purpose they serve, and the difference between "pure" and "impure" is simply how humans are to relate to them.
Most likely, these critics object also to the classical concept that Jews possess an additional "special soul" which distinguishes them from non-Jews, and cited in the Tanya. To them this surely is the ultimate racism. Yet the selfsame critics themselves proclaim this distinction and separation loud and clear at the conclusion of every Sabbath and festival when they recite the havdalah blessing, and every festival when they recite the section "Atah bechartanu" ("You have chosen us") in the Amidah. They do so because the Torah itself states this explicitly in Leviticus 20:24 and 26, "I have separated you from the nations to be Mine."
Jews are infused with an additional soul precisely because they need this special endowment to enable them to observe the Torah with its 613 commandments and to carry out their mission to be a Divine beacon to the nations, which requires intensified "energy" for this purpose. Racist? Then to claim that outstanding artists or scientists are endowed with special and extraordinary talents would also be an expression of morally objectionable racism.
To follow any religion fervently means to believe that you are in possession of an absolute truth that has an advantage over all other religions. Otherwise you have no reason to adhere to it with all your mind and soul.
The protesters argue that if a local church were to teach a course claiming Christians are spiritually superior to Jews, they think that should not be tolerated. What do they think is being taught there? Obviously the New Testament. And isn't that precisely what the New Testament is teaching?
In short, if the erudite critics at Hampstead Garden Suburb insist on cancelling a class in Tanya at their synagogue because of that text's alleged racism, they should be consistent and also cancel all classes in the Jewish Bible, Liturgy, Talmud and the Codes. Anything less is pure hypocrisy.
Yitzchak Schochet is rabbi of Mill Hill United Synagogue
An explanation of the statement in Tanya, ch. 1, that the souls of the gentiles do not possess any good
Translated by: Rabbi Eli Touger
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Rabbi Shmary Brownstein Chabad.org - Rabbis That Care