Sunday, October 20, 2013

Isn't It Racist to Believe You're Special Because You're Jewish?

Isn’t It Racist to Believe You’re Special Because You’re Jewish?

(Or put another, more accurate way, “Isn’t it supremacist to believe that only Jews have souls capable of originating righteous values, and that the souls of all non-Jews originate from a source of impurity incapable of independently originating any positive values?”) 

From time to time, I have engaged in discussions on various topics on the website. One such extensive discussion started several years ago, in response to a question as posed below. There was a great deal of discussion following the original posting, and eventually, the discussion died down. However, recently, the flames to the embers of this fire were fanned, with a renewed bout of discussion. The discussion has now died down again. Below is a reprint of the original question and answer followed by an extensive private interchange I had with Rabbi Shmarmy Brownstein about these issues, which fully flesh out in detail the issues from two very different perspectives. I originally intended to include a sampling of the recent interchanges on the blog from readers making comments, in order to provide an even fuller context and flavor of the discussion. However, in accordance with the terms of the site, I requested permission to reprint those comments, but was denied. I was granted permission to publish Rabbi Freeman’s initial article. Even though I didn’t ask for such permission, I was denied permission to publish the email correspondence I received outside the blog from Rabbi Shmarmy Brownstein, but as that correspondence was made outside of the website, it is not subject to the proprietary or copyright claims stated for their website content. I am publishing this lengthy document here because of the importance I attribute to this matter, to share with others, and let them come to their own conclusions. I encourage all to go to the original blog to get the full extent of the discussion there. Just go to and search for “Isn’t it racist to believe that Jews are special?” But before beginning with the original question and answer, and the follow-up correspondence between me and Rabbi Brownstein that ensued, I have listed the verses from Tanya that are at the core of this discussion.

From Tanya:
"The souls of the nations of the world, however, emanate from the
 other, unclean kelipot which contain no good whatever, as is written
in Etz Chayim, Portal 40, ch. 3, that all the good that the nations 
do, is done out of selfish motives. Since their nefesh emanates from 
kelipot which contain no good, it follows that any good done by them
 is for selfish motives. So the Gemara comments on the verse, "The
 kindness of the nations is sin" — that all the charity and kindness
 done by the nations of the world is only for their 

Isn't it racist to believe you're special because you're Jewish? How is that any different from the Nazi belief in the "superiority" of the Aryan race, for example?

I think that everyone would agree that there is nothing wrong with feeling proud of who you are. There is nothing wrong with diversity. G‑d created a magnificent world, a wondrous panorama of colors, forms and personalities. Today we recognize that this diversity is so essential to the nature of things that anyone who tries to struggle against it is fighting against the sustainability of life itself.
Read the Ohr haChayim (R' Chayim Atar, Morocco/Israel, 1696–1743) on Genesis and you will be delighted by his comments on this diversity. Other classic commentaries describe how the world contains every sort of opposite—just as a sphere is made of opposing poles—so that it will reflect the boundlessness of its Creator. Perek Shira, one of the most ancient midrashim, brings out something even more delightful: That each creature, as G‑d created it, believes that it is the most lovely and ultimate of all creatures on the planet. Not only the horse and the lion, but even the slimy, warted toad cannot imagine a creature more beautiful than itself that could sing a song more melodious than the song it croaks out each day. The same with the jackal, the vulture and even the pesty little mosquito—who believes that all creatures were created by a loving G‑d just to provide him with blood to drink. 
As it is with the species, so it is with each person—for each person, the Maharal of Prague writes, is a species on his own. We raise each child to know that there is something special about him or her, something unique that no one else who ever was or ever will be will ever have. It doesn't take much persuasion—it is the nature of the human being to believe it intuitively, even before he is told. We encourage it, so that the child will grow and be able to take on the world. To take that away from the child is to destroy the person inside; to encourage it is to give life, courage and strength.
And so too, with every social entity by which we human beings arrange ourselves: Ethnocentricity is not something to be fought and crushed. Humankind does not require homogenization. To do so is to fight and crush the inherent nature of human beings. If a people are not proud of themselves as a people, believing that they have something that no other people can provide, then they have no hope to survive as distinct cell of humanity. We will lose their art, their wisdom, their heritage—all that they have to contribute to the rest of us, by G‑d's design.
Do you really believe that humanity should melt into a homogeneous mush? Such was the ideal of America at the turn of the 20th century. I grew up in Canada, with Lester Pearson's and Pierre Eliot Trudeau's ideal of a colorful patchwork. Mush, in my mind is rather pale and monotonous fare, the antithesis of life.
When is pride dangerous? When it is a sickly pride. When it is pride in the wrong things. When it leaves no room for others. When it blinds its bearer from seeing his faults. And when—and I believe this to be the core of the matter—when one is so proud that he cannot recognize anything greater than himself.
The German nation after the First World War was sickly in this way. And not without reason. An entire generation was missing. The youth were angered at the failure of their fathers, that they had stolen German pride and left them with an inheritance of shame. It was a culture of rejectionism, where the old had to be thrown out simply because it was old and anything shocking and radical was embraced just for the sake of being shocking and radical. Atonal un-music, Dada non-art, rampant pornography and such violence on the streets that had not been seen in German lands for hundreds of years were all symptoms of a society suffering a serious systemic pathology. From this it is not difficult to see a lethal sort of pride arising, a pride that was not only out to destroy the world but semi-consciously to annihilate itself as well, as the phoenix diving into its pyre.
When I look at the pride of the Jewish People, I see none of this. In what do we pride ourselves? Look to the Talmud again: "What are the three traits of this nation? They have compassion, they have a conscience and they enjoy acts of kindness." Jews pride themselves in their intellectual powers, as well. Not an unreasonable pride, given the track record.
Yes, we are not without blemish. The Jews of Europe bore scars from the ugly anti-Semitism of those lands. It's hard to be in love with those that hate you and murder you. There was spite born from that experience—but that only makes it yet more amazing that kindness and compassion nonetheless survived in the Jewish heart.
We have a long history of self-examination and criticism, from the Torah, the prophets, the Talmudic sages and all the way to this day. We have laughed at ourselves, cried about ourselves and chastised ourselves continually throughout our long and painful history. We blame ourselves for being stubborn and for giving in too easily, for being too haughty and for lacking pride. Too often, the self-blaming gets out of hand—so we blame ourselves for that, as well.
Do we leave room for others? I know of no other tradition that openly states, "the righteous of the nations have a share in the World To Come." No need to become one of us. Sure, there are some basic rules, but they are rules that leave much leeway—and mostly rules basic to the stability of a healthy society. Keep those rules, we don't care who you are—you're in.
We not only leave room, we are open to learn from others when it does not conflict with our root beliefs, as Maimonides writes in his code of law, "Take the truth from whence it comes." The great "pillar of Jewish law" cites Aristotle, Galen and many of the Arabic philosophers with deep respect. To quote the Talmud once again, "If they will tell you there is Torah among the nations, do not believe them. But if they will tell you there is wisdom among the nations, believe them."
As I stated, the core of the matter is to recognize that there is something greater than yourself. Without that, pride becomes arrogance, a sickness we are told to shun to the furthest extreme. In fact, without Torah, our sages taught, the Jew is "the most brazen and shameless of the nations." Even with Torah, a person's free choice is never taken away. There are those who use Torah as a hammer to build their throne of misled pride, for all to bow down to their scholarship and erudition. Even the Torah can be abused.
But when a Jew allows the Torah to guide him (rather than he guiding the Torah) when he accepts that he is here not for his own pleasure or pride or fame, but with a purpose, a mission given him by the Creator of All Things—then that Jew is able to balance both pride and nothingness in a single scale. As you wrote yourself, by recognizing that he is a Jew, he sees himself that much more a member of humanity. For what is his mission? To conquer? To dominate? No, it is to enlighten, to bear the torch lit by Abraham our father almost 4,000 years ago, until the entire world is afire with the luminance of that wisdom, until "all the world will work together as though they had one shoulder" in peace and in brotherhood.
Should I be ashamed that I want my daughter to marry a Jew and only a Jew? Am I a Nazi for my pride and my conviction? Should I be condemned for wanting to keep that flame of Abraham alive?
On the contrary, I believe it is those who demand that we assimilate, who cannot bear that there be a people who dare stand out from the background, who dare to preserve their heritage and their mission despite every attempt to crush and beat them to the ground—they are the true bigots. They are the ones who are out to destroy the beauty G‑d made in His creation, to destroy the very essence of life.
We are proud to be Jews and we are proud to be proud. We don't wish to be anything else and we don't wish our grandchildren to be anything else. To us, there is nothing more magnificent than to be a Jew and nothing more disastrous than to lose one. Because every Jew is a precious flame, a burning bush that will not be consumed, an eternal torch that no one has the right to extinguish—not even that Jew himself.

By Tzvi Freeman
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
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The above reprinted with permission of the author and the Judaism website,

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 - Rabbis That Care 

Rabbi Brownstein,

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):

Response to Shmary Brownstein

I do not accept your stated premise that “every adherent to an ideology believes that ideology to be superior to all others, otherwise they would subscribe to a different ideology.” Certainly, some adherents, and even many may so believe, but not every one. I would accept that every adherent may believe that their ideology is best for them, but it does not follow that they need to believe it is superior, i.e. better than any other ideologies for everyone else. People are attracted to various spiritual paths for all kinds of personal and cosmic reasons. Just because a person adheres to one ideology, that does not preclude the possibility that they may be able to recognize the validity to paths other than their own as being the best fit for other people. This is the essence of the point I have been trying to express with my objections to claims of superiority by any group. I believe a great deal is at stake, particularly the opportunity for better harmony amongst peoples.

Further Response to Shmary Brownstein

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 - Rabbis That Care

Rabbi Brownstein,

I now have time to respond fully to your last email of July 24, paragraph by paragraph.

I take no issue with your characterizing my view as an ideological position. And I would like to further clarify this position: it not only values tolerance, which term has a certain limiting connotation of “putting up with something not only different, but unpleasant”, but goes beyond that to acceptance and embracing the incredibly vast variety of spiritual expression we find here on earth, with the condition that such expressions need to profess mutual respect and acceptance of each other. I was surprised that you used the word “fundamentalism”, although with some hesitation. I find your directness and candor refreshing. My observation of fundamentalist approaches is that they are characterized by the idea that there is only one way for everyone, which is their way. All other ways are untrue and lacking: “my way or the highway”. I imagine you will explain your conclusion that my ideology is fine in theory, but can’t be taken all the way in practice. I don’t see why not.

You next indicate that the Noahide Laws are not rigid strictures establishing one narrow way without providing for flexibility. I reiterate that I do not have objection to the principles expressed in the Noahide Laws or that they are universally applicable principles of solid moral values. I object to the ideological notion that a gentile who has never heard of the Noahide Laws would take no independent initiative or have no capability of living by the principles contained in them, and has no possibility of being deemed righteous unless he acknowledges them as a unique contribution from Jewish sources. You also raise an issue that could involve many pages of discussion, distinguishing between Divine direction and mere conscience, personal opinion and reasoning and logic. Without going into that kind of detailed discussion, suffice it to say for now that I do not see much of a distinction between the dictates of conscience and divine guidance. I believe that conscience is the expression of divine guidance. Fundamentalists, in their emotion-based quest for the comfort of an authoritative certainty, maintain that all of their designated scriptures contain pure, unadulterated absolute Divine Truth, and are thus unassailable. But every scripture that has ever existed has involved a human intermediary to some extent or other, and is thus subject to some distortion and possibly a great deal of distortion. Of course, humanistic atheists (Jewish secular humanists included) argue that we should leave God out of it, that we can figure things out without having to posit the existence of a supernatural being in order to define and live by a moral compass. But I am not a humanistic atheist, although I sympathize with many of their viewpoints. And one of their arguments is that fundamentalists all claim that they have the inside connection to the real divine revelation and guidance, and that everyone else who also makes such claims with contrary teachings, are false prophets and worse. If someone is going to stand upon a claim of divine revelation to each and every last ideological viewpoint they express, then there is no real room for discussion, other than for someone else to say their divine revelation disagrees. I know that to the core of my spiritual being, vision and revelation, ideological/theological expressions that claim the kind of exclusive superiority and certain authority that you have expressed are not valid. I don’t know how much more we can have a productive discussion, but I will for now, continue addressing your last email.

Concerning the other paths that I mentioned in my last email, you may have some misconceptions. I have been to India and I know many Hindus. Certainly, one of my first responses in touring India and seeing all of their temples and their idols was, “Well, the commandment about idol worship sure didn’t make it here!”. And I pondered quite a bit about that. It is hard to make many general summarizations about Hinduism because it is so vast and there are so many variations. But it is pretty safe to say that idol worship is commonplace. However, it is also safe to say that there is a general belief in one supreme deity, and that all of the various gods depicted are expressions of aspects of the one, not separate and independent. There is one Indian spiritual school that is not deistic or monotheistic, but rather monistic, often called nondualism, monism being something I mentioned in my last correspondence with you. This view maintains that the real oneness is beyond any personalized, anthropomorphized conceptions, and is more similar to the views of Taoism and Buddhism, which generally are not theistic, but rather monistic, and do not practice idol worship, instead asserting that there is this oneness beyond description and attributes which pervades all. Quite similar to Ein Soph, but I imagine you will disagree.

My other thought about the common idol-worship of Hinduism goes back to my ideological view that perhaps the commandment against idol-worship was suitable and important for Jews, but not necessarily for the rest of the world. I know that some claim that the first of the Noahide laws contains implicit in it a dictate against idol worship, but it does not explicitly on its face state that prohibition the way it is stated in the Ten Commandments. As you stated in your email about the Noahide laws allowing for some flexibility, I can see that Hindu practices which incorporate idol-worshipping within the context of acknowledging an ultimate supreme deity are not necessarily in discord with this law. Perhaps it can be appropriate for Hindus while being inappropriate for Jews.

I myself am a monist, a nondualist, and I have found Jewish teachings supportive of this view, which Tzvi Freeman, in my correspondence with him has acknowledged. I believe this view/spiritual experience is not inconsistent with the unequivocal position you say is advanced by Judaism. I therefore do not agree with your judgmental conclusion that “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…”
I find that to be a very narrow and disturbing view of other religions, particularly comparing their beliefs to murder. I also find it interesting that you refer to the western mind, as if murder is acceptable to the eastern mind. I imagine you would have to concede that the earliest foundations for Judaism arose out of the East, not the West. Israel is at the juncture of East and West, but still in the East. Abraham had his initial revelation East of Israel. The Babylonian Talmud was formulated in the East.

I was once asked by someone (a devout Jew, by the way) conducting a survey project to answer the question, “What is God?”. My first response was to answer the question with another question, “What is not God?” Upon further thought, I answered it in a more affirmative way, “God is everything that exists, both known and unknown, and all activity and inactivity related to everything that exists.” He then responded with the question, “What about evil? Does God include evil” To which I responded “God includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. Nothing can exist independent of God.” I later provided him with this quote: “I am Hashem and there is no other: other than Me there is no God; I will gird you, though you did not know Me, in order that those from east and west would know that there is nothing besides Me; I am Hashem, and there is no other. [I am the One] Who forms light and creates darkness; Who makes peace and creates evil; I am Hashem, Maker of all these.”

Isaiah 45:5 – 45:7 (Stone Artscroll Tanach translation)

I believe that the discussions from the Rebbe and the other Rabbi defending Tanya that I have listed below are consistent with this view.

I agree that the whole issue around the term “racist” in the discussion on the blog has been a distraction, as has the lengthy discussion about the term “special”. I accept that the question might not have been articulated in the most accurate way, but it nevertheless was expressing a valid concern about Jewish claims to superiority, even if not “racist”. Perhaps “tribalist”, “supremacist” or “triumphalist” would be more accurate terms. But the fact remains that there are Jewish teachings claiming superiority, which you have admitted. Concerning the term “special”, the issue is not about “specialness”, it is about superiority. I will repeat again my spiritual vision, not just my intellectual formulation, that any claims of exclusivity and superiority by any group to Divine Truth and Guidance are not in accord with Divine Will, Truth and Guidance. The Eastern dictum, “One Truth, Many Paths” is what resonates deepest in my being.

I acknowledge that you did not say that all non-Jewish souls are the same and inferior. However, maintaining that Jewish souls are superior strongly implies that non-Jewish souls are inferior. What other conclusion can be reached? Also, the teachings of Tanya discussed below, which I obtained from an internet search, while not coming right out and saying it, certainly also imply that non-Jewish souls are inferior, as derived from the klipot. The following excerpt from the Rebbe is worth emphasizing here:
[With regard to] the Tanya's statements that the three impure kelipos do not possess any good at all, the intent is not that they do not possess a spark [of G-dliness] at all. For without a spark of good, it is impossible for any entity to exist. (Although their existence comes from an encompassing light; nevertheless, we are forced to say they possess some type of spark.)
This spark, however, has become so separated and darkened, that it is as if it is evil, i.e., it has no feeling at all for G-dliness.
So for someone to say, as Rabbi Freeman and others on the blog have said, that all souls are made in the image of God, because all contain a spark of Godliness, and that this assertion somehow blunts the criticism that I and others have been making, misses the mark. Under this view, it can also be said that Satan has a spark of good, and the Rebbe’s remarks above come close to saying that non-Jewish beings are not much better than Satan: “it is as if it is evil, i.e., it has no feeling at all for Godliness.”
The below excerpts capture the essence of the issue that has been addressed on the blog and that we are addressing, and it is quite apparent that these discussions have been going on for a long time in other circles, with someone even addressing the Rebbe about it.

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.

October 30, 2008
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The 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.


The 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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The following letter was addressed to a group of young men involved in the study of both Nigleh and Chassidus in Ferndale, NY.
B"H, Monday, 29 Menachem Av, 5703
Greetings and blessings,
[In response to your letter,] where you question the intent of the statement at the conclusion of ch. 1 in Tanya that the souls of the gentile nations come from the three impure kelipos and "they contain no good at all." You raise doubts as to whether the gentiles possess at least a certain measure of good, as evident from the fact that they are commanded to observe the seven universal laws commanded to Noach and his descendants. Moreover, there are "pious gentiles" who have a portion in the World to Come (according to Rabbi Yehoshua,[1] whose opinion is quoted by the Rambam, [Mishneh Torah,] Hilchos Eidus, end of ch. 11; Hilchos Melachim, end of ch. 8). Or is the intent that they do not possess any good at all, as stated in Tanya?
Were we to look at the issue from the standpoint of logic, support can be found for either position.
a.      For example, if one were to postulate that they do possess a certain dimension of good and it has an effect on them, what then would be the difference between the three impure kelipos and kelipas nogah? Also, what is the intent of the statement "All charity performed by the gentiles is only to enhance their pride"? The question applies particularly in the light of Sanhedrin 97b which interprets the word beiso ("his household," Bereishis 18:19) as implying that the descendants of Noach are also obligated to give charity. Why then are the descendants of Noach considered as "totally impure and evil, without any good at all"?
b.     If one would postulate that they do not contain any good at all, how do they continue to exist? [Moreover,] even if the charity they perform is only for the sake of enhancing their pride, the deed they have performed is good, although their intent is undesirable. Thus how is it possible for them to perform a good deed if they do not contain any good at all?
The concept has, however, already been explained in Chassidus in the following manner: The Kitzur Tanya, authored by the Tzemach Tzedek (printed at the conclusion of Derech Mitzvosecha), ch. 6, states: " '[They are from] the three impure kelipos and contain no good at all.' (The intent is that in their essence, [there is no good]. Nevertheless, through the mode of exile, is [enclothed within] them Divine life-energy, a spark from the ten Sefiros of Asiyah in whose core are the Sefiros of Yetzirah, in whose core are...)"
The concept is explained in greater detail in the maamar entitled Padeh BiSholom, 5675, which states:
[With regard to] the Tanya's statements that the three impure kelipos do not possess any good at all, the intent is not that they do not possess a spark [of G-dliness] at all. For without a spark of good, it is impossible for any entity to exist. (Although their existence comes from an encompassing light; nevertheless, we are forced to say they possess some type of spark.)
This spark, however, has become so separated and darkened, that it is as if it is evil, i.e., it has no feeling at all for G-dliness.
Similar statements are found in the maamar entitled Ner Chanukah, 5670. Note also the maamar entitled Vayigdilu HaNaarim, 5665, which states: "The good is transformed into bad, in a manner which parallels the law:[2] 'The piece becomes considered as carrion.'"
See also Tanya, ch. 24, and Iggeres HaKodesh, Epistle 25. Note also Kuntres U'Mayon, maamar 4, which explains the statements in Tanya, ch. 24, quoting the phrase "Even though they do not see," and adds, "i.e., it is without their sensing it."[3] See also the maamar entitled Re'eh Rei'ach B'ni in Torah Or, which explains that [the entities stemming from the three impure kelipos] receive life-energy [from the realm of holiness] in an external manner - i.e., in a manner which they do not feel - and in an internalized manner - that [the G-dly energy] is swallowed up, as it were. [The meaning of "swallowing up" in this case is described] in the maamar entitled Pasach Eliyahu, 5702.
Lengthier treatment could be given to all these points, but since [you appeared anxious for] a speedy reply, I did not wish to hold back the letter [any longer].

You make reference to an oft-repeated story from our tradition that other nations were offered the Torah and turned it down. I find this story repugnant and another prime example of Jewish claims to superiority based upon denigrating non-Jews (one nation turned it down because murder was a way of life for them, another nation turned it down because adultery was a way of life for them, etc.). It is my fervent hope that this story never gets repeated again. You mention one counter-veiling story, and another is the story that the only reason the Jews accepted the Torah was because God held Mt. Sinai over their heads and threatened to drop it on them unless they accepted.

I again acknowledge that racism is not the issue, it is rather the exclusivity and claims to superiority. You have repeated, as others have, that membership in the superior club of Judaism is open to everyone, so no-one is really excluded, unlike many other supremacist groups that have conditions that not everyone can meet, and who regard anyone who cannot meet their conditions as inferior and not worthy of living (in some cases). But this claim that the welcome sign is open to everyone is a bit disingenuous and misleading, because part of this ideology includes the notion that there are Jewish souls and non-Jewish souls. “Conversion” does not really involve a non-Jewish soul transforming into a Jewish soul, but rather a Jewish soul which happened to be born into a non-Jewish family recognizing their inherent Jewish soul and coming home. Persons born with non-Jewish souls don’t theoretically have this opportunity, so it is theoretically impossible for everyone in the world to become Jewish. Certainly, the lesser inferior club of becoming a Noahide is open to all, and it sure beats not being a Noahide. So, again, I acknowledge that Judaism is not as exclusive as many other supremacist groups are, although there are plenty of triumphalist groups out there that readily welcome one and all on a more equal footing than Judaism does, with its two-tiered system (Jews and Noahides).

Your closing remarks about non-Jews bringing something of value to the community of man coming from within their souls sounds reassuring, if not a small, hollow concession. I say that because it is not very reassuring within the context of the text of Tanya discussed above or the Rebbe’s clarification to it in response to someone who expressed the same kind of issues that I continue to have. As long as groups continue to espouse ideologies/theologies of superiority like this, we will remained mired in the muck of discord and disrespect that we all long to rise above. This kind of mentality leads to scorn of others and haughtiness, not respect. I have seen this kind of scorn and disrespect expressed by many Orthodox Jews and followers of Chabad. It is very disturbing.

I’ve seen nothing in what you have presented to convince me that my ideology is fine in theory, but can’t be taken all the way in practice. Certainly, as long as many groups exist all claiming their unique fundamentalist takes on superiority and supremacy over everyone else, then my vision will never be actualized in practice. But if most of these groups begin to reconsider and abandon their superiority ideologies/theologies, while retaining many of the qualities that make them unique and special in their own way, I don’t see why my vision can’t be taken all the way in practice. A Jew can observe the mitzvot in spirit and practice without having to incorporate a belief in superiority. Likewise, a Christian can observe all of the teachings of Jesus without having to also incorporate a triumphalist theology. And likewise for all of the other religions of the world. You highlighted the western mind earlier. My observation is that it is mostly the religions that migrated west that have incorporated a triumphalist theology. Most of the eastern religions, by and large, incorporate the view that I share with them of respectful acceptance of other paths as valid for others. One Truth, Many Paths.

Om Shalom

Steve Gold

Hi Steve,   I have received your document, but it will take time to read through, and it may  not be possible or necessary to respond to all of it. Depending on how quickly I  can read through it, I may respond in several emails, or else respond to several  salient points and agree to disagree on the rest.   With best wishes that you be inscribed and sealed for a good sweet New Year,  

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein - Rabbis That Care


Some time ago, there was more activity on the Chabad blog. I tried to respond to some new comments, but my attempts were censored. After months of haggling with a Chabad editor, he agreed to print my new comments with the revisions he requested, using his own words. Those comments were on the blog for a while, but I recently discovered that they had been removed. Following are the censored and uncensored/revised comments, that have now been censored again. Chabad does not want this truth revealed, especially in these times of renewed activities of other types of supremacist movements.

Censored submission:

Here are doctrines adhered to in some Jewish quarters:

1 There are people who have Jewish souls, and there are people who don’t.
2 Some people born to non-Jewish families have Jewish souls.
3 Only people born to non-Jewish families who have Jewish souls are eligible to convert. Non-Jewish souls cannot be converted to Jewish souls.
4 Only people with Jewish souls are capable of generating standards of virtue such as The Golden Rule. All such righteous values appearing in the world originated exclusively from Jewish sources. Non-Jewish sources are incapable of doing so.
5 This incapacity of people with non-Jewish souls is due to their souls deriving from the klipot. Righteous souls have the limited capacity to recognize and follow standards such as the Noachide laws.

According to the doctrines noted above, conversion is not available to all. Although these doctrines are not racist, they are certainly supremacist, and would likely generate much of the resentment cited by Howie.

Reason cited by the censor:

There is no way to know who has a Jewish soul and who doesn't, as such everyone is given equal opportunity to convert.

Revised for the censors:

Here are doctrines adhered to in some Jewish quarters:

1 Some people have Jewish souls, some don’t.
2 Conversion is only available to people born to non-Jewish families who have Jewish souls.
3 Only people with Jewish souls are capable of generating standards of virtue such as The Golden Rule. All such righteous values appearing in the world originated exclusively from Jewish sources. Non-Jewish sources are incapable of doing so.
4 This incapacity of people with non-Jewish souls is due to their souls deriving from the klipot. Righteous souls have the limited capacity to recognize and follow standards such as the Noachide laws.

Although there is no way to know who has a Jewish soul and who doesn't, and as such everyone is given equal opportunity to convert, according to the doctrines noted above, conversion is not possible for all. Although these doctrines are not racist, they are certainly supremacist, and would likely generate much of the resentment cited by Howie.

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Translated to sound.

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Announcing Publication of New Book, DIMENSIONS: Navigation the Spiritual Spectrum

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book, DIMENSIONS: Navigating the Spiritual Spectrum, now available at Amazon, in paperback print and Kindle versions. It is easily found by searching my name, or by searching the full title and subtitle. You can also click on the image of the book in the right hand column of this blog.

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