Parashas Terumah 5774 -- The Dangers of Victimhood; A Cautionary Tale Amidst Celebration; The Power of a Compliment
by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 31, 2014
The Dangers of Victimhood
President Obama told New Yorker editor David Remnick last week, "There's no doubt there's some folks who just really dislike me because they don't like the idea of a black president." No doubt: "Some folks" is a pretty vague number.
But the President's intent was not just to alert us to the continued existence of three Klu Klux Klan members Rather he sought to deflect blame for his plummeting approval ratings by attributing them to racial animus. That's, frankly, pretty pathetic. Mr. Obama's general approval ratings have soared as high as 76%. I doubt that many of the three-quarter of Americans who once approved of his performance in office were so color-blind as to not notice that he is black.
The President's race has remained constant. What has changed is public perceptions of his policies, his competence, and his frankness. Far more Americans continue to find Obama likeable than approve of his policies, which would be odd if race were a key component in his approval ratings.
Obama was on far more solid ground when he added, "Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I'm a black president." Indeed were he not black it is unimaginable that Obama would be president today.
No similarly unvetted candidate has been elected to the presidency in the last 150 years. And no candidate has ever benefitted from such unabashed "esrog treatment" from the media. Could any other candidate have gotten away with not releasing his college records, or even offering an explanation for that refusal? Has a major news organization ever withheld a potentially damaging video of a presidential candidate, as the Los Angeles Times did of Obama's speech at the Hyde Park going away party for Rashid Khalidi?
NONE OF THIS is to deny the existence of racial or religious prejudice and its power to fix attitudes and distort perceptions. I frequently give a speech entitled, "Anti-Israelism as the New Anti-Semitism," in which I demonstrate that much of mainstream European discourse about Israel consists of claims straight from the fever swamps of obsessional hatred.
But there is a danger of being too quick to don the cloak of victimhood, as President Obama's comments to David Remnick make clear. And that is true even for individuals or groups who are sometimes the victims of irrational prejudice, such as chareidi Jews in Israel. Not for nothing do the mussar masters teach, "If someone calls you a donkey, put on a saddle."
It is always tempting to blame any negative comment directed in one's direction to irrational prejudice. First, it makes life easy. There is no point in listening to a bigot or asking whether he or she has made a point that requires a response. Donning the mantle of victimhood thus provides absolution from any self-examination and ensures that there can be no dialogue.
Victimhood also makes us unduly passive. Some critics may be unredeemable bigots. But that does not mean that all are. And those who are not can be persuaded. Rather than start with the assumption that anything negative said about us results from hatred for our way of life it is usually worth a try to employ the yesod revealed by the wisest of all men: "K'mayim hapanim lapanim kach lev adam la'adam – As water reflects a face back to a face so one's heart is reflected back to him by another" (Mishlei 27:19).
That technique works frequently enough that we could benefit from asking is there anything in our attitude towards Jews outside our community, or at least the expression of our true feelings, that could be improved.
Whenever I meet a non-religious Jew, it never occurs to me that he or she will hate me – indeed that any Jew will hate another – and I try to make clear that I feel a special bond between us. And I cannot recall an instance of feeling during the ensuing conversation that I was hated.
I may be a bit naïve – no, for sure I'm naïve. But, in the long run, it seems to me that there is much to gain and little to lose from this approach.
A Cautionary Tale Amidst Celebration
One of the many fascinating subthemes of David Goldman's new book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying Too), has to do with the frequently precipitous decline in religious observance in modern societies, especially in places where the church was closely identified with the nationalist cause .
In 1960, mass attendance in Quebec, the center of Francophone separatism from Canada, was 88%. Twenty years later, it was 20%. Similarly, mass attendance fell from 91% in Ireland in 1973 to 31% in 2005. In each case, the rapid decline in religious observance was accompanied by an equally sharp decline in fertility. In the same period, fertility rates in Quebec fell from four children per woman to 1.5. From 1994 to the present, the fertility rates in Poland, where the Catholic Church had been at the center of resistance to Communism, the fertility rate was halved.
In the Muslim world, fertility rates are plunging two to three times faster than in the Western world, the fastest population decline in recorded history. Over the last fifty years, the number of children born to each woman has declined by five in Turkey, by four in Egypt and Indonesia, and by three in Pakistan. Nowhere has the decline been more rapid than in Iran. From the time of the Khomeini Revolution, the number of children per woman in Iran has dropped by nearly six children to well below the replacement level.
Modernity was the acid melting away both religious faith and fertility. Or perhaps one could say that modernity revealed what appeared to be religious faith to be something else entirely. As Goldman, who is a religiously observant Jew, puts it, "In traditional society, where people are incapable of questioning the regimen of their lives, it is difficult to distinguish between faith and habit."
These statistics give birth to a variety of reactions for the Torah Jew. First and foremost, they should be a source of pride in the distinctiveness of Torah Jewry from worldwide trends. All the factors associated with declining fertility rates should apply with a vengeance to the Torah community. Goldman writes that 60% of fertility decline can be linked to female literacy. Yet female literacy in the Torah world is nearly 100%, and Orthodox women are among the best educated in the world. And still the Torah community has by far the highest fertility rates in the developed world.
Declining fertility is also associated with the move from rural, agrarian societies, where children are a valuable economic asset, to cities, where they are not. Yet again, almost all Torah Jews are urban dwellers, and have been a century or more.
In short, Torah Jews have retained their faith and their traditional high fecundity, in the midst of the most technologically advanced modern societies, and in contrast to adherents of other major religions. (I will be exploring the reasons for Judaism's sui generis status in an upcoming interview with Goldman in these pages.)
So optimism about the future of the Torah world is well-founded. Yet there remains a cautionary tale in Goldman's story of the rapid implosion of other religious communities. The cardinal of Quebec in 1960 probably surveyed his realm with a good deal of satisfaction.
The lesson is: We can never assume that what has been will always be. Change can come very fast. That is why we need leaders in every generation to guide us, and those leaders cannot just do what their predecessors did, for the circumstances of every generation are different.
And we have to be ever alert to changes in our society, and aware that numbers do not tell the whole story. A lot of internal rot can creep in, while the exterior appears to be flourishing, until one day the entire edifice collapses. As I have heard from Rabbi Moshe Shapira, I believe in the name of the Alter of Kelm: Size is not a Jewish measure; purity is our measure. From purity can come miraculous growth such as the Torah community has witnessed in Eretz Yisrael over the past 60 years. But size cannot generate purity nor ensure its preservation.
Few Words Large Impact
.An enthusiastic young man came up to me at a wedding last week and re-introduced himself. About three years ago, he reminded me, we were together at the Shabbos bar mitzvah of the son of friends whom he had tutored.
"You know you changed my life," he said to me. I could not imagine how, but was not above asking to hear more. Over the course of Shabbos, he had given a dvar Torah at one of the meals and played the piano and sang on Motzaei Shabbos.
My life-changing input consisted of nothing more than the following sentence. At the Melave Malka I told him, "You have great gifts that you could use for Klal Yisrael."
Until then, he had always downplayed his considerable musical talent because it was natural and the not the result of hard work. "You gave me permission to think of myself as having something to contribute," he explained. Today he has a senior position in one of England's leading kiruv organizations, and is very excited about what he is doing.
I mention this brief exchange as a reminder to each of us of how powerful a positive word or compliment can be, especially if it is sincerely felt, as mine surely was. And also as a reminder of how much power each of us has to make the world a happier place, in ways that demand nothing from us beyond the negligible energy required to smile or utter a simple sentence.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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