Vive La Difference
by Jonathan Rosenblum
Baltimore Jewish Times
May 5, 2000
"I detest kosher wine." So begins a recent op-ed by Bruce Warshal, a Reform rabbi and publisher of the Southern Florida Jewish Bulletin. Rabbi Warshal is incensed that Halachah (Jewish law) proscribes wine produced by gentiles.
In his view, all distinctions between Jews and gentiles are invidious — a distortion of the biblical message that all men are created in the image of God.
About one thing, at least, he's right. The purpose of the prohibition is to maintain a separation between Jews and gentiles and to preserve a sense of Jewish distinctiveness. The rabbis proscribed gentile wine, the Talmud tells us, as a means of preventing intermarriage. Rabbi Yehudah Loewe, the Maharal of Prague, writing in the 17th century, noted the capacity of wine to break down all sense of separation between peoples, and to forge a bond of love between them.
Of course, Rabbi Warshal confuses today's political correctness with the biblical message. True, all men are created in the image of God, and as such are deserving of being treated with kavod ha'adam (human dignity). But as Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik pointed out, the Torah emphasizes no less clearly, kedushas Yisrael, the unique potential for holiness of the Jewish people and the Jews' mission as the instruments of God's revelation to the world.
A degree of separation between Jews and the other nations is a precondition for the fulfillment of that mission. "A nation that dwells alone," the Torah calls us — and those words are meant to be prescriptive, not merely descriptive.
Many Torah commandments are designed to create a special cohesion among Jews and a corresponding separation from the nations of the world. Jews, for instance, are forbidden to lend one another money on interest, not because interest is inherently immoral — renting one's money is essentially no different than renting one's ox — but to stress the special closeness of Jews for one another.
Until 250 years ago, almost all Jews lived according to a system of all-encompassing laws that distinguished them in every particular from their gentile neighbors. Most Jews no longer do so.
As a consequence, the concept of Jewish chosenness (also accepted by Christianity) is foreign, even repugnant, to most Jews. In a Commentary magazine symposium three years ago, few of the non-Orthodox Jewish theologians were willing to affirm this concept despite the Torah's constant reiteration.
We are more likely today to hear critiques of the Torah's obsession with boundaries. A Vassar professor recently attacked Reform temples that refuse to give honors to non-Jewish spouses, and indeed many such temples have begun to do so. Even circumcision, the enduring external sign of Jewish distinctiveness, is under attack by some Jews, including Reform rabbis.
As Jews reject out of hand any claim that they are somehow different than their non-Jewish neighbors and make acceptance by the general society the goal, they cannot explain to their children why they should not marry non-Jews. Among those who follow rabbis like Warshal, intermarriage is now the norm, not the exception. We drink their wine and marry their daughters, just as the rabbis said we would.
Even in Israel, the Jewish state, elite opinion is increasingly hostile to anything that smacks of belief in the Jewish people as in any way unique.
The Ministry of Education, under Yossi Sarid, has set out to systematically wean Israeli students from identifying themselves as members of a people with a long past. Those students are encouraged to renounce their tribal cast of mind, and to eschew any feelings of pride in their people or country.
Yoram Hazony, in a recent issue of New Republic, scrutinizes the new post-Zionist curriculum. The study of history no longer begins with Jewish history, but the Greek polis. Gone from the history of the War of Independence are the old maps of the five invading armies. They are replaced by maps of fleeing Arabs. And students are invited to consider the proposition that all nationalist movements — Zionism in particular — are by their nature evil: "the saviors of one people and the destroyers of another."
Gone too are the classic photographs of Israeli paratroopers looking up in awe at the recaptured Western Wall in 1967. Hillel Halkin writes: "There are many words missing from [these textbooks], the smallest of which is we.' Nowhere is the ninth-grader reminded that he belongs to the people that he is reading about, that he is flesh of their flesh and blood of their blood; nowhere that their story is his."
If Judaism may no longer be a distinction between citizens within the "Jewish" state, one is forced to ask what claim do the Jewish people have to a state of their own?
I am reminded of the old cartoon caption: "I love humanity, it's people I can't stand." Those who can show no special love for their brothers will ultimately show none for others further removed from them either.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity, Pluralism
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