A former friend (just kidding, J.J.) shared his surprise recently that Mishpacha publishes both Rabbi Eytan Kobre and me every week. After all, he said, we so frequently agree, on everything from our evaluation of the presidential candidates to doctrines of American constitutional interpretation.
I hope he will be relieved to discover that there is something upon which Rabbi Kobre and I disagree sharply. I refer to Reb Eytan's criticism two weeks ago of a column by the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens on the refusal of an Egyptian judoka to shake hands with his victorious Israeli opponent Olympics.
What raised my friend Eytan's ire was Stephens' focus on the impact of anti-Semitism on the anti-Semite, in this case the Egyptian wrestler and the larger Egyptian society. Bret quoted approvingly, Paul Johnson's observation: "[W]herever anti-Semitism took hold, social and political decline almost inevitably followed." Countries that expelled their Jews went into prolonged and often irreversible decline
Rabbi Kobre does not challenge the accuracy of Johnson's observation. Yet he charges that by writing about the impact on the anti-Semite, Stephens has revealed his lack of "profound grounding in Torah." And that lack of Torah knowledge has inevitably led him astray in his discussion of anti-Semitism, his great talent and deep concern for the Jewish people notwithstanding.
Stephens, of course, has never claimed great Torah knowledge, and it is not something that I personally expect to find in a Wall Street Journal columnist, Pulitzer-prize notwithstanding. Halevai, "profound grounding in Torah" would characterize every one writing for Mishpacha.
It has been nearly seventy years, however, since a Torah giant of Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman's stature wrote regularly for the Orthodox press on the issues of the day. At least this Orthdodox shreiber lives with the constant awareness of how paltry my Torah knowledge is compared to what it should be. As a consequence, whenever I venture to offer "a Torah perspective" – never "the Torah perspective" – it is always done tentatively and with expectation of correction by those more knowledgeable.
At the same time, I have always operated on the assumption that if one accurately describes some physical or social phenomenon, there will be a hint to it in Torah and it can be used to strengthen our emunah. And I think that rule applies to Johnson's observation about the destructive impact of Jew hatred on societies that succumb to it. Is that pattern not a clear manifestation of Hashem's promise to Avraham and his progeny: ". . . and the one who curses you will I curse" (Bereishis 12:3). And if so, isn't a Jewish reader of Stephens' column better off for knowing it?
Similarly, I have personally gained a great deal from the academic study of anti-Semitism by the late Robert Wistrich, with its classification of the typologies of anti-Semitism. Certainly, the study of anti-Semitism had a profound effect on Wistrich himself. He grew up in a Shomer HaTzair home, but spoke movingly to me of his profound feeling of connection to the Shomer Yisrael when he put on his tefillin in the morning.
One of the most striking aspects of the history of anti-Semitism chronicled by Wistrich is its protean nature. There was pagan anti-Semitism, Christian anti-Semitism, racial anti-Semitism, right-wing anti-Semitism, and today left-wing anti-Semitism primarily hiding behind the guise of anti-Israelism.
From his study of "the longest hatred," Wistrich came to see anti-Semitism as a function of Jewish chosenness. Dislike, even hatred, of those who are different from us, notes Bernard Lewis, has been almost universal throughout human history. What distinguishes anti-Semitism is the attribution to Jews of "cosmic evil," and therefore the need to exterminate them.
The root of "exterminationist" anti-Semitism (Wistrich's term) is a perverse recognition of the Jews' unique mission, our assigned task of bringing knowledge of Hashem to the world. "It is the vocation of Israel that the world hates," wrote the Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain (quoted approvingly by Wistrich in The Lethal Obsession) in 1937.
It is often said by students of radical Islam that the Islamists hate the West for what it is rather than for anything specific that it has done. And in the same way, anti-Semitism is a function of what the Jew is and represents more than a response to just what Jews do.
That view is implicit in perhaps the best known statement of Chazal with respect to Jew hatred: "Halacha b'yedua sh'Esav sonei Yaakov – It is a know halacha that Esav hates Yaakov." In a similar vein, Rav Chisda and Rabbah the son of Rav Huna explained the name Har Sinai in terms of the "hatred (sina) that descended to the idol worshippers upon it" (Shabbos 89a). In other words, with the giving of the Torah at Sinai came the eternal hatred of the nations for the Jew.
RABBI KOBRE INSISTS that the only thing we as Jews need to know about anti-Semitism is that it is always a call for a spiritual accounting of "where we have fallen short." He cheerily calls this blaming the victim.
But that is too narrow a perspective through which to view the phenomenon. It is simply not the case that the only Torah response to expressions of anti-Semitism – from schoolyard taunts to the Holocaust – is to ask: What did/I do wrong?
First, as noted above, there are other lessons to be learned from the study of the never ending nature of anti-Semitism, and they do not all center on our failures. Chazal make clear that anti-Semitism is embedded into the very nature of things at least from the time of the giving of Torah, and has as much to do with Jewish uniqueness as Jewish failure.
Second, reward and punishment is a very broad category. The Gemara (Arachin 16b) describes as an example of issurim reaching into one's pocket to extract three coins and only pulling out two. Somehow lumping together that sort form of yissurim and the results of demonic anti-Semitism – both should provoke the same generic response, "Where did we fall short?" -- strikes me as too general to serve as useful guidance. True, constant self-examination of one's actions is the hallmark of a Torah life – Happy is the man who fears constantly" (Mishlei 28:14) – but that is true with respect to everything that happens to us, not just expressions of anti-Semitism.
Third, punishment is not the only framework for evaluating events, particularly ones of a catastrophic nature such as the Holocaust. Even at the individual level, two people may suffer similar yissurim for very different reasons. For one, those yissurim may be a punishment for aveiros; for the other a reward, i.e., the means of maximizing his share of the supernal pleasure of the World to Come by wiping away the last traces of sin in this world.
The Ramchal famously describes two forms of Divine Providence taking place simultaneously and in an intertwined fashion: the first based on Divine responses to our exercise of our free will; the second, known as Hanhagas HaMazal, based on the necessity that human history reach the end for which Hashem brought the world into being.
Sometimes one form of Divine Providence dominates and sometimes another. Nor are the two ever completely unlinked. The exile and servitude of the Jewish people in a foreign land was necessary for the fulfilment of the Divine plan, as was the subsequent Exodus. Even though these cataclysmic events fit into Hanhagas HaMazal, nevertheless, the Gemara (Nedarim 32a) searches for the "failure" on Avraham Avinu's part that could have triggered the descent to Mitzrayim of his descendants.
It is clear, however, that the explanations of Avraham's failure offered by different Amoraim are incommensurate with the suffering that resulted. Each failure suggested by one Amora is apparently rejected by the other two discussants as not a failure at all. Though the dominant calculus of Divine Providence was not one of reward and punishment, still some negative exercise of Avraham's free will, no matter how slight, was apparently needed to set events in motion.
ONE FINAL OBSERVATION only tangentially related to anything Rabbi Kobre wrote. We constantly live with two levels of reality: one based on empirical observation of the world around us and estimations of the likelihood that cause x will result in y; the other based on the knowledge that ultimately only Hashem's Will determines the outcome of any decision we make.
The latter awareness, however, would not keep us from doing a good deal of research before making an investment of a substantial portion of our capital. Nor is doing so a reflection of a lack of emunah. I cannot count the number of times I approached gedolim for guidance about what course I should take, and their first question was a very practical, this-worldly one: What will be the likely impact on your parnassah of each of the possible alternatives?
I read many books and articles dealing with the results of empirical observation. And I also read many works seeking to find the larger patterns of Divine Providence underlying events.
Both type of works have their place. I would not criticize either for not being something else. All I want to know is within which frame of reference the author is operating so I can judge him or her accordingly.