This is my latest column for the Jewish Chronicle
‘Chas, we can save you!’ When I received messages on my blog making this thrilling promise, I assumed they were spam from a finance company offering to consolidate my loans into one ‘easy’ payment. Instead, it turned out, they were from a Christian in Nigeria who, having read articles I posted about my interest in Judaism and the Chasidim, wants to convert all my curiosity about Judaism into one churchy faith.
Well, thanks for the interest but if Christianity was ever going to do the trick for me it would have done so a long time ago.
My Nigerian would-be saviour is not alone in his concern. When I post about Chabad-Lubavitch – an organisation for which I have particular respect – readers’ comments offer furiously assembled quotations purporting to show that Judaism is chauvinistic and considers gentiles to be second-class and inherently ‘satanic’.
Blimey, I thought sarcastically; they kept that quiet. But, of course, it is easy to Google any religion and extract quotes out of context, mistranslated or simply fabricated. The internet is awash with antisemitic sites that make such a process particularly easy with Judaism. There are Jewish fringe authors, too, such as Gilad Atzmon, Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky, whose Jewishness provides a valued fig-leaf for antisemites who quote their hostile words.
The trump card of the online antisemite is a passage about Jewish and non-Jewish souls in the opening chapter of the 18th-century Chabad Tanya. This is a passage that can be misunderstood by the hasty online browser with an agenda on his or her hands. Even as an admirer of Chabad, I was shaken when I first read it. But, rather than rush to judgment, I studied authentic sources and discussed the matter with several rabbis, Chabad and non-Chabad.
One Chabad member in Jerusalem dropped her housework on the eve of Pesach to talk me through it. The passage has been discussed, revisited and reconsidered by several rabbis. It is in any case about idol worshippers, not gentiles en masse, as is made clear later in the book.
Another favoured target of antisemitic Googlers is the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, the magnificent Menachem Mendel Schneerson. As a longstanding admirer of the man and his work, I know that, far from being anti-gentile, he was responsible for the introduction of a large, revolutionary programme of Chabad outreach to gentiles. He loved all people deeply and his life’s work reflects that.
When asked how, into his 80s, he found the strength to stand for hours and greet long lines of visitors, he answered that, as every human being is a precious jewel, how could he grow tired counting diamonds?
I have often attended Chabad Shabbats and other occasions in London. I’m warmly welcomed and was even playfully nicknamed “Chasidic Goy” by the splendid Rabbi Yisroel Lew of Chabad Bloomsbury. My only complaint could be that they so enthusiastically ask me, “When are you coming again?”, if I stop attending. Hardly the behaviour of an organisation with an anti-gentile agenda.
Indeed, as I have studied the Torah and Talmud over the years, I’ve noticed that both books present specific non-Jews more positively than specific Jews. Noah, and the daughter of Pharaoh are just two of the gentiles painted this way. Ruth, of the book of Ruth, was a convert, and she is one of Judaism’s highest-rated figures. Likewise, the rabbis in the Talmud proudly assert that Rabbi Akiva, the Rosh la-Chachamim, and a towering figure of the Talmud, was a descendant of converts.
Arguably, implicit in any religion is a belief that its followers are party to something that singles them out from the rest of the human race. Why else would anyone get and remain involved if it were not to better themselves in some sense? Yet anyone who suggests Judaism is intolerant or chauvinistic is, in my opinion, merely projecting their own weakness and fears on to a tradition that can inspire and guide any of us.
The online critics are also ahistorical. To be aware of the centuries of relentless persecution, slander and slaughter of Jewish people by gentiles, and to conclude it is Jewish people, not gentiles, who are the bad guys, is almost hopelessly insane. It is those who believe such nonsense who need to be saved.
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(This article has been crossposted on The Algemeiner and, thrillingly, Crown Heights Info.