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.

11 Responses to “Save me from the saviours!”

  1. Leibel Estrin says:

    Have some of these critics check out “Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition,” a brilliant analysis by David Sears. B’hatzlocha

  2. Shmuel says:

    Good article Chaz – nice research and thoughtfulness

  3. Brian Goldfarb says:

    Chas, as the punchline to the jewish joke _might_ go, “what’s a nice boy like you doing in a place like this?”

    It needs to be noted that I’m a secular Jew: I am a member of a United Synagogue (i.e. “modern” orthodox) which I attend on an occasional basis, and when I do, the regular attendees welcome me. I attend out of a sense of communal solidarity: the antisemites would target me if they had the power to do so, so I’m going to identify with my co-religionists – might as well be hung for a sheep as for as for a lamb. My level of belief is fairly low, and I’m a lot less tolerant of the very Orthodox than you.

    Still, thank you for your interest in them and your reminder to me that many of them are far more tolerant of divergent views than are their equivalents in other, equally monotheists, religions. Well, up to a point. My Rabbi has a father who is a retired Prof of Biology, and the Rabbi was at great pains to insist that when, every 28 years, the sun is over exactly the same spot on the Earth’s surface, it’s the Earth that’s moving with respect to the sun, and not the other way round.

    Mind you, I was sitting beside his father at the time, and the son was well aware of his father’s presence in the audience!

  4. Oh Chas saving those who are full of hate. Good idea. Good luck. Recently I posted a comment to a Foreign Policy article. The antisemites came out of the nuthole. The best ones of course, were those who said they are not antisemitic but antisemitism is all the Jews own fault anyway. Same old same old. The answer to intolerance of course is not tolerance. The answer to intolerance is derision and you have done a very nice job here.

  5. Dan says:

    A very closely and intelligently argued article. Thank you for your support.

  6. Richard Armbach says:

    ” the antisemites came out of the nuthole…” Oh Elise don’t tell me. They critiscised the State of Israel without critiscising Luxumbourg in the same sentence. I hope you told em that was anti semitic as per the EUMC definition.

  7. Richard Armbach says:

    I did of course mean Luxembourg. Oh Chas it’s cool. What you don’t publish is at least as helpul as what you do. In fact. Invaluable

    What Chas Newkey Burden won’t publish…..

  8. Steve says:

    I’m just beginning to explore Judaism in a little more depth having realized what I actually know just scratches the surface. Like you, I’m a gentile, but I have had an Evangelical Christian upbringing and was deeply involved in Christian evangelism. After leaving Art School I spent nine years designing tracts and outreach material for Evangelical churches across the UK. I went through a slow process of losing my Faith, the cause of which could be summed up in two books: ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins and Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok’s ‘The Crucified Jew: Twenty Centuries of Christian Anti-Semitism’ Both books produced the most reluctant atheist you may care to find.

    I still love the weird and wonderful stories of what I can’t help but call the “Old Testament” and especially find a certain kind of solace from reading the Psalms which I enjoy as much now as I did when I was a believer. My questions for you are these: What made you start having an active interest in Judaism? Looking back, what steps would you have avoided as you furthered your interest?

    Steve

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