January 16, 2004

Context Is Key To Grasping Grama Book

Published January 16, 2004, issue of January 16, 2004.
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Having read key portions of the presently unavailable controversial book “On the Exalted Nature of Israel and Understanding Its Exile” by Rabbi Saadya Grama, I understand both the critical article in the Forward and defenses of the book from within the charedi community (“Charedi Rabbis Rush To Disavow Anti-Gentile Book,” December 19). While this sounds like the old Jewish joke that you are right and you are right, this is my attempt to bridge the cultural gap between the charedi world and the readership of the Forward.

To properly evaluate a book it is necessary to appreciate its context and the goals of the author, as well as to analyze specific details. Allan Nadler, who wrote the article for the Forward, accurately describes the author’s description of Jews as being fundamentally good and gentiles as rooted in evil. He posits that just as every Jew, no matter how assimilated, still has a Jewish spark (pintele yid), there is a corresponding non-Jewish core (pintele goy) to the gentile. Though acknowledging other views, Rabbi Grama accepts the notion that non-Jews are created not fully in God’s image (tzelem elokim). This is an extreme formulation of the approach of a stream of Jewish thinkers who see the Jew as a higher form of creation beyond that of human.

Grama, however, is not an advocate of acting against the gentile. On the contrary, his message is the need to separate from a hostile, intrinsically antisemitic world. He criticizes secular education and denies that there are moral values in gentile wisdom. Integrating into the non-Jewish environment has failed to eradicate antisemitism, and a return to the traditional low-profile ghetto Jew is seen as appropriate.

His seemingly shocking justification for bribing, when necessary, the secular authorities reflects his view that the world has not changed since Jews lived under the Russian czar and could survive antisemitic laws only through bribing corrupt judges. In fact, democracy, which he equates with a total loss of authority, actually makes things worse. Seeing the relationship between Jacob and Esau as a prototype for Jewish-gentile relations, he recommends that the Jew be servile to the gentile. From the author’s perspective, it is the Jews who actively have led non-Jewish movements who have increased the danger to Jewish survival in the exile.

The Holocaust, in which the Germans, who were seen by European Jewry as the pinnacle of modern culture and knowledge, murdered a third of the Jewish people, demonstrated to a part of the traditionalist Orthodox community that becoming a part of the modern world was a disaster. The recent growth of a “new” antisemitism in the guise of anti-Zionism became a proof that pursuing Jewish activism and nationalism was just as mistaken. In this milieu, a book asserting that the Jews are superior serves to maintain the morale for those who will live a life of material poverty devoted totally to Torah study.

It is possible to give the same message without ascribing evil to gentiles and denying that they are created in God’s image. One can acknowledge the intractable existence of antisemitism without seeing it emanating from the essential nature of the gentile. Unfortunately this book does not make such distinctions. Yet it is inaccurate to place it in the category of racist tracts that call for the superior race to rule the world. This work is a call for a superior people to withdraw from the world and live in isolation while submitting to its enemies and placing trust in God.

The vast majority of Jewish thinkers posit that all humans are created in God’s image and do not see all non-Jews as a definable category. But the possibility exists that one who is unaware of the marginality of Grama’s sources might draw misleading and dangerous conclusions from this book. In Israel, where there is an ongoing conflict between Jews and Arabs and there is an activist element within Orthodoxy, the viewpoint of the author could be used to justify horrendous behavior. There is an unquestioned principle of darchei shalom (paths of peace) that governs Jewish behavior with non-Jews. Maimonides sees this principle as being a fulfillment of the commandment to emulate God’s mercy on all of His creation (Hilkhot Melakhim, 10:12).

The context within the society in which Rabbi Grama lives limits the implications of what is written in his book. Those sharing his world see his work as defending their separation from a hostile environment and cannot imagine any aggressive behavior emerging from its thesis. It is to be expected, however, that his words would be understood differently by those of us more involved in the broader society.

Rabbi Yosef Blau

New York, N.Y.

The author is a spiritual counselor to students at the Yeshiva University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

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