Leaders of the country’s most prominent ultra-Orthodox yeshiva are scrambling to distance themselves from a book by one of their disciples, which argues that gentiles are “completely evil” and Jews constitute a separate, genetically superior species.
Written by Rabbi Saadya Grama — an alumnus of Beth Medrash Govoha, the renowned yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J. — the self-published book attempts to employ classical Jewish sources in defense of a race-based theory of Jewish supremacy. Grama’s book, published in Hebrew under the title “ Romemut Yisrael Ufarashat Hagalut ,” includes flowery endorsements from the most revered religious scholars at the renowned Lakewood yeshiva, including the institution’s foremost religious leader, or rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler.
Yet, in a statement issued Tuesday in response to queries from the Forward, Kotler rejected Grama’s philosophy and said that he had not carefully reviewed the text prior to endorsing it.
“We have seen the objectionable statements that allegedly appear in a sefer [book] written by Rabbi Grama, a former student at our yeshivah,” wrote Kotler, whose late grandfather Rabbi Aharon Kotler founded the Lakewood yeshiva. “I did glance briefly at the book but did not read it carefully — which is the general practice in providing approbations to the many books by alumni that come across a desk like mine.”
In his rare statement to the press, Kotler added: “In looking at the specific points allegedly contained in the sefer , I can certainly tell you that they are not reflective of normative Jewish thought and are certainly not the philosophy of our yeshivah. Our philosophy asserts that every human being is created in the image of the Lord and the primacy of integrity and honesty in all dealings without exception. I strongly repudiate any assertions in the name of Judaism that do not represent and reflect this philosophy.”
The statement Tuesday struck a dramatically different chord from Kotler’s earlier endorsement of the book, in which he said Grama has written “on the subjects of the Exile, the Election of Israel and her exaltation above and superiority to all of the other nations, all in accordance with the viewpoint of the Torah, based on the solid instruction he has received from his teachers.”
Kotler’s disavowal of the book on Tuesday came at the end of an intense, day-long scramble during which the Anti-Defamation League and the chancellor of Yeshiva University condemned the book, and several ultra-Orthodox communal spokesmen tried to convince the Forward not to report its existence. During the course of the day, a popular bookstore in the heavily Orthodox Boro Park section of Brooklyn told the Forward that it had just pulled the book off of the tables at the author’s request.
The controversy over Grama’s book comes as the yeshiva is close to securing $500,000 in federal funds for a Holocaust library (see accompanying story on Page 4).
Coincidentally, in his book, Grama argues that the Holocaust was both a divine punishment against the Jews for assimilation and also proof of the “true nature and face” of the non-Jewish world. The book’s title could be translated in several ways, including “The Grandeur of Israel and the Issue of Exile” and “Jewish Superiority and the Question of Exile.”
Grama did not return a call seeking clarification on this point and other questions about his polemic.
In his book, Grama writes: “The difference between the people of Israel and the nations of the world is an essential one. The Jew by his source and in his very essence is entirely good. The goy , by his source and in his very essence is completely evil. This is not simply a matter of religious distinction, but rather of two completely different species.”
Grama’s explanation of the Holocaust, as well as his other theories, drew harsh criticism from Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University and the rosh hayeshiva of its affiliated seminary. Lamm said that his only knowledge of the book came from passages provided to him by the Forward, but that he rejected what he understood to be Grama’s arguments.
“It is a book by someone who has obviously taken leave of his senses and adopted the kind of racism that was used against Jews since the beginning of time,” said Lamm, one of Modern Orthodoxy’s most prominent leaders. “I almost feel like offering a conjecture that it was written by an antisemite posing as a rabbi.”
Lamm added: “The passages that I have read managed to offend everyone — the Torah, the martyrs of the Holocaust, the Jewish ideals of justice and the essential divinity that inheres in every human being regardless of religion, race or ethnic origin.”
In an effort to back up his arguments, Grama draws on an array of racist sources ranging from medieval theological tracts to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche to the works of Nazi figures. Among other things, Grama argues:
• The differences between Jews and gentiles are not religious, historical, cultural or political. They are, rather, racial, genetic and scientifically unalterable. The one group is at its very root and by natural constitution “totally evil” while the other is “totally good.”
• Jewish successes in the world are completely contingent upon the failure of all other peoples. Only when the gentiles face total catastrophe do the Jews experience good fortune.
• The Jews themselves brought about their own destruction during the Holocaust, since they arrogantly endeavored to overcome their very essence, dictated by divine law, by leaving their ghettoes and trying to assimilate into Christian European society. The confrontational approach of the Zionists, their boycott of German products and anti-Nazi demonstrations in particular, only exacerbated the peril to European Jewry. For this they were massacred by Hitler who, while himself an evil person, was acting as God’s agent in punishing the Jews.
Grama also argues that in opposition to Zionism’s advocacy of Jewish national self-assertion and self-defense, which he views as an imitation of “gentile ways,” the Torah mandates that the Jews, while in exile, should employ such means as appeasement, deception, duplicity and even “bribery” in their dealing with gentiles, so as to avoid their wrath.
Grama’s full-blown racialist theories appear to break new ground, building on a handful of hints of national and racial chauvinism occasionally found in the writings of a few earlier rabbinic figures, but combining them into a racialist doctrine with no precedent in rabbinic literature. To be sure, a minority stream exists in the rabbinic tradition — from the 11th- and 12th-century Hebrew romantic poet Yehuda Halevy to the 18th century chasidic sage Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev — which sees the differences between Jew and gentile as innate, rather than merely religious. Perhaps the most extreme version of this view is found in the central text of Chabad chasidism, Tanya, whose author, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, Chabad’s founder, maintained that Jewish and gentile souls are fundamentally different, the former “divine” and the latter “animalistic.” That viewpoint has gained ground in recent decades, particularly among charedi thinkers.
Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, who is considered one of the leading ideologues of the Israeli Chabad movement, has written and spoken widely on the superiority of Jews and was briefly imprisoned in Israel for racial incitement. Yated Ne’eman, an Orthodox weekly in upstate New York that is affiliated with one of Israel’s main charedi dailies, has published essays on the question of whether medical research can be understood to apply to Jews given the innate physiological differences between Jews and gentiles.
Such arguments, however, have historically stood in tension with the prevailing rabbinic view that the righteous gentiles of the world — those who exhibit the basic ethical and moral behavior encapsulated in the “Seven Laws of Noah” — had the same access to personal salvation as fully observant Jews. This view was summed up in the 12th century by Moses Maimonides, arguably the most important Jewish sage of the past millennium, when he wrote in his code of Jewish law: “Anyone who accepts the Seven Laws of Noah and is careful to observe them is one of the righteous among the nations of the world and he has a portion in the world to come.”
Critics complained that Grama’s racial theories also conflicts with ancient and medieval rabbinic rules mandating equal treatment in all realms for converts to Judaism.
Grama frequently quotes Biblical verses that advocate terribly harsh treatment of the pagan inhabitants of ancient Canaan, implying that the same standards ought to be applied to his non-Jewish neighbors in America. By doing so, he appears to disregard extensive rabbinic deliberations dating back to the early medieval period whose general consensus was that Christianity and Islam are licit, monotheistic faiths. The net result of these medieval rabbinic deliberations was to limit the application of such Biblical laws to ancient pagans, and to mandate that Muslims and Christians could not be classified together with the idol-worshippers of earlier times.
When informed of Grama’s arguments, the associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Kenneth Jacobson, described them as “pure racism.”
“It shows that we in our community are quite capable of the same kind of hatred that exists in other communities,” Jacobson said. “We have an obligation to reject hatred in our community, just as we do when it comes out of other communities.”
Allan Nadler is the Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Drew University and Senior Advisor for Academic Affairs at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Congress is set to allocate $500,000 to Beth Medrash Govoha, known as the Lakewood yeshiva, for the establishment of a “Holocaust library.”
The grant was included in the 2004 Omnibus Appropriation Conference Agreement that is expected to be signed by President Bush later this month. According to congressional staffers, New Jersey’s two senators, Democrats Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg, inserted the money into the bill after being lobbied by Rabbi Aharon Kotler, grandson of the yeshiva’s foremost religious leader, Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler.
The allocation comes as attention is focusing on a book written by Rabbi Saadya Grama, a graduate of the yeshiva, arguing that gentiles are “completely evil” and Jews constitute a separate, genetically superior species. The book included endorsements from several of the top rabbis at the Lakewood yeshiva. But this week, Aryeh Malkiel Kotler issued a statement to the Forward saying that he had not read the book “carefully” before endorsing it and objected strongly to its alleged contents (see Page 1).
When asked about the book, Lautenberg said in a statement: “If these translations accurately portray the sentiments of Rabbi Grama’s book, I find it deeply troubling that any representative of the school would endorse these views.”
Corzine staffer David Wald would not comment on the book. But, regarding the Holocaust library, he said: “We supported the appropriation… to replace historically-important documents.”
Which documents would reside in the library is unclear. The request for federal aid sent by Aharon Kotler to the senators requested funds for “Holocaust Memorial Libraries.”
“Beth Medrash Govoha’s Holocaust Memorial Libraries will replace the institution’s famous collections of books and manuscripts that were destroyed in the Holocaust,” Kotler wrote. “The collections will include the wartime archives of U.S. and European community leaders, and thousands of scholarly works, from the pre-Holocaust, Holocaust, and immediate post-Holocaust eras.”
Later in the request, Kotler wrote, “Exhibits on the Holocaust and other events from that era will be a prominent activity at the Library/Memorial.”
Kotler said that he would be willing to discuss the project at a later date, but not the same week that the Forward was writing an article on Grama’s book.
Binyamin Speigel, the yeshiva’s head librarian, said he could not provide details regarding the library. “We don’t have a Holocaust library. It’s in future plans,” he told the Forward. Asked to provide more details, Speigel responded: “We don’t have exact plans.”
Statements from Corzine’s and Lautenberg’s offices indicate that both believe the library was meant to preserve documents nearly lost in the Holocaust. In a statement from Lautenberg, the senator declared: “I worked to secure federal funding for this library, which will house a large collection of historical documents, books and other artifacts that survived the Holocaust.” Corzine’s aide, Wald, said the funds would be used “to replace historically-important documents.”
Ami Eden and Steven I. Weiss contributed to this report.