Jews and Civilization
Tonight, the 26th day of Tammuz in the Hebrew year 5771, is my father’s ninth yahrzeit. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think mournfully of all the questions I would like to ask him and all the conversations I would like to have, remembering so much of what I learned from him and yet thinking that it was pitifully little, considering the genius and great-heartedness of that extraordinary man, R’ Nachman Bulman, of blessed memory. He is to this day so longed-for and so deeply missed by so many people, as I well know from many of his students and former congregants.
I have not written here in a long time, for various reasons. But tonight, in my father’s honor, my heart urges me to talk about some of the beliefs that my father held most dear. My father believed passionately in Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE), the very ancient Torah understanding that was given more modern and eloquent expression in the 19th century writings of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. TIDE refers to Torah together with civilization or Torah together with secular pursuits or Torah together with courtesy and humanity. It is hard to define exactly in a short essay but let me talk about one aspect of TIDE.
We who believe in TIDE believe that one of the reasons that Hashem scattered us among the nations, in addition to the obvious fact that this is a punishment for our sins (foretold in the Torah), is that we are meant to be an ohr lagoyim, a Light to the Nations. We are also a blessing to the nations, also foretold in multiple places in the Torah. It was we Jews who introduced monotheism and morality to the world and we have indeed blessed the nations among whom we live in ways too numerous even to begin to detail.
Now, there is another school of thought within Orthodoxy which rejects TIDE and which holds that we have no responsibility towards the nations, other than to be basically law-abiding citizens, and that we should have as little to do with them as possible.
In Poland and Russia over the last few centuries, the goyim were mostly drunken, ignorant peasants who regularly slaughtered and robbed Jews. The Jews in those countries were so far above the goyim in every respect that it is no wonder they developed a contempt for the peasants around them. In addition, there was a fundamental lawlessness, with laws purposely designed to destroy Jewish lives and livelihoods and with authorities turning a blind eye to pogroms and depredations conducted by the gentiles against Jews. In such societies, it was inevitable that Jews would learn to live by their wits and would find every possible way around, under, and despite the laws (which were an anti-Semitic farce), simply to survive.
Unfortunately, when the Russian and Polish (and Ukrainian and Romanian, etc) Jews came to America, many transplanted here an attitude of contempt and disdain towards the non-Jews around them, along with an attitude that one has to work the system in any way possible in order to survive.
By contrast, 19th century Germany, where Hirsch lived and wrote, was a highly civilized country in which Jews had gone a long way towards legal and political emancipation and in which most of the surrounding goyim were educated and refined people. Of course we know how that played out, and thus we internalized another lesson: as long as we live as a small minority in foreign lands, we always have to watch our backs.
Nevertheless, there are many righteous gentiles and we owe them our friendship and gratitude. And when we live in such a malchus shel chessed as America is—such a benevolent country—we owe the gentiles around us a great deal. It behooves us to bring blessing to them and not curses, chas vesholom, to the best of our ability. This is the more true because this is a country in which we have the legal right to vote, to speak and to write, to make our voices heard.
Now, my father admired Yekkes, German Jews, very much—for their honesty, their integrity, their courtesy and good manners, their straight dealings, their incorruptibility. There were certain things about the Polish and Russian Jews that he looked upon as deformities caused by the harsh galus, the harsh and hostile exile, that they had suffered in their motherlands or rather, stepmotherlands. He was a Polish Jew himself, a Gerrer chossid. He had the warmth, the keen intelligence, the emotion and passion, the love of learning combined with the love of his people, that were so characteristic of the best of the Polish Jews.
Yet philosophically he admired, as I said, the German Jews, and especially their towering giant, Rav Hirsch.
He rejected the Polish idea of “Fife on the goyim” – I don’t care what the goyim think, I don’t care what happens to them, as long as I get mine.
He believed that we Jews are part of civilization, part of humanity, and owe something to the rest of mankind, especially to countries that provide a safe haven and economic opportunities for us to build our shuls, our schools and the whole wonderful infrastructure of Jewish life.
Now, in New York, many Orthodox Jews vote for Democrats for state and national office, because they want the goodies that Democrats promise. They don’t seem to fully understand that liberals are only bribing voters with their own money, with the money they extracted from the voters’ pockets in the first place. They seem to think the money pouring out of Albany and Washington is “free.”
In exchange for all the “free” money, they regularly vote for Democrats, many of them nominal Jews, who turn out to be immoral in their personal lives and in their voting records. And I have to admit that not only Democrats, but too many New York Republicans, turn out to be liberal and not conservative when push comes to shove. And yet my fellow Jews in Brooklyn keep voting for these scoundrels, falling at their feet and thanking them for all the free presents they shower on them.
What most lately prompts these thoughts is the passage of the gay marriage law in New York. Shamefully, a number of lawmakers turned traitor to the voters who had elected them, and passed a bill that will directly benefit less than one percent of the people in New York. It was mainly Democrats but also a few Republicans who committed this shameful act, for reasons that are obscure. Would you sell your soul to get a favorable mention in the New York Times?!
What tears at my guts is the fact that so many New York Jews, fine Orthodox Jews with beards and sheitels, vote for these scoundrels because they want the goodies—and by the way, this motive is not evil, really it is not—their families need help, they are drowning financially, their schools and communities really are often in dire financial shape. I understand all that, and yet.
This voting pattern is incredibly blind and shortsighted.
The attitude of, “What do I care if two men want to get married? What is it my business, what does it hurt me?” – that attitude is indefensible. It matters for so many reasons. If the air is polluted, I cannot say, “Well who cares, I’m not breathing that stuff anyway.” The environment around us affects us, it influences us, we cannot build high enough or strong enough walls to keep it out.
But even more so, we are supposed to be a help and a blessing and a light to the nations. We owe America so much! How dare we just shrug our shoulders and say, “Let them do what they want, the hell with them!” Where is the promise and the obligation we have to say the truth, and to bring G-d’s blessing on the people who have been so good to us?
It is only fair of me to acknowledge that it is not only right wing Jews in Brooklyn, with black hats and sheitels, who have this attitude of indifference to the moral welfare of the goyim among whom they live.
This same attitude is even more widespread, and is given a patina of intellectual respectability, by the liberal Modern Orthodox Jews of Teaneck and Manhattan and many other communities. “It’s none of our business what other people do, we can’t impose our will, yada yada.” Or even worse, “Why should homosexuals be denied their chance of happiness, why should the Torah have anything to say about it?”
Here is one argument that is truly evil – and it took the full force of the liberal world fifty years, pushing with all their might in every medium available to them, to brainwash the American people into believing this:
“Religious arguments are illegitimate in the public square. Any reference to G-d, Bible, Judeo-Christian morality or religious tradition is illegal, immoral and unconstitutional. If you can’t think of a completely secular argument for or against a given law, shut your mouth, you have no right to speak.”
This evil dogma, the exact opposite of what Americans believed and practiced for the first 200 years of this great republic’s history, has led us to the pass we’re in now, where Orthodox Jews and devout Christians stand muzzled in the public square, angry, ashamed, inarticulate and helpless.
Here, for the record, is what our ancient Torah heritage has to say about homosexual marriage:
The nations are allowed to continue in existence only because they keep a minimum of three mitzvos. These are: not writing marriage documents for the union of two males, not selling human flesh in the market place, and giving honor to the Torah—which in practice means, not persecuting the people of the Torah, the Jewish people.
In one of his prophetic visions, the Navi (prophet) Zechariah took thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the Temple treasury in Jerusalem (Zechariah 11:13). The Rabbis of the Talmud had varying interpretations of what this vision symbolized. According to Rabbi Ulla (Talmud Chullin 92B), the thirty pieces of silver symbolized the thirty mitzvos that the Bnei Noach accepted upon themselves. These thirty mitzvos include not worshipping idols, not consulting witchcraft and sorcery, refraining from illicit sexual relationships, and so on. (Bnei Noach are the Sons of Noah, also called Noahides—i.e., the nations of the world.)
Rabbi Ulla says that the world continues to exist because the nations accepted these thirty mitzvos. However, he adds, the nations do not keep all the mitzvos they accepted. They keep only three, and one of the three is: “They do not write a marriage contract for males.” Rashi comments that the nations do engage in forbidden homosexual relations, but they at least acknowledge that such relations are illicit by not formalizing those relations in legal documents.
The other two commandments that they keep are that they do not sell human flesh in the market place, and that they give honor to the Torah (Talmud Chullin 92B).
Elsewhere the Rabbis of old stated that the final decree of destruction, the Great Flood, was sealed against the generation of Noach because they wrote marriage documents for males. “Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Yosef, ‘The generation of the Flood was not wiped out until they wrote marriage documents for the union of a man to a male or to an animal ’ ” (Genesis Rabbah 26:5; Leviticus Rabbah 23:9).
Implicit is the assumption that if the nations do not abide by at least the aforementioned three mitzvos, they may forfeit the very right to exist. Hence, these three—not writing marriage documents for males, not selling human flesh in the marketplace, and honoring the Torah—may be considered the Three Conditions for the continued existence of mankind.
So you see, the idea of gay marriage is not new, not a fresh idea that represents the ultimate development, enlightenment and evolution of mankind. No, the formal marriage of two men is a very ancient idea that represents the degradation of mankind.
Why would I talk about something so degraded and so low when I want to speak in my father’s honor? I will tell you. I am not talking about degradation and sin. I am talking about Torah.
I know very well that in the court of public opinion we—moral Jews and members of other traditional faiths—have lost this battle. So why tilt at windmills?
Because I have compassion on my fellow Jews and on my fellow human beings—very much including homosexual human beings. I don’t want our Creator to be angry with us. What we cannot help, we cannot help. He will not be angry at religious and moral people if they were not able to stand on the seashore and stop the tide from rolling in. However, if we do not even try, if we make no protest and say nothing, then indeed we too may be held accountable, chas vesholom.
And I am not daunted by the odds against us. We are few and we are weak, but Hashem is mighty and powerful. If we try to do the right thing, He will help us and bless us, and help and bless this great country that has given us so much.
Avraham Avinu was one man against the world, “Avraham ha-Ivri” – “Avraham the man from the other side, Avraham the man who stood all alone, Avraham the Hebrew.”
Yet today the whole world knows his name and he is honored by billions of people, Christians and Muslims, all over the world, who know that Avraham taught, alone, “There is a Creator, and He cares for the welfare of His creatures.”