Abrahamís Way: On Relating to Non-Jewish Society

How should we approach individual non-Jews and the broader non-Jewish contemporary culture? What can we do to counter racist trends in our Orthodox community? This essay, a review of two books collecting traditional Jewish sources endorsing compassion for humanity, asserts the need for some soul-searching in light of the toleration of contempt and rudeness to non-Jews in our community. It suggests that the problem often stems from students becoming fixated on one strand of thought in our tradition when the overall teaching of Torah demands that we treat our gentile neighbors with greater respect. It also contends that the current level of anti-Semitism does not excuse rampant xenophobia. Interestingly, it brings proof for the last assertion from those very Jews who justify their poor treatment for non-Jews on the grounds of anti-Semitism. Would they truly believe their professed evaluation of their neighbors, they would not allow their own rudeness to provoke harsher reactions.

Rabbi Carmy argues that much of contemporary Western culture-its popular manifestations, its educational tenets, and its political leadership-deserves our condemnation. At the same time, we must honestly admit that individuals of sensitivity and integrity exist outside the orbit of our own community. Avrahamís actions in the land of Gerar can serve as a model for our predicament. On the one hand, Avraham deplores much of this society. On the other hand, Avimelekh is not a moral monster and Avraham confronts the possibility that he may have been unfair to the king of Gerar. Avrahamís decision to pray for Avimelekh despite the fact that he might have justifiably cultivated a grudge for the Philistine king reflects the need to treat individual gentiles with decency even when one finds their broader culture problematic.

In the concluding section, this essay warns against identifying the universal themes of Judaism with progressive politics. The progressive often works with the erroneous assumption that all humans are good at heart and thereby spares himself or herself the self-examination that stems from the knowledge that real evil is also part of the human condition. The alternative is a "sober realism" that harbors no illusions about our society and yet refuses to despair of or denigrate our fellow human beings formed in the image of God.

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Appeared as: Book review of "Compassion for Humanity in Jewish Tradition" and "The Universal Jew" in: Jewish Action (Winter 1999). (© Orthodox Union, with permission.)

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