Time to Exorcise the Racism From Judaism's Roots

Words meant to comfort us when Jews were weak and victimized have become tools of vengeance now that we have power and weapons.

Hagai Aharon / Jini

Yom Kippur is considered a time of soul–searching. And it’s hard to think of a more important question than the question of what has happened to Israel’s soul. How did the Jewish civilization turn from what looked like a leader in gentleness, humanism, and universalism, to messianic, racist, and violent? A large part of this upheaval is connected to “the writings of the child crying into his pillow.” Allow me to explain.

For thousands of years of exile, the central Jewish experience was the lack of physical power, a lack that was accompanied by persecution, fear, and racist attacks. Judaism responded to this in a variety of ways, primarily by focusing on the metaphorical, verbal, and internal as a substitute for the external world of power, just as prayer replaced animal sacrifices at the Temple.

From this verbal environment there emerged numerous revolutions, from the centrality of learning to tikkun olam — a desire to fix the world. But among the verbal mechanisms that evolved in response to physical weakness was one in particular whose influence is crucial in our times. We can refer to it as “the writings of the child crying into his pillow.” The weak, powerless boy, constantly beaten by his “friends” in class and on the street, avenges himself at night, in his imagination, as he cries into his pillow, “They’re not human,” “those animals,” “let them all die.”

Throughout the years of suffering and racist persecution, many of the rabbinic and kabbalist authorities used such phrases as the “goyim” are not human, they don’t have a soul, they are cruel animals, and a great revenge awaits them, most of which will come during the powerful messianic era. “The writings of the child crying into his pillow,” by rabbis and kabbalists were not very well known by most Jews of the time. Some were hidden for fear of censorship. But even when they were familiar, the context of thousands of years of physical weakness and victimhood made it clear that these writings were not to be taken literally. The vengeance was to be expressed only in words, not deeds. These writings were the consolation of the tortured; the consolation of the pillow.

But after the worst persecution of all, the Holocaust, the State of Israel arose. At first it seemed that its response to the Jewish people’s tortured history — as expressed in its Declaration of Independence — would follow the well-trodden Jewish path; that the suffering had spawned a desire for a world of equality and human rights, a world without racism. But what suited the founding generation, which grew up without power and had rejected religious control, was not appropriate for those who grew up here, in the era of Jewish power.

In two generations, with growing Jewish empowerment, the hierarchy of the occupation, and increasing religious control, the context of the “writings of the child crying into his pillow,” was stood on its head. Rabbis, educational systems and the masses gleaned from those writings the ultimate justification for imposing control on “the goyim.” After all, it is written that “they” are animals, not human, not worthy of salvation; that they don’t have the same soul as we do. After all, the great rabbis and kabbalists said so.

Thus Beitar Jerusalem fans cry out, “A Jew is a soul, an Arab is an SOB.” Words written as the revenge fantasies of the tortured are suddenly backed by weapons. A world of imaginary retaliation has become real. This is the mechanism that has seized control of Israel. It infuses the religious, ultra-Orthodox, and even the secular school systems. It permeates everything.

There is only one solution to this takeover of racist writings. We have to understand what’s at work, and demand a complete overhaul of the Orthodox rabbinic canonical texts. Otherwise the racist, messianic, rabbinic world will triumph. Sections of the writings by some of the greatest rabbis, among them the Rambam, Yehuda Halevi, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari), and the Zohar, should be distanced from the canon. Even some of the prayers should be changed. “Blessed be He who did not make me a gentile,” is interpreted differently in Israel, with racist and operative implications.

This is the imperative of independence. We must demand that Orthodoxy totally revise itself to remove the racism, to do away with the writings of the boy crying into his pillow.