The Inequalities of life
Have you ever asked yourself the question: are Jews really superior to other people? Are we really the chosen people? Do I believe that about myself? Do I really think that there is something uniquely special in my DNA? Is there really a genetic marker that identifies us as Jews, and if so, has intermarriage and conversion made our DNA similar to that of non-Jews?
This week’s Torah portion alludes to a belief that human characteristics are shaped in utero. The Torah mentions that although conversion is a positive and important part of the Jewish agenda (contrary to the position of many of today’s prominent rabbis), certain nations may never convert to Judaism. The nations of Ammon and Moab are excluded from future conversion to Judaism because they denied food and water to wayfarers, and therefore didn’t exhibit basic kindness expected of any civilized peoples. Their historical past shows moral flaws that are incongruent with the values and ideals that Judaism espouses. Thus, their association with the Jewish people would create discord instead of harmony. (However, although Egyptians enslaved and treated us poorly, they are not eternally excluded because they provided our people shelter when needed.)
Even more perplexing is the last paragraph of the Torah portion – the exhortation to destroy the nation of Amalek, including mothers and children. The Torah refers to the moral obligation of all god fearing people to eradicate a people with a predisposition for evil. We are mandated to remember a society that was inherently flawed and callous in their dismissal of morality. They committed the most heinous of crimes against the weak and feeble. As a means of self-preservation we are obligated to destroy the threat or be faced with our own demise and extinction. (Of course, individuals can no longer justify taking the law into their own hand because the nations have all intermingled and thus we have no definitive proof of anyone’s national identity.)
These thoughts are in sharp contrast with the core values of our society. Imagine trying to posit a theory that Abraham Lincoln may have been incorrect; that all men are not created equal? Until recently the mere contemplation of such thoughts would be deemed blasphemous and politically incorrect. Yet there are events transpiring daily that are so shocking even the media are hesitant to fully show them. Upon the heels of last week’s murder of James Foley, it was reported that ISIS once again acted with barbarity against Steven Sotloff, a US citizen whose beheading made national news. And then there is Hamas, a terrorist group that uses their own citizens as human shields while mothers support their children becoming homicide bombers. The daily bombardment of graphic footage showing tens of thousands of people from all faiths being murdered in cold blood is beyond what we as humans should have to accept.
My respect for humanity can only exist if I can my perception changes. If I can fathom that there are those who breathe and eat like humans, yet have flaws that mark them as a species similar in appearance to man, yet of a uniquely different gene pool. If real men are free to choose right from wrong, then perhaps these individuals masquerading as humans have never been granted that option. Perhaps this quandary is exactly what the Torah intended by stating that we are the chosen people; we are people capable of differentiating between good and evil. Even though all nations appear outwardly similar, some may be be an anomaly that have a propensity for evil from conception. Thus, the Torah posits that their integration is impossible as free choice is an imperative for conversion.
If truth be told I as a Jew am neither better nor worse than other people, and sadly many of my people have acted in ways that make me less than proud of my association with them. However I am blessed with free choice; the blessing that allows many to make appropriate decisions, but allows others to err (and suffer the consequences of their errant ways). However to err, is only sanctioned when and if it is an exception to the rule, not a replacement. Can and should we grant equality to anyone who walks on two feet? As King Solomon wrote, “the difference between humans and animals is naught.” And I thought King Solomon, the wisest of men would have held the animal kingdom in higher esteem.
Rabbi Jack Engel