Thursday, September 24, 2009

Is Your Holy Book Racist?

In response to my previous post about giving health-care to illegal immigrants, the Jewish Philosopher (JP) in our midst left the following comment:
People naturally take care of their own; that's taken for granted. According to the Talmud "love your neighbor" means "love Jews".
I don't agree with JP very often, but here I shall agree with his statement, if not his implied intent. Yes, it seems people do have a natural inclination to favor those who are similar to them over those who are different. There was a cover story in Newsweek about that a couple of weeks ago, which mentioned the following experiment:

It takes remarkably little for children to develop in-group preferences. Vittrup's mentor at the University of Texas, Rebecca Bigler, ran an experiment in three preschool classrooms, where 4- and 5-year-olds were lined up and given T shirts. Half the kids were randomly given blue T shirts, half red. The children wore the shirts for three weeks. During that time, the teachers never mentioned their colors and never grouped the kids by shirt color.

The kids didn't segregate in their behavior. They played with each other freely at recess. But when asked which color team was better to belong to, or which team might win a race, they chose their own color. They believed they were smarter than the other color. "The Reds never showed hatred for Blues," Bigler observed. "It was more like, 'Blues are fine, but not as good as us.' " When Reds were asked how many Reds were nice, they'd answer, "All of us." Asked how many Blues were nice, they'd answer, "Some." Some of the Blues were mean, and some were dumb—but not the Reds.

So it would appear that JP is correct that there is a natural tendency to develop "in-group preferences." But we have two choices: we can either try to overcome this tendency, or we can succumb to it. Modern liberal morality demands that we should attempt to overcome this in-group preference and make a concerted effort to treat all people equally, while JP's Torah morality dictates that we succumb to this tendency and treat people in our group (Jews) different than those outside it. So which is more moral? Should we surrender to this natural tendency or try to overcome it? Personally, I think this is one tendency I would like us to fight against. It seems that once we succumb to this nature that it's a short step to outright racial discrimination.

(Although he didn't say so clearly in the comment, it would seem that JP is endorsing the Talmud's view that we should embrace our natural inclination towards in-group preferences. I don't think I'm being unfair in assuming this, considering the views about the origins of morality that JP has espoused in the past.)

Incidentally, I find it sort of telling that in chassidus shiur we were always hit over the head with the idea that we should fight against our natural tendencies, especially the "animalistic" sexual taivos, but fighting the natural tendency towards in-group preferences was never mentioned. In fact such preferences were encouraged ("You are the best of the best, hand chosen by the Rebbe RaShaB to be in his heiliker Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim.") As is often the case with religion: masturbation is tantamount to murder, but bigotry is just fine.


  1. I’m afraid that history has demonstrated that those who claim to help everyone actually help no one.

    Take for example John Lennon. “Lennon was a pretty messed-up guy who preached universal love for the world and ignored his own family.”

  2. Ok

    So the problem I see is that there isn't particularly objectively wrong with in-group preferences. We do it all the time. We prefer family over the friend and stranger. Really, the Torah demands we look at a fellow Jew (who is not literally a family member) as a family member and therefore love him. Where it can lead to immorality is in the issue of injustice toward the stranger. I can love my own first, but if it gets to the point where justice or even common ethics looks at me more preferably, then its a problem.

    Let me just say, that I feel this is where chazal made the grand error of treated the non Jew different when it comes to justice and ethical standards.

  3. HH:

    I can understand that people care about their family members and acquaintances more than strangers; and perhaps that is a good thing since it's always nice to have someone looking out for you. But when it comes to complete strangers, I think we (and especially those in control of government) should try to overcome our in-group preferences (for example treating Jews who we never met as family) since there are some groups who are as a whole not as well off as other groups, and treating those in your group better will perpetuate that inequality.

    I can also understand that this is a hard tendency to overcome , and I wouldn't blame most individuals for having such tendencies (I myself am certainly not perfect in this regard); but I think it's something to aspire to, and it's much more important for those that have the power to affect the lives of many people (such as members of congress).

  4. The standard answer from apologists is that its "normal" to favor an in-grouper over an out-grouper. Of course this is true but the Torah was supposedly written by God. Why does God seem to have the same (bad) tendencies as His human creations?

  5. If you have no Torah, you can make up whatever you want to. Should we only care about Americans? Jews? The Nordic race? All humans? All animal life? Nobody except myself?

    The standard position of atheists is to publicly sympathize with whoever seems to be suffering (Palestinians, "the workers", blacks, gays, whales, whatever) while privately being a narcissist. Have your cake and eat it too.

  6. Happy

    Why is this a bad tendency? Does the Torah command to hate everyone else? Why is it you favor your family over your friends? I mean, doesn't the same Torah also tell you to remember the stranger because we were strangers?

  7. Jewish mythology is built to propagate this idea. With entire chapters in Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and other books devoted to praising the Jewish people. Of all the angels Michael is given superior status to all the others in jewish angelology due to him being the advocate of Israel in the heavenly council. All the nations are given angelic councils, and the councils of Israel are greatest in Heaven. In Jewish esotericism all jewish souls are given pure spiritual origins, where as gentiles come from the "unclean kelipot which contain no good whatever" as the Tanya puts it. On Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) all jewish souls that ever would be born took the covenant; the gentiles were afforded no such luxury. In fact everything in the world is b'shviel yisroel; created for the jewish people. Why do disasters (tsunamis, famine, wars) happen to other nations, so the Jewish people may learn from them. Thousands and millions of people die so Hashem (God) can teach the Jews a lesson. This is as bad as ethnocentrism gets.

  8. The book of Genesis, the foundation of the Jewish religion, is largely a theory of the origin of races; Genesis makes some notorious racial disciplines of the 20th Century which I won’t mention look good. Jewish law – Halachah – codifies this racial theme. Obviously the Jewish law gives radically different roles and laws for the Jewish race. It appears that there is also a different value for Jewish life – e.g. the rules of Sabbath may be waived to save a Jewish life but not for a non-Jewish life. But additionally Jewish law specifically discriminates in varying ways over and above other gentiles, against Amalekites (where Jews are for-ever commanded to murder every man, woman, child and animal – and King Saul indeed committed such a genocide in the bible although he was criticized for sparing the animals), the seven nations of Canaan of whom the Israelites murdered six, Egyptians and Moabites who had a special status, etc. Today these Jewish laws still apply but as the races have become intermingled only the races of Jews, Levites and Priests preserve their special status in practice. Incidentally, the appalling biblical passage commanding the genocide of Amalek is read aloud in synagogue from the scroll once a year to this day and is considered the most important reading of the year since the bible commands Jewry not forget this edict. It’s interesting how every enemy of the Jewish people are given deranged origins. The Ammonites and Moabites come from Lot's incest with his daughters, the Midianites come from Esau (treacherous brother of Jacob), the Cannanites comes from Canaan who underwent the "curse of Ham", not to mention the midrash claiming that black people come from Ham having sex with a dog after which he became black. To any rationalist this book is really just a primitive version of Mein Kampft.

  9. Shalmo, are you a klipah?

    Also, in Biblical Hebrew, there is no word for "race". It's a modern concept.

  10. A race implies a tribe or a group of people.

    The Torah and Jewish law very much are biult around that. There may not be a masoretic hebrew word for race, but that does not make the above criticism of the Torah being a primitive version of Mein Kampft less truer than it really is.

    Look at all the races and the different sets of origin stories as well as different laws for each race presented in the Torah. But where are the hindus? Where are the native americans? Why aren't they mentioned...Oh that's right the torah only included origin stories and laws for those races bronze age middle-eastern mythologists would know about, but forget about the rest of the "races" the world over. Proving that this book really is not written by God at all, but by men who did not know anything beyond their contemporary surroundings.

    PS: The hebrew you speak today for the Torah is actually a post-Islam phenomenon. Quranic arabic was the basis for your masoretic hebrew, which incidently raises a lot more questions about the legitimacy of Orthodox creed on Torah MiSinai.

  11. JP I have a question for people like you.

    Let's say tomorrow a religion pops up and we hear that back in the 60's they annihiliated a jewish population. Their holy books told them to rape jewish women, kill little boys, rip apart pregnant women, and enslave the virgins. Or as Devarim puts it not to let live anything that breathes!

    Would you as a Jew accept their claim that doing so was justified because it was a different historical and cultural context, and would you accept the claim of their holy books that the Jewish population this was done to deserved it because they were evil?

    You know where I am going with this. If you are going to say NO to the above scenario (as you should), then why the special pleadings with the genocides outlined in your own holy books?

  12. Shalmo,

    I forgot, are you a practicing muslim?