Friday, June 25, 2010

The Real Cause of Anti-Semitism: A Vort from the Netziv on Parshat Balak

This year in particular, we're feeling the sting of antisemitism more profoundly than we're used to. From the international focus and condemnation of Israel, to the world-wise rise of Jew hating, to the overt Israel-bashing from Iran, it's becoming alarmingly acceptable to disdain the Jews. All this despite the continued hard work of tens of alphabetic Jewish Organizations from the ADL to the SWC (Simon Wiesenthal Center. OK, that acronym I made up) to the JCRC? Why, if we're working so hard to combat hatred of the Jews, do things still seem to be getting worse?
The Netziv, commenting on our parshah, offers a striking answerIn his famous blessing of the Jewish people Bilam said:
הן עם לבדד ישכן, ובגויים לא יתחשב
"lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations" (Bamidbar 23:9)
What did Bilam mean when he said this? What does it mean for the Jewish nation to dwell alone? Commentaries throughout the ages interpreted this phrase in different ways, adjusting their interpretations for the times in which they lived. (listen to this year's shiur to learn more).
One very striking interpretation is the commentary of the Netziv in Ha'amek Davar, who offers a novel reading of this phrase, writing (in his comments to Bereitshit 15)
"המה מבקשים לכלותינו, הוא בשביל שאנו מבקשים להתערב עמהם. וכבר ניבא על זה בלעם 'הן עם לבדד ישכון ובגוים לא יתחשב'. ובארנו שאם יהיה לבדד ולא ירצה להתערב עמהם, ישכון במנוחה. ובזמן שהוא בגוים שמתערב עמהם, לא יתחשב בעיני אומות העולם ואין לו תקומה ביניהם. וזה בתורת השגחה מן שמים שיהיה כן"
They wish to destroy us - and the reason for this is because we want to intermingle with them. Bilam already prophesized about this when he said, "lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations". And we explained that if [Israel] will be "alone" and not wish to mix with them, then "he will dwell" in tranquility. And at the time that he is "among the nations", then "he will not be reckoned" in the eyes of the nations of the world, and he has no stature among them. This is a matter of divine providence from heaven that this should be so.
In his commentary to our parshah, Netziv offers a chilling additional, tragically prophetic point:
אינו נחשב בעיניהם כלל כאדם...והרי כקוף בצורת האדם
He is not considered in their eyes at all like a human being, and he is like a monkey in the form of a human being.
(There's a long, important essay that I skipped during the ellipsis within which he explains his logic, but I don't have the time to translate the whole thing.)
It's frightening to think about Netziv's point: when we try to act like the nations of the world, instead of liking us more, the world only hates and derides us, to the point that they consider us subhuman; animals in human form.

How tragically, chillingly prophetic were his words, written towards the end of the 19th century, only decades before the rise of the Nazi regime that followed his prediction precisely.
This truly is the struggle of our time: what does it mean to be a Jew? How must a Jew live? What is the definition of Judaism? Torah Jews point to the words of the Netziv as frightening truth. The more we try to be "like them", to assimilate, westernize, and abandon our holy tradition, the more we hurt ourselves.
Assimilation doesn't just destroy the Jews from within. According to the Netziv, it's the most powerful cause of anti-Semitism known to man.