Inspiration

Do We Resist Philo-Semitism?

September 11, 2017

We hear a lot about anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, not a day goes by without something horrible going by in our newsfeeds, whether it be anti-Semitic attacks, acts of vandalism, hate speech or the exclusion of Jews from so-called “safe spaces.” Equally unfortunately, we rarely hear about anti-Semitism’s philosophical opposite, philo-Semitism. And when we do, we’re not likely to do our best to foster it.

Philo-Semitism, as the name suggests, is a love for Jewish culture or the Jewish people. Philo-Semites come in all races, creeds and colors. For example, did you know that the Talmud is a best-seller in South Korea, where it’s mandatory reading in elementary schools? Why do the South Koreans identify so strongly with the Jewish experience? As Lee Chang-Ro from the South Korean Ministry for Education explained, “Koreans and Jews both have a long history of oppression and surviving adversity with nothing but their own ingenuity to thank.”

Another group we might consider philo-Semites are the Noachides. You may be aware that God not only gave the Jews 613 commandments at Sinai, He also gave seven commandments through Noah after the flood. These “sheva mitzvos b’nei Noach” (seven commandments for the descendants of Noah) are pretty basic – not to kill, not to steal, to establish courts of justice, et al. – and are considered by Judaism to be binding on all mankind. There are at least several hundred practicing Noachides in the US alone. As one Noachide web site put it, “Noachides…accept the Jewish faith (with its duel [sic] covenants for Jews and Non-Jews) as being the only true faith.” If you think about it, you’ll realize how amazing it is that there are people whose religion is “Judaism for non-Jews!”

I answer questions for more than one Jewish web site and you would be surprised how many each site receives from non-Jews. Some of the writers are simply curious about Judaism. Others are seeking guidance and they think that we might have a useful perspective. A staggering number are interested in conversion. There are so many inquiries about conversion that I set up an information page on the subject for one site in an attempt to answer the most common questions and reduce the traffic flow. The volume of conversion inquiries has led a colleague to comment to me that “geirus is the new kiruv” (conversion is the new outreach). While not literally the case, it certainly seems sometimes that the number of non-Jews interested in Judaism exceeds the number of Jews! I think we can agree that there is no greater philo-Semite than someone who actually wants to become Jewish! (It’s certainly not because of our overwhelming popularity!)

Here’s where things go off the rails a bit. Converts often complain about feeling marginalized and not embraced by the community. I’m not saying it’s universal and I’m not saying it’s intentional but it certainly happens, and far more often than it should (which is never). Forget about the multiple times the Torah commands us not to oppress converts; just use common sense! Here are individuals who liked us enough to leave the religion of their upbringing, often driving a wedge between them and their families. They should be the most exalted members of our communities! They certainly shouldn’t ever be made to feel like second-class citizens. (It should be noted that by the time someone converts, he’s no longer a philo-Semite, he’s a Semite!)

We are told the story of a disgruntled philo-Semite in Talmud Sanhedrin 99b. In listing the descendants of Esau, Genesis 36:12 tells us that “Timna was the concubine of Eliphaz, son of Esau, and she gave birth to Amalek….” There’s somewhat more detail than the Torah usual gives in a genealogy and the Talmud explains the backstory.

Timna was a princess who wanted to convert. She approached Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov but she was rebuffed by each. (I’m sure they had their reasons.) Ultimately, Timna became a concubine to Esau’s son Eliphaz, reasoning that she would rather occupy a lowly position in Avraham’s family than an exalted position elsewhere. Unfortunately, her sincere philo-Semitism was tainted by her negative experiences. (Even if the Avos had their reasons, the Talmud says they were wrong to rebuff Timna, which is a pretty huge statement to make.) Her negativity was transmitted to her son Amalek, who went on to father the nation that bears his name, Israel’s eternal arch-nemesis.

So, while we focus on the throngs of people who hate us and would see us driven from the face of the earth, do we even notice those relative few who actually like us? If we do, how do we treat them? Do we treat them in a way that would reinforce their philo-Semitism, hopefully causing it to spread, or do we turn them into Timna, mother of Amalek? Based on the experience of far too many converts, I suspect we’re not doing all we can to return the love when we actually do receive some.

It goes without saying that we should treat converts properly – the Torah tells us as much (Exodus 22:20, Deuteronomy 10:19, et al.). We should also treat potential converts well, even in cases where circumstances may require that we not accept them as converts for whatever reason. We should likewise treat Noachides well and we should treat South Koreans well. You know what? Let’s just treat everyone well, not just philo-Semites. Even in the case of those who aren’t too crazy about us, how many have actual reasons and how many are relying on stereotypes and vicious canards? In such a case, a kind word might turn away wrath while a harsh word would merely exacerbate the situation (to paraphrase Proverbs 15:1).

While we’re at it, let’s not forget to treat one another well, something we all too often overlook despite the injunction of Leviticus 19:18. If we don’t love one another, we certainly can’t expect anyone else to!