Sunday, March 27, 2011

Jews, Non-Jews and Ethics

Following the recent terrorist attack in Jerusalem, I came across a predictably biased media report. Toward the end of an ITN news segment, the reporter says, "Israeli police called the bombing a 'terrorist attack' - their term for a Palestinian strike." Wow. Someone leaves a bomb near a bus station filled with innocent civilians, and that's merely a strike?! Just in case this reporter needs a refresher course, there's a huge difference between guerrilla warfare and terrorism: guerrillas strike military forces; terrorists target civilians. Apparently, Israeli civilians don't count. Listen closely at around 0:52 of the video:

It's incredibly frustrating to witness the constant double standard directed against Jews and Israel. While we have every right to call out such prejudice, we can't let it affect us to the point where we stop doing what is right. Despite the fact that virulent anti-Semites will always blame Jews no matter how ethically we behave, the same is not true for everyone else. Whether we're dealing with difficult people in our personal lives or the world-at-large, it's easy to fall into the trap of rationalizing that we only have to act ethically toward those with whom we agree. This might be emotionally satisfying, but Judaism demands more than that.

Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (152b) states that we cannot mislead anyone - Jew or non-Jew - in any matter. If we were to cheat other people, particularly in financial dealings, they will say that God chose a nation of thieves and deceivers. This kind of Chilul Hashem (desecration of God's name) is among the worst of sins. Furthermore, who would want to abide by the Seven Noahide Laws (which were transmitted through us), let alone convert to Judaism, if we act this way? On the other hand, when we conduct ourselves along the highest ethical standards, we create a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's name).

The Chofetz Chaim provides a great example by way of a story told over by his son. There was once an incident involving workers at a Warsaw printing press where some of his books were being prepared for publication. Late in the afternoon on a Friday, one of the workers saw the Chofetz Chaim running down a small side street. It was an odd sight to see him at such an hour because it was almost time for Shabbat. It didn't take long before word spread about what had happened. The Chofetz Chaim discovered that one of the workers at the printing press left before being paid. In order not to violate the prohibition against not paying a worker's wages on time (Deuteronomy 24:14-15), the Chofetz Chaim found out the man's home address and rushed to pay him.

When God speaks to Jacob in Genesis 28:14, He says, "and through you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed." This is quite a lofty calling, but one that we can fulfill on any given day by engaging in ethical behavior. If non-Jews have good encounters with Jews, they will feel blessed. However, if non-Jews feel unfairly treated, we inevitably create a terrible Chilul Hashem. From this idea, perhaps we can draw a kal vachomer (an inference from minor to major). If we're supposed to strive for impeccable behavior around non-Jews, how much more so should we act decently toward one another. Like charity, good behavior should start at home.

Related to this issue, Dennis Prager has an interesting observation. He suggests that one of the most important days in a religious person's life is when they meet a member of a different religion - or of a different denomination within their own religion - who is both a good and intelligent individual. Such an encounter forces a person to consider that the other group's followers are not all bad or unintelligent. We're perfectly free to believe that members of other religions - or of other denominations within Judaism - are theologically flawed. But does that mean they are bad people? Not necessarily. Whether or not they engage in ethical behavior determines the answer to that question.

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