Pot and kettle

Pot and kettle

If only our own hands were clean.

On July 16, the Jerusalem Post reported that the British Broadcasting Corporation not only "is refusing to remove a provocative and anti-Semitic message posted on one of its [Radio Website] message boards," but insists that there is nothing either provocative or anti-Semitic about it.

Posted by someone using the handle "Iron Naz," it reads in part (sic):

"Zionism is a racist ideology where jews are given supremacy over all other races and faiths. This is found in the Talmud. There is a law called Baba Mezia which allows jews to lie as long as its to non-jews….The Law of Baba Mezia!! Tsk tsk tsk! It’s in the Talmud." (For the record, Bava Metzia is the name of a Talmud tractate, not a law, and means "middle gate" in Aramaic.)

To be sure, racist, hate-filled, and vituperative postings can be found on virtually any Website that has a talkback feature, including the Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz. One recent Ha’aretz poster, for example, in referring to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s insistence that he will not step down, bemoaned the fact that "no one has the courage that it once took to get rid of poor Rabin."

The issue here is not the posting itself. After all, you do not have to be a rocket scientist to have an opinion and in a free society, everyone should be allowed to express an opinion. The only issue here is the failure of the BBC to even admit that there was anything wrong with this opinion.

Said the BBC, the posting "does not contravene the House Rules." Apparently, only material that is "considered racist, homophobic, sexually explicit, or otherwise objectionable" qualifies for removal, according to the press account, and the post did not meet those criteria.

On the heels of this comes an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine that would seem to support the BBC’s judgment that there is nothing racist or objectionable in the posting, but that there is something racist and objectionable about Judaism.

Written by Noah Feldman, described as a contributing writer for the magazine, as well as a Harvard law professor and a Council on Foreign Relations fellow, it is a trashing of Orthodoxy in particular and Judaism in general by an ex-yeshiva boy who cannot fathom why anyone would find intermarriage unacceptable.

The article is filled with distortions and obnoxious characterizations, such as that the leather straps of tefillin, "though painless, resemble in their leather-strappy way the cinched cilice worn by the initiates of Opus Dei and so lasciviously depicted in ‘The Da Vinci Code.’"

Feldman recounts a discussion at his yeshiva involving saving the life of a non-Jew on Shabbat. To do so with the intention of doing the morally correct thing, he said Judaism believes, is to violate Shabbat. To do so for the sake of keeping peace between us and the non-Jewish world, on the other hand, is okay. He added that, as he understood what a teacher of his said, what is not okay is letting anyone outside the Jewish world know this to be the case.

"The double standard of Jews and non-Jews, in other words, was for [my teacher] truly irreducible: it was not just about noting that only Jewish lives merited violation of the Sabbath, but also about keeping the secret of why non-Jewish lives might be saved."

Presumably, to not keep the secret is to open ourselves up to the kinds of postings on the BBC Website and the kinds of decisions emanating from the BBC’s own echelons.

It is true that there is occasionally to be found in the Talmud a double standard, most often in business law. The Jew is treated one way (more favorably); the non-Jew another. The Sages of blessed memory, however, showed considerable discomfort with the instances of the double standard and invariably leveled the playing field by one device or another (e.g., invoking chilul hashem, desecration of God’s name). The rationale for the double standard was simple: When the American League champion plays in the National League champion’s ball park, it is by NL standards — meaning no designated hitter. The same applies here. In doing business in the "outside world," which plays by different rules, you do not have to be put at a disadvantage by playing by rules only you have to follow.

The Talmud, by the way, also has positive statements, such as this one from the Babylonian tractate Gittin 61a: "Our Rabbis taught: We provide support for the poor of the gentiles along with the poor of Israel and visit the sick of the gentiles along with the sick of Israel and bury the dead of the gentiles along with the dead of Israel in accord with the ways of peace."

Put another way, we live in the world, we need to be a part of the world, and that means recognizing that "your brother" of Torah law is not always going to be a Jew — but you nevertheless have a responsibility to him. Setting up discriminatory standards about who gets help and who does not only creates unhealthy divisions within a community.

This, of course, would support Feldman’s rabbi’s assertion in the Sunday magazine piece.

What those who get a thrill shoving such statements in Jewish faces never mention is the majority-held opinion that the "gentile" referred to in such texts was an ancient world pagan. Thus, the 13th-century French scholar Menachem Meiri wrote in his commentary to BT Bava Kama 37b (one of the places where there is a discussion of the double standard), that it applies "specifically to the nations which are not constrained by the ways of religion and morals," and who do not accept even the simple moral code that "the children of Noah accepted upon themselves."

For anyone who does accept that code, the Meiri rules, "their legal status with respect to us is the same as our legal status with respect to them and we must not favor ourselves in matters of law."

The 18th-century halachic authority Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (a/k/a the Yavetz) put it succinctly: "[T]he present-day nations who believe in the principles of the Torah [meaning Christians and Muslims] cannot be regarded as strangers by us…."

Sadly, there always existed a minority that disagreed with this and that minority is a growing force within Judaism today. The BBC posting is awful — and it may even be libelous — but it is not unlike postings one may find on some Jewish Websites that actually encourage demonizing the other, especially if the "other" is a Muslim.

The BBC’s response to the posting should be condemned by us and in the strongest terms. Such condemnation, however, will only have meaning if we are prepared to condemn those among our own who engage in similar racism, hatred of the other, and distortion of others’ beliefs.

Otherwise, it is merely a case of the pot calling the kettle black while the kettle whistles with joy at points scored.