This is a ten-part series of online articles that, with G-d’s help, I hope to transform into a larger book. It is prompted and inspired by questions I have been asked over the past half century by my readers and particularly these past five years by non-Jewish political conservatives of Christian background who often love Jews but cannot figure us out. Because most online opinion articles range between 600-3,000 words, this subject cannot be treated properly and completely in one single article or even in a limited series. However, this series marks an ambitious effort to address a perplexing question, one that perplexes America’s one million Orthodox Jews more than it does even non-Jewish conservative Christians. Previous installments in this series can be found at these links:
Part One: The Basic Definitions of Jews and Non-Orthodox Jewish Denominations can be found here.
Part Two: The Orthodox can be found here.
Part Three: The Ethnicities can be found here.
The Jewish New Year 5782 began at sunset Monday night, September 6, 2021. This series has been timed to appear during the Jewish High Holy Days season that centers primarily around the period beginning during the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and culminating next week with Yom Kippur.
The purpose of this series is to inform readers authentically as to what Jews believe, to demystify. For those who live by other monotheistic faiths, may you be blessed in your pursuit of justice, kindness, morality, and ethics as you serve the One True Creator according to your understanding and belief. As explained in greater detail in Part 4, Judaism does not permit Jews to proselytize others.
This series is about Jews. It is written for non-Jews, too, and therefore is being written for the readers of a significant non-Jewish publication, The American Spectator. Even so, 80 percent of Jews in America, including huge percentages of their rabbis, are so ignorant of Judaism that they will be learning as much or more as non-Jews do in reading this series.
Judaism is built around a core belief that righteous non-Jews’ souls will be rewarded throughout eternity in the World to Come. In this way Judaism’s essence differs from religions that assign eternal damnation and hell-fire to non-believers. Non-religious, non-believing Jews get upset when told by certain insensitive Christians that G-d does not hear their prayers or that they all will go to Hell forever if they do not adopt Belief #1 or Belief #2 of another religion. That anger arises primarily, though not exclusively, because those 80 percent who do not live with a deep belief in their own G-d interpret such imprecations as political posturing by a Christian or Muslim demographic majority aiming to isolate them from mainstream society. By contrast, Orthodox Jews do not care when someone else tells them we will go to Hell for living a life observing Torah rules, just as a freedom-loving person who knows where socialism always leads does not feel concerned when told that he or she is denying himself or herself the joys of socialist utopia. Orthodox Jews are content that the path we live, observing Torah laws that require kosher eating, proper Sabbath observance, business ethics and personal morality, kindness and mindfulness, leads to a Divinely rewarded eternal life.
In Jewish tradition, it long has been understood that non-Jews are expected by G-d primarily to honor seven rather intuitive ethical and moral rules, the “Noahide Laws” that stem from Divine commandments to Noah reported in the Bible (e.g., Gen. 9:4-6) during the era of the Great Flood:
Jews are bidden not to judge non-Jews. Jews may not proselytize among non-Jews. Non-Jews who believe in Jesus, in Muhammed, in Lord Arjuna, in some other faith or deity — that is their business. We believe that many of the other monotheistic religions have done G-d’s will by spreading belief in the One G-d Who created the world, reaching corners of the earth that Jews never could have accessed. Consider, for example, the extraordinary work done by so many Christian worldwide bodies that bring the Word to parts of continents where even MasterCard is not accepted or known.
Jews are not supposed to encourage non-Jews to convert to our religion. Live and let live. We are absolutely forbidden from engaging in missionary activities, and that reinforces our preference not to be proselytized either. You may have experienced annoying doorbell rings on the weekend from nuisances with “Watchtower” literature, or perhaps crisply dressed Mormons seeking to sign you up, and others hoping to convert you. (I often have wondered whether these public nuisances are promised a “double word score” if they manage to hook a Jew.) By contrast, you never will find a Jew at your front door handing out literature urging you to re-think that temptation to eat the limb of a living animal. Rather, the Bible reports; you decide.
We do, however, accept converts warmly and lovingly — but not instantly. There is a difference between accepting newcomers versus proselytizing. We are open to welcoming outsiders into “The Tribe,” just prohibited from inducing them to join. Race is not an issue, nor ethnicity. Israel risked her soldiers’ lives for a decade, airlifting 20,000 Black African Jews from Ethiopia and Somalia out of Africa and into Israel. But we do not believe that, with us among the world’s smallest of religious faith communities, there is any great value in growing our numbers by massive sign-ups that merely dilute our essence. So, as explained earlier in this series, an honest classic conversion to Judaism entails accepting and affirming the total truth of the Torah, the belief that G-d created the world in six units of time and Divinely revealed Himself and His expectations of us at Mount Sinai when presenting the Ten Pronouncements (or “Ten Commandments,” as Christians call it), and an absolute personal commitment to live the rest of one’s life observing Torah law as expounded by Talmudic teachings and the “mesorah” (tradition) by which each generation’s authoritative rabbinic leaders bear the mantle of applying those laws and values to new technological and scientific discoveries and cultural challenges.
That is why a Reform “conversion,” for example, is absolutely meaningless to all Orthodox Jews — and even to a great many Conservative (denominational capital “c”) rabbis and Jews. Israel does not recognize such “conversions” in theological terms. No American Orthodox rabbi or congregation will accept a child for bar- or bat-mitzvah study if born to a mother who “converted” Reform. No Orthodox Jewish congregation will sell a burial plot in a Jewish cemetery to someone so dubiously “converted” or born to such a mom. It does not seem that, despite having been “converted” to “Judaism” by a Reform rabbi as she married playwright Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe particularly changed her lifestyle thereafter to avoid Manhattan subway ventilation grates. Most every practicing congregational Orthodox rabbi eventually finds himself, at one point or another, being asked by someone whose birth mother or he or she “converted” earlier in life with a Reform rabbi for an entire new conversion, this time valid.
Jews are taught in the Tanakh (the Biblical Scriptures) that G-d loves non-Jews as He does Jews, and He expects us to honor non-Jews who are good people. If there had been only ten righteous people in all of Sodom and Amora (“Gomorra”), He would have spared the entirety of those cities — because Patriarch Avraham (Abraham) pleaded with Him for those cities’ dwellers. Gen. 18:17-33. Jews take our cue from Avraham: He fed the hungry, so we do. He took in wayfarers, so we do. Gen. 18:2-8. He treated people with kindness, so we do. He accepted no payment for doing righteous deeds; so we should not. Gen. 14:23; see also 2 Kings 5:16.
Every Yom Kippur, often called the holiest day in the Jewish year, Orthodox congregations read aloud the entire four-chapter Book of Yonah (Jonah). The narrative recounts that G-d commanded the charismatic Jewish prophet to instruct the non-Jewish people of Nineveh, who reposed on the brink of destruction for their evil, that He loves them and will not destroy them if they repent their ways. Yonah endeavored to flee by ocean journey from his assigned mission. G-d struck the waters with perilous waves, and Yonah disclosed to the captain that his flight was bringing deathly danger to everyone aboard, so he submitted to being thrown overboard. Famously, a large sea animal swallowed him — a whale? a leviathan? — and he repented over three days, committing to bring G-d’s Word to Nineveh. He did powerfully, and the entire country repented, led by their king who donned sackcloth. The Book’s message is emphatic: G-d cares about all nations, and the Hebrew prophet may not evade the Divine mandate to share that message. In much the same way, the Prophet Elisha, primary disciple to Eliyahu (Elijah), provided direction to Naaman, commanding general of adjacent Aram (Syria), for Divine healing of his leprosy by counseling him to immerse seven times in the Jordan River. 2 Kings 5:1-16. On Rosh Hashanah, we pray for the peace of the whole world because we believe that is the day when all of humanity began. We recite a weekly prayer in our synagogues for the peace of our non-Jewish land and the stability of our n0n-Jewish government. We deeply believe we are all in this thing together. Orthodox law obligates us to be loyal to the country where we live: “And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the L-RD in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.” Yirmiyah (Jeremiah) 29:7.
None of that implies that anyone should be “social justice warriors.” Quite the contrary. From the Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs through Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher), the Judges, the Kings, the Prophets, and into the Talmud, Jewish religious responsibility focuses on Jews’ primary directive being to teach fellow Jewish people to live kind, charitable, ethical, moral righteous lives — and to observe the commandments (“mitzvot” or “mitzvas”) like the kosher dietary rules and properly honoring and delighting in the Shabbat. That philosophy abides compatibly with the aversion towards proselytizing: before you get all “bent out of shape” making everyone else better, maybe first take care of your own “four cubits” of responsibility. If each and every societal group, starting with society’s core building block — the family unit — would devote more time to worrying about building virtue at home instead of signaling it for others on Instagram, we all would be better off. Therefore, to convert to Judaism normally entails a period of two years. It is not just about “learning the rules,” which can be done in a few months — maximum — but about internalizing the lifestyle and mindset. It is not just about knowing how to light candles to usher in the Sabbath on Friday at sunset, along with reciting the traditional one-sentence prayer and the traditional manual waving of arms as if to spread that light throughout the house, but about living one’s entire week in an anticipation that each new Shabbat is drawing closer — only four more days, only three, only two, tomorrow, in an hour — and then recognizing that, more than about kindling candles and crafting a peaceful island in time, it is about humility, acknowledging that G-d created the world and yet found time to pause, so none of us is as all-dominant as some arrogantly imagine themselves to be. It takes 2-3 years to internalize that change in one’s personal hashkafah (perspective). Only then is a conversion usually appropriate.
Jews harbor a uniquely deep appreciation for righteous non-Jews because we know that not all non-Jews treat us fairly. Some hate us irrationally; we have learned that we cannot do anything about them. (Just consider the trolls who post pathologically hateful readers’ comments on the internet.) Others indeed have had a bad experience with a particular Jew — a landlord, a tenant, a professor, a student — and they unfairly blame all of us. We can do only our best to try explaining that “your beef is not with me.” It is particularly painful when Jews find ourselves blamed for other Jews who themselves are destructive anti-Semites or who ally with them — e.g., Jewish apostates like Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, George Soros, and Bernie Sanders. Similarly, to blame all Jews everywhere today for what may or may not have happened two thousand years ago is even more preposterously unfair than making all Caucasians in America today pay reparations for what happened in America 150 years ago, often before their ancestors even arrived in this country.
Many people simply elevate themselves by bearing prejudices of one kind or another towards one subgroup or another that differs from them. Some Jews do that, too, because Jews are people like everyone else. People are people, aren’t they? In Israel, for example, some “Russian Jews” and certain North African Sephardic Jews do not get along. The former cannot relate to the latter’s personalities, more traditional beliefs, and Mideastern ways, while the latter resent that the former came in from the Soviet Union with advanced degrees and technical engineering skills and leap-frogged them economically. Some Yekkes — Jews descending from German culture — cannot abide the perceived uncouthness and tardiness of Ostjuden from Poland and Ukraine, and some of the latter wish the Yekkes would just sit down, pour themselves a shot of vodka (or even Makers Mark) and just loosen their neckties to liberate air flow to their sinuses. Some Israelis resent that American-born Jews got to start life in a wealthier land where borders were not under incessant destructive rocket fire with enemies bent on their extermination, and some American Jews cannot bear the Mideastern commercial culture that seems to blend bizarre with bazaar. When New York City police get called into Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood on Purim night to protect Lubavitcher Chabad Hasidim from being harassed by Satmar Hasidim who just have driven in from nearby Williamsburg, Brooklyn to burn some Israeli flags, the cops take a look at the scene, can’t tell the players apart — even with scorecards — and go home muttering “Yeah, it’s time for me to take a desk job.”
In all of society there always are those haters who, without bothering to investigate how and why stereotypes evolved, just assume them true and immutable. In that world and mindset, all Irish are drunks, all Italians are in organized crime, all Polish people are stupid, all Jews are cheap and dishonest with money. Often, prejudices can be overcome by learning more about how stereotypes unfolded. One studies what the British did to repress and persecute the Irish for centuries and how that interplayed with the mid-19th century potato blight that killed millions in Ireland. One learns how the Church in the Middle Ages coerced wealthier Jews to lend on interest and imposed brutally oppressive taxes annually on all Jews that made life impossible to survive. One looks back to the 1970s when “Dumb Polish” jokes were the rage — a time when paradoxically the Catholic Church was led by one of the greatest and wisest men who ever lived and who helped bring down Communism, Pope John Paul II of Poland, while the Jewish country was led during much of that decade by Mieczysław Biegun, a man whose mind had been trained in Poland at a Polish government school where he learned classical literature and then at the University of Warsaw, all in a decade when perhaps the only intelligent mind in America’s Jimmy Carter cabinet was that of a Polish-descended political theorist, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
So that is what stereotypes are, and Jews have had to live with them as have others.
Well into the 20th century, American hospitals did not allow licensed excellent Jewish doctors admission privileges to practice medicine under their auspices, major law firms barred Jews from partnerships or from practicing in any area except for bankruptcy law that the “white shoe elite” disdained as beneath men of dignity, banks did not allow Jews to hold serious executive positions, country clubs and hotels barred Jews from entering, landlords would not rent to Jews, major universities would not hire Jewish faculty and adopted very open admissions quotas that sharply limited the number of Jews allowed in as students. As a result, Jews are maximally appreciative when non-Jews simply are fair and reasonable. Non-Jews who are outright righteous are even better. Although “good enough” never should be “good enough” when practicing one’s profession, simple fairness and decency from non-Jews is “good enough” for us. Israel’s national Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem has an entire wing devoted to Tzadikei Umot HaOlam, Righteous non-Jews like those who hid the family of Anne Frank at their own great personal risk during the Shoah.
The word “Goy” means “nation.” It is a word in Biblical Hebrew. Thus, Israel is a Goy. America is a Goy. France is a Goy. Jews are a Goy. A major weekly Sabbath afternoon prayer explicitly calls the Jews a “Goy.” Since the noun is grammatically male, the noun’s plural is “Goyyim” — nations. So America and Israel are two goyyim. Until recent years, the term was used interchangeably with “Gentile” to connote non-Jews. Everyone likes single-syllable words. We call David “Dave,” Debra “Deb,” and Eisenhower “Ike.” So we used “Goy” over “Gentile” and “non-Jew.” As the canard spread among ignorant haters and trolls that the term “Goy” somehow is an inherently disrespectful term, and as it proved nigh-impossible to explain otherwise to haters who do not know Hebrew, we “bit the bullet” and took on the inconvenience of articulating a second syllable, adopting the more politically correct term “non-Jew” for Goyyim. Simultaneously, the term “Gentile” became disfavored because, since it literally can mean a “heathen” or a “pagan,” it is not reasonable to describe believing Muslims and Christians as “Gentiles.”
A “Shabbos Goy” is a friendly non-Jewish person who, because he or she is permitted to do certain forms of activities that Jews are forbidden to do on the Sabbath, offers to pitch in a helping hand. For example, Jews are not permitted during the Sabbath itself to activate lights on-and-off (though electric timers, home thermostats, and “smart homes” may be pre-set before Shabbat to adjust automatically during Shabbat). Likewise, we may not drive on the Sabbath, because the Torah forbids igniting or transferring fire on that day, and cars are mobilized by ignition and internal combustion. As noted above, “Goy” simply is the noun for “nation” or “people.” A “Shabbos Goy,” then, is a member of another nation or people besides the Jewish Goy or Jewish people, whose religion permits him or her to activate such things on Friday nights and Saturdays. So if an Orthodox Jew needs someone on Saturday to lower the air conditioning on an August day that turned out unexpectedly to be a scorcher, or to turn on lights in a room where the timer, having been set incorrectly, unexpectedly has gone out on Sabbath, he would ask a “Shabbos Goy” — that is, a non-Jew whose rules do not preclude doing those things on Saturday — for friendly assistance. Jewish law, however, deeply frowns on asking non-Jews for such assistance on Shabbat unless really needed, like for a public need (such as if the lights suddenly go out amid a congregation of 100 people). Otherwise, knowledgeable Jews should not bother others to the degree that they normalize a weekly reliance on such “work-arounds” because too many such requests diminish what Shabbat really is about. Those rules are not meant to be bypassed. Over the years, some non-Jewish celebrities, ranging from Elvis Presley to Pres. Harry Truman and Gen. Colin Powell, have reminisced warmly about the years they helped Jewish neighbors as a local “Shabbos Goy.”
As with “Goy” and “Gentile,” other appellations’ meanings change over time. Consider the word “Jew.” In the Middle Ages, the Church forbade Christians from lending money on interest to other Christians. Exodus 22:24; Deuteronomy 23:20-21. However, commerce cannot function without borrowing and lending. Therefore, wealthier Jews were coerced by medieval kings into money-lending to Christians. Many did not want to be money-lenders because the reputation was terrible, and it would be a nightmare for a Jew to collect a lawful debt under the rules and practices of the courts of Christian Europe, which even imposed insanely anti-Semitic swearing-in oaths on Jewish witnesses, the more judaico. On the other side of the situation, governments imposed brutal head taxes on Jewish ghettoes with the fiat that the Jewish communities’ self-governing authorities could come up with the cash any way they like, just as long as they fork over the ransom — or else. People would look at the new annual korobka (head tax) decree and know they cannot possibly meet it and still buy enough food to survive. So guess what? What do you think they did? What would you do or would your parents or theirs have done? What did people living under Soviet Communism, regardless of their religion, do when the Communists stole from them? In desperation, people figure out how to find corners to cut in the system, to even out the system. Of course they do. In America, a fundamentally fair country despite obvious flaws that are extraneous to this discussion, Jewish law forbids cutting the slightest corner. But when the Communist government or the Tsar makes you pay 30 percent more in tax than everyone else, you go ahead and be the hero who pays and leaves your family starving.
So images emerged in the Middle Ages about Jews and money. Like Irish and whiskey. Italians and organized crime. Other groups. And yet one finds many Orthodox Jews maintain separate bank accounts into which they deposit ten percent of their annual income — their ma’aser or tithe accounts — for annual dispensing to the needy. We give to Jews, to non-Jews. Because of the stereotype about Jews and money, many of us initially over-tip to dispel that stereotype of cheapness. But then someone else says: “Look at that Jew just flashing all his money.” So you try to figure it out. You learn never to bend down when you see a dollar on the street. You don’t collect coupons. You ask for guidance on what the perfect tip is, so you don’t seem cheap or extravagant.
I remember the year I traveled 28 states in America. It was 1994, and I was clerking in the United States Appeals Court for the Sixth Circuit. I was based in Louisville, Kentucky. I traveled during the year far and wide — coal mines in West Virginia, a bank that Jesse James held up in Russellville, the Trail of Tears from North Carolina through southern Kentucky and into Oklahoma. The oak tree in Virginia under which Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s left arm is buried. And something struck me: non-Jews like bargains, too. Go figure! Goyyim also like a discount. No matter the locale where I traveled — Tupelo, Mississippi; Cotton Plant, Arkansas (pop. 649; Jews zero); Laramie, Wyoming — no matter how few Jews in the state, there was at least a “sale” every month: New Year’s in January. Presidents’ Day in February. Spring sale in March. Easter sale in April. Memorial Day sale in May. Summer sale in June. Fourth of July sale. Back to School sale in August. Labor Day sale in September. By October, it’s Columbus Day and already Thanksgiving. In November, the families depart at six in the morning for Black Friday sale. And then Christmas sale in December. Turns out that Goyyim like sales and saving a buck, too. Heckuva thing. And, while on the subject of miserly cheap penny-pinching, has anyone ever watched America try to get the Europeans to pay their NATO bills?
And yet the stereotype about Jews and money had become so embedded in the Middle Ages that the very word “Jew” despicably became a verb for bargaining. It got to the point that the word “Jew” was such an uncomfortable word that all the original Jewish organizations in America preferred instead to call themselves “Hebrew”: Hebrew Union College, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Only in this century did the nonsense stop, as a joint Orthodox-Conservative rabbinic school took the name “Jewish Theological Seminary” while the Orthodox congregational body called themselves the “Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.”
In recent years we have found that millions upon millions of conservative Christians and a great many equally devout Catholics not only are great friends of the Jewish people, but even are much better friends than are many non-Orthodox Jews who despise and hate observant Jews whose very existence leaves them feeling threatened and insecure in their own identities. So Orthodox Jews, who also have our own problems to deal with — the plumber who attached the toilet to the hot water line, the laundry chute that empties over the kitchen stove, the monthly utilities bill for service you canceled ten years ago — also have to deal with those internecine mind games.
By contrast, Christian evangelicals and devout Catholics who are fair-minded good people obviously do not have to contend with those under-bellies of guilt because they do not associate with that alternate faith system in the first place. In the same way, Orthodox Jews do not care when someone of another faith tells them they all will burn in Hell as infidels. By believing deeply in our own amply time-tested faith system, Orthodox Jews’ concerns focus on living the most ethically and morally righteous lives they can as humbly and as below-the-radar as practicable, to leave others alone to enjoy their alternate universes, and just to make sure that everyone keeps his and her hands off everyone else.
This blessed land has been the beacon, that shining city on the hill, a non-Jewish country that has enjoyed G-d’s unique blessings for so long as it always has maintained a compass to pursue a greater kindness and systemic decency, always the magnet for the disadvantaged of the earth who stream to our shores, begging to get in, knowing that no other country on earth ever has been as systemically kind, systemically decent, systemically welcoming — and just plain as systemically fair — as this G-d-blessed America.