Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Lo Techanem and Liberals

I received the email below from a talmida of mine from last year who is now in high school. My response follows her email.

Hi Rabbi Bechhofer,

              Over the past few weeks in school, certain Rabbanim that I have as teachers have been making, what I felt to be, anti-liberal and anti gentile statements. 

               My Biur Tefilah teacher said how there is a halacha that you can't give an unnecessary gift to a non-Jew. He gave the example of buying a parking meter ticket of 60 minutes and having 1/2 an hour left over, and it is against halacha to give the ticket to a gentile that you happen to see randomly. In class, girls asked him about making a Kiddush Hashem, to which he responded that if the aveira is worse than the possible positive outcome, it is not worth it. he gave the example of bringing a not kosher animal as a korban

               Another incident happened today, where my halacha teacher, Rabbi __, spoke for about 45 minutes on the "evil liberals" and how they are all corrupt, communist, anti-religion, and in essence just bad. He also said that all reporters are "snakes" that will spread awful lies about Jews. I raised my hand in class asking him if there could be evil people in every political group or in none, and being a liberal doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the fact that a person is so-called "evil". And he said that there could be evil people everywhere, but all liberals are evil.

                I guess I was having a hard time understanding how I should deal with this information and wondering if you had any insights for me. 

                                         Thank you so much! Have a great night!

My response:

Dear __, לאי"ט

It is very demoralizing that your teachers should feel it permissible to make such remarks, especially without any discussion or analysis. For every issue has two sides.

When I encounter attitudes such as the one expressed by your first teacher, what comes to mind immediately is what does he think about the righteous gentiles who saved Jews from the Holocaust? Suppose the tables were turned and non-Jews were being annihilated by some Jewish pseudo-Nazi group: Would he put his life on the line to be a "Righteous Jew " and save non-Jews? His line of thinking essentially compels him to answer in the negative. Of course, then every Polish, every Dutch, every Dane, every Belgian, every French, etc. individual who risked his or her life saving Jews would seem to be a fool. And those who did not risk their lives were totally justified. The Avenue of Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem might as well be called The Avenue of Foolish Gentiles…

Lo Techanem must be balanced by the essential character of Jews to be rachmanim, bayshanim and gomlei chasadim. The Meiri (one of the greatest Rishonim) writes that it does not apply to a non-Jew who is your friend, acquaintance and neighbor. But he also writes that it does not apply. He adds more. אבל אם היה שכנו או חברו מותר שהוא כמוכרן לו הא כל שהוא מן האומות הגדורות בדרכי הדתות ושמודות באלהות אין ספק שאף בשאין מכירו מותר וראוי וכבר אמרו שולח אדם ירך לנכרי. "...Any non-Jew who is from the nations that follow the parameters of [civilized] religions and believe in the Divinity, there is no doubt that even if you are not acquainted with the non-Jew, it is permitted and appropriate [to bestow gifts upon him], as Chazal have said, a person may send a cut of meat to a non-Jews..." (Meiri, Avodah Zarah 20a and numerous other places).

There are numerous later sources that follow along the same lines in regard to various similar halachos. For example, the Be'er HaGolah (one of the great poskim, the great-grandfather of the Vilna Gaon) writes in Choshen Misphat 266:

וממה שכתב הרמב"ם הטעם מפני שהוא מחזיק ידי רשעי עולם, נלענ"ד דס"ל דלא אמר
רב בסנהדרין אלא בעכו"ם עובדי כוכבים ומזלות, ולא בעכו"ם שבזמן הזה, שמודים
בבורא עולם ונימוסיהם להחזיר אבידה.

and in 425:

שלא אמרו חז"ל דבר זה אלא על העכו"ם שהיו בזמניהם, שהיו עובדי כוכבים ומזלות,
ולא היו מאמינים ביציאת מצרים ובחידוש העולם. אבל אלו הגויים אשר אנחנו האומה
הישראלית חוסים בצלם ומפוזרים ביניהם, הם מאמינים בחידוש העולם וביציאת
מצרים ובעיקרי הדת, וכל כוונתם לעושה שמים וארץ, כמ"ש הפוסקים והביאו הרמ"א
באו"ח סי' קכו בהג"ה ... אנו מחוייבים להתפלל לשלומם.

Rav Kook writes in  אגרות ראי"ה, איגרת פט:

העיקר הוא כדעת המאירי שכל העמים שהם גדורים בנימוסים הגונים בין אדם לחברו
הם כבר נחשבים לגרים תושבים בכל חיובי אדם.

That the opinion of the Meiri is the primary one.

I am reminded of Rabbi Aryeh Levin as described in A Tzaddik in Our Time:

And, similarly, what Rabbi Frand relates about Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky:

Rabbi Kamenetsky relates that a family member of his, Rabbi Tzvi Kamenetsky, was trying to get in touch with a friend who was staying at the Carribean Hotel in Miami Beach. Rabbi Tzvi Kamenetsky called the front desk and asked to speak to such and such a person. The operator rang the room and there was no answer. She then asked if he wanted to leave a message. He said, “Please tell so and so that Rabbi Kamenetsky called.” The operator (who sounded like an elderly black Southern matron) said to him, “Rabbi Kamenetsky? Are you related to the famous Rabbi Kamenetsky?” He responded, “Yes he was my grandfather.” She answered back, “He was your grandpa! He was a good friend of mine, Rabbi Kamenetsky!”

She went on to explain that when Rabbi (Yaakov) Kamenetsky came to the hotel, he gave “some kind of Bible class” every morning in the lobby of the hotel. “Every single morning before he gave the class, he would come by my desk, give me a nod, and say ‘Good morning!’. When he finished the class he would walk by my desk again and say ‘Have a good day!’ That Rabbi Kamenetsky, he was a great rabbi, but he was a great MAN!”

This is the same Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky that we have mentioned in the past who always used to greet the nun who walked the streets of Monsey. He used to say hello to her as well. One does need to be the genius that Rav Yaakov was, one does not have to be the proficient expert in Shas that Rav Yaakov was, the great and clever intellect that Rav Yaakov was. One merely needs to try to be the mensch that Rav Yaakov was.

These actions of Reb Aryeh Levin and Reb Yaakov could easily have been categorized as Lo Techanem. After all, some say that to bless a non-Jew is to give him חן and therefore included in the prohibition. They could very easily have been "machmir."

However, Mussar teaches us that except under extraordinary circumstances, the paramount values of middos tovos must guide our behavior and illuminate our pathways. Accordingly, in matters of bein adam l'chavero the "chumrah" is to treat everyone possible (excluding, as the Meiri notes, wicked people, of course), as tzelem elokim and worthy of matanos chinom. To do otherwise would be to "develop" our tendencies to callousness, pettiness, and even cruelty.

As to what Rabbi __ said, it is really a tautology (a statement in which the conclusion is equivalent to the premise). If you define "liberal" as "evil," it goes without saying that all liberals are evil. He also goes on to say that liberals are, by definition, "corrupt, communist, anti-religion, and in essence just bad." So, if we find a "liberal" who is not corrupt, not communist, pro-religion or in essence not just bad," we would be compelled to say he is not a liberal!

Moreover, clearly there are many non-liberals who were far more wicked that your average liberal. Indeed, to be truly evil you must truly be illiberal (see Hitler and Stalin).

Looking to Wikipedia, we see two definitions of Liberalism that don't sound very evil at all:

In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt defined a liberal party in the following terms:

The liberal party believes that, as new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of the Government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them. The liberal party insists that the Government has the definite duty to use all its power and resources to meet new social problems with new social controls—to ensure to the average person the right to his own economic and political life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy defined a liberal as follows:

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label, "Liberal"? If by "Liberal" they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of "Liberal." But, if by a "Liberal," they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes that we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I'm proud to say that I'm a "Liberal."

So who are the "Liberals" who, by definition, are evil? I assume he doesn't mean people who support gun control and universal health insurance, or are against tax-cuts for the rich. I assume he means people who support abortion and homosexual rights/marriage and more lenient treatment of criminals. Perhaps he also included people who advocate for women's rights and better treatment of minorities.

I think, however, that even such people (remember, since he didn't give us a real definition, I am only guessing what he meant) are very often not evil but misguided or wrong. "Evil" implies a deliberate attempt to deprive others of life, liberty or happiness for the purpose of one's own non-ethical goals and aspirations - which are usually grounded in the quests for fame, power, excesses and material pleasures. I don't think all, or even most, liberals are motivated by such evil motives. They are more often than not quite altruistic. But without Torah, they lack guidance as to how to channel that altruism properly. To be sure, there are evil liberals - but there are also evil conservatives. Most Americans basically want to be good people. Unfortunately, many of them don't have guidance as to how to go about it.

I hope these thoughts are helpful, please ask me to clarify whatever is unclear, and pose questions that you have on what I have written!

Sincerely yours,

בברכת התורה