“The Theological Underpinnings of Anti-Semitism”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In our previous study of parashat Toledot for the year 5761-2000, we analyzed the ancient origins and practice of anti-Semitism. We noted at that time that Isaac became enormously successful when he sojourned in the Philistine city of G’rar. Scripture describes his success in the following manner: (Genesis 26:13), “Va’yigdal ha’ish, va’yay’lech ha’loch v’gah’dayl, ad kee gah’dal m’od,” The man [Isaac] became great and kept becoming greater, until he was very great. So great was the extent of Isaac’s flocks, herds and enterprises that the Torah tells us (Genesis 26:14) that “Va’y’kah’noo oh’toh P’lish’tim,” the Philistines envied Isaac. The very next verse informs us that, as a result, the Philistines committed against Isaac one of the earliest recorded acts of anti-Semitism by stopping up and filling with earth all the wells that Abraham’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham.

In that previous analysis we also noted that, as a result of their rabid hatred of Jews, it is the common practice of anti-Semites to do things against Jews that invariably hurt themselves and their supporters. After all, the Philistines also desperately needed the water, yet they filled the wells up so that no one could draw water, just to make certain that Isaac and his family would not gain access to water.

Despite these dastardly acts, Isaac remains in G’rar. Only when King Avimelech tells him firmly, (Genesis 26:16), “Laych may’ee’mah’noo kee ah’tzam’tah mee’meh’noo m’od,” Leave us, because you have become much too great for us, does Isaac depart and settle in Nachal G’rar. Once again, in his new residence, Isaac is confronted with Philistine attacks on his new well and is forced to move even further away, to Rechovot, where he is finally able to settle and live in peace.

It is often assumed that the primary motive for anti-Semitism is economic envy. The rabbis indicate that when Avimelech orders Isaac to leave, he says (Genesis 26:16), “Kee ah’tzam’tah mee’meh’noo,” because you have become too great for us. The word “Mee’meh’noo” also indicates that Avimelech is implying that Isaac had become wealthy at the expense of the Philistines. While this story indicates that economic envy was the cause for Isaac’s expulsion, parashat Toledot indicates that there are other important motives for anti-Semitism.

Nehama Leibowitz, in her Studies in Bereishith (Genesis), cites Haketav Vehakabbala, which points out that scripture says (Genesis 26:18) “Vayikra la’hen shay’mot kah’shay’mot asher kah’rah la’hen ah’viv,” that Isaac gave the wells names after the names that his father had called them. Because it was Abraham’s desire to teach the multitudes the knowledge of G-d and to enlighten them that there is no truth to idolatry, it was Abraham’s practice to give all the wells religious names. So when the people came to draw water, they would have to acknowledge the name of G-d, but after Abraham’s death, reports Haketav Vehakabbala, the people reverted back to idolatry. “And in order to erase from their memory the names of these wells which recalled the very opposite of their false opinions, they stopped up the wells.” Now, continues Haketav Vehakabbala, the Torah informs us that “Isaac followed in his father’s footsteps and endeavored to dig out these same wells and resurrect their names in order to restore the crown of the true faith to its former glory.”

The Midrash Or Ha’ah’faylah (a Yemenite manuscript cited by Nehama Leibowitz) is even more explicit, noting that the Philistines stopped up the wells because the wells represented the Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah. Yes, the Philistines rejected the observance of even the basic seven laws of humanity. They resented being told how to live, what they may eat, with whom they could sleep, and how to conduct their business dealings. They not only resented the message, they resented the messenger–hence, anti-Semitism.

Why have the Jews become the object of the most enduring and universal hatred in history? Why is the State of Israel the most reviled country in the world today?

While there is partial truth to the common belief that anti-Semitism is attributable to ethnic and racial prejudice or that it is the result of the Jewish economic success or the need for scapegoats, our Torah says that none of these factors are the primary cause or origin of anti-Semitism. Rather, the basic cause of anti-Semitism is the religious beliefs that the Jewish people maintain, the beliefs that have insured Jewish survival over the millennia.

As Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin state in their brilliant and provocative book, Why the Jews? (Simon and Schuster, 1983), the Jewish conception of G-d, law and peoplehood, is probably the foremost cause of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism, they argue, is to a certain extent unavoidable, because it is the unavoidable response to distinctive Jewish values.

By maintaining that the enemies of the Jews will “hate whatever and whoever represents a higher value, a moral challenge,” Prager and Telushkin are merely echoing the message found in our own parashat Toledot.

This is the challenge we face. These are the ideals by which we must live–no matter what the price.

May you be blessed.