Urgent message:

Given the most challenging situation in Israel at this time, I urge all to pray for the bereaved families, the hostages, the missing and the many casualties. Please try to perform additional mitzvot, send funds to help the needy and grieving families, and attend the rallies that are being organized in support of Israel.

May the Al-mighty protect the State of Israel, its citizens and bless it with peace!

“The Theological Underpinnings of Antisemitism”
(updated and revised from Toledot 5764-2003)


by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In a previous study of parashat Toledot for the year 2000-5761 we analyzed the ancient origins and practice of antisemitism.

In that analysis, we noted that Isaac became enormously successful when he sojourned in the Philistine city of Gerar. Scripture (Genesis 26:13), describes Isaac’s success in the following manner: וַיִּגְדַּל הָאִישׁ, וַיֵּלֶךְ הָלוֹךְ וְגָדֵל, עַד כִּי גָדַל מְאֹד, 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 reports (Genesis 26:14), that, וַיְקַנְאוּ אֹתוֹ פְּלִשְׁתִּים, 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 antisemitism 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 Gerar. Only when King Abimelech tells him firmly, (Genesis 26:16), לֵךְ מֵעִמָּנוּ, כִּי עָצַמְתָּ מִמֶּנּוּ מְאֹד, “Leave us, because you have become much too great for us,” does Isaac depart and settle in Nachal Gerar. 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 Rehobot, where he is finally able to settle and live in peace.

It is often assumed that the primary motive for antisemitism is economic envy. The rabbis indicate that when Abimelech orders Isaac to leave, the reason he proffers is (Genesis 26:16), כִּי עָצַמְתָּ מִמֶּנּוּ, “because you have become too great for us.” The word מִמֶּנּוּ–“Mee’meh’noo,” also indicates that Abimelech 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 antisemitism.

Nehama Leibowitz (famed Israeli Bible teacher, 1905-1997) in her Studies in Bereishith [Genesis], cites Haketav Vehakabbala  who points out that scripture says (Genesis 26:18),וַיִּקְרָא לָהֶן שֵׁמוֹת, כַּשֵּׁמֹת אֲשֶׁר קָרָא לָהֶן אָבִיו , 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 disabuse them of their faith in 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, is even more explicit, noting that the Philistines stopped up the wells because the wells represented the Seven Noahide Principles. 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 bitterly resented the messenger as well–hence, antisemitism.

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 antisemitism 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 the origin of antisemitism. Rather, the basic cause of antisemitism are the religious beliefs that the Jewish people maintain, the beliefs that have insured Jewish survival over the millennia.

As Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin declare 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 antisemitism. Antisemitism, 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.