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Will accepting our differences make us better people?

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The Torah tells us that every human being is created in the image of God; therefore, racism and discrimination are forbidden. From the perspective of the Torah and Judaism, racism is not only an attack on human beings; it is also an assault on God. Jewish tradition also implores us to “love the stranger,” to pursue justice (tzedek) and to work to improve our communities and the world. We all have a responsibility to ensure that our communities are inclusive and free of racism. Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik wrote, “From the standpoint of the Torah, there can be no distinction between one human being and another on the basis of race or color… This key concept of kavod habriyot, the dignity of all human beings, constitutes the basis of human rights.”

Why racism is forbidden

The Torah tells us that every human being is created in the image of God (b’tselem Elohim). Bereshit (Genesis) 1: 26-27 states,

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹקִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹקִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹקִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃

And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

Commenting on this, Rabbi Shai Held wrote

One of the most fundamental claims Judaism makes about the world is that every human being on the face of the earth — black and white, male and female — is created in the image of God and is therefore infinitely valuable. And yet day after day, century after century, human dignity is trodden and trampled upon in countless ways — by poverty and oppression, by hunger, illness, loneliness and abandonment. And by racism — the insidious and utterly sinful belief that some people are somehow born worth more than others… Racism is an attack on humanity, but it is also an assault on God…

To be a religious person is to be forced to live with the gap between what the Bible insists is a core truth about the universe, and what we encounter (and often help to perpetuate) each day. Our theology says that people matter; the morning newspaper suggests that maybe we don’t. Living inside the gap is excruciating, but it is what religion — real religion, not the religion of complacency and self-satisfaction — requires of us. Living inside the gap also means committing to help close it by living in a way that affirms the dignity of all and working especially for the dignity of those who are exploited, abused and degraded. Jewish theology teaches that human beings cannot perfect the world, but we can and must improve it.”

Care for the stranger

The Torah also stresses the imperative to treat the stranger (“ger”) in a just manner. Although the word “ger” has several meanings (such as a convert, a gentile, or a foreigner living among people of a different group), the term can also be interpreted broadly to mean “the other.” 

Here are a couple examples of the many times the Torah tells us to care for the stranger:

Shemot (Exodus) 23:9:

וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know how it feels to be a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Vayikra (Leviticus) 19: 33-34:

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃ כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶֽם׃

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Pursue justice

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 16:20 states,

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־ה’ אֱלֹקֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃

Justice, justice (tzedek, tzedek) shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Many commentators were interested in the repetition of the word “tzedek” in this verse. Here are two different explanations:

Ramban

וטעם הכפל לומר הדיינין צריכין שישפטו את העם משפט צדק וגם אתה צריך לרדוף הצדק תמיד

“The reason for the repetition is to teach that not only should judges judge the people with righteous judgment, but you too must pursue justice constantly.”

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa:

“Justice alone is not enough…The Torah, therefore, stresses, ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue,’ namely the musar (ethics) of justice, where both the means and the end are just.

Jewish quotes about racism

In his essay “Civil Rights and the Dignity of Man,” Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik wrote, “From the standpoint of the Torah, there can be no distinction between one human being and another on the basis of race or color… This key concept of kavod habriyot, the dignity of all human beings, constitutes the basis of human rights.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 in support of the civil rights movement, famously said: “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”

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