Can We Ever Win Over Anti-Semites, Or Will They Always Hate Us?
Dear Jew in the City-
I know antisemitism is an age-old disease and there are Torah sources for this, such as Eisav soneh l’Yaakov (Esau hates Jacob). At the same time, I think we should still try our best to be exemplary people and explain our customs to those who are curious because they can seem weird from the outside and can be beautiful when explained. But I see some of my co-religionists just giving up. They say, “They’ll hate us anyway. Why bother trying to be better or explain what our customs are about?” So who is right? Can we win over some people who have negative feelings about us even if our sources say that we will always be hated?
Thanks for your question. First let’s examine your source text.
You may recall that Yitzchak thought Eisav (Esau) was meant to be his successor but God told Rivka that it was really supposed to be Yaakov (Jacob). She contrived a plan to get Eisav out of the way for the day so that Yitzchak would bless Yaakov instead. When Yitzchak became aware of the ruse, he realized that Yaakov was in fact his true successor and he ratified the blessing. Nevertheless, Eisav felt that Yaakov had stolen the blessing from him so he swore to kill his brother. Yaakov ran away to stay with Lavan, with whom he lived for 20 years. Genesis 33:4 describes the reunion of Yaakov and his Eisav, saying “Eisav ran toward him and embraced him; he fell upon his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”
In the Torah, the word “vayishakehu” (he kissed him) has a series of small dots over its letters, which is a sign that the word holds deeper significance. Rashi on this verse cites a Midrashic difference of opinion as to Eisav’s sincerity in kissing Yaakov. One opinion is that of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who says that Eisav hated Yaakov through and through but, at this particular moment, he was overcome with compassion and kissed his brother sincerely. The first part of Rabbi Shimon’s statement in Hebrew is “Halacha hi b’yadua she´Eisav soneh l’Yaakov.” But what does that even mean?
“Halacha hi b’yadua” is an unusual phrase that occurs nowhere else in rabbinic literature. The popular understanding is that it means “It is a well-known law that Eisav hates Yaakov” but “law” in this context wouldn’t mean that non-Jews are commanded to hate Jews. Rather, it’s like the law of gravity. A better translation would be, “It’s an established fact that Eisav hates Yaakov.” But even that may not be quite accurate.
While the version cited by Rashi says “halacha” (it is a law), that may be a scribal error. Other manuscripts say, “halo.” This would be translated as, “Behold, it is well-known that Eisav hates Yaakov.” This is certainly less emphatic than calling it a universal constant!
But whether it says “halacha” or “halo,” to whom is it meant to refer? From context, it would appear to mean one thing: Eisav (the person) hates Yaakov (the person), no more and no less. Neither the Talmud nor the Midrash extends this concept any further. And while Rashi cites the Sifri, consider the version of the statement that appears in the Midrash Tanchuma (Shemos 27). There, discussing brothers generally, it notes that Eisav hated Yaakov but also that Cain hated Abel, Yishmael hated Yitzchak and Yoseif’s brothers hated him. (This is contrasted with Moshe and Aharon, who loved one another.) Sometimes a Yaakov and an Eisav is just a Yaakov and an Eisav.
The first person to extend the parameters of this dictum seems to be the Abarbanel (15th century), who expanded it to mean that the Romans and their inheritors (who are Esau’s heirs) hate the Jews (who are Yaakov’s heirs). This is a reasonable understanding of what Rabbi Shimon might have meant. Given that he lived under the Roman occupation, “Eisav” could easily be a code for “Rome.” And consider the Midrash cited by Rashi on Genesis 25:23 that the “two nations” (or, based on the Torah’s spelling, two great leaders) in Rivka’s womb refers to the Roman emperor Antoninus and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the compiler of the Mishna (Avodah Zarah 11a).
The idea that this dictum applies to all non-Jews doesn’t appear to have taken hold until the 19th century. (I would be remiss if I neglected to acknowledge that Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l – my usual go-to among contemporary halachic authorities – did cite this source in this manner, in Iggros Moshe CM 2:77.)
So, we have the following possible understandings: (1) Behold, Eisav hates Yaakov; (2) it is a natural law that Eisav hates Yaakov; (3) it is a natural law that the Romans hate the Jews; and (4) it is a natural law that all non-Jews generally hate Jews. Only this last understanding requires addressing under the parameters of your question. (And even according to this worst-case understanding, nobody says that absolutely every non-Jew is an anti-Semite. Even in Nazi Germany, there were non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews.)
So why do we have anti-Semitism? Religious philosophers over the centuries have proposed a number of reasons. The Netziv (19th century) said that anti-Semitism serves to remind Jews that we are eternally distinct from other nations and that God is ultimately the only One upon Whom we can rely. Rabbi Avigdor Miller (20th century) wrote that part of our test as Jews is always to be a minority surrounded by a hostile majority. He adds that our success as a people is not despite the oppression we have faced, it’s because we cling to God in the face of our adversities.
However you understand Eisav soneh l’Yaakov and whatever you consider the purpose served by anti-Semitism to be, the fact remains that God directed us to serve as a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 60:3, et al.). God has no reason to make us spin our wheels in vain. If He told us to do this, I am confident that He hasn’t given us a Sisyphean task that can never be accomplished.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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