Religious : : Thoughts from Our Rabbi

A rabbi lecturing to a Jesuit group at Fordham University captured the interest of the students. In class, the rabbi wrote on the board, “What’s so funny about a Jewish Cowboy?” Pointing to the question – he said, “Let’s talk about that concept for a minute. I want you to analyze that image and tell me what’s incongruous about it?” There was a pause then the 35 students in the class, all Roman Catholics, laughed. When they got serious again, a girl raised her hand & said: “Jews traditionally have been urbanized.” “That’s true,” the rabbi said and he wrote “Urban” on the board. A young man said, “In the Napoleonic Era the Jew was thought of as a business man/a money lender.” The rabbi accepted that & wrote, “Business Man” – “Money Lender” on the board. Still another girl said, ‘The cowboy is sort of an easy-going type, while the Jew is… well, not easily kept in the background.” Whereupon the rabbi quickly said, “You’re being polite. You’re trying to say he’s ‘pushy.’ And he wrote “Pushy” on the blackboard.

The professor told the class while there is a good deal of historical validity to this evaluation of the Jew, it is only true – because – of what happened to the Jews. Jews were forced into these stereotypes & the unfavorable qualities, which Jews supposedly possess, are not genetically determined, rather were culturally determined. The circumstances of the cultures in which we Jews found ourselves – forced this upon the Jews at times.

I like the way the professor rabbi posed the questions. I think it was cute and displayed imagination. Yet, he left himself wide open for the answers he got and what’s more – the rabbi was back in the traditional position of apologist for his Jewish people. As the saying goes, “It takes only 1 bullfrog to start croaking & before you know it, all the others crawl out from beneath the shoals and the rocks to join in a thundering chorus of raucous, hoarse, gravelly croaking.”

I disagree with the professor completely. I would not have stood up in front of the class and apologized by seeking to hide behind the skirts of the environment and cultural determination, because it simply isn’t true. We are genetically pushy, if you want to call it that. We were meant to be that way by God and by history. If we had not been “pushy” — the world would still be worshiping idols. If we had not been “pushy” — the world would still be wallowing in disease and crippling illnesses such as polio, and tuberculosis. If we had not been “pushy” — there would not have been a Europe with its national governments and states. We Jews – we were the ones who created economic stability & commercial strength in every single country of the European continent. If we had not been “pushy” the state of Israel would not exist and the deserts would not have the agricultural developments that they do now. And who says that “pushy” has to be a bad quality. It can be a virtue. It is only evil if it used in an offensive way.

It is true we can find individual Jews have been repulsive in their actions through exaggerated pushiness. Still in the overall picture, it is that very quality which has given sustenance, strength, courage, & decency to western civilization. In America, we have once again seen a rise in antisemitism. Hateful speech has caused the bullfrogs to come out and croak loudly again. Our country is plagued with divisiveness and more than ever we need to stand together and push back. Not much has changed. Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt did it, Haman of Ancient Persia did it, Chmielnitzki of the 17th century did it, Hitler did it, De Gaulle did it, where are they?

Long after their names will be searched for in dusty history books, the Jew will still be around as “pushy” as ever, living, breathing, leading the world along the high road of great accomplishments. Today we have the ability to make an impact with our “pushiness.” We can stand together with one voice and say to leaders of every stripe that there is no place in this country for hateful speech that threatens the core of American unity. So what do you say, shall we start pushing back? I hope so, for if we do – we will be blessed with a united country where everyone is valued.

B’vrachot, blessings, Rabbi Dennis