Torah Study with Richard Spencer
Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute has emerged as the new media villain du jour, replacing the post formerly held by David Duke in the public imagination. Recently I watched an exchange between him and Hillel Rabbi Matt Rosenberg during the Q&A portion of a talk Spencer gave at Texas A&M University.
Rabbi Rosenberg starts by saying “You come here with a message of radical exclusion. My tradition teaches a message of radical inclusion and love, love as embodied by Torah. Will you sit down with me, and study Torah, and learn love?” he continues.
As a thought experiment I’d like to imagine that at this point Spencer said “Yes. I will study Torah with you Rabbi.” The two of them find a quiet corner somewhere on the Aggie campus, and sit down together.
I thought they might begin with a brief discussion of Hebrew relations with the Amalekites, a nomadic people of Israel descended from Esau, whom the Torah instructs Jews to utterly destroy:
It shall be that when the Lord, your God, gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the Land that the Lord, your God, gives you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Do not forget it. (Deuteronomy 25: 19)
Elsewhere: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox, and sheep, camel and ass” (Samuel I, 15:3).
All of the Amelakites — men, women, children, babies, and even livestock — are to be slaughtered. Radical, and in its own way, quite inclusive.
Rabbi Rosenberg might or might not know that religious and non-religious Jews and even Christian Zionists have compared the biblical Amelakites with contemporary Islamic jihadists such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Hamas. The Torah has been clear about what kind of treatment should be meted out to them: “Spare them not.” This comparison is becoming mainstream in the rhetoric of the West Bank settlers and segments of the Israeli religious right.
While the Amalekites are the most vilified people in the Torah, the ancient Hebrews certainly had no shortage of other enemies. Rabbi Rosenberg and Spencer could examine the following passage:
When you come to a town, before attacking it, make an offer of peace. And if it gives you back an answer of peace, opening its doors to you, then all the people in it may be put to forced work as your servants. … And when the Lord your God has given it into your hands, let every male in it be put to death without mercy. But the women and the children and the cattle and everything in the town and all its wealth, you may take for yourselves: the wealth of your haters, which the Lord your God has given you, will be your food. So you are to do to all the towns far away, which are not the towns of these nations. But in the towns of these peoples whose land the Lord your God is giving you for your heritage, let no living thing be kept alive. (Deuteronomy 20:10-16)
Who would these townspeople be? Surely the radically inclusive and loving people depicted in the Torah wouldn’t have had many enemies? Just the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, the Jebusites, the Midianites, the Philistines, the Hagarites, Moab, Zobah, Syria, Edom, Shechem, Laish, the Benjaminites, the Geshurites, the Girzites, the Arameans, Cush, the Meunites, the Seirites, the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, Babylon, and Egypt. Obviously, the Hebrews had few enemies, because they were radically inclusive.
Is it a bit cynical to cherry-pick from among some of the more violent verses of the Torah? Maybe. But the point is, if there is one thing Judaism is not known for among major world religions, it is “radical inclusion.” You don’t have to think that the biblical Jews were a particularly warlike people (they were) to realize that radical inclusion has never been Judaism’s raison d’etre. To put it more bluntly, my ancestors did not slaughter countless loincloth-and-sandal-wearing idolaters throughout the Holy Land in order to promote letting them all into the Chosen People’s club. Judaism is and has always been a radically exclusive religion.
In his already noted rebuttal, Spencer sidesteps the Rabbi’s references to the Torah and “love” and turns directly to the idea of Jewish biological and cultural survival. Spencer asks Rosenberg what would happen to the Jewish people if Israel were to let all of the peoples of the Middle East into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The Rabbi appears to be stunned into silence. Spencer then continues, “Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate. That is why Jews are a coherent people with a history and a culture and a future.”
It appears to not be Spencer who needs a Torah study session, but Rabbi Rosenberg who needs to review basic Jewish history. It seems obvious that the Jewish people and the State of Israel exist not because of radical inclusion, but because of radical exclusion. I recognize that these days some varieties of reform Judaism argue that they are inclusive (of LGBT people, the disabled, minority converts, etc.) but in general Judaism has never been an inclusive religion. Not anyone can easily become a Jew, and Jews are considered separate and entirely distinct from non-Jews. Maintaining those boundaries between Jewishness and its others has been one of the principle foci of Jewish identity and culture through its history.
Very simply there is no historical period where one would be able to make a cogent argument that Judaism was an “inclusive” religion, let alone “radically inclusive.” Ultimately, you can only make this argument by ignoring both contemporary and historical reality; the theological basis of Judaism in almost any interpretation ever proffered; and the nature of actually existing Jewish communities around the world. There’s just not any reason to say that Judaism is radically inclusive, except that it makes you sound like the good guy in contrast to Richard Spencer.
Only in an intellectual climate where virtue signaling has replaced even trying to convey an accurate depiction of reality could an argument for radical inclusion in Judaism be made, and then only in the context of a left-leaning and secular reform Judaism that would have been unrecognizable not long ago. Judaism is largely non-proselytizing; conversion is difficult; and cultural traditions are maintained in order to provide separation from non-Jews. The Jewish state systematically favors Jewish in-migration and discourages gentiles from moving in. Given all of this, what could it be that the Rabbi is referring to by radical inclusion?
My guess is that Rabbi Rosenberg is doing what so many accuse Jews of doing — attempting to promote multiculturalism, which he deliberately conflates with an inclusive Judaism that has never existed. Much has been written about the Jewish role in promoting multiculturalism. But Jews do not promote multiculturalism in Israel. This was Spencer’s point.
It would be hard to watch Spencer’s response to Rosenberg and not see how on target it was. Jews can choose to live in a militarized ethnostate where Jewish culture, identity, and lives can be protected from immigrants or invaders. We have no business preaching to others about radical inclusion as long as this remains the case.
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