Why the rabbis’ understanding of antisemitism is still relevant

In her new book, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur explores how the rabbis made sense of hatred against Jews


When Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur graced the cover of Elle magazine in France a year ago, it was a sign of public recognition. One of just four female rabbis in the country — though with others in rabbinic training, the number is set to grow — she had just brought out a new book.

A year later, its English edition has appeared, the first of her four books to be translated here. Anti-Semitism Revisited is more an extended essay, but one rippling with ideas on every page.

Many books have been written on antisemitism from a political, sociological or psychoanalytic perspective, she explains in her fluent English — she studied for the rabbinate in the USA. “But very few books have been written about the rabbinic point of view.

“It was striking for me to see that the rabbis and the sages did have an opinion. Obviously they did not have a secret recipe against antisemitism…

“But they somehow had developed an idea of the sociological and political context that from their point of view enables antisemitism to grow and it seemed to me it was important to acknowledge that what they point to is very relevant today.”

Jews are attacked “when a society is obsessed with its authentic identity and the rabbis of the Talmud are pretty aware of that”. In their day, the dominant power they had to contend with was imperial Rome.

The pursuit of authenticity or purity, what she calls “wholeness”, is for her a vain one, a kind of idolatory. It can manifest itself in a religious fundamentalism that believes its way to be the sole path to truth. Or the kind of nationalism that believes it can regain some sort of pristine identity if only alien elements are expunged. And the alien element that too often appears to stand in the way are Jews.

By contrast, Jews have learned to live with a sense of incompleteness — the loss of the Temple, enduring exile and expulsion through their long history. Thus their very existence stands against the dangerous ideal of “wholeness”. As we sing in one of the most familiar verses in liturgy, Oseh Shalom, it is God alone who will make shalom, “peace” or “whole”.

“Our challenge is to acknowledge that God is One and we are not one. We live in a world of not one, of multiplicity, of dividedness,” she said.

The world remains in a broken state — an understanding captured in kabbalistic mythology when the primordial vessels of divine light are shattered in the process of Creation, leaving it up to human beings to try to gather the scattered sparks, the original concept of tikkun olam.

It is no accident that the first major character in the Bible to be designated as a “Jew”, Mordecai, is presented as a descendant of exiles, of outsider stock. And no sooner has the first Jew as such appeared on the scene, so too does the archetypal antisemite Haman, like a “scary doppelganger,” she says, who regards the distinctive culture of the Jews as a national danger and seeks to wipe them out.

Haman is characterised as a descendant of the Amalekites, the arch-enemy of the Israelites. And Amalek is the grandson of Esau/Edom, who also stands in rabbinic lore as the antithesis of Jacob (Edom was a rabbinic name for Rome).

Rabbi Horvilleur looks at how the rabbis accounted for the origin of anti-Jewish hatred. According to one midrashic interpretation, Amalek’s mother, Timna, wanted to join the spiritual community of the patriarchs but was rejected: and thus from her rejection, the seeds of lethal enmity grew. (She also explores an alternative aetiology involving Timna).

But she notes that, remarkably, the rabbis saw it as possible to break out of this chain of hatred. In the Talmud, the emperor Antoninus asks Yehudah Hanasi if he has a place in the world to come and the great rabbi tells him he does. But then Antoninus asks how can that be, quoting a verse from Obadiah, “And there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau”, (Esau/Edom meaning Rome). Yehudah Hanasi answers that the prophecy only applies to those who behave wickedly, “not to people like you”.

She analyses another, more cryptic talmudic story. When another, unnamed but brutal, emperor is advised by his counsellors to cut out the “sore” from his domain, meaning the Jews, one adviser dissents. You can never destroy all of them, he warns and goes on: “If you attempt to carry out the destruction of the Jews, they will call you the severed kingdom.”

The emperor agrees but has him thrown into a fiery pit. Before his death, he removes his foreskin, choosing, as she explains, to make himself incomplete. His name, Ketia bar Shalom, she says, means “the cut [Ketia], son of or coming from [bar] peace or wholeness [shalom].”

So in the rabbis’ eyes, the way to escape from this fateful hatred is to acknowledge the brokenness, incompleteness, in oneself. “If you are able to live with this brokenness , then you are saved,” she says. (Like Antoninus, Ketia has a place in the world to come).

Antisemites are always “partisans of wholeness”, seeing Jews as creating some kind of hybrid identity that threatens national integrity. Whenever the principle of “purity” starts circulating in society , she says, “you can be pretty sure that antisemitism is around the corner”.

Anti-Semitism Revisited is published by MacLehose Press, £16.99


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