Ben-Dahan must go

"He said in an interview that the souls of all Jews are higher than those of Christians or Muslims or anybody else, yet his job is secure."

Eli Ben Dahan 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Eli Ben Dahan 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Imagine for a moment that the religious affairs minister in some democratic country – England or Switzerland for example – were to make a public statement that “the souls of all Christians are superior to the souls of Jews.” Would Israel not make a fuss? Would not the ADL and the Weisenthal Center cry out in protest? Would not Jews in that country demand the immediate resignation of such an official? But in Israel, the man who fills such a slot – Deputy Religious Services Minister Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan – recently said just that about Christians. He is quoted as saying in an interview which he knew would be published that the souls of all Jews are higher than those of Christians or Muslims or anybody else, yet his job is secure.
Nearly a week has passed since his outrageous statements were printed in Ma’ariv and, to the best of my knowledge, nary a peep of protest has been heard from any member of the government, from the president and prime minister on down, nor from our esteemed chief rabbis, who should know that silence is equivalent to consent.
I have waited to hear the head of Ben-Dahan’s Bayit Yehudi party, Naftali Bennett, who supposedly represents enlightened Orthodoxy, say, “it isn’t true, all humans are equal,” but that hasn’t happened. Nor has Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid favors progressive religion and who is responsible more than anyone else for Ben-Dahan having his position, denounced this teaching. A government that had an ounce of integrity or shame would have insisted on the resignation of a person in charge of religious affairs who dared to make such a statement. How can he represent Israel to leaders of other religions or be allowed to represent Judaism to Jews? Unfortunately Ben-Dahan’s view of the inherent superiority of Jews over gentiles is not his alone. He represents a well-known teaching prevalent in certain circles, including many hassidic texts such as those of Chabad. These concepts, that view the gentile as somehow inferior to the Jew, are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Judaism’s basic texts – the Torah and the prophets, as well as to those of many great rabbinic sages.
The most fundamental teaching of the Torah is that human beings – all human beings, men and women, Jews and non-Jews – are created in the image of God.
“And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). It was on that basis that murder was forbidden.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in His image did God made man” (Genesis 9:6). When the prophet Amos said, “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Cushites – declares the Lord” (Amos 9:7), he was expressing the concept that although Israel has a covenantal relationship with God, there is no inherent superiority in the people of Israel. All peoples are God’s equal creation.
The Sages taught the same lesson. “Why was only one human being – Adam – created? So that no one should say to his fellow, ‘My father was greater than your father’” (Sanhedrin 4:5). Ben-Azzai said that the greatest principle of the Torah was expressed in the verse, “This is the record of Adam’s line – When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God” (Genesis 5:1), stressing again that God created all human beings in His likeness. Rabbi Akiva based his theology on the idea that “Beloved is man for he was created in the Image; greater still was the love in that it was made known to him that he was created in the Image of God, as it is written, ‘For in the image of God made he man’” (Avot 3:15).
As the midrash says, “I call heaven and earth as witnesses: The spirit of holiness rests upon each person according to the deed that each does, whether that person be non-Jew or Jew, man or woman, manservant or maidservant” (Seder Eliyahu Rabba 9).
The pernicious doctrine that Jewish souls are higher than other souls is a perversion of these Jewish teachings and should be denounced as a dangerous heresy. It is dangerous because any such teaching of superiority of one group over another leads to actions in which humans can be treated as inferior, as less than human and eventually can be disposed of as well. We have suffered from this ourselves, and teaching it to our children will only lead to Jews treating others badly, as indeed has already happened. It may be that others who held prominent positions in our governments have held the same view as Ben-Dahan, but at least they never uttered it in public. By doing so, Ben-Dahan has rendered himself persona non-grata and should have the good grace to resign. If not, he should be told to leave. We are constantly asking others to condemn those who speak disparagingly of Jews or Judaism. We have asked more than one pope to change the liturgy so as not to show Jews in a bad light. Should not we ask the same thing of ourselves and denounce any Jewish teaching that demeans non-Jews? Israel must not be in a position in which others can point to us and say, “Look what your government is teaching about non-Jews before you complain about what others are saying about you.”
As Hillel said, all of Judaism can be encapsulated in the idea that we are not to do to others what is hateful to us (Shabbat 31a). Ben-Dahan has violated that rule.
The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, a well-known lecturer and writer, whose most recent book is The Torah Revolution.