Since my days in an Orthodox Hebrew school, I have been sensitive to the all too frequent pejorative jabs taken at gentiles and those outside the faith. Even in my Modern Orthodox high school, I can recall a handful of my religious educators showing disrespect toward gentiles every now and then. “After all,” one of them said, “Gandhi was an idolater.” When I heard a Rabbi utter these patronizing words, my face reddened and I held back my anger in silence. To this day, the words of this Rabbi remain seared deep within me, unquestionable reminders of the work that must be done to protect my community from bigotry and hate.
Perhaps this comes from the years of persecution and suffering that our people have long endured, but it is time for us to take this problem seriously. All too often, I have observed, Orthodoxy’s intractable emphasis on tradition has the potential to force us into insularity. We have our righteous heroes, and the gentiles have theirs. Unfortunately, this mode of thought has become quite common in our pedagogy. That Martin Luther King Day should not even be acknowledged in certain Jewish schools is a travesty for our religion and our morality.
In my elementary school, I do remember one teacher who constantly made certain to speak on behalf of righteous gentiles, frequently explaining the importance of our forefather Noah despite his lack of Jewishness. But I am afraid that his method does not represent the current trend. Of the great leaders in our world, Jew and gentile alike, there is so much to learn. What Gandhi did by preaching civil disobedience in the face of an oppressive regime is something that can be edifying for all of us.
My parents have always ensured that my siblings and I are respectful and appreciative toward the great deeds of everyone, not only Jews. My mother remains an avid reader of biographies, always keeping me up to date on the latest discovery in the life of one great individual or another. And as her son, I too enjoy studying the lives of great individuals and learning about the differences that they made in our world. Our world today is advanced, and it is important to properly recognize the actions of those who helped create it. It was our gentile forefathers that contributed to what we have today.
I remember how on the last day of a Holocaust commemorative trip to Israel my classmates and I were taken to Yad Vashem. There I saw a monument dedicated to the gentile Oscar Schindler, honoring him for his courageous rescue of more than 1000 Jews during the Holocaust. When I saw his decorated monument, surrounded by clamoring students and tour groups, I felt proud of the fact that he was honored. I thought of the pain that he must have undergone, putting his life in harm’s way for a people hated by most. His sacrifice, like countless other righteous gentiles, is one that we must remember forever. Let us keep in mind the Biblical verse that “God created man in his image.” And this verse needs little commentary. We are all God’s creations and can learn from the great deeds of everyone, regardless of faith.