Thursday, May 02, 2013

Netziv on the ethical cost of assimilation

Before getting to an interesting paradox the Netziv points out in the parsha that deals with a Jewish slave sold to a ger, let me start out by spelling out an assumption he makes: wealth and success comes from being careful in interpersonal relations, mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro.  Chazal tell us (Shabbos 151b) that one who acts with mercy towards others will merit receiving mercy from Heaven.  Be nice to others, and G-d will be nice to you and keep you from becoming destitute.  We can debate whether that’s exactly what the gemara means (it sounds to me that the gemara doesn’t mean poverty is avoidable, but rather it means that if you show mercy toward the poor and treat them with dignity and respect, Hashem will see that even if you do become poor, you will still retain your dignity.)  We can debate whether other mitzvos, not just bein adam l’chaveito deeds, have the same effect.  But let’s put that aside for now, let’s grant the Netziv the point, and let’s see where he goes with it.

Rashi comments on “v’ki tasig yad ger v’toshav imach…” (25:47) that the reason this ger toshav has the wealth and ability to acquire slaves is because he is “imach,” – “dibuko imach” – he has decided to cast his lot in with you and connect with the Jewish people.   A ger toshav still eats cheeseburgers at McDonalds, but he is a humanitarian; he observes the mitzvos bnei noach, and, based on the yesod of the Netziv above, the ger toshav we are speaking about is very particular about observing mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro.  He is the nice non-Jewish neighbor that gave a nice donation when they collected for the hurricane rebuilding effort, he knows to turn the light on for you on Shabbos if you forgot to set the timer, he acts like a mentch.  Since he acts with care towards others, Heaven cares for him and blesses him with riches.

Yet, in the very same pasuk the Torah describes the Jewish slave being purchased as “u’mach achicha imo.”  Rashi again comments on the word “imo” that the reason this individual has become destitute and forced to resort to becoming a slave is “dibuko imo,” because he has thrown his lot in life in with the goy.  Once again, based on the yesod of the Netziv, we are not just speaking of a person who may eat at McDonald’s (maybe he orders the fish) or who goes shopping on Shabbos like his goyish neighbors.  That alone would not do it – poverty is a result specifically of becoming lax in mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro. We are speaking of a person who, as a result of assimilation, as a result of wanting to be like his goyish neighbor, ends up abandoning the traits of gemilus chassadim and rachmanus that characterize our people.  We are dealing with a selfish boor. 

But one second – who is the “imo,” the “him,” that this Jewish slave wants to emulate?  It’s the the same ger discussed earlier in the pasuk.  That ger toshav is not a selfish boor – he is a model of good midos, someone who so admires our traits of chessed and rachmanus that he practices them himself, and as a result has been blessed by Hashem!  So why is it that this Jewish slave who ends up assimilating because he wants to be like his ger toshav master ends up not only eating at McDonalds like that ger toshav, not only goes shopping on Shabbos like that ger toshav, but even worse than his ger toshav master, loses all semblance of humanity and becomes a degenerate?  Why doesn’t his master’s model of good midos have any effect?

If you have children or remember your own childhood, you might remember eating lunch or supper on some colorful plastic plate or bowl that costs next to nothing to buy in Ikea or someplace like that.  If you remember those days, then you know the answer to the Netziv’s question.  Why is it that the china dishes you use on Shabbos and paid a small fortune for break so easily if you drop them, but that plastic bowl that costs next to nothing can be thrown from a high chair across the room and not suffer a dent?  Kal v’chomer: if the cheap bowl doesn’t break, certainly you should get the same value from the china dishes!  But we know that’s not how it works.  The more precious something is, the easier it is to destroy and the uglier it becomes when ruined. 
The ger toshav shines as much as he can when he draws close to Klal Yisrael, but he is like a plastic bowl made to look like real china – the end result is a decent human being.  If it loses its shine, no great loss, it’s back to being just a plain bowl.  The Yisrael who becomes an eved and decides to assimilate is like fine china dropped to the floor – once it breaks, you have a thousand pieces of nothingness, total disintegration. 
It's a nice vort, but is it true?  The Netziv is basically saying that you cannot seperate a Jew's Jewishness from his humanity.  Slice off Shabbos, kashrus, etc., and inevitable you slice away morality and ethics as well.  The eved who tries to assimilate cannot give up one without also inevitably giving up the other.  We know in our society many people try to do just that -- they try to be good people, whatever that means -- without shmiras hamitzvos, and I am not sure we would call the effort a complete failure, at least in some cases.  Yesh l'chaleik, but it's something to think about.


  1. The vort is supported by evidence. The vast majority of non-observant Jews are liberals/Democrats.

  2. I think it takes 2 or 3 generations

  3. This is consistent with his approach in his Sh'ar Yisrael, that when a Jew loses his innate and specific qualities, he takes on an animalistic appearance.