Chaim Strauchler Tradition Online | April 11, 2024

What’s happening?

For generations, many Jews have believed that they possess a coded language that only they understand. A recent internet meme illustrates the seemingly opaque barrier to comprehension:

I’m almost switched over.
I didn’t wash so I can’t bentch.
We’re not sure yet, because he’s still yellow.

Sentences like these suggest a protected insularity where Yiddish idioms and halakhic minutia prevent others from “listening in.” Yet, since October 7 events point to a different reality. People outside Orthodox Judaism – those who mean us well and those who mean us harm – are paying close attention to what we say and do.

Why does it matter?

In January, Hamas spokesman Abu Ubaida listed motives for the October 7 massacre. Among them was an accusation that Jews were “bringing red cows” to Israel. The preposterousness of this justification for such heinous crimes only serves to underscore the fact that Tumah and Tahara are known and exploited by our enemies.

In March, a real estate event at a Teaneck synagogue was the target of Palestinian protestors who had learned about it from a viral video of Rich Siegal libelously mischaracterizing the event at a town council meeting. Having learned of the event from community media, he sought to exploit those sources in his public comments, “As Jews we don’t get to fly under the radar and break the law and hide it in the synagogue.” Forget about Siegel—his intent was to harm. But do we carry a mistaken belief within the Jewish world that we are somehow hidden from general society?

The term “goyim” as a reference to gentiles has long been used with both connotations of fondness and derision. In a March 26 speech at Montreal’s Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation, Canadian Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre referred to himself as “a simple goy from the Prairies.” Politicians proudly claim to having served as Senator Joe Lieberman’s “Shabbos Goy.” Yet the term has been exploited by an American neo-Nazi, antisemitic hate group and conspiracy theory network, which calls itself the Goyim Defense League. How will communication within the Jewish community change when it comes to understanding how transparent are the walls that surround it?

What questions remain?

“Do not say something that cannot be heard, for in the end it will be heard” (Avot 2:4). What types of Jewish communication will move offline and out of the Jewish media’s eyes? What types of communication will cease entirely due to a deeper appreciation for how our enemies might exploit our words?

Are there opportunities within this exposure of Jewish culture? Megillat Esther uses a word that appears nowhere else in Tanakh, “mityahadim”—professing to be Jews. Might the availability of Jewish learning and ideas to general culture serve as a means for more fully becoming a light unto nations?

Postscript: This week’s haftara provides a meaningful answer to this last question. A Jewish maidservant in the home of an Aramean general suggests that a Jewish prophet (Elisha) can cure her master of his tzara’at (II Kings 5:4). Upon being cured, Naaman acknowledges, “Now I know that there is no God in the whole world except in Israel!” May we merit similar opportunities.

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler is an Associate Editor of TRADITION. Read his essay in the special “War Reflections” section of our recent print issue.

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