Navigating Antisemitism in the Modern Era

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by R. Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Navigating Antisemitism in the Modern Era: Is it time for an Exodus today?

One of the questions we have been frequently asked by Jews living in different countries, both in the Western bloc and the Eastern bloc, as  a result of the surge of anti-Semitism in their countries, is whether they may remove the Mezuzah from the lintel of their apartment so that it will not be recognized as a Jewish home. Although the mitzvah of Mezuzah is found in Devarim, according to the Zohar on our Parsha, the spiritual source o f the mitzvah (commandment) of Mezuzah is in the story of the Exodus from Egypt – Yetziat Mitzraim, when G-d commanded Jews to slaughter the gods of the Egyptians, put the blood of the slaughtered animal on the two doorposts and the lintel so that G-d would skip Jewish houses during the plague of the firstborns.

And they shall take of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel…” (Ex. 12:7) “And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.” (Ibid, 13)

Thus, the origin of the mitzvah of Mezuzah is the tremendous act of mesirus nefesh (self-sacrifice) for mitzvos. The Mezuzah is a symbol of the courageous defiance the slaves demonstrated towards their Egyptian masters by slaughtering an Egyptian god. This act showed their belief in, and willingness to sacrifice for, their belief in the G-d of Israel. The Jews not only slaughtered the gods of the Egyptians, but they also placed the blood on the doorposts as if to say, “We are not afraid of anti-Semitism.” To this day, the Mezuzah is seen as affording Divine protection to Jewish homes. This is stated in the following statement of the Talmud (Menachot 33b):

Rava said it is a mitzvah to place the Mezuzah within a tefach (handbreadth) of the outside door. What is the reason? The Rabbis say it is so you will see the Mezuzah as soon as you enter. Rav Chanina from Sura says it is so it can protect you. Rav Chanina said, “Come and see that God does not behave like a person. For people, the King sits inside and the people guard him from the outside. However, in the case of God, His servants sit inside and He guards them from the outside, as the verse states, ‘God will protect you, God will be the shadow of your right hand’” (Tehillim 121:5).

Questions asked about the possible removal of the Mezuzah are asked with great trepidation. Unfortunately, such questions are not new and have been asked throughout our history by Jews when they faced troubled times. Halachic literature has numerous discussions regarding concealing otherwise public observances to avoid anti-Semitism.

With regards to the Mezuzah, Shach Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah (286:7) writes that one of the factors in not putting up Mezuzahs on the sha’arei ha’ir (the city gates) of Jewish communities is anti-Semitism, as 1) this may endanger the Jews since non-Jewish governors may suspect them of witchcraft (Shach 286:7 and Taz 286:3), and 2) non-Jews may likely remove the Mezuzahs and treat them with disrespect (Shach 286:7).

The Meiri on Yoma 11a writes that this rationale would apply even to one’s own home on the outside door, even if the threat only involves damage (i.e., there is no immediate physical danger). Obviously, there is no blanket answer to these questions, and the halacha will depend on the specific circumstances. Halacha does not  usually require us to be moser nefesh ( be self-sacrificing) for the fulfillment of a particular mitzvah. However, the idea that being Jewish requires mesirus nefesh– total commitment  is central to Judaism. Especially as the Mezuzah has an all-encompassing effect on our life. Thus, the Rema in Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah( 285:2 ) states: “Some say that when you leave the house you should place your hand on the Mezuzah and say ‘God guard my going out etc.’. Similarly, when entering you should place your hand on the Mezuzah.”

Notwithstanding its importance , halacha still doesn’t require us to endanger ourselves to fulfill the mitzvah of Mezuzah. As the Meiri explains:

G-d does not want a person to surrender himself to danger and rely on miracles for the purpose of fulfilling a mitzvah.

שאין הקב”ה רוצה שיהא מוסר עצמו לסכנה ולסמוך על הנס בשביל קיום מצוה

Another  question asked regarding choices between religious conviction and self-preservation is whether one has to wear a kippah outside the home. This is a modern question, as it is only in the last 50 years that a kippah was considered suitable outdoor head covering. Indeed, most people wore hats. On the other hand, many observant Jews who would today  wear a kippah at work would, in the past, remove their hats and go bareheaded at work for  their Parnassah – financial reasons. And one certainly may do so for one’s own safety!

Indeed, wearing a kippah is a middas chassidus – striving for the most pious behavior possible. Nonetheless, we must not dismiss the importance of middas chassius. It seems to me that if we live in circumstances where we feel  that we cannot cover our heads – something that we have been particular about without inhibitions – then the time has come for us to make an exodus, a personal yetziat mitzrayim, and go to live in a place where one can live a full Jewish life openly, and not as modern-day secret Jews.

There are two situations where we have accepted limitations on our way of life. The Gemara Shabbos 21b states that in times of danger, one can light the Chanukah lights indoors. Magen Avraham 8:13 writes that it is less than optimal to conceal one’s tzitzit, but it can be justified if one is walking among non-Jews.

Fortunately, we live in a different time today. Indeed ,in the past  anti-Semitism has forced difficult decisions for both communities and individuals but we  being fortunate to be   free people  should choose to live as complete Jews, privileged to fulfill all the mitzvot. Surely this is a lesson we must learn from what is happening throughout the world. As we witness rising anti-Semitism, we must recall the defiance of previous generations who cried for liberty. Ultimately, living courageously and openly as Jews remains the lesson passed on from the Yetziat Mitzrayim itself!

About Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz is a member of The Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel

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