Monday, May 28, 2012

Baseless hatred

Last week at the AACI we had a lecture by Prof. Rene Levy about his book "Baseless Hatred," which has been published in three languages, English, French and Hebrew. The Israeli opening of his book was addressed by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, who spoke very highly of the book, and the French edition has a preface by the Chief Rabbi of France. Prof. Levy is from Paris but has taught at the Univ. of Washington, Seattle, for many years and his research specializes in antiepilepsy drugs. His interest and understanding of brain function led him to the unusual subject of "baseless hatred." This is my summary of his talk.

First, "baseless hatred" is to be distinguished from ordinary hatred, that is a natural human reaction to certain kinds of stimuli, such as response to injury. Baseless hatred is a deeper more primitive and longer-lived emotion. Baseless hatred is a purely Jewish concept, it is not found in other cultures, but is referred to in the Jewish literature as "sinat hinam," an irrational hatred that is considered to be responsible for the many terrible disasters that have overtaken the Jews, particularly the destruction of the Second Temple, the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans and the dispersion of the Jewish people.

The concept of baseless hatred arises from the treatment of Joseph by his brothers in the Biblical story. They sell him into slavery because they are jealous of him as the favorite of his father. Joseph himself has not done any direct harm to them, but nevertheless they have a baseless hatred of him. The Torah says "you shall not hate your brother in your heart" and when the issue is resolved you must not bear a grudge or take revenge, but you must "love your brother as yourself."

The brain consists of two main divisions, the lower or primitive brain, that is thought to have reptilian origin, and the higher brain that distinguishes humans. Baseless hatred is thought to be a response in the former brain or amygdala, that dictates basic responses and retains perfect memory of the event or trigger. This is why it is so hard to overcome it, whereas the higher brain functions are more subject to rational thought. Baseless hatred represents an unjust, unfair and excessive response and it can destroy the bond of mutual responsibility between people. This can happen between siblings, in-laws, neighbors, colleagues or friends.

This leads to the concept of "arevut" or brotherhood in Judaism. After the sons of Jacob return from Egypt and tell their father that the powerful ruler (who is in fact Joseph) has taken their brother Simeon hostage and will keep him in jail unless he (Jacob) allows Benjamin to go back with them, he initially says no. But, the older brother Judah intervenes and agrees to be a guarantor for his brother's life, he will give his life for him. That is the concept of arevut, not love, but personal responsibility, one for the other. This is when the Jewish people was born and the concept of peoplehood is that all Jews are responsible for each other. Thus, the sages believed that arevut was a kind of national glue that could keep the people together even without a common geographical base.But when disaster befell the Jewish people while they were in the land of Israel, it was because of baseless hatred.

Nowadays we might not believe this depending on whether we consider Jews in Israel or in the diaspora. After all, the German Nazis, could not be defeated by the Jews irrespective of the amount of arevut or baseless hatred that there was between Jews. But, there is no doubt that the lack of unity between many different groups within the Jewish people (religious and secular, socialist and Zionist and so on) contributed to the disunity of the people in response to external challenges. For example, in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising there were two completely separate Jewish military groups, one socialist the other nationalist, that had no coordination with each other. Whether one can apply the concept of baseless hatred to the irrational and deep hatred that other peoples and religions have harbored against the Jewish people is another issue.

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