Fight Jewish Stereotypes by Sanctifying God’s Name
In the summer of 1966, Stephen Carter, who is today a prestigious law professor at Yale, moved with his family to a new neighborhood in Washington, DC. They were one of the only African-American families in a predominantly white neighborhood.
My two brothers and two sisters and I sat on the front steps, missing our playmates, as the movers carried in our furniture. Cars passed what was now our house, slowing for a look, as did people on foot. We waited for somebody to say hello, to welcome us. Nobody did. … I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here. I knew…
And all at once, a white woman arriving home from work at the house across the street from ours turned and smiled with obvious delight and waved and called out, “Welcome!” in a booming, confident voice I would come to love. She bustled into her house, only to emerge, minutes later, with a huge tray of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, which she carried to our porch and offered around with her ready smile, simultaneously feeding and greeting the children of a family she had never met — and a black family at that — with nothing to gain for herself except perhaps the knowledge that she had done the right thing. We were strangers, black strangers, and she went out of her way to make us feel welcome. This woman’s name was Sara Kestenbaum.
That generous act permanently shaped the way that Carter thought of the Jewish faith, and even inspired his 1999 book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. In it, he notes that it was specifically Sara Kestenbaum’s religion that motivated her to do what she did. Carter states that she since she was an observant Jew, she was raised with the ideal that “Civility creates not merely a negative duty not to do harm, but an affirmative duty to do good.”
This is called a “Kiddush Hashem” — “Sanctifying the Name of God.” As one of the 613 commandments given in the Torah, Kiddush Hashem is a multi-faceted mitzvah based on the verse in Leviticus 22:32: “I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel. I am the Lord Who sanctifies you.” In one place in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a), the text interprets this verse as referring to someone who is killed for their religious beliefs, such as the victims of the Holocaust. To this day, many Jewish communities still refer to Holocaust victims with the honorific “Kedoshim” or “Those who Sanctified Gods Name.”
Yet, the verse is also interpreted as an injunction to act in a dignified manner that “sanctifies God” in the eyes of those around you. As the Rebbe of Munkacz, author of the Minchas Elazar, once taught: “Those who died in the Holocaust are called ‘Kedoshim’ because they had no choice, but ‘Kiddush Hashem’ can only truly happen when one has a choice.” As my esteemed mother, Dr. Sharona Welton, might explain it, “The only thing more important than dying for God is living for God.”
Hence, the famous 13th century scholar, the Rabbeinu Yonah, goes so far as to say that “the entire reason God gave us the Torah and Mitzvot and made us into the Chosen People is so that we [may] make a ‘Kiddish Hashem.’” (Rabbeinu Yonah, Sharei Teshuva 3:158).
Perhaps the most vivid story recorded in the Talmud elucidating this second interpretation of “Kiddush Hashem” is that of Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach, who once bought a donkey from from an Arab merchant. The rabbi’s students were delighted at finding a jewel hanging from the donkey’s neck. Although the law of the land gave Rabbi Shimon permission to keep that jewel, he at once returned the gem to its owner, who cried out, “Blessed be the God of the Jews Who renders His people so scrupulous in their dealings with other men.” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Bava Metziyah, 2:5, 8c)
My friend Marc Firestone is a successful businessman, who wants to see more people acting in the same manner as Rabbi Shimon Ben Shatach. An Orthodox Jew, he spends his time outside the office giving classes and creating projects to teach people how the Torah provides wisdom for “sanctifying the Name of God” in small, practical ways, ranging from how one talks to their spouse to how they do business.
It was Marc’s kippah that became the catalyst for his extra-vocational passion. “I started noticing how, whether I like it or not, I’ve become an ambassador for the Jewish people just because I’m wearing a kippah on my head. This got me thinking of all the different ways I could either be sanctifying Gods Name — by acting like a real mensch — or, God forbid, doing the opposite.”
One of Marc’s favorite “Kiddush Hashem” stories is that of Sol Werdiger and the former South Korean ambassador to the United Nations, Oh Joon. Werdiger, also an Orthodox Jew and CEO of Outerstuff, once received a phone call from Mr. Oh Joon, asking to meet him for lunch at a kosher restaurant in Manhattan. Although Sol did not know the purpose of the meeting, he agreed to it. When they met, Oh told him the following, “I have always heard negative stereotypes about Jews and I took it at face value. Then, my daughter took an internship working in your company. Throughout the year, she has been telling me how wonderful it is to work at your company.”
He continued: “There are four areas which stood out and impressed my daughter. Every day at 1:30 p.m., no matter what was going on at the office, all the men, including those from neighboring offices, retreated into a room to pray with sincerity and calm. Every Friday, the office shuts down early in the afternoon in preparation for your holy Sabbath and is closed on the Sabbath — this includes all workers no matter which faith or religion they maintain. My daughter observed that each petitioner for charity — and there were many — were treated with respect and left with a check in hand. Lastly, my daughter was treated with the utmost respect and dignity.”
Because of the amazing experience and lessons that the company taught his daughter, Oh took out his checkbook and was ready to write a check returning all his daughter’s earnings. Mr. Werdiger wouldn’t hear of it: “Your daughter worked and earned her salary and rightfully deserves her pay, I will not accept any remuneration.”
Then the ambassador relayed the most amazing thing: “As you know, I have voting privileges at the UN. Because of my renewed appreciation of the Jewish people, I abstained from voting on resolutions against Israel on three occasions. At one resolution I was the ninth vote needed to pass the motion and resolution against Israel, and because I abstained, it did not pass.”
“Stories like this shouldn’t be the exception,” Marc Firestone tells me. “They should be the norm.” To this end, Firestone partnered with his two sons-in-law, Rabbi Benyamin Moss and Dovid Hercza, and launched a grassroots effort they call “Project Light,” which produces educational materials to illustrate how “Kiddush Hashem” can be applied to every aspect of life — even how one drives in traffic.
In an era where dictators and narcissists dominate the headlines, I believe that it’s important to highlight the humble do-gooders among us who shy away from the spotlight. It is people like Kestenbaum, Werdiger, and Firestone who effectively fight negative Jewish stereotypes by modeling what true “Torah Judaism” is all about.
Even if some of the ways they make a “Kiddush Hashem” may seem mundane and trivial, it is crucial to remember the wisdom of Major General Louis H. Wilson, who once said, “True genius lies not in doing the extraordinary things, but in doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well.”
Rabbi Levi Welton is a writer and educator raised in the Bay Area. He is the former rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue and can be reached at www.RabbiWelton.com.