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Baseless Hatred and the Religious – Secular Divide

The absence of empathy has serious consequences not just for individual Jews, but for the Jewish people as a whole.

In the Hebrew month of Av, it is customary to reflect on the notion of baseless hatred (sinat hinam). Interestingly, a careful review of the general literature on hatred does not show a specific entry called “baseless hatred.”Baseless hatred is a Jewish concept found in the Talmud; it pertains to the expression of hatred among Jews, and is considered a very serious issue. A classic source on this subject is the Talmud statement attributed to Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta that sinat hinam was the cause of the Second Temple’s destruction.

How a cataclysm of such historical proportions is linked with a basic human emotion is not intuitive.

But even less intuitive is the other half of this rabbi’s statement: that at that time, Jews focused on Torah study, the practice of mitzvot and acts of kindness.

Interpreted at face value, this statement means that baseless hatred can coexist with religious practice. In other words, there is apparently no religious-secular divide when it comes to the prevalence of sinat hinam.

This leads me, as an Orthodox Jew, to wonder why the practice of mitzvot does not shield us from baseless hatred. Can we find a rationale to explain this odd cohabitation? I propose two distinct sets of reasons , the first pertaining to a general lack of knowledge about the genesis and consequences of the emotion of hatred, and the second dealing with a crucial element that must accompany true faith in God.

Although hatred is a basic human emotion, it is not well understood even by experts in psychology. It is only when psychology is combined with recent advances in neurobiology that the various facets of hatred begin to form a coherent whole. An essential teaching of neurobiology is that hatred is meant to help us avoid threats to our survival, and is associated with our primitive neural system, located in our inner brain. This association explains three key characteristics of hate:

  1. It is easily triggered in response to a perceived aggression. To emerge, hate needs only triggers based on our perceptions (however false) and our own insecurities (including envy and jealousy); it does not require “objective causes.”

  2. It is not easily reversible; it persists, and some even consider it irreversible.

  3. It destroys the capacity of empathy, which is associated with our advanced neural system.

The absence of empathy has serious consequences not just for individual Jews, but for the Jewish people as a whole. A Jew who lacks empathy loses the capacity for arevut, mutual responsibility.

Arevut constitutes the essential bond that makes the Jews a people.

In the absence of empathy, Jews turn instead into groups of individuals. I would label this cascade of events the “hatred-exile paradigm” because it eventually leads to a severe consequence for the Jewish people: loss of the title to the Land of Israel. The rationale for this may not be obvious, but it has operated throughout Jewish history.

Eliminating hatred does not occur as a direct by-product of religious practice, because hatred must be understood and addressed directly. Curbing hatred requires a focus on its emergence.

One must learn to detect and counter the triggers of hatred in order to react appropriately to perceived assaults. Prior to those situations, one should practice asking questions such as: Am I envious or jealous? Am I insecure? Does my self-esteem depend on others? A person who does not realize that hatred is a trap embedded in our inner brain becomes unable to curb episodes of hatred, regardless of religiosity.

Curbing this emotion also requires an awareness of its harmful consequences. Hatred damages both the perpetrator and the victim; it fails to achieve the hater’s implied objective of bringing about justice; it leaves the hater trapped in a fruitless search for honor and respect; and a hater will remain indefinitely a prisoner of some snapshot of history. Any Jew wishing to avoid this trap needs to internalize this knowledge to tackle the causes and consequences of hatred, and not rely passively on religious practice.

Hatred can coexist with religious practice if individuals do not undertake the effort of developing “true faith” in God in parallel with practicing the mitzvot. True faith represents total faith (emunah shelema), meaning unconditional faith. An individual who achieves such faith believes that all that happens to him/her reflects God’s will. Such a person is not made insecure by the behavior of others, even if he or she feels unfairly treated. A true believer can overcome the mundane triggers of hate.

A true believer becomes able to take advantage of all the opportunities offered via the Jewish calendar (Yom Kippur, Purim, the mourning period between Pessah and Shavuot, the three weeks separating the fasts of the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha Be’Av, the month of Elul) to work not just on self-improvement, but specifically on self-protection against the emergence of hatred.

Baseless hatred has remained a serious problem for centuries, for all Jews. A science-based understanding of the mechanisms of hatred shows why it is naïve to expect that hatred will be eradicated simply as a by-product of the mitzvot. Hatred should be recognized for what it is – an irrational disease that harms countless individuals and families.

This disease can be conquered, but it must be fought by all Jews, one person at a time.


The writer s Professor Emeritus of Pharmaceutics at the University of Washington School of Pharmacy. His new book Baseless Hatred: What it is and What You Can Do About It (Gefen Publishing) has just been released by.

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