Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, a Long Island native, has spent nearly three decade as a pulpit rabbi in four states, most recently at the historic The Temple in Atlanta. Now he serves as executive director of Kol Echad, a “transdenominational” adult learning center in Atlanta.
His latest book, “Righteous Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible” (Jewish Lights), follows the best-selling “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah” and “For Kids – Putting God on Your Guest List: How to Claim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Bar or Bat Mitzvah.”
Q:You made your reputation as a voice for hands-on, applied Judaism, for returning authenticity and spirituality to ritual observance. Why this interest in biblical scholarship?
A: I’ve always been interested in biblical characters, especially as the Midrash re-imagines them. I’ve always loved how Elie Wiesel tells biblical tales. So in many ways the new book is a return to my first Jewish love. In fact, writing this book had a profound effect on me; I fell in love with each biblical character.
You’ve spent several years in the Bible Belt South, where they take Scripture seriously. Did that affect your choice of a book topic?
We do live in a biblically saturated culture. When I speak about the State of Israel, I always mention Cyrus, the ancient king of Persia who let the Jews return to Israel and became the first “gentile Zionist.” He was Harry Truman’s inspiration. He’s in the book.
Some people resent the term “Righteous Gentile,” considering it patronizing to non-Jews. How do you define the term?
I can understand that resentment. But for the Jews, the world has always been a “tough neighborhood.” So, the term “Righteous Gentile” served as a badge of honor. The ancient rabbis defined “Righteous Gentiles” as non-Jews who observed certain basic moral laws. In contemporary terms, “Righteous Gentiles” were those who saved Jewish lives during the Shoah, like Oskar Schindler. But it also means any non-Jew who has saved Jewish lives or has contributed to Jewish life.
Who were the Righteous Gentiles who influenced you when you were growing up on Long Island?
Frankly, I wish that there had been more of them. I encountered anti-Semitism when I was growing up. I’m happy to say that some of the anti-Semitic bullies of my youth have, in fact, grown up to be quite sympathetic to both Jews and Judaism.
Post-Holocaust, many Jews continue to view the gentile world with fear, if not outright distrust. Is your book an answer to that?
Absolutely. The book tries to refute the quaint notion that all of Jewish history is “they hated us, they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” The Jewish story is so much deeper, and sweeter, than that.