Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Resentment Against Achievement

We live in an achieving society. This means that the U.S. and other capitalist countries exert a great deal of pressure on each of us to attain those goals which in our culture are deemed important. To that end some individuals are designated role models whose conduct and attainments we are all encouraged to emulate.

Therefore, highly successful business men and women are held up as culture heroes among us and are given the same adulation, status and power which in other cultures are reserved for those who are achievers according to the cultural requirements of other societies.

For example, military prowess is most important in Israeli society, so that all but one of Israel’s prime ministers has been a military hero. That is even true of Golda Meir, who risked her life repeatedly for the sake of her country. The one exception to this rule is Shimon Peres, who was Meir’s secretary. He has no military record and was therefore defeated every time he ran for that office. He became prime minister only after the murder of Yitzchak Rabin because he happened to be foreign minister at that time and therefore succeeded to that P.M. job until the next election.

Among the Eastern European Jews who lived in the shtetls (“small towns” and ghettos of Poland, Russia, the Balkans and the Baltic countries the most important role models were the most learned men (never women). These talmudic scholars were called “sheyne leut”, meaning either beautiful people or important people. The “sheyne leut” studied Talmud all day and were supported by the work of their wives or their in-laws or both. They occupied a special place on the eastern wall of the synagogue and were visible by their special clothes and demeanor. The few wealthy Jews in these communities were also “sheyne leut”, as is true among us and in the whole world.

Nevertheless, the possession of wealth has never been the only criterion of social class among Jews. Consider the admittedly unusual case of Albert Einstein. He was certainly not known for his money. Yet, even today, so many years after his death, his picture is recognized at once all over the world, as is that of Thomas Edison, who was not Jewish but in fact a malicious bigot. Yet, both Einstein and Edison were men of high social prestige because of their achievements. Evidently, American values, however money driven, will recognize the achievements of the exceptional contributor to the welfare of mankind.

Unfortunately, achievement brings with it the scourge of resentment. Using the example of Einstein once more, consider that in 1923, ten years before the Nazi takeover, the Nobel prize winner and physicist Phillip Lenard told the German physics society in a speech: “Relativity is a Jewish fraud which one could have suspected from the first with more racial knowledge than was then disseminated, since its originator Einstein is a Jew.”

Lenard, surely not an ignoramus, called Einstein’s great theory Rechengetue, which may be translated as calculation pretenses. He predicted that no German university would ever teach “Jewish physics” but only “German physics”. He evidently resented the competition.

Likewise, Jewish achievers in other areas of science, the arts and humanities have always had to deal with resentment against achievement. In this country the best example of this kind of resentment is the denunciation of Henry Kissinger, erstwhile Secretary of State. His “left wing” critics to this day label him an “evil conspirator” and use other epithets all taken directly from the Nazi book and from earlier sources. How dare an immigrant Jew become “rich and famous”?

Of course, this sentiment has not only confronted Jews. There are innumerable non-Jews who have been the target of resentment of their achievements. One example is Philo Farnsworth, who invented television when he was a 14 year old farm boy only to have his invention stolen by RCA. (Ask everybody you know who invented television and see how many people ever even heard the name. Yet everyone knows the name of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. Why is that?)

Even among us Jews there is resentment against achievement by other Jews. This is a dreadful annoyance and even a dangerous one. Yet, we Jews pray every Shabbat, “let foolish pride not divide us but let pride in one another unite us.”

The Tenth Commandment prohibits envy and that for good reason. Envy has destroyed lives, ruined reputations and led to so much suffering for the Jewish people over the years. Let us remember that commandment and be happy at all we have achieved Bimhayro v’yomanoo. 

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2003).

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