What does the Torah say about… Quenelle?

With Rabbi Ariel Abel.

IN THE headlines again this week  –and since it was first per- formed in 2009 – a gesture known as the Quenelle has been viewed by critics as an expression of anti-Semitism.

Pioneered by a French comedian, who has preached anti- Zionism from the stage, the gesture involves touching or gripping the shoulder with one hand while holding the palm of your other hand outstretched and pointing to the ground. French footballer Nicolas Anelka recently performed the gesture to celebrate a goal in solidarity with his comedian friend.

What is the Torah view of such hand gestures? In Jewish law, hurtful speech need not be spoken by word of mouth. According to Rabbi Yisrael Meir of Radin in his famous Chafetz Chayim, a gesture as slight as a wink could incur multiple prohibitions of hurtful and hateful communication, spreading lies and other infringements.

According to the Talmud, a hand gesture ultimately gave rise to a new world religion – Christianity. The Jesus of Nazareth referred to in the story probably lived around 130 BCE and was a student of Rabbi Joshua ben Perachya. While staying at a hotel, Rabbi Joshua praised the hospitality afforded to him and his students, among whom was Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus quipped that his rabbi must have praised the hospitality because the hostess had beautiful eyes. Rabbi Joshua was so insulted by this remark that he excommunicated his student. Jesus repeatedly begged forgiveness, and one day Rabbi Joshua was minded to forgive him.

How- ever, as he was partway through reading the Shema prayer, he raised his hand to indicate Jesus should wait. Jesus thought he was being rebuffed, and consequently abandoned the path of the Sages. Ultimately, the misinterpretation of a hand gesture possibly led to a misunderstanding, which throughout many centuries has cost our religion and its adherents dearly through persecution.

The Jerusalem Talmud reports the teaching of Rabbi Jose, who comments that the mitzvah to listen to God’s commandments begins with reciting the words of the Shema loud enough for one’s own ears to hear clearly what he is saying. As Jews, we are required to be sensitive to others’ feelings in light of our ancestors’ enslavement in Egypt, more than three millennia ago.

It is our duty to remind others in society that there is no excuse for putting others down due to their origins. On the contrary, we should join forces to combat such bigotry.

• Rabbi Ariel Abel is consultant to For Life Projects