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Should a frum Jew take special pride in famous people who were Jewish
but not frum and whose achievements have no evident connection to Judaism
(e.g., Walter Rathenau, Richard Feynman, Danny Kaye, Bobby Fischer,
Milton Friedman, Jascha Heifetz…)?


Rabbi Yosef Blau

How to react to a non-observant Jew becoming famous depends on why he or she is famous and the message – if any – that their accomplishments send to others.

When a Jew is awarded a Nobel Prize, the award is a reflection of the intelligence of the Jewish people and that this intelligence was directed toward making a contribution to the world.

If a Jew is a famous politician, our reaction to him or her should depend on whether his or her policies are viewed by most people as having a positive impact on society.

Fame by itself is not a good measure of worth. Talent, which leads to fame, is not related to character. Yet, even these – fame and talent possessed by a Jew – may have some value if it helps Jews with ambivalent feelings about their Jewishness identify more with their Jewishness.

— Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani at YU’s
Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary

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Rabbi Marc D. Angel

The Torah refers to us as children of Israel. We are part of one family going back to Abraham and Sarah. When a person converts to Judaism, he or she joins the Jewish family and is now identified as a child of Abraham, our father.

Our family of Israel has a religious covenant going back to the revelation at Mount Sinai. We have a mission to follow and teach Hashem’s word. Ideally, all family members should not only feel kinship with each other, but should also adhere to the lofty ideals and commandments of the Torah. But whether all Jews act ideally or not, they are still family – unless they actually repudiate both their Jewishness and their Judaism.

When a Jew – whether religiously observant or not – commits a crime, we instinctively feel upset. When one member of the family acts shamefully, it reflects badly on our entire family. So when a Jew – whether religiously observant or not – distinguishes him or herself for positive deeds, we also naturally take pride in the achievements of that family member.

When we contemplate the incredible contributions of Jews to the arts, the sciences, government, literature etc., we are indeed proud that our tiny family has contributed so vastly to humanity. We look forward to the fulfillment of the Torah’s teaching that the nations of the world will say about us that “surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Devarim 4:6).

— Rabbi Marc D. Angel, director of the
Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

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Rabbi Ben Zion Shafier

Throughout the ages, in almost every field, Jews have stood out as leaders and innovators – in the sciences, the arts, business, etc. Jews seem to excel dramatically and disproportionately considering their numbers, and the question we need to ask is why.

So the Chovos Halevavos explains: Since we are Hashem’s chosen nation, when He wants to bring wisdom or a novel idea to the world, He does it through us.

So even though the people mentioned in this question did not excel in their practice of Judaism – and therefore we wouldn’t be proud of them in their totality – the reality is that their success was given to them because they’re part of the exalted chosen nation. It should be a source of pride to us that our people have been chosen to lead.

— Rabbi Ben Zion Shafier, founder of The Shmuz

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Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet

If my brother or sister went on to achieve something great, should I, as a loving sibling, not take some pride in that?

There’s a reason why, when something tragic happens, G-d forbid, to a fellow Jew anywhere in the world, we are more impacted by it. It reflects the innate camaraderie shared by Jews universally; we are one big family.

The same is true of our reaction to grand accomplishments. We feel this intrinsic pride – “He’s one of us.”

On a practical level, we tend to cringe when, all too often, a Jewish name is associated with negative news; such news brings ill repute upon us all collectively. So when a Jewish name is associated with a big accomplishment or meaningful feat, it goes some way to counterbalance that.

Finally, bearing in mind that everything is “bashert” and that everything that exists in G-d’s world serves a purpose of sorts, when Bobby Fischer becomes a chess champion or Jascha Heifetz becomes the world’s greatest violinist, I take pride in their divine gifts that enable them to inspire countless others.

— Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, popular Lubavitch
lecturer, rabbi of London’s Mill Hill Synagogue

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Rabbi Zev Leff

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Orach Chaim, vol. II, 51) rules that praising an irreligious person for his good qualities is permitted as long as one does not imply that one condones his irreligious lifestyle.

We also have a ruling found in various sources (including the Rambam and Meiri) that one can accept the truth from any source, even non-Jews. Hence, it is permitted to be impressed and even inspired by the words, talents, or achievements of irreligious Jews that are not in any way connected to their irreligious conduct as long as one does not in any way imply that one condones or supports the irreligious aspect of their lives.

— Rabbi Zev Leff, rav of Moshav Matisyahu,
popular lecturer and educator