Non-Jews in Jewish law today

POPE, RABBI AND SWISS CARDINAL PICTURED IN 2011 AT VATICAN
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the Vatican, in 2011.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer writes

The Hebrew Bible teaches the equality of all human beings, as all are created in the image of God. Rabbinic Jewish literature similarly contains numerous positive statements about gentiles. Nevertheless it cannot be denied that there are some passages in rabbinic literature, kabbalah and medieval philosophy that depict gentiles in deeply negative terms. Dealing with discriminatory laws and negative texts when teaching our tradition to youth and adults can be problematic, to say nothing of how we deal with them when interacting with Gentiles. This has become particularly acute in the Diaspora today where Jews are in constant contact with Gentiles and enjoy equal rights and equal status. At a time when other religious groups, such as the Catholic Church, are re-examining their attitudes towards Jews and making changes in their dogmas to eliminate negative doctrines, we can hardly do less.”

  • The Status of Non-Jews in Jewish Law and Lore Today

We examine here how is it possible that Judaism – which contains so many ethical teachings on the equality of all humans – also contains such statements. The reason becomes clear when we read these texts in historical context.

In the Bible, the Israelites were the only monotheists, and were surrounded by people who hated them. Israelites suffered genocidal wars against them. As such, the Bible’s polemics against pagans are completely understandable.

What about statements in later works, the classic texts of rabbinic Judaism: the Mishnah, the two Talmuds, and Midrash compilations? Jews in this era (200 BCE to 800 CE) were surrounded by people who persecuted them. Even a cursory reading of the Church Fathers reveals anti-Semitic diatribes. Many are so specific and violent that they have incited followers to murder Jews, in the name of the Church, for nearly two millennia.

As such, it is not surprising that rabbinic literature has some polemics against non-Jews.  The Jewish people knew of no gentile society in which we were treated as equals, as human beings.

During the so-called Golden Age of Jewish life on the Iberian peninsula (700 CE to 1100 CE) , while not ideal, there were some sustained periods of tolerance and intellectual respect towards Jews. Some moderate tolerance was shown by both Christians and Muslims towards Jews. In this era Jews, Christians and Muslims worked, traded and intellectually sparred together in a way not to be seen again until The Enlightenment (18th century Europe and America)

Even after The Enlightenment, Jews were widely treated as non-human, especially by European Christians during the Holocaust.  It is really only since the 1960’s that most Jews have lived in communities where non-Jews treated Jews as human beings.

Yet even today pockets of anti-Semitism are flaming up across Europe, America, and the middle-east. Many non-Jews still do not treat Jewish people as equal – even to the point of denying Jews the right to exist as a free people, within safe borders, in their indigenous homeland, Israel.

So where does that leave us today? If you are traditionally observant, the codes of Jewish law do not always treat non-Jewish people with respect. There are even a few aggadot, non-legal midrashim, which view non-Jewish people as having essentially no purpose, other than the value they have of potentially serving Jewish people in some way. But given even a modest historical understanding of the last 2000 years of anti-Semitism, persecution and genocide, it is not surprising to see a small percent of rabbinic lit contains such comments. Nonetheless, we note that such statements are inconsistent with today’s liberal views of equality.

There is little that we can do to change the behavior of those who treat us disrespectfully. But we can change our own interpretations of these texts. Being a light unto the nations means treating others in the same way that we’d have others treat us. This is the golden rule of Rabbi Hillel.

Also, one should be aware that many statements assumed to be racist are, in fact, not racist at all. Masorti Rabbi Simcha Roth, זצ״ל, writes :

There is much to suggest that the animus of ‘pagan’ was restricted to the non-Jews of Eretz-Israel. In the Gemara [Ĥullin 13b] Rabbi Yoĥanan states that “Non-Jews outside Eretz-Israel are not idol worshippers: they are just following ancestral custom.”
Rabbi Yoĥanan lived in Eretz-Israel during the 3rd century CE, at the height of the Romanization of the country. It is not at all clear on what basis he opines that non-Jews living elsewhere in the Roman Empire and observing the same rites and traditions as the non-Jewish population in Eretz-Israel are not pagan idolators whereas those living in Eretz-Israel are just that.

So it seems that for the sages the term ‘idolator’ serves to designate a non-Jew living in Eretz-Israel. Thus it is, perhaps, a social definition rather than a religious one. At any rate, it is clear that the original intention of our tractate is not to regulate the social intercourse of Jews and non-Jews the world over but only that of Jews and non-Jews in Eretz-Israel during the age of paganism.

Rabin Mishnah Study Group, Avodah Zarah, Chap 1, Mishnah 1

On the same topic, consider this essay by Rabbi Cardozo. How Halakha must transcend itself (part 1 of 3) His piece is aimed at an Orthodox Jewish audience.

The changes he is proposing have already been adopted by Conservative & Masorti Judaism, and Reform Judaism.  See for example, The Status of Non-Jews in Jewish Law and Lore Today, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, an official responsum of the CJLS (Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.)  An excerpt:

Following the example of Rabban Gamliel II and invoking the principles of Kiddush HaShem and Darkhei Shalom, we declare that any rulings concerning matters of financial or civil law in the Mishnah and Talmud that discriminate against Gentiles are not to be considered official operative Jewish Law in our day. In accord with the teachings of the Meiri we further rule that any such laws were time bound, referring specifically to pagans of any early time and therefore do not apply to non-Jews in our era. We consider such laws to be in violation of our highest moral values and impede us from attaining higher moral virtues.

Further reading

Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities by Mira Beth Wasserman (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017)

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