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Our Writers Respond: Why Do We Insist on Misrepresenting the Torah’s Attitude Towards Non-Jews?

September 22, 2009 by  
Filed under Halakha, Our Writers Respond

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Why Do We Insist on Misrepresenting the Torah’s Attitude Towards Non-Jews?

by Gidon Rothstein

My previous post in this space generated a great deal more comment than I had expected. In broad terms, those comments felt that a) Judaism has always, and continues to, discriminate against non-Jews, the thrust of Torah Temimah’s comment and my piece notwithstanding, and b) that we should not discuss such matters in public, lest the non-Jewish world catch wind of it, to our great embarrassment.

I found the claims along the first lines particularly startling, for several reasons.  First, Torah Temimah based his comment on how unthinkable he found the possibility that the Torah would allow us to mistreat non-Jews such as those of his time.  I noted further that Ramban and Rambam were clear that dishonesty is problematic in general, non-Jews included.

Readers disagreed, and offered more examples of what they saw as Judaism’s discriminatory attitudes towards non-Jews.  My attempt to show how the permissibility of אונאה was not discriminatory (except in the sense that we hold ourselves to a higher standard with family than with strangers) was dismissed as “drei,” as casuistic or convoluted reasoning, without any real engagement with it. 1    

Saving the Lives of All Humans on Shabbat

Let us try one more example, brought up in a comment to the original post, to show that what looks discriminatory might not be so.  Although this has not been followed or even contemplated in practice for centuries, the Talmud seems to prohibit violating Shabbat to save the lives of non-Jews. (How this fits with other Talmudic concerns about relations with non-Jews is unclear, a matter for historians of that era; however they put the two together in their times, the subsequent halachic history shows that it very soon became unthinkable to build a society of friendship in which Jews would not violate Shabbat to save non-Jews, and hence Jews have always, as now, treated the saving of non-Jewish lives on Shabbat as permissible.)  On its face, this Talmudic principle appears to furnish clear proof that we value their lives less than our own. 

The misunderstanding lies in assuming that we would surely violate Shabbat to save any lives we cared about, that Shabbat is clearly pushed aside for all equally valuable life.  That may be our halachic conclusion regarding Jews, but is not the tenor of the Talmudic discussion.  For one thing, the Gemara notes how several Tannaim struggled to find a source for the right to violate Shabbat to save a life.[1]  The most accepted of the Tannaitic opinions derived it from the verse ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת, adding on the logic חלל עליו שבת אחת כדי שישמור שבתות הרבה, violate one Shabbat so this person can observe many more Shabbatot.[2]  We end up rejecting that because it does not make room to violate Shabbat even in cases of doubt as to whether a life either needs to be or would be saved. 

The verse the Gemara promotes as the strongest source, וחי בהם, that the Torah tells us to live by its commandments and not die by them, is offered by R. Yehudah in the name of Shmuel, about a hundred and fifty years after the original discussion.2 That derivation tells us that God decided that this commandment of Torah law did not require Jews to die for it.  The question of saving non-Jewish lives on Shabbat, then, is not one of how we value those lives, or even of how God values those lives.  It is, rather, a question of the parameters God set when commanding us to desist from exerting our usual mastery over His world, including acts that save lives.

One point to keep in mind is that God created the world and gives life, meaning He could easily have required us to refrain from saving even our own lives on Shabbat.  The sources that allow us to do so base it on how God set up Shabbat for us, not any idea that our lives are so valuable that God could never have stopped us from saving them.  (In other circumstances, we can recall, we are obligated to give up our lives instead of violating a Torah commandment or, sometimes, even a custom).[3]

Incidentally, this whole issue raises the question of how much we believe God could run the world Himself, if necessary.  We have such a long history of saving lives on Shabbat that we lose sight of the fact that the whole right to treat the sick (even on weekdays) is derived by the Gemara, not assumed.[4] Were it to be true that we could not violate Shabbat to save non-Jews’ lives, that would only mean God told us that for one day a week, He (and the non-Jews themselves, who can clearly act to save lives on Shabbat) would run the world without our usual input and assistance.  Much as God feeds all creatures without our help, God can decide whether to save non-Jews; there is no deep theological reason God could not have extended that to us, just a Divine “choice.”

Further, the Gemara evaluates the value of the lives of non-Jews by the same standards it applies to Jews, whether they adhere to those commandments that apply to them.  For a non-Jew who adhered to the seven Noahide laws, even if the Gemara might not permit violating Shabbat to save his or her life (again: a halachah we do not observe in practice, and have not for centuries), it does not celebrate that death, nor does it absolve us of the responsibility to take all those steps that do not involve violating Shabbat.  The Gemara is not making a point about non-Jews’ lives, only about the way the obligations of Shabbat restrict us from what is ordinarily a valuable endeavor.

Before readers dismiss my claim as apologetics, I would draw attention to the opinion of R. Elazar son of R. Shimon, who held that we would call a Jew a רודף– a term usually applied to someone about to kill someone else– if that Jew were about to violate Shabbat.[5]  In his view, the violation of Shabbat is of a level of seriousness akin to murder.  We again do not rule this way, but not out of any rejection of the concept that Shabbat could be so important.  If so, the Gemara’s perspective on Shabbat violations and the saving of non-Jewish lives is more convincingly portrayed as a function of the significance of the violation, not the indifference to those lives. 

Attitudes Toward עובדי עבודה זרה  

Moving from the example back to the broader question, I would first reiterate that most of my commenters exaggerated halachah’s antipathy towards non-Jews.  While he chose to minimize those sources, one of my commenters noted a long list that shows the steady move to de-demonize non-Jews.  Leaving out Meiri for his lack of influence, the continuous trend of the Baalei haTosafot (and generations of halachic authorities who followed) was towards allowing interactions the Talmud had prohibited, building closer connections with non-Jews. 

The article by Prof. Berger cited in that comment,[6] amply demonstrates the tendencies towards leniency to which I am alluding, so I will not go further than that.  I will, however, note that my commenters also mistook Jewish attitudes towards עובדי עבודה זרה, a much thornier problem (since they are in fact in violation of the Torah in a way that brings upon them capital liability) for those towards all non-Jews.  For the Tosafists and all who lived in Catholic countries, the two were the same, but Jews who lived in Moslem countries or among Protestants with a more Jewishly-acceptable view of the Trinity, faced a different set of questions regarding their non-Jewish neighbors.

First, such Jews would have to carefully distinguish which of the Talmud’s rules were directed at עכו”ם, idol-worshippers, and which at all non-Jews.  A further challenge came from our inability to extend to ordinary non-Jews all the privileges we would like—such as equal rights to our tsedakah dollars—because of a quirk of halachah that has nothing to do with our underlying attitude towards them.

That quirk is the lack of a functioning Yovel, a lack that stems from our failure to have the majority of Jews living in Israel and, possibly, the Tribes of Israel living in their right places.[7]  As Rambam points out many times in the Mishneh Torah,[8] as long as that is true, we will not be able to confer the official status of גר תושב, meaning a non-Jew who publicly declares adherence to the Noahide laws.  Jewish law is clear that such non-Jews would become fellow-travelers of Jewish society, obligating us to extend to them many if not most of the kindnesses we extend to other Jews.  Were we to surmount this problem, I believe we would find that halachah is a lot more universal than the commenters to my piece believed.

That belief is fueled by my little acquaintance with how halachah has operated even when faced with the thornier problem of עובדי עבודה זרה.  Here, let me reiterate, halachah promoted discriminatory behavior, because we are, in fact, supposed to have a problem with the act and attitude underlying it.  I linger over this point because the tendency to leniency on this issue has led to a situation where many Jews forget just how offensive the act and attitude of עבודה זרה is, to all of our detriments.

In our imaginations, I think we sometimes demonize עובדי עבודה זרה as these benighted souls who came to think that a piece of wood or stone ruled their lives, and that along with that came a complete lack of moral fiber.  This may have been true, but does not change the reality that contemporary עובדי עבודה זרה, moral as they may be, complicate our fulfilling our national mission of being מתקן עולם במלכות שקי, of pushing for a world that recognizes and worships the one true God.  They are certainly better than those of old, but it is still one of the basic missions of Jews to eradicate all עבודה זרה, at least within our own society, and to abhor it in others.

This was and is a constant element in our relations with Catholics and other Trinitarians.  The belief that three beings of whatever sort constitute the Godhead (or, are God) is monotheistic from a non-Jewish perspective, but עבודה זרה in halachic terms.  This truth does, indeed, create challenges in balancing our desire for pleasant relations (recall the Gemara’s concern with דרכי שלום, ways of peace) with our concern with doing as much as we could to rid the world of wrong beliefs about God.

One side of any discussion of Jewish relations with non-Jews, then, should appropriately call out the canard in the claim that Jews still see non-Jews just as in the time of the Talmud.  There have always been, and still are, those who have absorbed the messages of דרכיה דרכי נועם insufficiently, and have found legalistic ways to permit actions that run counter to the tenor of the morality of Torah and halachah, acting wrongly towards non-Jews or even, many times, Jews.  The acts and attitudes of these few, however, should not be mistaken either with the acts of the many nor the ideals of the system itself.  An honest appraisal of how rishonim and aharonim wrote and thought about dealing with non-Jews shows that the ethos of Rambam (living among Moslems, whom he respected as equally as monotheistic as himself), Ramban, and Torah Temimah (both living among monotheists who were, halachically, עובדי עבודה זרה), among many others, has been the guiding one for most Jews in most eras of Jewish history.

There is a flip side to this discussion, why the Talmud looked down so much on the idolaters of its time and its ramifications for our times, but I leave that for my next post.


[1] See Yoma 85a-b.

[2] There are numerous difficult conclusions we would draw from that source alone, but that is not my topic.

[3] For details, see שו”ע יורה דעה קנ”ז.

[4] Berachot 60a.

[5] Sanhedrin 74a.

[6] In Marc Stern, ed. Formulating Responses in an Egalitarian Age (Rowman &Littlefield, 2004).

[7] Rambam, ספר המצוות, מצוות עשה, קל”ו

[8] One of the first is הלכות עכו”ם י:ו.

  1. I suspect that many of these readers have absorbed the Western assumption that different treatment is necessarily discriminatory; I will leave a demonstration of the falsehood of that idea for another time. []
  2. I note the timing because it shows that while the Tannaim and Amoraim may have assumed that saving Jewish lives was permissible on Shabbat, there was a long time when they did not know exactly how they knew that. []
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