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Tradition today: The test of power

February 6, 2014 16:29

Sometime at the end of the first century CE or the beginning of the second century, nearly 2,000 years ago, there was a dispute between two great sages, Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva, concerning the treatment of non-Jews.

Haredi men in Jerusalem

Haredi men in Jerusalem 370. (photo credit:Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)

Sometime at the end of the first century CE or the beginning of the second century, nearly 2,000 years ago, there was a dispute between two great sages, Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva, concerning the treatment of non-Jews.

The question under discussion was: When a Jew and a Gentile have a dispute and come before a rabbinical court to settle the matter, what law should apply? Rabbi Ishmael said that if the Jew would be vindicated according to Jewish law, it should be used, but if the Jew would only be vindicated according to non-Jewish law, they should use that; if neither works, do it in a roundabout way. Rabbi Akiva disagreed: One must not distort the law. Furthermore, Akiva taught that stealing from a gentile was forbidden not only because of the prohibition against stealing, but because of the prohibition against defiling the name of God – hillul Hashem (Baba Kama 113a).

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Another great teacher of that time, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, said they should use whatever system was requested, and follow the Torah’s words, “judge righteously” (Deut.1:16) (Sifre Deuteronomy 16).

Both Akiva and Shimon were following the decision of Shimon’s father, Rabban Gamliel of Yavne. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the Roman authorities once sent two officials to secretly learn what Jewish law had to say on various matters.

After studying at Gamliel’s academy, their conclusion was that the Torah was good and pleasant, except for certain laws that discriminated against non-Jews, including the law stating it was forbidden to steal from a Jew but permitted to steal from a gentile.

“Rabban Gamliel immediately decreed that stealing from a gentile was forbidden because of hillul Hashem” (Y.B.K. 4:3).

This ancient dispute came to mind when reading about socalled “price-tag” assaults, in which gentiles and their property are targeted by Jews. Churches have been desecrated, attempts were made to set mosques afire, cars belonging to Arabs were torched, homes defaced, orchard uprooted and the like, all in the name of Judaism. The same can be said when racial and insulting slurs are shouted at Arabs during soccer matches, when rabbis forbid apartments to be rented to Arabs, and Arab youths are beaten by Jewish thugs. Jewish law prohibits all of these things, and they all come under the prohibition of hillul Hashem.

The fact that such things have been done to Jews – and much worse – for thousands of years is no excuse. Rather, as Hillel taught, “That which is hateful to you, you should not do to another.”

When we were freed from our slavery in Egypt, we were instructed by God not to treat others as we had been treated. On the contrary, having been strangers in the land of Egypt, we were commanded to be doubly careful not to mistreat the stranger in our midst. “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him... for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Hillul Hashem does not apply only to bringing shame upon God and upon Judaism in the eyes of gentiles. It is also forbidden to bring shame upon God and Judaism in the eyes of other Jews.

I am certain that when such things are done, there are Jews who will say, “If that is what Judaism teaches, I want no part of it. If that is what Jews who study Torah learn from it, the Torah is worthless.” That, too, is hillul Hashem.

Giving Judaism a bad name among either gentiles or Jews is a terrible act. For thousands of years, we lived under the rule of non-Jews; now, we have the privilege of being a majority in a Jewish state. This is the time of being tested, to prove that even in a position of power, we can follow God’s word and treat others as we would want to be treated.

We cannot afford to fail this test.

The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).
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