An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks next to Palestinian women in Jerusalem's Old City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Conservative Movement approved on Monday a responsum by its Rabbinical Assembly nullifying any provisions in Jewish civil law that discriminate against non- Jews.
The movement said its halachic position statement specifically rejects the teachings of controversial works written by far-right rabbis in Israel in recent years which permit killing non-Jews and discriminating against them.
The responsum is the product of approximately 18 months of deliberations by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer, the founder of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel and a member of the committee was given the responsibility to write the responsum, which was approved unanimously by the committee.
Hammer wrote that the status of non-Jews in biblical texts regarding civil law is generally favorable, citing exhortations by the Torah to treat non-Jewish residents of the Land of Israel compassionately and justly.
The rabbi also pointed to positive attitudes to non- Jews in rabbinic literature, and argued that statements in such religious texts allowing for discrimination against non-Jews appeared in the historical context of persecution of Jews by non-Jewish foreign powers.
Hammer pointed out several instances in the Talmud when leading rabbis of the era overturned discriminatory laws against non-Jews.
He cited, for example, an incident recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud in which Rabban Gamliel II, the president of the Sanhedrin in the first century CE, when questioned about specific discriminatory provisions of Jewish law by Roman civil officials, decreed that it is forbidden to steal from a non-Jew since it would desecrate Gods name.
Hammer wrote that this story indicates that even in the Talmudic era, “prominent religious authorities took it upon themselves to cancel discriminatory laws in our tradition when they called Judaism into question.”
He also cited the position of the famed Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva who he said ruled that stealing from a non-Jew was prohibited not just due to the desecration of Gods name but by the Torah itself, along with other such rulings in the Talmud.
The responum argues that laws espoused in some codes of Jewish law and statements that discriminate against non- Jews should be considered no longer authoritative, similar to the manner in which Rabban Gamliel II issued his decree overturning what was previously held to be a precept of Jewish law.
“We must deal honestly with the sources, admit that different attitudes have existed over the course of the development of Judaism, and candidly criticize and reject certain parts of the tradition while embracing others as representing the Judaism we wish to promulgate and which we believe represents the true core of Jewish belief beginning with the Torah itself,” said Hammer.
““In view of the terrible suffering brought upon our people and others in the 20th century by doctrines of racial superiority, any teachings that espouse that in any way must be thoroughly rejected.”
According to the responsum, it is a positive commandment to treat non-Jews justly and lovingly by dint of the entreaties of the Torah to treat Jews in this manner, which the responsum says applies equally to all people.
The document specifically rejects the teachings of the book Torat Hamelech, authored by two far-right rabbis of the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, which says that Arab infants can be killed on the presumption they will grow up to harm Jews in the future.
Hammer wrote that such a position “has no basis in Jewish Law or ethics,” and that the rulings in the book “are a distortion of traditional Jewish beliefs which do not consider Jews to be superior to non-Jews, do not claim that the Jewish soul is superior to that of the non-Jew and would never claim that all Arabs can be killed because they are all ‘pursuers.’” The responsum argues that such positions are based on a minority of opinions, such as those of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and expressed in the Zohar and Tanya, two works of Jewish mysticism.
The halachic statement also noted that some Jewish laws discriminating against non- Jews related to idol worshipers, and pointed to the medieval Jewish scholar known as the Meiri, “who ruled that all statements in the Mishna, Talmud and other rabbinic works referring to non-Jews in a negative way did not apply to gentiles of his day who are not idolaters but follow religious and ethical norms, even if the religion they practice is far from what Judaism teaches.”
The Conservative Movement said that its responsum “declare[s] our belief that all humans share a common ancestry and are equally created in the divine image,” and that “Following the rulings of Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Akiva and the later teachings of the Meiri, we declare that all rules discriminating against gentiles in matters of a civil nature and moral actions are no longer to be considered authoritative in Judaism.”