All too often we hear statements made about non-Jews (these days usually but not exclusively Arabs) that indicate that non-Jews are inferior to Jews, that they do not have the same human soul that Jews have and in general that they do not have to be treated with the same measure of justice and mercy that is coming to Jews. Sometimes quotations are found in rabbinic literature that seem to back up these unfortunate ideas. Of course all of that ignores two basic principles of rabbinic Judaism: darchei shalom - that we must treat all people well in order to bring about peaceful relations; kiddush hashem - that we must act in such a way as will bring others, especially non-Jews, to praise the God of Israel and the Torah of Israel.
A careful look at the doctrines that are espoused in the Torah and other biblical books makes it very clear that there is no division between Jews and others in regard to their basic humanity or their value in the eyes of God. We find this enunciated loudly and clearly in Torah's story of the creation of Adam and Eve. The idea that only one human couple was created by God may lack scientific credibility but it enunciates a value-concept that is the very basis of Jewish thought: all human beings are equal in value because they are all descendants of the same parents. Thus we are all brothers. The sages understood this very well when they said, "Why was Adam created alone? To create peace among all humans, so that no one should say 'My father was greater than your father'" (Sanhedrin 4:5).
The story then makes another assertion of equal importance: all humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Originally this may have been meant literally, i.e. that the human visage is similar to that of God. Hillel seems to have understood it that way. He said that washing the body is a mitzva, comparing it to the person who washes and adorns the statue of the king (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3). We today interpret this in a more spiritual fashion, but the idea is clear: we share something of the divine and therefore human life - all human life - must be respected. For that reason, murder is an insult to God.
The Scripture is also filled with descriptions of good, pious, God-fearing non-Jews. Job is not an Israelite, Ruth is a Moabitess. Malkitzedek (Genesis 14:18) is a priest of the Most High God. Of particular interest is the depiction of "pagans" in the book of Jonah. The sailors are called "God-fearing" and the king of Nineveh leads his people in true repentance.
Even the concept of Israel's chosenness, a basic doctrine of the Torah, does not indicate innate superiority, but rather a task given to us because of the loyalty of our ancestors (specifically Abraham) to God. The prophets make this very clear. Amos teaches, "Israelites - are you not just like the Ethiopians to Me?" (Amos 9:7).
And Isaiah, envisioning the future, teaches that the time will come when others will recognize God just as Israel did and will then join Israel as God's chosen. In a clear reference to the verse that teaches that God made a covenant with Abraham so that he would "Become a blessing to all humankind" (Genesis 12:2), Isaiah taught, "In that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on earth; for the Lord of Hosts will bless them, saying, 'Blessed be My people Egypt, My handiwork Assyria, and My very own Israel" (Isaiah 19:24-24).
Rabbi Akiva, living at a time when the Roman Empire oppressed Jews and even forbade the practice of Judaism, nevertheless taught, "Beloved is the human being, for he was created in the image of God. Extraordinary is the love made known to him that he was created in the image" (Avot 3:18). And the saintly Hillel, who preceded Akiva, taught, "Love your fellow creature" - and not merely your fellow Jew (Avot 1:12).
Can one find harsh, anti-gentile statements in Jewish literature, even in rabbinic literature? Of course. Nor is this surprising given the broad nature of this literature and the latitude of outlook by so many teachers, influenced by their own experiences and the troubles of the times. But it is important to emphasize the basic doctrines of Judaism that teach human equality. These override all else.
This was beautifully summed up in a saying found in an Italian midrash from the tenth century, Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, Chapter 9, "I call heaven and earth to witness: The spirit of holiness rests upon each person according to the deeds that person performs. It matters not if that person be non-Jew or Jew, man or woman, manservant or maidservant." Let that be our motto and our attitude toward all human beings.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.
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