Tradition Today: Jews and gentiles

The Torah is democratic in viewing all citizens as equal before the law, including the Jew and the stranger – the non-Jew – in their midst.

November 12, 2010 12:12
4 minute read.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 58. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s recent live TV appearance was so outrageous that it is hard to believe that such a brilliant halachist could lower himself to such racist statements in the name of Judaism. He is quoted as saying, “Goyim were born only to serve us. Without that they have no place in the world... They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat. That is why gentiles were created.”

He also managed to compare them to donkeys whose death we regret only because of the monetary loss it causes us. I doubt if God laughed at this show of disrespect for humanity. I wonder if the current chief rabbis are intending to voice their disapproval and if our political and governmental leaders who so often come to pay him their respects and praise him will dare to differ?

When it comes to votes versus morality, we know what wins. Yosef is head of the Council of Torah Sages. In Brachot 64a we are told that “great sages increase peace in the world.” Perhaps we should invert the statement: Only those who increase peace in the world are truly great sages.

Reading his comments, I wondered if this is also what is being taught in the schools that are under his supervision. At least he did not stoop to the level of the teachings in the notorious book Torat Hamelech – The Laws of the King – written by two well known rabbis of the extremist right wing, which stated that Jewish law’s prohibition against murder applied only to Jews and permitted the killing of non-Jewish babies since “it is clear that they will grow to harm us.”

Do these statements represent the normative view of the Torah and the prophets and the teachings of our great rabbis? To begin with, the Torah itself depicts all of humanity as descended from one human couple and, as the rabbis so eloquently put it in the Mishna, the reason for this was so that “no one should say, ‘My father is greater than your father’” (Sanhedrin 4:4).

Similarly the Book of Jonah goes out of its way to depict the non-Jewish sailors as Godfearing men and even shows the king and the inhabitants of the wicked city of Nineveh as people who listen to God’s word and repent of their evil. The end of the book is particularly poignant in the message that God gives to Jonah – and through Jonah to all of us: Should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?” (Jonah 4:11).

And what about the prophet Amos who taught, “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord. True I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7). Furthermore we should not forget the teaching of the great sage Hillel, that we should be like Aaron and “love all those created [by God]” – which specifically includes non- Jews as well (Avot 1:12).

After all, all human beings are created “in the image of God” and therefore all human life is sacred. The command to Noah and his sons is that “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make man” (Genesis 9:6). Rabbi Akiva well understood the meaning of this, even if these rabbis today do not, and he taught, “Beloved is man for he was created in the image of God. Man is exceedingly beloved in that it was made known to him that he was created in the image of God” (Avot 3:18).

These are the things that should be made known and taught to every Jewish child and adult, and not that only Jews are beloved to God while all others are created only to serve us. It is true that in traditional Jewish law some distinctions have been made between Jews and gentiles. The question of the attitude of the Torah and of Jewish law toward gentiles was taken up in detail by Rabbi Haim Hirschensohn, one of the greatest Orthodox Zionist thinkers of the 20th century. Hirschensohn knew that there are certain laws that distinguish between Jews and non-Jews and felt that this could be a problem in the modern age and in a modern state that was about to be born.

Some such distinctions belong in the category of exilic decrees that should be repealed. As paraphrased by Eliezer Schweid in his book Democracy and Halakhah, Hirschensohn taught that the Torah is democratic in viewing all citizens as equal before the law, including the Jew and the stranger – the non-Jew – in their midst. “In principle, Hirschensohn insists, the Torah advocates complete social, political and moral equality between Jews and gentiles, in the sense that any demand based on human morality applies equally to all... The differences in religious and ritual considerations do not in the slightest impinge on the full equality between Jew and gentile in the eyes of the Torah” (page 66). It is this kind of religious leadership we need so badly today if we are to increase peace in the world.

The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.

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