Teaching torah to non-jews.
(photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
In contemporary society, non-Jews learn Jewish texts in many forums, including
university classrooms and Internet sites.
Sometimes this study occurs
even without Jewish instruction, such as in South Korea, where schoolchildren
study a selection of talmudic stories. This phenomenon is the latest development
in the historical discussion regarding the propriety of teaching Torah to
non-Jews.The Torah states, “Moses has commanded us the Torah, an
inheritance for the community of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). Deeming this
inheritance the exclusive property of Jews, the sages prohibited gentiles from
learning Torah and Jews from teaching it to them. A strident prohibition was
also expressed in the Zohar.
While the Talmud elsewhere mentions that
non-Jews were taught Torah, some of those cases were clearly under the coercive
pressure of the dominant rulers.
Scholars have offered various rationales
for the talmudic prohibition, which broadly impacted its scope. Based on
talmudic exegesis, some scholars understood any non-Jewish study as a betrayal
of the unique bond between Jews and God or a misappropriation of national
treasure, with a few even contending that this included potential converts who
had not yet joined the nation. Some went so far as to ban teaching the Hebrew
alphabet, although other sources indicated that this was a pragmatic step to
prevent polemical abuses by hostile anti-Semites. In a similarly polemical vein,
one medieval source suggested that gentiles can learn the Prophets and
Hagiography (Writings) because its prophecies prove that God has not abandoned
the Jewish people.
Yet most scholars limited the prohibition in one form
of another. The Talmud itself contends that gentiles may learn material
necessary to properly observe the seven Noahide laws. In this spirit, Rabbi
David Tzvi Hoffman argued that one may teach non-Jews the narrative portions of
the Torah which will inspire belief in the grandeur of God. Beyond that, rabbis
Naftali Berlin and Tzvi Hirsch Chajes contended that the prohibition only
applies to aspects of the Oral Law but not to the written
Alternatively, Rabbi Samuel Eidels argued that the
prohibition only included the “reasons and secrets” of the Torah but not the
basic texts or laws, with Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi further contending that the
prohibition could be waived if one cannot extract oneself from a situation
without discussing that information.
Other scholars deemed the study
problematic only if it was done consistently or in an exhaustive
Maimonides took a novel approach, distinguishing between Muslims
and Christians. He contended that the prohibition was intended only for gentiles
who do not affirm the divinity of Scriptures, since they might come to distort
the Bible’s meaning according to their mistaken misconceptions and cause
confusion within the Jewish community. Christians, who believe in the divinity
of Scriptures, will at best come to believe in the Jewish interpretation and at
worse cause no harm. Therefore, the prohibition does not apply to
Rabbi Menahem Hameiri connected this edict to a similar prohibition
in the same talmudic passage which prohibits gentiles from observing Shabbat. He
believed the prohibition stemmed from concerns that “insider knowledge” might
allow the gentile to pass himself off as a Jew and undermine ritual behaviors.
Yet gentiles genuinely searching for wisdom (or to observe other commandments)
toward personal growth may study without impunity. Hameiri, preceded by
Maimonides, asserted that gentiles who perform commandments, even beyond the
Noahide laws, deserve reward for their virtuous behavior and therefore allowed
for Torah study toward those goals.
The increased social intermingling
that marks the modern era introduced new dilemmas.
One frequent case
involved classes attended by non-Jews, such as the case with children in Jewish
schools who were not halachically Jewish. Almost all scholars contended that
mixed audiences were not problematic when the intent was not specifically to
teach non-Jews. This argument was later cited to permit teaching Torah on public
This question took a new turn when scholars began to debate the
propriety of translating the Talmud into the vernacular. A number of scholars
opposed such translations not only because they feared that anti-Semites would
ridicule the texts, but because in principle they believed this proscription
forbade making Jewish texts accessible to the gentile world.
approach was advocated by the famed pietist Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, who
advocated for both the translation of the Talmud and its introduction into the
university curriculum. His goal was seemingly to raise the reputation of Jewish
study in the broader world in which Jews had become engaged.
notable was Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg, who himself taught at a pre-World War II
German university. He contended that the proscription only banned gentile study
intended to form competing religious ideals and rituals. It remained perfectly
permissible, however, to teach even an exclusively non- Jewish audience if the
goal was simply to spread Jewish wisdom.The writer, online editor of
Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at
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