What does Judaism teach about non-Jews?

Judaism in Israel, all too often, has become the exclusive tool of fanatics ‒ both religious and political.

President Reuven Rivlin joins first graders on the first day of school at the Nofei Hasela Elementary School in Ma’ale Adumim. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
President Reuven Rivlin joins first graders on the first day of school at the Nofei Hasela Elementary School in Ma’ale Adumim.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
IN THE 44 years that my family and I have lived in Israel, I have never been able to fathom how religious Jews, well-versed in Torah and Jewish tradition, can justify actions, including rabbinic injunctions, that discriminate against non-Jews, be they Muslims or Christians. Do they not realize that such discrimination is forbidden by Jewish teachings?
In the first decades of our aliya, when my children were in school – a state religious school ‒ I was astounded when my son would recount that when their bus would go through Arab areas on school trips many of his classmates would shout anti-Arab curses through the windows and the teachers would not reprove them. As time has gone on, I have witnessed actions worse than those ‒ yeshiva students spitting at non-Jews; attempts at burning churches; and the actions of revenge, including burning an Arab house, killing several inside, and the murder of an innocent Arab teenager.
We have read about rulings by official rabbis forbidding Jews to rent rooms to Arab students and, worst of all, we have witnessed the publication of a book such as “Torat Hamelech,” written by rabbis and endorsed by well- known rabbinic figures, permitting the killing of Arabs, including children, because they are all enemies, and even teaching openly that Arabs are inherently inferior to Jews. If such a book had been written by a Christian or Muslim cleric we would have condemned it as nothing less than incitement to murder. Have we come to our own state in which Jews are a majority only to see Judaism used as an excuse to despise non-Jews and discriminate against them?
A few years ago, as a member of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, I decided the time had come to write a teshuva (responsum) that would deal with this entire question of what Jewish law and Jewish theology really have to say about the status of non-Jews. Is there any justification for these discriminatory acts and attitudes within Judaism? The result of my research was to establish that there are indeed individual rulings and statements within the vast works of Jewish law and thought that teach the inferiority of non-Jews.
There are also rulings that permit discriminatory actions. In Jewish law and Jewish thought, there is no question that contradictory concepts exist and that various historical eras present differing pictures: inclusive and exclusive, positive and negative, laudatory and condemnatory. But, more importantly, I also discovered that these negative ideas were far outweighed by teachings of the Torah, the sages and medieval authorities denouncing any such thing.
Such prominent figures as Rabbi Akiva and Rabban Gamliel II actively opposed such laws and even nullified them. They taught, for example, that stealing from a non-Jew was worse than stealing from a Jew because it was a double transgression ‒ not only was stealing always forbidden, but when done to a non-Jew it carried the additional sin of hillul Hashem – desecration of God’s name.
As one sage taught, cheating a non-Jew makes one barbarian! As for Jewish superiority and non-Jewish inferiority, the sages constantly cite the Torah’s declaration that all humans are made in God’s image and that all humanity has only one set of parents, Adam and Eve, so that no one can say to another, “My ancestors were greater than yours.” They also declared that because of “the ways of peace,” non-Jews, even though they were idolaters, were to be treated fairly and kindly. Later authorities ruled that negative statements and discriminatory law applied only to pagans in ancient times followed ethical monotheistic religions. Thus, it is clear that those who harm and discriminate against non-Jews in Israel are violating Jewish law.
The problem is that the enormous corpus of Jewish traditional texts still contains these negative statements that influence students who study them. What is important, then, is how we teach Jewish tradition and what do we do and say when we come across these discriminatory teachings.
This is where the historical approach to Judaism, which is the basis of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism, comes into play.
IN THE conclusion of the responsum, which was unanimously endorsed by the committee, I wrote, “We declare that any rulings concerning matters of financial or civil law in the Mishna and Talmud that discriminate against Gentiles are not to be considered official operative Jewish law in our day. We consider such laws to be in violation of our highest moral values and impede us from attaining higher moral virtues.” Furthermore, the responsum specifically calls on our educators “to convey these positive values in their teachings and to clarify these issues when teaching problematic texts in our literature. It is important that when discriminatory passages are studied by either youth or adults they not be left with the impression that these represent present-day Judaism or are valid parts of current Jewish law.”
We know that the situation in which we live, when we face not only individual terrorists who take Jewish lives but also organizations representing groups of Arabs that teach hatred of Jews and preach that Jews are inferior, cause many to hate all Arabs. But, God forbid that we become the mirror image of our enemies. Certainly, Jewish teachings must not become the basis for hateful actions toward either Muslims or Christians.
Judaism in Israel, all too often, has become the exclusive tool of fanatics ‒ both religious and political. By selectively using certain teachings and statements found in the vast amount of traditional writings and ignoring the more authoritative opposing statements, certain circles have distorted Jewish teaching. It is time that this perversion came to an end and that the tolerant and universalist side of Judaism came to the fore.
It is for this reason that the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel has issued this teshuva in Hebrew and made it available on the website of the Masorti Movement, citing all the pertinent sources. It is available in English on the website of the Rabbinical Assembly.
I urge those teaching Jewish law and Jewish thought in Israeli schools to use this material to develop ways of teaching that will eliminate the distortions and reveal the true teachings of Judaism. I urge the Education Ministry to take this matter seriously lest we find ourselves raising a generation of bigots imbued with a distorted version of Judaism that encourages racism.
Of course, Judaism teaches us to defend ourselves. But it also teaches that all human beings are made in the divine image and that other religions are to be respected. To condemn all Arabs is to do to them what was done to Jews throughout history. Now that we are living in our own land and are the ruling majority, let us not do unto others what was done unto us.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer is a rabbi, author and lecturer who was a founder of the Masorti movement in Israel and a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly