Are we barbarians?

What has to be emphasized and taught in our schools and homes, and what must be preached by our rabbis, is the concept of human equality and the need for love and compassion.

Rabbinic writings upheld the Torah’s principle that all humans are created in the Divine image (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: REUTERS)
Rabbinic writings upheld the Torah’s principle that all humans are created in the Divine image
The investigation into the murders at Duma and the indictment of suspected perpetrators of this and other crimes have brought to the fore the problem of the existence of radical groups of fanatic Jews imbued with hatred of Arabs and of all non-Jews, to the extent of advocating indiscriminate violence and killing against them.
These extremists, however, are only the tip of the iceberg, reflecting racist attitudes that are found among much larger groups of Israeli Jews – attitudes that our school systems, religious and secular, have done too little to combat.
Contradictory concepts exist in Jewish law and Jewish thought concerning the attitude toward and the rights of non-Jews, with various historical eras presenting differing pictures: inclusive and exclusive, positive and negative, laudatory and condemnatory.
In the Torah itself, the religious beliefs and practices of pagans, especially those of the Canaanite tribes, are viewed as false and illegitimate. Within the Land of Canaan they were to be eliminated, although there is no such command for the elimination of pagans in the world as a whole.
The Torah recognizes that some gentiles, such as Malkizedek and Job, worshiped the one true God. The prophet Isaiah places King Cyrus the Persian on the level of a redeemer – even though his religious practices were certainly not those of Jews. The Psalms call upon “those who revere YHVH” to praise and worship God.
Similarly, there is a prophetic vision of the time when all humans will come to do so and will be on a par with Israelites.
Based on the Torah’s teaching that all humans are created in the Divine image and the fact that the experience of Egyptian bondage should teach us not to mistreat the stranger, the Torah’s legislation is sensitive to the needs of the non-Israelite.
The basic ethical norms of the Torah apply to all, Israelites and non-Israelites.
The non-Israelite who is a foreigner is distinguished from the Israelite only in very specific laws that are based on ritual practices, or in the way in which differentiations are made in any society between the rights of citizens and non-citizens.
The non-Israelite who dwells in the Land of Israel is entitled to the basic rights of the Israelite and is singled out for special care. Israelites are seen as having a special relationship to God, since they are given the task of being God’s specific servants, God’s priests. This does not imply racial superiority, as the prophets, especially Isaiah and Amos, make clear.
Under Torah law, non-Israelites are generally treated fairly and equitably. The few specific differences between Israelites and others are no more than those common in any society in which there are different regulations concerning citizens and non-citizens.
In ritual matters there is a similar differentiation preventing non-Israelites from participating in certain rites such as the Passover sacrifice. Nevertheless, in rabbinic times certain offerings to the Temple by gentiles were deemed acceptable.
Rabbinic writings upheld the Torah’s principle that all humans are created in the Divine image, and that all stem from the same primal couple, so that racial inferiority or superiority does not exist. Nevertheless, reflecting the feelings of oppression and even hatred of the conquering power, there are instances where rabbinic writings display open hostility to Rome and to paganism in general, while also voicing varying approaches to the treatment of gentiles. Whereas some authorities countenance favoritism toward Jews, others are strict in demanding justice for all.
Some halachic decisions in the literature of that time seem to be based on an attempt to exclude gentiles from laws of the Torah, based on a strict interpretation of words such as “your fellow” and “your brother” in biblical verses that are taken to exclude non-Jews. Basing themselves on these antiquated teachings, some of our current official rabbis have issued rulings discriminating against Arabs, giving further ammunition to those who teach hatred.
They forget that even in early rabbinic times, prominent authorities such as Rabban Gamliel II and Rabbi Akiva attempted to remedy that situation legally in a roundabout fashion by invoking the principles of “the ways of peace” and “Kiddush HaShem,” in effect canceling laws that exclude non-Jews in civil matters.
These sages taught that cheating, robbing, harming non-Jews in any way was worse than doing it to Jews because it also brought shame upon Judaism and upon God as well (hillul haShem).
Thus, they decreed that the rules of civil law, justice and morality apply to all humans.
Akiva went further and claimed that some matters such as proper judgment and the prohibition of theft were actually based on verses of the Torah. The tannaim ruled that non-Jews were to benefit from tzedaka and gemilut hasadim because of the principle of darchei shalom, the ways of peace. This applied even to pagans.
In the famous story of Shimon ben Shetah, his disciples bought him an ass from an Arab, and rejoiced when they found a precious jewel attached to the animal.
Shimon asked them, “Does the owner know of it?” When then said “no,” he told them to give it back to the Arab. They argued with him that there was a law that “if you find something belonging to a non-Jew you may keep it.” Shimon said, “Do you think I am a barbarian? I purchased an ass. I did not purchase a precious jewel. I would rather hear the Arab say, ‘Blessed is the God of the Jews’ than to possess all the riches of the world.’” They returned it to the Arab who proclaimed, “Blessed is the Lord, the God of Shimon ben Shetah!” (Y.B.M. 2:5. Deut.R. Ekev 3:3).
In the Middle Ages, a new situation arose in which Jews were living not in pagan environments but among Moslems and Christians. Were these religions to be considered idolatrous or monotheistic? The result was a new approach in which these religions were given a legitimate status, even though not acknowledged as being the equivalent of Judaism nor accepting the truth of all their teachings.
Medieval authorities, most prominently Menachem HaMeiri, preferred not to rely on the concepts of hillul HaShem and darchei shalom, but to declare that all negative rulings concerning non-Jews referred only to the pagans of that earlier time and were not applicable to non-Jews now who came under the influence of religion and ethical teaching. Maimonides similarly stated that these rules referred only to pagans. This distinction applies today, canceling any discriminatory teachings that may have existed.
We must never forget that, based upon the Torah’s story of the creation of Adam, the sages taught, “Only one human being was created in the world… in order to create harmony among humans so that one cannot say to another, ‘My father is greater than your father…’”(Sanhedrin 4:4).
Only one human being was created in order to teach that “if one destroys one person, it is it is accounted to him as if he had destroyed an entire world; if one sustains one life, it is accounted to him as if he had sustained an entire world” (Sanhedrin 4:6).
In the words of Pinhas ben Elazar: I call heaven and earth to witness: the spirit of holiness rests upon each person according to the deeds that each does, whether that person is a non-Jew or a Jew, a man or woman, a manservant or a maidservant (Seder Eliyahu Rabba 9).
Yes, one can find within Jewish writings words and ideas that seem to teach Jewish superiority, and that sustain theories justifying prejudice and violence, but these were rejected within Judaism thousands of years ago and do not represent the basic teachings of Judaism. They must be rejected by Israeli society.
What has to be emphasized and taught in our schools and homes, and what must be preached by our rabbis, is the concept of human equality and the need for love and compassion.
Paraphrasing Shimon ben Shetah, the question is: are we barbarians or are we decent human beings and good Jews? 
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).