Tradition Today: Teaching the ways of peace

The lesson of the Shoah is that we must never permit such a belief to rise again.

‘Only one human being, Adam, 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.”’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Only one human being, Adam, 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.”’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Once again the subject of Jewish terrorism has been thrust into the headlines. Without entering into the specific incidents and the question of guilt or innocence of particular suspects, there is no denying that there have been many instances in which Israeli Jews have taken actions against Arabs. Some of these incidents have involved damage to property, but others have been more serious and have even resulted in the taking of human life.
The perpetrators of these acts of violence have been encouraged to do so by the teachings of certain educators and rabbis who believe that Judaism justifies such actions. It is particularly upsetting that there are well-known rabbinical authorities who justify these acts by citing instances in Jewish law and teachings which represent non-Jews as inferior to Jews. The most extreme example of this is the book Torat Hamelech. If such teachings were directed against Jews, they would be called antisemitic. What they forget is that the teachings they cite have long ago been repudiated and replaced by the vast majority of Jewish authorities, who found them abhorrent.
What is even worse is that some of those who are teaching such ideas hold prominent places in the religious establishment and are even employed and paid by the Israeli government.
Since Jews have suffered so terribly because of similar teachings, it should be abhorrent to us to see them taught in the name of Judaism. 
THE TORAH clearly teaches that all human beings are created in the Divine image and that all humans stem from the same primal couple, so that concepts of racial inferiority or superiority have no basis in Scripture.
Rabbinic teachings have upheld this. Nevertheless, reflecting the feelings of oppression and even hatred of the conquering power, there are places where rabbinic writings display open hostility to Rome and to paganism and gentiles in general, voicing varying approaches to the treatment of gentiles and resulting in some legal rulings that seem to discriminate against 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 by actually revoking the legitimacy of such rulings and by invoking the principles of “the ways of peace” and “kiddush ha-Shem,” in effect canceling any laws that discriminate against non-Jews in civil matters. These great Sages taught that cheating, robbing, or harming non-Jews in any way was worse than doing so to Jews, because it also brought shame upon Judaism and upon God as well. Thus they decreed that the rules of civil law, of justice and morality, applied to all humans. The Tannaim further ruled that non-Jews were to benefit from tzedaka and gemilut hassadim because of the principle of darkei shalom, the ways of peace. This applied even to pagans.
There is the famous story of Shimon ben Shetah, whose disciples went to buy him an ass. They bought one from an Arab, and they rejoiced when they found that there was a precious jewel attached to the animal. Shimon asked them, “Does the owner know of it?” When they 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!” (Yerushalmi Bava Metzia 2:5; Deuteronomy Raba, Ekev, 3:3). To rob and deceive the non-Jew, in this case the Arab, was to be no less than a barbarian!
We must never forget that, based on 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). Furthermore 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; and 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 deed that each does, whether that person is a non-Jew or a Jew, a man or woman, a manservant or a maidservant (Seder Eliyahu Raba 9).
YES, ONE can find within some Jewish writings words and ideas that 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.
If there is one lesson that everyone, Jews included, must learn from the Shoah, it is that any teaching that devalues the worth of any group of human beings, dehumanizing them, ultimately leads to discrimination and to violence.
Therefore, it is of supreme importance that we make it very clear that any such teachings have no place within Judaism today. They must be rejected completely by Israeli society; and our schools, no matter to which stream they belong, must teach human equality as the norm of Judaism.
What has to be emphasized and taught in our schools and in our homes, and what must be preached over and over 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? That is the only Judaism that has a place in the Jewish state.
We are living in a time in which antisemitism is again on the rise, and when the lessons of the Shoah seem to have been forgotten by all too many Europeans and Americans. The Shoah was the end product of the belief that some human beings are superior and some are inferior. The moment Jews were considered to be less than human, the death of six million became possible and perhaps inevitable.
The lesson of the Shoah is that we must never permit such a belief to rise again. That applies to us as well as to others. We must set the example to all humanity by practicing what we preach and rejecting terrorism or any discrimination against non-Jews, as we expect others to reject it against Jews.
The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Akiva: Life Legend, Legacy, available in both English and Hebrew. In May his newest volume, A Year with the Sages, will be published by JPS.