Tradition Today: Are we barbarians?

Are we barbarians or are we decent human beings and good Jews?

the Dawabsha house which was set on fire in a suspected attack by Jewish extremists in Duma. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
the Dawabsha house which was set on fire in a suspected attack by Jewish extremists in Duma.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
The investigation into the murders at Duma and the indictment of suspected perpetrators of this and other crimes has brought to the fore the problem of the existence of radical groups of fanatic Jews who are 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 system – religious and secular – has done little or nothing to combat. Unfortunately many of these concepts have roots within some Jewish teachings and it is crucial that we be willing to confront this fact and learn how to deal with it.
There is no question that contradictory concepts exist in Jewish law and Jewish thought concerning the attitude toward and the rights of non-Jews, and that various historical eras present differing pictures: inclusive and exclusive, positive and negative, laudatory and condemnatory. The infamous book Torat Hamelech, is an example of the way in which religious teachings are being used to teach hatred. It is based upon three principles: (1) Israel must conquer the entire Land and subjugate all non- Jews who live there; (2) The people of Israel preceded the Creation, the Torah and even the thought of creating the world; (3) Non-Jews are inferior to Jews.
By selectively culling individual statements that seemingly support such views from rabbinic and medieval Jewish writings, the authors conclude that violence and killing are legitimate within Judaism.
What they forget is that the Torah itself and biblical writings in general posit the basic equality of all humankind and demonstrate God’s love of all human beings, Israelites and non-Israelites alike. 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.
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 inclusion in laws of the Torah based on a strict interpretation of words such as “your fellow,” “your brother” in biblical verses which 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 (sanctification of God’s name), in effect abolishing these 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. Thus, they decreed that the rules of civil law, of justice and morality, applied to all humans because of hillul hashem (desecrating God’s name). The Tannaim further ruled that non-Jews were to benefit from tzedaka (charity] and gemilut hasadim (being kind) because of the principle of darchei 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!” (Y.B.M. 2:5. Deut.R. Ekev 3:3).
IN THE Middle Ages, rabbinic authorities, most prominently Menachem Hameiri, declared that all negative rulings concerning non-Jews were referring 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 applied only to pagans. Certainly these rulings apply to non-Jews today and cancel 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). 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 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. They must be rejected completely by Israeli society. 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? ■
The writer, a Jerusalem author and lecturer, is a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and the founding director of the Seminary of Jewish Studies (now the Schechter Institute). Twice awarded the Jewish Book Council prize for the year’s best book of scholarship, his most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy, Jewish Publication Society.