Comment: Judaism and Racism

An historical understanding of Judaism takes into consideration the fact that the Torah and it laws must be understood against the background if its times.

Illustration by Darius Gilmont, from the German-language ‘Torah for Children' (photo credit: WWW.DARIUS-ART.COM/WWW.ARIELLA-VERLAG.DE)
Illustration by Darius Gilmont, from the German-language ‘Torah for Children'
In its recent responsum concerning the status of non-Jews in Jewish law and lore, the Rabbinical Assembly, representing Masorti/Conservative rabbis throughout the world, has made an attempt not only to counter the racist pronouncements of extremist rabbis that echo the doctrines of Meir Kahana and have led to violence and hatred against non-Jews, but also to rectify those laws within rabbinic literature that are discriminatory in nature.
It has stated clearly that while it is legitimate to distinguish Jews from others in order to preserve Judaism and the Jewish people, it is wrong to support any law or teaching that considers Jews to be inherently superior to Gentiles or the souls of non-Jews to be somehow inferior to that of Jews.
While supporting and praising this effort, The Jerusalem Post in its editorial of May 6 also charges that this responsum and other similar efforts “do not derive their moral sense exclusively from traditional Jewish sources, but also from sources to be found outside the Jewish religion,” sources that are “more universalistic in nature and, therefore, not rooted solely in the Jewish tradition.”
A careful reading of the document demonstrates that on the contrary these universalistic, humanistic concepts are very much to be found in the Jewish tradition, rooted in the Torah and in the teachings of important Sages and rabbis throughout the ages. What did Rabbi Akiva mean when he said that “Love your fellow as yourself” was the basic statement of the Torah, or when he taught that had he been in the Sanhedrin no one would ever have been put to death for any crime? The equality of all human beings, the value of all human beings created in the Divine image is a major doctrine of the Torah.
We need look nowhere else to find these truths. What is true, and what the teshuvah (responsum) deals with intensively, is that there are also other teachings in Judaism that take a different approach. As it states, “It cannot be denied that there are passages in rabbinic literature, kabbala and medieval philosophical works that depict Gentiles in negative terms, as inferior to Jews and sometimes even as less than human.”
Because of that a choice must be made as to which approach represents the Judaism that we want to teach and which should be considered invalid in our days. The teshuvah amply demonstrates that important voices beginning with the early tannaim and through the medieval period also grappled with this problem and took significant measures to change discriminatory laws which they themselves thought brought shame to Judaism and contradicted the basic nature of the Torah “whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all of whose paths are peace.”
The editorial also challenges these conclusions by pointing out laws and commandment in the Torah which “are the commandments of a vindictive God, not a God who loves all human beings.” That is a very problematic statement which is very close to the age-old charge of Christianity that the Jewish God is a God of wrath and vengeance while the Christian God is a God of love. The Catholic Church at least no longer teaches that officially and it behooves Jews not to give it their support. Rabbinic Judaism has always taught that there are two qualities of God, justice and mercy, but that God’s mercy far outweighs His justice.
That concept has deep roots in the Torah itself.
An historical understanding of Judaism takes into consideration the fact that the Torah and it laws must be understood against the background if its times and in comparison to other contemporaneous religions and systems of thought. Seen in that way, specific laws can generally be seen as improvements over what others were teaching, but they did not always reach what we today would consider to be the fulfillment of the basic ideals that the Torah itself sets. Maimonides stated this boldly when he discussed the question of sacrifices. It would have been impossible, he wrote, to eliminate sacrifices because everyone was accustomed to them. Therefore the laws constricted them but did not eliminate them. We can say similar things about laws such as the death penalty for so many transgressions.
That was what was expected but is certainly does not represent our ideals today. But then many such things were not accepted by the Sages either.
Our Judaism has advanced beyond that thanks to the efforts of the Sages who interpreted the Torah and advanced our understanding of its meaning. We are not now and never have been fundamentalists in our understanding of the Torah.
It is well that despite its caveats, the editorial understands that the “efforts of the Conservative Movement must continue.” Perhaps the most important conclusion of the teshuvah is its call to Jewish educators – and that definitely includes the Israeli school system – “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.”
In this season when we have just commemorated the Shoah, the most terrible crime ever committed against Jews and against humanity, this teshuvah has great importance. As it states, in view of the fact that the 20th century was the time when Jews in particular suffered and were murdered as a result of doctrines of racial superiority and racial inferiority, we must be especially careful regarding anything that can lend credence to such beliefs. Furthermore we have seen that these teachings lend legitimacy to and lead to conduct in which Jews harm non-Jews and their property and even to the shedding of blood. There is no greater Hillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name, than this. It is therefore incumbent upon the leaders of Judaism to eschew any such doctrines and reaffirm the Torah’s basic belief in the inherent equality of humankind created in the Divine image. There is no more important message than that for Israeli society today.
The author, a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly, is a member of its Committee of Jewish Law and Standards. He is the writer of the responsum on Non-Jews in Jewish Law and Lore.