What does traditional Judaism teach about non-Jews?

As we debate the pros and cons of the Nation-State Law and analyze whether changes should be made to it, we should take these traditional Jewish values to heart.

yeshiva study  (photo credit: Courtesy)
yeshiva study
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Lost in the debate surrounding Israel’s recently passed Jewish Nation-State Law has been any discussion about the Jewish perspective regarding non-Jews. This is a shame, since if we seek to establish Israel as a Jewish state and we codify this reality in a constitutional law, we should insure that we are acting according to the morals and values of Judaism.
The Jewish faith is different than many others. Most religions encourage proselytizing, since they are founded on a belief that only members of their faith can earn eternal reward in the afterlife. Jewish tradition makes it clear that non-Jews do not have to become Jewish in order to fulfill their spiritual purpose on Earth, and that they can earn their reward in heaven without becoming Jewish.
Judaism believes that non-Jews are obligated to observe the Seven Noahide Laws: Establishing courts of justice, not cursing God, no idolatry, no incest or adultery, no murder, no stealing and not eating the flesh of a live animal. A non-Jew who observes these laws has a place in the World to Come.
Our role as Jews is to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). We have the obligation to convey God and spirituality to the world through our observance of 613 commandments. We are the am segulah, the “treasured people” (Deuteronomy 26:18), because of our responsibility to teach the world about God though our actions and way of life. Jews have an ongoing responsibility to be upstanding, value-centered people who through our actions and character inspire non-Jews to be better people who connect to God and live spiritual lives.
The Bible makes it clear that God and Jews must be concerned about the welfare of non-Jews. The entire Book of Jonah revolves around God wanting a Jewish prophet to go and inspire the entire non-Jewish population of Nineveh to be better people. In Genesis (chapter 18) we see how concerned Abraham was about God’s plan to destroy Sodom – a pagan city filled with wicked people. Our High Holy Day prayers repeatedly mention our desire for a universal connection to God, including both Jew and Gentile.
God’s concern for non-Jews has ramifications in Jewish ritual law. The special Hallel prayer, filled with praises for God, is recited on holidays. On Passover, however, we recite the complete prayer on just the first day of the holiday. During the remaining six days we recite a “half-Hallel.”
WHY? BECAUSE the seventh day of Passover celebrates the splitting of the Red Sea, and as much as we rejoice over the salvation of the Jewish people, Egyptian soldiers drowned in the sea. As the Talmud teaches (Tractate Megillah 10b), God declared: “The work of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing praises?”
These were Egyptian soldiers who killed and persecuted the Jews. Yet God cares about them, and we as Jews must care as well, and thus cannot fully rejoice over the miracle of the sea splitting. This is also the basis for our spilling some wine from our cup while reciting the 10 plagues during the Passover Seder. Our cups cannot be full while fellow human beings suffered – even if they were the ones persecuting us. In the words of King Solomon in Proverbs (24:17), “When your enemy falls let your heart not rejoice. And when he stumbles, let your heart not be joyous.”
The message is clear. Judaism views all of mankind as created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27), and cares about the physical and spiritual well-being of all humans. The Torah does have very strict commands regarding how to deal with idolatry and idolaters in Israel, but once we are dealing with non-pagans, the approach is clearly very different.
As we debate the pros and cons of the Nation-State Law and analyze whether changes should be made to it, we should take these traditional Jewish values to heart. We should ask ourselves the value of declaring ourselves a Jewish state if in the process we lead to non-Jews like my good friend, Saleem, an upstanding hard-working, tax-paying Druze citizen and IDF veteran who leans Right politically, to write that this law has “trampled on the honor of my people” and “deepened the chasm between non-Jews and Jews in Israel.”
We should hear the echoes of God’s declaration that “The work of My hands are drowning in the sea and you want to sing praises?” when we hear Lucy Aharish, an Israeli-Arab who stood on the podium to light a torch at the National Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem a few years ago and courageously declared that she was doing so “for the glory of the State of Israel,” declare now that she is “outraged with the State of Israel.”
I believe it is critical for there to be a Jewish Nation-State Law as a constitutional law in Israel. I hope that our leaders will recognize that “Jewish nation-state” is not simply terminology but should reflect core Jewish values – values which must include care, concern, and responsibility for the peaceful non-Jews who live in our midst.
The writer is an ordained rabbi and served as a member of the 19th Knesset.