Jewish Leaders Must Stop Teaching Bigotry, Start Emphasizing Love for All Human Beings

An international body of Conservative rabbis has adopted a responsum affirming Judaism’s basic doctrine that all people are considered equal. Jewish leaders of all streams should follow their course.

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Pope Francis, flanked by Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, makes his first visit to a synagogue at the Great Synagogue of Rome, January 17, 2016.
Pope Francis, flanked by Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, makes his first visit to a synagogue at the Great Synagogue of Rome, January 17, 2016.Credit: Alessandra Tarantino, AP
Reuven Hammer

What kind of Judaism should be taught to our children? Should it be the Judaism of Rabbi Akiva, who taught, sighting Genesis 9:6, “Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God,” (Pirkei Avot 3:18) or the Judaism of his disciple Shimon ben Yohai, who said, “Even the best of Gentiles should be killed”? (J.T. Kiddushin, 4:11, 66c) It is this question that lies at the heart of the responsum on “The Status of the Non-Jew in Jewish Law and Lore” recently adopted unanimously by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the International Rabbinical Assembly, representing the rabbis of the Conservative/Masorti Movement throughout the world.

In view of the fact that the chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel recently stated that non-Jews have no right to live in Israel (although he later denied urging their expulsion) and that others such as the chief rabbi of Safed making discriminatory statements against Arabs, this is not an idle question. This is especially true when we see that books such as Torat Hamelech openly teaching that Arabs are inferior to Jews and that even their children may be killed since they will grow up to be terrorists — and that there are some fanatics who act accordingly.

The Rabbinical Assembly document states clearly that there are laws that appear in various Jewish codes that discriminate against non-Jews and there are statements in some writings, especially those of a more mystic nature, that are negative and even imply a distinction between Jewish souls and those of non-Jews. According to this responsum, these teachings are no longer to be considered authoritative. That is, these statements are to be understood as the opinions of certain individuals, rather than a representation of the consensus of Jewish opinion. And they are to be rejected, as are any beliefs in racial superiority or inferiority.

In a historical survey of the material, the responsum concludes that discriminatory laws and negative statements concerning Gentiles appear first at times of persecution of Jews and Judaism such as that perpetrated by the Romans, but that as far back as the first century BCE, prominent religious authorities such as Rabban Gamliel II and Rabbi Akiva enacted measures to eliminate any such discriminatory laws.

Furthermore, the Sages invoked the concepts of Kiddush HaShem (Sanctifying God’s Name) and Darkei Shalom (Promoting Peace) in order to prohibit discrimination against non-Jews, and to require treating them equally and fairly. Medieval authorities went further, declaring that many laws differentiating Jews from others had applied only to pagans, and neither Christians nor Muslims are considered to be such.

The Rabbinical Assembly's paper affirms Judaism’s basic doctrine that all human beings are considered equal and created in the Divine Image. It concludes that the attitude of Jewish teaching in scripture and Rabbinic sources is overwhelmingly positive toward non-Jews and that most of the laws found therein are not discriminatory against Gentiles. On the contrary, they require love of the stranger and proper consideration, equity and fairness in their treatment.

The committee has taken the bold step of declaring that “any rulings concerning matters of financial or civil law in the Mishnah and Talmud that discriminate against Gentiles are not to be considered official operative Jewish Law in our day.” Most importantly, the responsum calls upon Jewish educators everywhere — and that certainly 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[s] or adults they not be left with the impression that these represent present day Judaism or are valid parts of current Jewish Law.”

If there is one lesson that everyone, Jews included, must learn from the Holocaust, 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.

The Rabbinical Assembly has taken a much needed step in reaffirming that all human beings are created in the divine image and demonstrating that it lies at the heart of Judaism. Jewish leaders of all groups should follow this so that it becomes clear to all which Judaism we have chosen and affirm. It is the Judaism that teaches “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)

Reuven Hammer is a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly and the author of the responsum on the status of non-Jews in Jewish law and lore.

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