Biblical and rabbinic literature, with some exceptions, reflect a negative view of non-Jews, based on moral rather than racial or other grounds. In ancient times, before the rise of Islam and Christianity, non-Jews were presumed to be idolaters, and idolatry was associated with moral deviancy. Gentiles were disparaged not because they weren’t Jewish, but because they were assumed to be morally deficient.
Nevertheless, biblical and rabbinic literature recognize the existence of righteous gentiles. In the Talmud, Rabbi Joshua proclaims that righteous gentiles have a share in the World to Come. Another talmudic remark affirms the possibility of learning from non-Jews, maintaining that if someone says there is wisdom in Edom (the rabbinic term for Rome), one should believe him.
Some attitudes and legal rulings do betray a more violent perspective–the biblical commandment to destroy the nation of Amalek is one commonly cited example. This injunction was not unprovoked; the Amalekites attacked the Israelites when they were at their weakest, on their way out of Egypt.
The commandment to destroy the Amalekites extends to the descendants of these attackers, and so ultimately could be considered genetic or racial (although later rabbinic thinkers characterized anybody particularly violent or evil to the Jews as a spiritual descendant of the Amalekites). From talmudic times on, Jewish authorities attempted to neutralize this commandment, and many Jewish commentators affirmed that, as Amalekites no longer exists, there is no longer an operational requirement to destroy them. However, even this neutralization does little to address the moral questions raised by this commandment, as it seems to suggest that it was terminated for logistical, not ethical reasons.
Perhaps the most troubling rabbinic statement about non-Jews was attributed to the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai: “The best of the Gentiles should be killed.” This sentiment, never translated into law, was stated during the particularly cruel rule of Hadrian, and is associated with a relatively minor sage (Shimon bar Yohai later became considered more significant when the medieval kabbalist Moses de Leon attributed the authorship of a key mystical work, the Zohar, to him). Nonetheless, it is an extremely strong statement appearing in rabbinic literature.
In the Middle Ages, much of the discussion about non-Jews focused on whether Muslims and Christians were idolaters. Muslims were generally not considered idolaters, but opinions about Christianity varied. For many, the apparent worship of the cross and the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation seemed idolatrous. Others accepted that Christianity was monotheistic. Still others accepted an innovative idea, shittuf, the notion that worshipping something associated with God was forbidden for Jews only; thus, for gentiles, Christianity was not idolatrous.
A few medieval authorities–including Maimonides–addressed Hinduism as well; for these scholars, it was a prime example of an existing form of idolatry.
In the early modern period, when political emancipation seemed to promise Jewish acceptance into the general culture, some Jewish thinkers adopted new attitudes toward non-Jews. Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, warned against being quick to judge people of other faiths–including Hindus.
The second half of the 20th century brought vast changes in Jews’ relations with non-Jews. Social and professional interaction in pluralistic, democratic environments cultivated grassroots tolerance. Religious dialogue followed suit, and there has been extensive Jewish-Christian and even Jewish-Buddhist dialogue in recent years.
Indeed, the Jewish confrontation with Eastern religions–Buddhism in particular–is one of the most fascinating religious phenomena of our time. Many Jewish baby boomers, like others of their generation, have been attracted to Buddhist practices. Participants in the Jewish Renewal movement–with the encouragement of their leader, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi–have explored and embraced some of these practices. For many, the fact that Buddhism does not have a traditional deity makes it possible to conceive of someone being both a Buddhist and a Jew.
Still, many Jews continue to harbor suspicions toward non-Jews. As has been true throughout history, when Jews feel welcome and respected, they tend to maintain positive feelings toward their non-Jewish neighbors; in hostile environments, their feelings differ. In addition, the nature of Jewish learning is such that classical and medieval Jewish texts are constantly studied. The many instances of less-than-sympathetic attitudes toward non-Jews in these sources inevitably have their effect on Jewish communal discourse and consciousness.