Biblical and Rabbinic Attitudes Toward Non-Jews

Early Jewish texts affirmed the universal fraternity of humankind, while asserting the importance of Jewish distinctiveness.

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Biblical and rabbinic attitudes towards non-Jews were shaped by the tension between two central concepts in Jewish thought.

On one hand is the belief in a universal creation. The shared origin of all of humanity creates a bond among all people that implies equality and a concern for each other's fate. On the other hand, there is a sense of Jewish particularism, a belief in Jewish distinctiveness and in the need to maintain an independent Jewish ethnic and religious identity. The creation of such an identity is only possible if boundaries between Jew and non-Jew exist.

Universal and Particular Laws in the Bible

This tension is evident in biblical law. Certain commandments apply equally to Jews and non-Jews. For example, the law in Genesis 9:6, "He who spills the blood of a human, by means of a human shall his blood be spilled" is not meant to be applied differently to Jews and non-Jews. It is a universal law and derives from the divine creation of humanity, not from the experience of God revealing Himself to the Jews at Sinai.

The justification for this commandment is in the continuation of the verse, "for in the image of God, did He make humans." This verse sees all humans, without distinction between Jew and non-Jew, as "created in the image of God" and this principle is accepted as axiomatic throughout rabbinic literature.

Other commandments, however, are designed to apply only to Jews, because they are based on a sense of brotherhood implicit in the biblical conception of Israelite society. Thus, the prohibition on taking interest and the commandment "When your brother becomes poor and is sold to you, you shall not cause him to work the work of a slave" (Leviticus 25:39), apply only to Israelites.

Similarly, the laws, "you shall not hate your brother in your heart" (Leviticus 19:17) and "Do not act vengefully or bear a grudge against members of your nation, but love your fellow as yourself" (Leviticus 19:19) are based on a concept of "national mutuality." Israelites are told to act toward each other as part of a larger family.

Concentric Circles in Rabbinic Law

Rabbinic thought, like these biblical passages, tends to see humanity as made up of two concentric circles: the inner one consisting of Jews, the outer one consisting of all of humanity.

The classic expression of this is found in the Mishnah of Tractate Avot: "Rabbi Akiva would say: 'Beloved is the human being, for humans are created in the divine image; an extra measure of love is expressed in God's making known to humans that they were created in the divine image, "In the image of God, did He create humans" (Genesis 9:6).  Beloved are Israel who are called children of God; an extra measure of love is expressed in God's making known to them that they are children of God: "You are children of the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 14:1).'" 

Jews are seen as part of an inner circle of people with a special relationship to God, while both non-Jews and Jews are seen as part of the larger mass of humanity.

This conception is reflected in rabbinic law. Regulations that reflect human dignity or the innate rights of human beings apply to Jew and non-Jew alike, while those that are designed to shape the nature of Jewish society apply only to Jews. Thus, one is commanded to feed the non-Jewish poor just as one feeds the Jewish poor, to concern oneself with non-Jewish sick people, and to bury the non-Jewish dead, "because of the paths of peace" (mipnei darkhei shalom) (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 61a).  Similarly, "a man should always speak in a way that increases civility with one's brothers, relatives, and with any person, including a non-Jew" (BT, Berakhot 17a). 

Why does rabbinic law erect such strong barriers around Jewish society? Part of the reason is because of the biblical law in Deuteronomy 7:3 prohibiting the Israelites from marrying Canaanites. But one could argue that this law is shaped by the Bible's rejection of the idolatrous nature of Canaanite culture and that the passage does not speak about non-idolatrous non-Jews.

However, the rabbis seek to distinguish Jew from non-Jew not just because some non-Jews are idolatrous, but because they saw the Jewish people as an ethnically distinct group, and sought to foster this ethnic distinctiveness. They do not see Judaism as a religion to be adopted by those who believe in its truths, but as the expression of the relationship between God and the descendants of Jacob. Therefore, they erected regulatory barriers to preserve Jewish ethnic distinctiveness.

Anti-Idolatry

Nonetheless, biblical and rabbinic attitudes toward non-Jews were also shaped by antipathy for idolatry and idolaters. This is reflected in the narrative about the war with the Midianites in Numbers 31, a military response to the fact that the Midianites encouraged the Israelites to worship the god Baal at Peor. But it should be noted that similar wars of destruction are waged against Israelite idolaters, such as the commandment to kill all the Israelites who worshipped the golden calf (Exodus 32:27) or those who worshipped the god Baal at Peor (Numbers 25:5). 

This antipathy for idolatry is also reflected in rabbinic literature. Indeed, one of the challenges in studying rabbinic literature is distinguishing between passages that refer to idolaters and passages that refer to non-Jews in general. During the Middle Ages, due to church censorship, most appearances of the word goy  (literally, non-Jew) in the Talmud were replaced by the phrase oved kokhavim (literally, star-worshipper). It is therefore difficult to know which passages were meant to refer to those practicing idolatry and which were meant to refer to all non-Jews.

Non-Jews in Biblical Narrative

Attitudes towards non-Jews are reflected not only in law, but also in biblical narrative, as well as in rabbinic narrative and legend.

Prophetic attitudes to non-Jews tend to reflect the way non-Jews treated the Jews. This can be seen by comparing two prophecies from 586 BCE, the year of the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple. The prophet Obadiah inveighs against the nation of Edom for fighting against Judah while the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, but the prophet Jeremiah, who lived through the same events, prophecies salvation for Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian, in return for his "trust in God."

This attitude also motivates the biblical narratives dealing with the tribe of Amalek, the archenemy of the Jews. Deuteronomy 25:19 commands Israel to eradicate the memory of Amalek from the world; this is in retribution for Amalek's treatment of Israel at the time of the Exodus from Egypt: "They happened upon you on the way, and attacked at your tail-end all the weak ones who were there."

The biblical narrative treats this enmity on an ethnic basis; it is not the Amalekite individuals who are to be eradicated, but rather the entire nation. This is in keeping with the general biblical tendency to see all nations as distinct entities. Nations are subject to reward and punishment just like individuals, but national reward and punishment supersedes individual reward and punishment, so that a national punishment can affect a righteous individual member of that nation.

Non-Jews in Rabbinic Literature

In rabbinic literature, the overarching tendency was to view non-Jews as a potential threat.

For example, "An Israelite who happens to be on a journey with a non-Jew should cause the non-Jew to be on his right [because it is more effective for the Israelite to protect himself with his right hand]…If they are going up or down an incline, the Jew should not be on the downgrade while the non-Jew is above him. Rather, the Jew should be on the higher part of the slope and the non-Jew should be below him. The Jew should not bend down in front of the non-Jew lest the non-Jew smash his skull"  (BT Avodah Zarah 25b).

At the same time, there is a recognition of the positive characteristics of non-Jewish nations. In a talmudic passage (BT Berakhot 8b), the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Akiva praises the Medes for their table manners, and Rabban Gamliel responds by praising the Persians for their modesty. There are also several narratives that attest to positive relationships between the rabbis and individual non-Jews. The most famous of these are the records of conversations between Judah the Prince, leader of the rabbis around 200 CE, and a Roman leader named Antoninus.

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Shawn Zelig Aster is Assistant Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University.