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).'" 

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