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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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

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