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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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.