The Non-Jew in Jewish Law

Rabbinic authorities have used different arguments to redress inequities in the way halakhah treats non-Jews.

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The Life of a Non-Jew

Fundamental Jewish ethics can often be deduced in situations that present a conflict of values. When the opportunity to save a life (pikuah nefesh) conflicts with the observance of the Sabbath, saving the life takes precedence. However, some legal authorities distinguish between the obligation to save a Jewish life and a non-Jewish life; to save a non-Jew, a Jewish doctor is allowed to violate rabbinic law but not Torah law. Note, for example, Israel Meir Kagan (1838–1933), known as the Hafetz Hayyim, who opposed the behavior of Jewish doctors who do not distinguish between Jews and non-Jews:

"And know that most doctors, even the most religious, do not take any heed whatsoever of this law, for they work on the Sabbath and travel significant distances to treat a non-Jew, and they grind medicine with their own hands. And there is no authority for them to do so" (Mishneh Berurah on O.H. 330).

On the other hand, R. Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), arguably the most influential modern halakhic authority, explicitly rejects the Hafetz Hayyim on this:

"All must appreciate that a [refusal to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath] would now be totally unacceptable in every country known to us…[The opinion of the Hafetz Hayyim] is surely not in consonance with the current social condition...If it should be reported that a Jewish physician refuses to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath while he does treat his fellow Jews, true animosity (eivah) will result to the great detriment of the Jewish inhabitants" (Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim 4:79).

Extra-legal Ethics

In their discussions of Jewish-gentile relations, Jewish legal authorities make reference to a variety of extra-legal concepts. Rabban Gamaliel modified civil law lest the inequity cause a "profanation of God's name." Charity is given to the poor for the "sake of peace" (mipnei darkhei shalom). When Jews held slaves, although it was permitted to work non-Jewish slaves with rigor, it was considered pious (middat hassidut) to treat them well (Maimonides, Laws of Slaves 9:8). Doctors are permitted to violate Sabbath law in order to heal non-Jews because of "potential animosity" (mishum eivah).

Traditional Jewish law treats Jews better than non-Jews. Even the secondary, formalistic arguments and arguments from self-interest--"we cannot provoke their animosity!"--that permit more equitable treatment for non-Jews may seem morally problematic to modern Jews. That said, it is equally clear that rabbinic authorities have applied a good deal of halakhic creativity, including the use of these extra-legal concepts, in order to overcome the perceived inequities concerning non-Jews in Jewish law.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.