A Gentile Drowning

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Yesterday I blogged about our need, as a community, to confront the darker corners of our textual tradition. I worried that if we don’t study and address Judaism’s “racist and anti-social” texts, we risk the possibility of them being embraced and invoked.

Dig around online and you’ll find several articles posted by white supremacist and extreme Muslim groups “exposing” the “racist” teachings of the Talmud. In fact, the Talmud has a particularly bad reputation amongst those less inclined to view Jews favorably. (The article most disseminated, is “The Truth About the Talmud“.)

Many people will say that we have no obligation to respond to lunatic anti-Semites, but I’m not so sure that these texts and traditions are irrelevant. Though my modern orthodox education wasn’t explicitly racist, there is no doubt that non-Jews were implicitly looked down upon; and other religious traditions were, indeed, at times, explicitly mocked. I believe that these teachings eventually do have practical ramifications.

Noah Feldman has gotten much slack for mentioning Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir in his article about modern orthodoxy, but coming from a similar educational background as Noah, I totally understood why he believed they were relevant. It is not coincidental that Goldstein carried out his massacre on Purim, where there is a tradition of invoking violence against Amalek.

So now I’ve talked a big game and said we need to start figuring out what to do with these texts. So what do we do? Well, let’s start by identifying some. I’ll start with one today, and then when I’m back from a brief vacation next week, hopefully, continue with some more.

Difficult text #1 might be random, but it was the first one that made me really internalize the issue at hand, a teaching of Maimonides mentioned in Israel Shahak’s Jewish History, Jewish Religion. Shahak, an anti-Zionist, Israeli Holocaust survivor, who passed away a few years ago, is a good source for these texts. His work, much of which claims that anti-Gentile traditions are part and parcel of Zionism, is well known in the Arab world and amongst those in the international left.

The text from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder 4:11:

“As for Gentiles with whom we are not at war…their death must not be caused, but it is forbidden to save them if they are at the point of death; if, for example, one of them is seen falling into the sea, he should not be rescued, for it is written: ‘neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy fellow’–but [a Gentile] is not thy fellow.”

To be fair, Maimonides uses a term for “Gentiles,” which literally means “idol worshippers.” But I’m not sure this makes things better. It may exclude Muslims, but according to Maimonides it wouldn’t exclude Christians. And while Menachem Meiri might exclude Christians, would any traditional commentator exclude Hindus?

So what do we do about a text that suggests that one should not save a drowning gentile (or idol worshipper, whatever)?

We can reject it and condemn it. But is that enough? It’s still there — and in a book we respect.

When I interviewed British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks a couple of years ago, I asked him about this text specifically (after he invoked Maimonides in the context of presenting traditional Jewish ethics as straightforward: “If someone is in need, give.”) Rabbi Sacks, who I deeply respect, was utterly unperturbed by the text, asserting that, as a community, we have never considered it the correct practical response.

To me this seemed dismissive. What do you think?

Posted on August 16, 2007

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7 thoughts on “A Gentile Drowning

  1. The Doctor

    And this is why it’s dangerous to take Torah literally. Otherwise we’d be dragging our disobedient sons out into the city gates to be executed. We are told that the rabbis went to great lengths to interpret parts of this so as to never be able to carry out this type of commandment i.e. both father and mother must speak together [simultaneous] and if they don’t then there is no need to go farther.

    The sages of Talmud and later writers, including Maimonides, recognized that there were several layers to Divine text: the literal, the interpretive, etc. They didn’t feel obliged to insist that the world was created in 72 standard hours; they interpreted Torah in context of the world they lived in, as many in Judaism do today.

    Torah is there as guidance and teacher. At one extreme is literal interpretation, at the other is toleration as mythology. I prefer to live in the middle. Difficult texts don’t bother me unless I insist on taking them literally. Which I don’t.

  2. ZeddZull

    I think that you make a mistake equating the authority of Scripture with that of commentators. We are reasonably free to pick and choose from the commentators that which appeals to us. We are reasonably free to dismiss as anachronistic or irrelevant commentaries that no longer speak to our present situation. To respect Maimonides is not to accept him without reservation.

    The harder question that you pose is what do with texts that carry the weight of Divine authority. What do we do with Torah passages with which we have substantial difficulty? What do we do with the Oral Torah, whose authority is at a slightly lower rung than the Torah, but is still authoritative by any standard of traditional, normative Judaism?

    Perhaps the example of Ben Sorer U’Moreh provides an example. Sanhedrin spends an entire chapter understanding what the Torah means when it speaks of the wayward and gluttonous son. The Rabbis were clearly troubled by this section of Torah, but they did not dismiss it – they wrestled with it and eventually concluded, though be no means unamiously, that its purpose was L’Shma – to be studied for its own reward.

    Perhaps those passages of Scripture which seem to us to be immoral are there to invoke precisely this reaction. They are to be studied in order to cause us to reach a higher moral plane. If the Torah is a tree of life to those who hold fast, then perhaps these passages are not to be used to justify immoral action, but to spur us to even greater morality.

  3. mbczion


    The Talmud was basically an attempt to put the Oral Law into writing based on the world they were living in at the time. This means that if the Talmud were written today, it would look a heck of a lot different. For example, the section dealing with whether or not we are allowed to daven while riding on a donkey would, instead, be dealing with whether or not we are allowed to daven while riding in a car, train, or plane. Instead of dealing with how to kasher a clay oven, the Talmud would be dealing with how to kasher a microwave.

    And so it is the same with the “drowning Gentile” episode. Let us keep in mind that when the Talmud was written, the Jews were basically in a situation were they could not trust the Gentiles (especially in Babylon, where the Babylonian Talmud was written). So, this text reflects that. If the Talmud were written today, I doubt that this text would be written to blanketly include ALL Gentiles, anymore then if the Talmud were written today it would still be full of texts having to do with riding on donkeys or lighting houses with candles.

    The Oral Law is all about how one applies the Written Law to the world we live in today. For example, just because electicity is not mentioned in the Talmud does not mean we are not allowed to use it.

    Menachem Ben Tzvi HaKohen

  4. rejewvenator

    What exactly are our options with this text? Are we to cut it out and pretend it doesn’t exist? Of course not!

    We do need to come up with a new paradigm for dealing with Gentiles. The Aku”m (worshiper of stars and constellations) is not the correct paradigm for today’s Gentiles. The Meiri, whom you reference, suggests that peoples who have bound themselves to religious law fall into a different category, and he is indeed a good starting point.

    The question that remains is can we envision a Gentile whom we we would not actually save? I think it’s critical that we define that category. For example, I think that many Jews would be ok with saying that a Hamas terrorist need not be saved, or that a former Nazi need not be saved. Or do we need to construct an ethic that refuses to acknowledge that some people do not deserve our efforts?

  5. AlexUtiug

    You want more examples of nationalist exclusionism in Judaism? – Read the Tanya. Read the “good samaritan” story from the NT.

    Another example of problems I have with Talmud – if you and your friend are in the desert and you are down to the last drop of water, it is morally wrong for you to share it with your friend.

    “By the Rivers of Babylon” psalm causes me to twitch.

    And the Megillat Esther – how many Gentiles the Jews killed? Did they all try to kill the Jews?

    What goes around – comes around. It is time we started to learn from our own mistakes.

  6. AlexUtiug

    On the other hand, let’s look at it from another perspective. Chazal (the Sages) said that he who performs a good deed without thinking of it as a checkbox filled next to a mitzvah (does it L”shma, just because it is the right thing to do) – for him it is as if he did 10 such mitzvoth.

    So. When a Jew is drowning, you’d better rescue him – or else it will be a mitzvah unfulfilled; when a Gentile is drowning – are you up to doing a good deal without thinking of being compensated for it in the World to Come?

  7. clara1

    I think that if anyone is drowning I should save them (except i can’t swim any more). What do we do call out to the drowning person and ask him if he is Jewish or not like taking a survey. What if he is Jewish but has converted to xianity or isn’t religious. I say save them all if you can. Hopefully the xian will be thankful and have a different view of Jews and the Jew will just be grateful.

    And the good samaritan story from the NT is a good example of just saving a person because that person needs saving. I guess the Samaritan being saved was like the xian we are talking about today.


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