A Gentile Drowning

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?

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