Today’s daf offers a number of teachings attributed to Rav Natan bar Abba, a second-generation Babylonian Amora (named rabbi of the later generations). In one teaching, Rav Natan bar Abba calls out his own community — and especially the wealthiest among them:
Rav Natan bar Abba said that Rav said: The wealthy Jews of Babylonia will descend to Gehenna because when Shabbetai bar Marinus happened to come to Babylonia, he requested work, and they did not give it to him. He asked them to sustain him with food, they likewise refused.
From his father’s Latin-sounding name, we can surmise that Shabbetai bar Marinus came to Babylonia from the Roman Empire. He first asked the community to help him find a job and was turned down. Without the means to make money, he was then forced to beg for food and was again rejected. Rav Natan condemns these callous Jews to Gehenna, then goes even further:
He said: These came from the mixed multitude as it is written: And show you compassion, and have compassion upon you. (Deuteronomy 13:18) Anyone who has compassion for God’s creatures, it is known that he is a descendant of Abraham, our father, and anyone who does not have compassion for God’s creatures, it is known that he is not a descendant of Abraham.
As the Jews left Egypt, the Torah tells us, many Egyptians left with them and, presumably, later assimilated into the community. According to Rav Natan, those who failed to assist Shabbetai bar Marinus more than a thousand years later in Babylonia were descendants of Egyptians, and not Abraham.
This text is difficult on multiple levels. I think it is profoundly dangerous to reject the callous, the wicked, the problematic in our communities as “not real Jews.” After all, insisting that those whose behaviors trouble us are not really part of our community absolves us of responsibility for their behavior. It means we don’t have to look deep into our community’s educational systems, values and attitudes to understand how they produce or protect these kinds of people. Defining Jewishness in a way that excludes these people does not lead to communal growth. Recognizing that these people are real Jews is a necessary first step on the path to making our communities more compassionate and welcoming.
Moreover, we have seen that both the Hebrew Bible (especially the Book of Ruth) and the Talmud can be very welcoming of those who convert to Judaism. But this passage strikes a different note, a kind of blood tribalism that sees Jews descended from Abraham as inherently different from those who are not. To me it is ugly, but it is a teaching of Rav Natan that got preserved in the Talmud.
We can’t ignore these difficult ideas in the text, though we can hope to have grown more in the direction of Ruth and less in the direction of Rav Natan on this issue. And we can at least note the irony: Rav Natan makes these remarks in the context of condemning a Jewish community that did not welcome a stranger into its midst.
Here’s something else we can do: We can, in true rabbinic fashion, reinterpret through a very literal reading of Rav Natan’s words. He says: “Anyone who has compassion for God’s creatures, it is known that he a descendant of Abraham, our father.” We could (somewhat subversively) reinterpret this second part of Rav Natan bar Abba’s statement to open up a radical approach that invites Jews to regard all who behave compassionately as family, regardless of what is known of the circumstances of their birth.
So what does it mean to be a Jew? Today’s daf reminds us that the answer depends on who we ask, what texts we look at, and how we read them — and that we don’t always agree. And after all, what’s more Jewish than that?
Read all of Beitzah 32 on Sefaria.