Thursday, August 9, 2012

Moral problems in the Halacha: The status of non-Jews

Moral problems in the Halacha:
The status of non-Jews
Zeligman attacks Torah for its attitude regarding non Jews. These issues have been discussed many times over the past two centuries. I will attempt to point the reader in the right direction and demonstrate that the Torah, when properly understood and in context, is not immoral. 

Some websites that deal with these issues:
Gil Student’s:
Also: (It should be noted that not everything in the q&a section there is reliable, however it has many excellent points.) Also see the Artscroll Talmud’s introduction to Tractate Avodah Zara which sums up (with relevant sources) the Jewish attitude towards non Jews. 

Before we answer specific attacks

by Zeligman, it should be noted that most of the quotes that he uses are taken out of context and when read in context, are not reflective of the immoral attitude that Zeligman claims the Torah has.

1. Saving a non Jews life on Shabbat: While it is permitted to save a non Jews life in practice, the Talmud, in theory, forbids it. (For some good sources, see here: The question is why is it forbidden in theory? The short answer is to look at the source of the law, Yoma 85, which states: “R. Shimon ben Menasia said: "The Children of Israel shall observe the Shabbat [to make the Shabbat an eternal covenant for generations]" (Exodus 31:16) The Torah said to violate one Shabbat for him so that he may observe many future Shabbatot.” That is, we really would not break Shabbat to save a Jew either, but since a Jew will be able to observe many shabbatot, we make an exception for him/her. So the reason we theoretically wouldn’t save non Jews is not because we discriminate against them or don’t value their lives, but rather because they cannot observe more shabbatot, since they aren’t commanded to observe Shabbat. For a fuller treatment of this issue see:

2. Not helping a non Jewish women give birth on Shabbat: Same as Above. 

3. Zeligman then attacks the Shulchan Aruch for the halachic ruling that states that a Jewish women may not assist a non Jewish woman to give birth, nor may she breast feed a non Jewish baby, except if she is a midwife and then only for money. However, Zeligman once again does not tell his readership the entire story. For the glosses there on the very page of shulchan aruch that he quotes, state: “[We are afraid] Lest the child get sick or die and they (the gentiles) will slander the Jewess (stating that she killed the child) but when she is a midwife and being paid they will not slander her, for it is established by them (the gentiles) that a professional does not hurt his/her business and is concerned with a loss of money.” And regarding why a Jewess may not serve as a midwife the glosses state: “All of this is because we suspect they may slander her.” Now, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Jewish history understands that for most of history the non Jews needed only the slightest excuse or provocation to kill Jews (see here: The Shulchan Aruch was careful not to give them another reason to do so. The reason why most Jews were not to serve as wet nurses and midwives was not because of animus to non Jews but rather to protect themselves from being slaughtered.          

4. Why non Jews may not observe Shabbat: Talmud Sanhedrin 58b states that non Jews may not observe Shabbat and if they do, are worthy of the death penalty. This seems rather harsh and begs explanation. It should be pointed out that this is not a practical law at all, since if the non Jew does anything that would be a transgression of Shabbat (had he been a Jew) he is not considered to have observed Shabbat. It is almost impossible for any non Jew to observe the entire shabbat as a Jew since one needs spend many, many  hours studying the laws of Shabbat, in order to properly observe it. The idea of a Non Jew being worthy of death for observing Shabbat is thus theoretical and not practical at all. 
An approach regarding this question may be found in the Maharsha on that section of Talmud (Sanhedrin 58b) which brings a midrash found in Exodus 16 and in Deuteronomy 1 which compares Shabbat and the Jewish people to a royal husband and wife and states that one who comes between them is worthy of death. To understand this, some background is required: Judaism could hardly be called a religion, since a Jew may renounce his religion and practice something else or nothing at all, yet he is still called a Jew, according to Jewish law. Judaism is a relationship forged at Sinai, between G-d and the Jewish people. Indeed we find this concept throughout Torah. Song of Songs is a love song which serves as a metaphor for the love between G-d and the Jewish people. Also see Rashi’s commentary to Exodus 19:17 where he brings a mechilta that compares G-D's appearance at Sinai to a groom coming out to greet his bride. There are numerous such statements.                                                                                                                  In any relationship, one needs a day to rekindle the relationship. That day, for Jews and G-d, is Shabbat. Thus we dress in our finest garments, eat the finest food, etc and we do not do any activity (what is colloquially called work) that would distract us from focusing in on our relationship with G-d. As the Chofetz Chaim used to say, Shabbat is considered the wedding ring between G-d and the Jewish people. Our relationship is healthy as long as we are observing Shabbat. This is why a non Jew may not observe Shabbat the way a Jew does. For if he did, he would be “coming between” G-d and the Jewish people, for Shabbat is the holy sign of a special relationship between G-d and His people and that must not be adopted by anyone else. It would be spiritual adultery, as it were. 

5. Zeligman puts up a serious of attacks against Jewish law implying that Jews may cheat and steal from non Jews. To dispel this myth please see which refutes Zeligman’s charges. Zeligman quotes Maimonides, Laws of Transactions 13:7 and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 227:26 that it is permitted to defraud a non Jew. But this is misleading. Jewish law clearly forbids cheating non Jews as the sources brought in clearly state. What Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch are referring to is not fraud, but rather a law called “Ona’ah.” This law states that if the going rate for an item is set, one may not buy or sell it at one sixth more or less than the going rate. This law is clearly above and beyond the normal requirements of commerce. The Torah only required this with regard to business dealings between Jew and his fellow Jew but not with regard to a non Jew. Clearly, one’s responsibility to ‘family’ is greater than to a regular person.  
Zeligman rightfully asks, why is it that there are certain leniency's in Jewish law regarding non Jewish money? For this we turn to a letter from Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966) regarding this issue: He states that certain laws were made regarding non Jews based on the nature of the conditions that Jews lived while under non Jewish rule. It is important to remember that many of these societies bear little resemblance to the non Jewish societies of today’s western world. There was little law and order and Jews were basically at the mercy of the non Jews. Jews were often taken advantage of financially and the normal rules which protect ones property were not in play at all. Thus it could hardly be surprising that the Torah didn’t require Jews do treat the non Jews in a manner that the non Jews themselves didn’t act. To be sure, stealing from a non Jew even in that society was forbidden, but returning their lost objects, or not returning money where they made a mistake, etc was not required for Jews, just as non Jews did not require it for themselves.
According to many halachic authorities (i.e. Rav YY Weinberg, Rav SR Hirsch, Rav A.E. Kaplan, Tiferes Yisroel to Bava Kamma Chapter 4, Meiri in many places across the talmud, also see Responsa of Rama 10 and Collected Responsa of Chasam Sofer 90) these laws no longer apply in today’s moral western societies where all property is protected by law. Thus one must be stringent to return lost objects, monetary mistakes, etc of a non Jew.    
Zeligman rejects this approach because it is a minority view in Jewish law. I believe that the answer is that the Torah’s laws were established for what was the situation that Jews found themselves in for the majority of history (Sometimes the Torah gives laws not based on the ideal way to act, but on the given reality of the human condition. See a similar concept in the law of “Yefas Toar” see: As we mentioned before, Jews were found amongst immoral idol worshipers who regularly mistreated and stole from them. This mistreatment occurred even in Muslim and Christian societies up until (and sometimes including) the 19th and 20th centuries. Therefore, the Jews were not expected to treat their gentile neighbors that much better than how their neighbors treated the Jews themselves. Thus, certain laws are in place on principle, but as the non Jews improved, moral responsibility required us to treat them differently and better. Thus the Be’er Hagolah in Choshen Mishpat 348:5 (Based on Sefer Chassidim 1074) states “I am writing this down for future generations, for I have seen many who have become wealthy through errors that gentiles have made. But I have also seen how they have lost their money again, and have left nothing for their heirs, as is recorded in Sefer Chassidim. Those who sanctified Hashem’s Name by returning gains made through the errors of others became wealthy and left much of their riches to their children.” See also Jerusalem Talmud Bava Metzia 2:5, “Shimon ben Shetach once purchased a donkey. The original owner had neglected to check the saddlebag before he made the sale, and inadvertently left diamonds in the bag. When they discovered the treasure, Shimon ben Shetach’s students were exuberant, for now, they were certain, their teacher would be able to teach Torah without the constant financial worries that had been plaguing him. Shimon ben Shetach did not join in their excitement though. “Do you think I am a barbarian?” he exclaimed “I bought a donkey, not diamonds!” He promptly returned the diamonds. When the owner received them he cried out, “Blessed is the God of Shimon ben Shetach!”      
See also SMAG Positive commandment 74. Halachah sometimes reflects a reality, but a Jew is expected to strive for greater holiness.

6. Murdering non Jews. Zeligman claims that the Talmud allows Jews to kill non Jews. This is simply untrue. See which conclusively shows the fallacy of Zeligman’s attack and explains, “The Bible says that a murderer is only executed if he kills his "fellow" and by being parts of very different communities a gentile is not the "fellow" of a Jew. Is this murder forbidden? Absolutely. However, biblical fiat declares that this murder is not a capital punishment. However, rather than allowing this murderer to receive a minor punishment, his punishment is left to Divine providence. G-d will punish this sin appropriately because it is out of the court's hands.” Thus Sanhedrin 9:2 and Sefer Hayereim do not mean that a Jew may kill a non Jew, only that if a Jew does kill a non Jew he does not receive the death penalty. It should be noted that even when a Jew killed another Jew, the death penalty was almost never meted out. In fact, Talmud Sanhedrin states that if a Jewish court meted out the death penalty once in 7 years - and some say once in 70 years - they were considered a court of murderers.

7. Medical experiments on non Jews. Zeligman claims that Rama in Yorah Deah 158 allows Jewish doctors to perform medical experiments on non Jews without consent. Zeligman would have us believe that Jews may go around abducting non Jews and using them as lab rats. However, even a cursory reading of the passage shows that Zeligman takes the quote out of context. Rama there is discussing the law of whether a Jew may heal a non Jew. See #3 above which discusses why this was problematic in non Jewish societies throughout history. Rama merely adds that even when it was not allowed for a Jew to practice medicine on a non Jew, he was permitted to do so if it was a medical experiment. No discussion is made here regarding the consent of a non Jew - Zeligman adds a fictitious quote - Rama was merely giving an exception to the rules determining when a Jew was allowed to practice medicine in a hostile non Jewish society.        

8. Praising and giving gifts to non Jews: The Torah prohibits praising non Jews. However, Talmud Kiddushin 31A writes an extremely praiseworthy story regarding how a non Jew, Dama ben Nesinah, treated his parents. Talmud praises Job extensively even though he was a non Jew according to many opinions (Bava Basra 16, also see Rashi Numbers 14:9). Maimonides praises Aristotle effusively. Clearly there are different types of praise. To praise a non Jew for good deeds he has done is permitted. To praise him for something that has no spiritual value is forbidden. Why? Because the Torah teaches us (numbers 23:9), “ it (Israel) is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.” The Jewish people have a special role to play and we must be separate, to a certain extent, from everyone else. This is not bigotry. It simply reflects the unique mission that Jews have in this world as given to them by G-d. This can be compared to the officers of an army who are, to a certain extent, kept separate from the rest of the army. West Point cadets aren’t “superior” to the enlisted soldier, but they have a leadership role, which precludes full connection to the other soldiers. That is why Jews do not give gifts to non Jews for no reason. However, if the Jew knows the non Jew, or there is a purpose for giving the gift (even if he doesn’t know the non Jew) the Jew may give the gift (Taz Yoreh Deah 151). Also see Shulchan Aruch YD 12-13 that one may support their (non Jewish) needy, visit their sick, bury their dead and even eulogize and comfort their mourners.

9. Converts and positions of power - ‘serarah’. Zeligman claims that Judaism is discriminatory towards converts because according to Jewish law, only someone born to a Jewish mother may be a king or hold positions of leadership within the Jewish community. It is interesting that Zeligman chooses to attack the morality of the Torah through its treatment of converts. Interestingly, the Torah warns us no less than 36 times to love and treat the convert well. How many times do we find something similar in other religions or philosophies? The Talmud goes out of its way to point out that some of our greatest Rabbis descended from converts (Rabbi Akiva, Shemaya, Avtalyon, etc) or were converts themselves (Onkeles).  Is the Torah really anti convert? So why does the halachah restrict a covert from holding positions of leadership within the Jewish community? The answer is that leadership in the Jewish community is a very delicate thing. The Torah understood that people are strongly influenced by the philosophies and ideas that they are used to and grew up with. Talmud Sanhedrin 94 states, “Do not disgrace a gentile in the presence of a convert, [even] up to the tenth generation [after the conversion].” This is not to denigrate a convert, it simply means that he is sensitive to his background. Torah leadership requires a person to view life and all of its decisions through the framework of Torah. A convert may be limited in his ability to do so due to his background and what he grew up with. Are there exceptions to this tendency amongst converts? Of course. But the Torah’s laws are set up for the majority of converts who might remain with some non Jewish influences even after they covert. It should be noted that it is a terrible sin to appoint a Jewish born leader who is wicked or unfit to lead. See Sefer Hachinuch 497.

10. Slander of a 12 year old married Jewish Virgin. Zeligman states that the Torah is anti convert because if a man falsely slanders his 12 year old bride (until a few hundred years ago, this was a common age for people to marry), claiming that she wasn’t a virgin - after they completed the first step of their marriage (ayrusin), but before they were completely married (nesuin) - then the the man receives lashes and must pay 100 silver shekels to the girls father. This law only applies to a girl conceived of Jewish parents but not a girl who was conceived before her mother converted to Judaism. Answer: Once again Zeligman paints only half of the picture. He doesn’t tell the reader that this law also didn’t apply to fully Jewish brides younger than 12 or older than 12 and ½. Does the Torah discriminate against them? Furthermore, he also doesn’t tell you that this is a leniency for a convert because if indeed the Jewish born girl was found to be guilty of adultery she would receive a much harsher penalty (skilah) than the convert in the same circumstance (chenek).  (It should be noted that the death penalties prescribed in the Torah are meant to underscore the severity of the law, while in practice almost never being implemented, as was mentioned before.) So why indeed is a convert not included in these laws? Because of a technicality. As a cursory reading of Deut 22 will show you, the laws of the 12 year old virgin bride are set up as such because she has parents in whose house she is being raised who are marrying her off, who are also being affected by the slander of the husband. However, a girl who was conceived before being converted has no halachic father. If the father was a non Jew, he isn’t halachically related to his daughter after she converts. If he was Jewish, he was never halachically related to his daughter. For at the time of conception, the fetus’ mother was a non Jew. This is also why these laws do not apply to a Jewish girl above the age of 12 and ½. For at that age she is no longer under her parents control and the laws of slander of the 12 year old married Jewish virgin do not apply to her.

11. Finally, Zeligman assails the talmud for allegedly referring to non Jews in a way that implies that they are subhuman: "'And you, the flock of My pasture, you are men' (Ezekiel 34:31) -- you are called men, but idolaters are not called men." This is a complete misunderstanding of that text. For a proper understanding see It is actually shocking that Zeligman attacks Talmud with this quote. He has no sense of history. This very canard was used by Czarist Russian hate groups in 1913 to try to convict Mendel Beilis on blood libel charges. How unfortunate that Zeligman would attack his own religion with the same slander as those that tried to murder innocent Jews.


  1. First, welcome back.
    Secondly, kol hakavod.

    Remember that the Shulchan Aruch is a finely worded book. If you want verbose, read the Beis Yosef. Thus if the Mechaber or Rema threw in a phrase "we do this because..." it's meant to be there. If the "because" no longer applies, like covering unattended water because snakes are everywhere and might drink from it leaving some poison behind, then the rule no longer applies. This fine point is missed by many people looking to slander us.

    Gut Shabbos

    Garnel Ironheart

  2. I think this is a good defense – but we also know that orthodox rabbis today have varying views on these matters.

    My chabad ravs are honest and say they probably would not break shabbos to help a gentile neighbor who is having a heart attack. But they would run to find someone who could help.

    There was a story about a big rav in Israel who said something along the lines that all goyim work for Jews. All the work of the goyim is for the sake of the Jews. Something offensive that made its way into the media.

    In mixed company sometimes ravs will be much more decent and careful, but sometimes when with an orthodox crowd their views seem to change.

    My point is NOT that the Talmud tells us to think of goyim in a bad way, or a denigrating way. BUT, the Talmud does seem to provide contradictory messages, many messages on the topic. They are all valid expressions of Judaism as far as I understand how the Talmud works.

    The lived experience here in NYC proves to me that the Hasidim are not always living by the halacha you mention.

    I’ve been to dozens and dozens of real estate appraisals, and only once did the appraiser (when I was out of the room) offer to give the buyer a better appraisal for 500 dollars cash up front.

    It was also the one time I ever had a Hasidic man as an appraiser.

    I have more stories, some of which are truly wild and almost totally unbelievable (you would be upset, but I find them funny), but the point is simple: the Hasidim in NYC are sometimes selective in these areas.

    Secular Jews, on the other hand, have outstanding reputations for business ethics (this is my personal experience listening to contractors – all of whom adore working for secular Jews.)

    One more thing: hasids I have met and talked to are wonderfully indifferent to the ideals one hears in kiruv. I write fiction, and I spoke to a hasid about giving an orthodox figure more "authenticity" -- his ideas would make a kiruv rabbi faint. It was utterly hilarious and I loved this guy for his authenticity.

    I told him I spent a year in a BT yeshiva, and instead of telling me it was the most mamash amazing gavaldic thing he ever heard, he couldn't care less. And he was a happily married hasid, not someone troubled by his life. A special guy.