Note: This article continues from this one and this one.
It is permitted to kill non-Jewish children, since they will grow up to pose a threat to Jews. That is the assertion at the heart of the outrage and arrests of several rabbis, and the subsequent uproar in the traditional community to defend them. The idea appears in a recent book, Torat HaMelekh, which aims to present a legal (halakhic) consensus on relations between Jews and Gentiles in peace and war. In this piece I will be pointing to the sources of the ruling above, and to the deep strains of racism and chauvinism that exist in corners of the Jewish world.
Now, I am not saying that Judaism is a racist religion, nor that all traditional Jews are racists. Like all faiths, Judaism exists in countless shapes and sizes, and has shifted and grown through each historical epoch. But it cannot be denied that there is a scriptural basis for extreme xenophobia and racism provided one chooses to interpret it as such. One could do the same thing for Christianity quite easily, as we saw in the Deep South during the slavery and segregation periods, when good Bible-believing whites just knew that blacks were inferior. Now the opposite is held, and rightly so, and it is defended with the same Bible — so remember that the passages and ideas I will cite here do not implicate Judaism itself as a faith or the Jewish people as a whole, but only those who choose to follow these teachings in this manner. And I would cite rabbi Lior as one such individual.
Jews and Gentiles, Race and Chauvinism
The arrests of Lior and Yosef were spurred by the publication of a book, Torat HaMelekh (The King’s Torah) by rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, which allegedly justifies the killing of non-Jews. Rabbi Lior was one of four well-regarded rabbinical authorities to have added his seal of approval to the book. The arrest was for possible incitement to violence as a result of endorsing such ideas. Given the strained situation on the West Bank, a theological justification for murder is hardly helpful. This makes an exploration of its position useful.
The central argument I will make, which I understand will be inflammatory in some circles, is that a particular strand of Jewish thinking has always contained a dangerous core of disdain for the rest of the world. One can see this lack of regard or interest in the way that very traditional (Haredi) Jews continue to remain within their own communities in every way that matters, refusing all secular education for example. That’s right — Haredi children have no exposure to history, politics, literature, etc., except that produced within their own religious tradition. And Haredi groups do not even agree on religious issues, of course, and follow different teachers. But I am off the subject; my point is that the extremely selective engagement Haredim have with the world is born, in my opinion, of a view of that world which implies that anything non-Jewish is unimportant, or even vile. This will be echoed in some of the quotes I will use below.
This view of the non-Jewish world was rather unimportant while Jews were a small minority living in other peoples’ lands. They kept to themselves, passed judgement on each other, and tried to avoid trouble with the outside world — even breaking their own restrictions when necessary in order to do so. An example of that might be Maimonides, the great philosopher and physician who welded a Platonic sensibility into mediaeval Judaism.
Following on the distinction between Jews and Gentiles founded on an interpretation of “fellows” in many of the Torah’s commandments (I will comment on this below), Maimonides wrote that for physicians “it is forbidden to heal a Gentile even for payment”. But, since this is hardly likely to make for neighbourly relations, he continues by saying “if you fear him or his hostility, cure him for payment, though you are forbidden to do so without payment.” Maimonides was the personal physician to the great Islamic conqueror Salah ad-Din, clearly a non-Jew. But could he really demand payment of Salah ad-Din?! In another passage he worms out of this, saying that treatment could be provided “even gratis, if it is unavoidable”. I point this out, not to show the flexibility of enforcement when there are threats to Jewish life, but because of the sharp distinction made between Jew and Gentile which these intellectual gymnastics sustain.
And yet Jewish writers down the centuries have tried to obscure this fact, since it was bound to incite even greater hatred for the Jews — and we all know how popular the Jews were in mediaeval Europe, right? This deception continues, as witnessed in an article I will quote a few times written by Tzipora Pinner and originally published in the Jerusalem Post on 7 July. The author, a settler in the West Bank, states flatly that “In Jewish religious law, the concept of race doesn’t exist. Any non-Jew can become a Jew through conversion. Many, including myself, have.” This may be true in one sense, but it is anachronistic — no-one had a conception of ‘race’ prior to the eighteenth century. Physical differences were noted, of course, but no-one had ‘scientifically’ divided the world into different groupings and made value judgements on their basis.
This has nothing to do with chauvinism, which has always existed in human populations and cultures. It is this which I am identifying with racism, though it necessitates we use a somewhat more flexible definition of ‘race’ as it is possible to convert to Judaism though obviously impossible to convert to being ‘white’. Now, I have been told before that, when I use the word ‘chauvinism’, I ought to define it as people seem not to use it any more, or use it accurately. I may have a technical usage in mind for my research project, but an off-the-shelf dictionary definition will do here: aggressive or fanatical patriotism, blind devotion or enthusiasm for one’s own side (as in war or sport), irrational devotion to — and belief in the superiority of — one particular group, be it race, party, sex, etc. That last is what gives rise to the most common expression including this word: ‘male chauvinist pig’. But as the definition shows, this is but one possible expression of the phenomenon.
The halakhah, Jewish religious law, is the source of the chauvinistic distinction between Jew and Gentile. One of the bases for this is the traditional interpretation of all places where the Torah refers to ‘brothers’, ‘neighbours’, ‘fellows’, ‘Man’, etc., wherein it is argued that only Jews are meant. Translations of the Bible in English do not reflect this distinction — it is why ‘brotherly love’ is taken to be a Judeo-Christian shared value, and why liberal American Jews can preach tradition and global consciousness simultaneously. It is also why Haredi Jews can scoff at such ‘un-Jewish’ notions.
Take these two pieces from Leviticus as emblematic. In 19:18 it says: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” Your neighbour here is a fellow Jew, and “your people” is probably the tip-off. From the same book, in 19:10, we have: “You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” Here again, only the Jewish poor are meant. Liberal Jews can point to lines like this to support charity in general, but this is not the traditional interpretation, and it is that tradition which animates the fundamentalists, of course.
Let’s move gradually forward in time with a few more examples. This first is particularly egregious, and comes to us again from Maimonides, from his Guide for the Perplexed (book III, chapter 51). This passage is commonly omitted in English, incidentally (care to guess why?). “Some of the Turks and the nomads in the North, and the Blacks and the nomads in the South, and those who resemble them in our climates. …their nature is like the nature of mute animals, and according to my opinion they are not on the level of human beings, and their level among existing things is below that of a man and above that of a monkey, because they have the image and the resemblance of a man more than a monkey does.”
The sixteenth-century Prague rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (known as the MaHaRaL) gives the standard interpretation of the Torah’s words about human beings, with a proto-nationalistic twist: “The perfection of creation, which relates to the human in particular, applies to Israel and not to the nations.” He goes on to indicate that comparing Israel to other nations is like comparing humans to lower animals. Hm, okay.
Israel Shahak points to the Hatanya, a fundamental Habbad text, for another good example. You know the Chabbad people, right? Some of them — the Lubavitchers in particular — have a reputation for being very welcoming of non-Jews and unusually moderate for Haredim. This book suggests that the existence of non-Jews is “non-essential” in the world (it was created for the Jews, remember?), and says that Gentiles are ‘satanic creatures’ “in whom there is absolutely nothing good”.
Taking us into the twentieth century, Avraham Yitzhak Kook was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandate in Palestine, and the founder of the Religious Zionist tradition to which Lior is an heir. He noted that: “The difference between the Israeli soul, its independence, its inner yearning, its aspiration, its characteristics and disposition, and the soul of all the other nations, is greater and deeper than the difference between the soul of a human being and the soul of a beast.” You can see how this builds on the Maharal’s statement above, yes? This kind of Israeli-specific nationalist chauvinism is simply an updated rendering of a traditional view.
Let’s come forward a few decades to a near-contemporary book — Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, first published in the 1960s. The book gives terms in Yiddish and provides a helpful etymology noting the language of origin and its meaning in that language. There are two entries, however, that are blatantly falsified or misleading. The entry for shaygets, whose main meaning in Yiddish is a young Gentile male, says only “Hebrew origin”. Okay… meaning what? The entry for shiksa, the complementary term for a young Gentile female, states that the Hebrew meaning is “blemish”. That sounds bad enough, right? It is also false. He does note the correct Hebrew source word (which he writes as “sheques” showing the influence of Yiddish on his Hebrew) but is better rendered as “sheketz” in my opinion), so let’s look it up. The New Bantam-Megiddo Hebrew and English Dictionary defines sheketz (שקץ, page 240) as “unclean animal; loathsome creature”. Ouch.
This final example I will give comes from last year, in a weekly sermon of Shas spiritual leader Ovediah Yosef from October. The “Goyim [the Yiddish for non-Jews] were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel… With Gentiles, it will be like any person – they need to die, but [God] will give them longevity. Why? Imagine that one’s donkey would die, he’d lose his money. This is his servant… That’s why [the non-Jew] gets a long life, to work well for this Jew.” Holy shit! And this is a widely-respected religious teacher, with hundreds of thousands of admirers. He continues: “Why are Gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat. That is why Gentiles were created.”
On the basis of these and many more examples I would argue that traditional Jewish teachings are deeply chauvinistic, and therefore that in a modern context in which Jews are considered a national grouping again, it is effectively racist. Sure, one can convert to Judaism, but does that do anything to mitigate the extraordinary bias against non-Jews? In traditional interpretations of the Torah, the world was created for the Jews, period. The fact that Jews have not been at the centre of everything reflects their fall from God’s favour, which the messiah will rectify when he makes the whole world ‘right’ again… right? This is the ultimate source of rabbi Lior’s racism, pointed to in my previous article.
“The Best of the Gentiles — Kill Him”
Rabbi Lior tells is: “Our law has passed every test throughout our generations”. Okay… but it is the interpretation of it throughout the generations that is now failing the test of modern statehood. Author Israel Shahak passes on an anecdote about an Israeli soldier who asks his rabbi if it is okay to kill Arab women and children in the conflict. His rabbi answers by quoting Talmud: “The best of the Gentiles — kill him; the best of snakes — dash out its brains.”
Clearly, this is not a view commonly held by Israelis, who on the whole are very good, moral people, and no more likely to delve into atrocities than anyone else. But the fringe elements who take these things both literally and arguably out of context in order to justify extreme repression, dispossession, or outright slaughter, are a problem that needs to be recognized more generally.
Consider a booklet published in 1973 by the Central Region Command of the Israeli Army and written by its then-chief chaplain Col. Avidan. He writes: “When our forces come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or in a raid, so long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our forces, then according to the Halakhah they may and even should be killed … Under no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilized … In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good.” The booklet was later withdrawn from circulation, but the rabbi was never properly disciplined for urging soldiers to disobey orders and participate in atrocities.
Israel makes much of the military’s principle of “purity of arms”, by which it means that its soldiers are held to a high moral standard. And this may be the case for the secular soldiers, but the rabbis have a different interpretation of that principle. In Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud there is the rule “whoever comes to kill you, kill him first”, which suggests a very active defensive posture but it still requires someone to be attacking you. Broadened into a general rule, this makes for a good principle in warfare. But the rabbis will tell you that this precept applies only to Jews, and that in wartime Gentiles may be presumed to have evil intent, almost regardless of their actions.
This is interpretation not an isolated case. In fact, there are a great many like it. Rabbi Shimon Weiser argued in the yearbook of Midrashiyyat No’am, a prestigious religious school, that: “According to the commentators of the Tosafot, a distinction must be made between wartime and peace, so that although during peace time it is forbidden to kill Gentiles, in a case that occurs in wartime it is a mitzvah [a religious duty] to kill them…” Do you see how these examples relate to the charge levelled at Torah HaMelech, that it justifies the killing of innocents, including children?
Sometimes this killing can be, um, accidental. According to halakhah the saving of a Jewish life is of supreme importance. It supersedes all other laws and restrictions save only those of murder, adultery, and idolatry. But the Gentiles are another matter entirely. For them, the Talmud essentially argues that while it is forbidden to kill them at random, their lives should not be saved, either. The most famous formulation of this occurs in Tractate Avodah Zarah: “Gentiles are neither to be lifted [out of a well] nor hauled down [into it].” That is, should you pass by a suffering person, feel free to ignore him if he is not a Jew.
I am reminded of an anecdote about a man who was hit by a car on the sabbath. Someone on the scene asked a Haredi man to call an ambulance. The man in question first enquired if the victim was a Jew. Since he was not, the man refused to break the sabbath law that keeps him from using a telephone. What does that sound like to you? Maimonides, that great mediaeval interpreter of the Talmud, put it like this: “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.” So much for mercy and charity.
Some would go further than this. Some interpreters of the Shulhan Arukh (a commentary on Talmud) have argued that so far as Gentiles go, “one must not lift one’s hand to harm him, but one may harm him indirectly, for instance by removing a ladder after he had fallen into a crevice… there is no prohibition here, because it was not done directly.” It is perfectly permissible to remove the ladder?! So they could justify the murder of this one because they were not the direct cause, i.e., did not push him into the crevice. How they mistook removing the ladder for an indirect cause of death is a mystery I am not qualified to unravel.
The lives of Jews and non-Jews simply have different values. As mentioned above, saving the life of a Jew is a paramount duty; likewise, the murder of a Jew is one of the three most heinous sins one can commit. The Jewish authorities back in the ghetto days had the obligation to punish the Jewish murderer of a Jew most severely. But the murder of a non-Jew was not addressed by the courts at all, since it was a sin only in the sense of the Noahide Laws (those applied to all humans after the flood) and not the Mosaic (that is, the Torah). Furthermore, indirectly causing the death of non-Jews was considered no sin at all. Consider that troubling notion along with the paragraph above.
This gets worse, though. If a Gentile was under Jewish jurisdiction and murdered anyone, Jewish or not, capital punishment was called for. But if the victim and murderer were both Gentiles and the murder converted to Judaism, he was not to be punished at all! How’s that for differing values on human life?
For most of Jewish history this kind of chauvinism was largely irrelevant. Jews did not have the power to harm anyone, and in fact were the frequent victims of extreme persecution and violence. But the victims of such treatment might be expected better to resist visiting it on others. These latent strains of violent chauvinism in Jewish religious thought may be one factor among many that helps us to see why it has been so easy to rationalize the condition of Palestinians.
Returning to the book at the centre of last month’s firestorm, the points within it may be common knowledge among Haredim and many Religious Zionists, but clearly not to seculars, and certainly not to America’s Reform Jews. Tzipora Pinner tries valiantly to minimize the importance of its imflammatory content. “The fourth chapter deals with situations in which there is a conflict between saving the life of a Jew versus saving the life of a non-Jew. In the fifth chapter, we find explanations of laws pertaining to times of war, and the sixth and last chapter tackles harm to innocent people. It becomes clear that the religious laws examined mostly pertain to extraordinary circumstances of conflict involving danger to life.”
But this is precisely my point. For many, the conflict in the West Bank is an existential one, and some Religious Zionist rabbis tell their flock that the Jews have been at continuous war with the Palestinians since 1967. Extraordinary circumstances? Not to these people. And perhaps not to you or your friends, Ms Pinner, since you choose to live in a West Bank settlement.
This book might conceivably be taken as harmless, since the points it raises were already in circulation in many schools of Orthodox thinking and are well-grounded in Halakhah. What can you do about ideas that actually are a part of the Jewish tradition? (Well, I suppose you do the same as in any branch of the monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths — you adapt your interpretations to fit a more enlightened society than the bronze-age civilization that originated that tradition. *grin*)
The problem and the danger of this book lies, however, in popularising these notions in conjunction with certain ideological currents of Religious Zionism. In the most obvious formulation, consider this sequence.
A) This book argues that in wartime it is permissible to kill children as they will grow up to be enemies.
B) Some Religious Zionists argue that the Jews have been in a constant state of war with the Arabs since before the State existed.
C) Therefore, an easy halakhic defence of genocide emerges.
D) If it becomes widely accepted, it presents a moral justification — perhaps even an imperative — for immoral acts.
(I use moral in the first instance of this last point the way the religious do — following god’s law is morality, period. I use it in the second in the philosophical, secular sense.)
I should be clear: I do not think this will lead them to perpetrate mass murder in the near term, but it lays the groundwork for it when the opportunity presents itself. If someone believes that it is desirable and permissible to do the unthinkable, well.. Let’s say that I think it becomes a question of whether, and not when. And this simply… Must. Be. Stopped. That great slogan of the post-Holocaust world, “Never again”, should apply to all human beings, not just to the Jews.