Closing Section: Relating To A Wider World

Until now, throughout the entire program, we have talked in terms of connection between Jew and Jew. We have examined the idea of Jewish responsibility - the idea that Jews must take responsibility for other Jews - and have suggested its centrality in the Jewish tradition. We have talked of Jewish survival and of the tools necessary for a Jewish future. We have examined many circles, but there is one that we have not yet looked at: the way in which Jews are meant to relate to the outside world. That outside world has been examined only in so far as it affects the Jews, but now the time has come to invert that analysis. Do Jews have a responsibility to the outside world, or only to themselves and their fellow Jews?

The implications of these questions should be very clear. If we are meant to take responsibility only towards other Jews, then - while this may be seen as a good tool for Jewish survival, and important as such – in moral terms, it is a limited response. For example, it does not address the question ‘survival for what?’ Are we meant to ensure Jewish survival simply because it is good to survive, or is there some higher moral purpose for which we are meant to try and survive? If the latter is the case - if we are not commanded towards Jewish responsibility for the sake of mere survival but rather for some higher moral purpose - then we must ask what that moral purpose is, and whether and how it obligates us towards the majority of the world’s population who are not Jewish. It is precisely this issue that this section and the exercise that follows will attempt to address.

If responsibility and concern for an individual imply a certain respect towards that individual, just how much respect does a non-Jew receive in Judaism? How does Judaism see the individuals who inhabit ‘the nations’?

There is no question that there is a difference between the way in which official theological Judaism has tended to regard the non-Jew and the way in which the Jew who has suffered centuries of persecution has regarded the non-Jew. In most places, many centuries of Diaspora life in the pre-modern world produced an image of the non-Jew as a threat. The non-Jew was invariably seen as a hostile force whose presence in Jewish society was often seen as unnatural and unwelcome. The further away the non-Jew stayed, the deeper the sense of relief among the majority of Jews. It is possible that, in many places, the Jew was demonized and dehumanized by the surrounding non-Jewish society. However, it is no less true that, in many places, the Jew regarded the non-Jew as not entirely human, so that the Jew could feel little respect and even less responsibility for such a person.

For that reason it is fascinating - and important - to note that plenty of Jewish sources show that there has always been a strong humanistic and universalist tendency in the Jewish tradition, one that does offer the non-Jew respect.

The source of the Jewish worldview is found in the first chapters of Beraishit, where we are given information concerning the Jewish idea of creation. It does not matter at all for our purposes whether the early creation stories actually happened in precisely the way that the Book of Beraishit describes. What is deeply important to understand is that these stories both reflected the way in which Jews saw and understood their world, and framed the Jewish worldview over time. One of the most striking parts of the creation story is, of course, that of the creation of humankind. Here we are told that God first created one being:

And God created man in His own image. In the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

Beraishit 1;27

This passage is so familiar to us that perhaps we tend to read it without fully understanding its implications. However, thousands of years of reflection have led to many insights and raised various ideas that can be mined from the text.

One of the things that the rabbis understood was that, if all of mankind started from one human being, then underneath all the differences, all people are equal. No human being can plead superiority to another on the grounds of descent as we all come from the same father-figure. Moreover the fact that we are all made, according to this verse, in the image of God, makes it clear that each human being has an innate value that no other person should take away lightly. Human beings may differ from each other, but everyone has the same inherent value, all being made by, and in the spirit of, God.

The best formulation of this viewpoint is found in the tractate Sanhedrin of the great rabbinic work, the Mishnah. Here we find the following statement:

A single man was created in the world to teach that if any man destroys a single soul, Scripture charges him as though he has destroyed a whole world; and if any man saves alive a single soul, Scripture charges him as though he has saved a whole world. Again [a single man was created] for the sake of peace among mankind, that none should say to his fellow "My father was greater than your father"... Again [a single man was created] to proclaim the greatness of God, for a man stamps many coins with the one seal and they are all like one another, but God has stamped every man with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them is like his fellow.

Tractate Sanhedrin 4:5

It is worth noting that these ideas do not appear in an abstract ethical tract written by philosophers producing worthy theories with no connection to the real world. This passage appears in a legal text, the Mishnah, in the context of a very practical discussion concerning the punishment to be given to someone who has taken another person's life. These ideas were an essential part of the Jewish legal system as it developed over the centuries; they are a cornerstone of the halacha, the traditional way of life on which Jews based their lives all over the world for thousands of years.

The story is just a little more complicated, however. The version that we have given here is based on one of the earliest and most important of the manuscripts of the Mishnah that has come down to us, the eleventh-century ‘Kaufman Manuscript’ now in Italy. However, another early version of the Mishnah has been preserved that differs in a number of places. One of the tasks of scholars is to decide which version of the text is the most reliable.

In the second manuscript, the text is identical apart from one phrase. In the two cases where - in the Kaufman manuscript - we find the words - a single soul - here we find the phrase  - a single soul from Israel. In other words, one version of this teaching is humanist-universalist and the other is humanist-nationalist. Which is the original? Scholars simply do not know. Some scholarly texts write one version and some write the other, while some acknowledge the fact that a variant version exists. This difference beautifully illustrates the twin pulls that have developed in the Jewish mind and tradition regarding the attitude to be taken towards the non-Jewish world.

Another important text strengthens the more universal approach. This is a midrash that appears in a number of slightly different forms in the tradition. This is one classic form:

When God decided to drown the Egyptians in the Red sea, Uzza, the guardian angel of Egypt came and stretched himself out before God, saying; "Lord of the world, you created your world with the attribute of mercy; why do you want to drown my children?" Immediately God assembled the entire heavenly host and said to them "Make a judgment between Me and Uzza". The guardian angels of the nations began to plead the defense of Egypt. When the angel Michael saw what was happening, he made a sign to the angel Gabriel and then flew off to Egypt and pulled up a brick with a baby's bones sunk into it and came and stood before God, saying "Lord of the world, this is how they enslaved your children". Immediately God judged them with the attribute of justice and they drowned in the sea.

At the same time, the angels requested to sing a song of praise before God. He said to them, "The work of my hands is drowning in the sea and you are singing before me ?!"

Midrash Avkir

This is a wonderful midrash. The guardian angel of the Egyptians appeals to God, asking: "Why do you want to destroy my children?" but by the end, as God rebukes the angels for their intention to sing while the Egyptians are drowning, God has claimed the Egyptians as "the work of my hands". The message is clear. All of humanity - including the enemies of the Jews - are God's children and all are God's concern.


Regarding the Non-Jews



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07 Dec 2006 / 16 Kislev 5767 0