Dan Rickman reflects on controversial issues of halacha and the language of orthodox Judaism.
It is 1966, and Rabbi Dr Immanuel Jakobovits is angry. I’d like to explain what caused this anger, and why this still matters today.
The person responsible for his ire was Dr Israel Shahak, a professor of Chemistry at the Hebrew University, and also a Holocaust survivor and civil rights activist
Dr Shahak had a letter published in Ha’aretz, in which he said he had witnessed an Orthodox Jew refuse the use of his telephone to call for an ambulance for a non-Jew, because it was Shabbat.
The letter caused a major stir, in the UK, as well as in Israel. The Jewish Chronicle (at the time, in the wake of the Jacobs affair, deeply unsympathetic to orthodoxy) thundered: ‘The halakha (Jewish law) abounds in such abominations … in conflict with the humane instincts within which anyone raised in Jewish tradition is imbued.’
This necessitated a response, and Rabbi Dr Jakobovits, at this stage Rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in NYC, provided this, in a furious article entitled, ‘A Modern Blood Libel – L’Affaire Shahak’, published in Tradition.
Why did he use such strong language? As far as I am aware, this is the first modern usage of the blood libel in Jewish polemics.
This is a very strong accusation, especially to make against a fellow Jew and Holocaust survivor, against the not so distant background of actual blood libels in the 20th century (Kishinev pogrom, Beilis trial, Damascus accusations) and the memory of the Nazi paper Der Sturmer regularly using this as part of its antisemitic propaganda.
As Rabbi Dr Jakobovits himself wrote of the blood libel, ‘There is nothing more hideous or perverse in the blood-stained history of antisemitism.’
Rabbi Dr Jakobovits thought Shahak had lied about the alleged incident (which he also compared, in the article, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion).
Regarding the suggestion that it is against ‘orthodox’ Jewish law to save the life of a non-Jew on Shabbat, Rabbi Dr Jakobovits said
Time and again, the Christian rabble was aroused to murderous frenzy by the fantastic charge that Jews practised ‘ritual murder’ in order to secure the blood of Christians for ritual purposes. To substantiate this diabolical libel, the Jew-baiters – usually themselves apostates from Judaism – scanned the pages of Talmud for out of context quotations allegedly ‘proving’ the callous disregard of the Jewish religion for the life of the non-Jew. This exposed the evil ‘Talmud Jew’ provided ample justification for the mob terror against the Jewish community.
Whether or not Shahak lied is impossible to say now; however, what is clear is that his story is not implausible. For example, a few years ago, I heard a well-known modern orthodox rabbi, recount that he refused to call for an ambulance when his next-door neighbour hurt his leg badly mowing the lawn one Shabbat afternoon. The rabbi saw this as an act of piety where the halakha had to override his natural compassion for his neighbour.
I found this incomprehensible and shocking. The mainstream halakhic view would necessitate helping any person in need on Shabbat as on a weekday, and if someone calls for an ambulance it isn’t for a non-medically trained person to try to assess whether or not this was essential.
Rabbi Dr Jakobovits also makes it clear that he sees a direct line between Shahak and the antisemites who used the idea of the ‘Talmud Jew’ to attack Jews (physically) and Judaism. This is a more telling accusation.
Shahak went on to write a number of books about Judaism and Zionism, most famously Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, which has been widely influential in both framing debates around Israel/Palestine and also by new atheists around Judaism. From the blurb:
Shahak embarks on a provocative study of the extent to which the secular state of Israel has been shaped by religious orthodoxies of an invidious and potentially lethal nature. Drawing on the Talmud and rabbinical laws, Shahak argues that the roots of Jewish chauvinism and religious fanaticism must be understood before it is too late.
He argued that these negative views of non-Jews were based on the Talmud, in line with the classic antisemitic accusation of the ‘Talmud Jew’. Shahak stated that this bigotry is itself a cause of antisemitism. His view that chauvinism in these sources in any way ‘justifies’ antisemitism is very troubling.
Shahak’s arguments have also been used by the ‘new atheists’ to ‘prove’ the Judaism has an ‘in house’ or tribal morality, which treats the outsiders as being less equal or inferior.
Rabbi Jakobovits came from the Torah Im Derech Eretz tradition in Judaism, which was influenced by the enlightenment, and one can see very different, much more universalist views amongst its founders and followers. This explanation is typical:
Every human being has been created in the likeness of God, and it is in the very nature of his creation that he is able to reach out towards the heights of human moral perfection. Our forefather Abraham achieved the summit of human capability, pure humanism, even before he became the father of the nation of Israel and the embodiment of its vision and vocation.
I suspect this background made him baffled by such accusations, which he could only see as being made in bad faith, as he made clear in his article
It is also important to note that there is also a tradition of religious humanism within Sephardic Judaism [pdf], although I am not aware that scholars such as Rabbi Dr Jose Faur addressed Shahak’s claims directly.
There is no doubt that Shahak overstated his case and used sources selectively at best.
Rabbi Dr Jakobovits goes on to explain that halakha absolutely allows (even necessitates) savings a non-Jew on Shabbat, and he then gives a reasonably detailed account of a ruling by Rav Unterman, who was the Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi at that time, which was given in response to Shahak’s claims.
The key to this is that the basis of the permission to help a non-Jew on Shabbat is ‘mishum eivah’, because of hatred. Clearly, if it became clear that the Talmud and Jewish law prevented Jews from helping non-Jews this would lead to ill will towards Jews. Note the bitter irony here, such perceptions, even though not true in Rabbi Dr Jakobovits’ view, had done precisely that, and impacted both protagonists directly through the Nazi period.
The halakhic debate centres as to whether this principle allows one to abrogate a Torah law (d’oraisa) or just a rabbinic one (d’rabbanan) and this has direct impact as to what you can or cannot do to help.
You can also see Rabbi Dr Jakobovits’ universalist concern when he discusses the principle of ‘mishum eivah’.
Also original is Rabbi Unterman’s emphasis on the ‘enmity’ [eivah] principle as an integral element in rabbinic ethics… By averring that the Torah itself stipulated that, to be valid, its laws must accord with ‘the ways of pleasantness and peace,’ they would affirm that any law leading to ‘enmity’ is automatically suspended or modified in much the same way as a law (other than the cardinal laws) conflicting with life is set aside because it was given ‘that man shall live by it’(Lev. 18:5) ‘and not die by it’ (Yoma 85b).
Shahak saw this as a cowardly response, which did not address the ruling’s central injustice – namely how, from a humanist perspective, could one consider any other course of action than to help a fellow human being in need?
There are other people who have addressed Shahak’s accusation, notably Rabbi Dr Nahum Rabinovitch, who developed the case made by Rabbi Dr Jakobovits in an article called ‘A Halakhic View of the Non-Jew’ where he stresses the universalist views in Judaism based on the ideas of the seven Noachide laws and the ger toshav (‘resident stranger’), and Rabbi Gil Student who write Shabbat and Gentile Lives when Shahak died in 2001, in which he argued that the restrictions on Shabbat apply, in principle, to all human lives, and so don’t discriminate between non-Jew and Jew.
All this still matters today for a number of reasons. Whilst some may find the response above satisfactory, I have argued previously that Shahak’s critique, albeit flawed, is not without force.
The Talmud does contain xenophobic statements, which is unexceptionable for the period in which it was developed. How these laws are understood and applied in our current circumstances is an important question in its own right.
This has special significance with the establishment of the State of Israel, in principle a secular state which has Judaism as the established religion, where there is nevertheless pressure regarding the application of halakha within the state.
If Judaism does have laws which discriminate against non-Jews, how can these be implemented within a secular liberal democracy? How do these laws apply to the occupation and the status of non-Jewish minorities, or people under occupation?
There is also confusion as to what is, or is not, allowed, e.g. regarding the actions of the rabbi I mentioned previously who wouldn’t help his injured neighbour on Shabbat
It also raises a question as to how to understand ‘religious language’ in a wider societal context – e.g. is ‘mishum eivah’ a legal mechanism which produces the ‘right result’, or is the idea that we help people, purely to avoid them hating us, an offensive concept, which just compounds the injustice of the law it is allegedly mitigating?
These questions also matter because the accusations against the Talmud and Judaism, inspired or similar to Shahak’s, persist in wider society, often in quite nasty forms.
For example, there is an antisemitic web site called ‘Come and Hear’ which has the entire Soncino English translation of the Talmud, to ‘prove’ the case that it discriminates against non-Jews (please don’t visit this). (NB: This claim is addressed by Rabbi Gil Student in a brief article called ‘The Real Truth about the Talmud’.)
In 2017, Alice Walker, the distinguished author of The Colour Purple, wrote a poem ‘It Is Our (Frightful) Duty To Study The Talmud’ which starts with a discussion of the injustices of the occupation of the West Bank, and then says:
…For a more in-depth study
I recommend starting with YouTube. Simply follow the trail of ‘The
Talmud’ as its poison belatedly winds its way
Into our collective consciousness.
It is inconceivable that she would write about the literature of any other group such lack of context or understanding, and it has understandably been criticised as being antisemitic (as well as ‘bad poetry’).
The ‘new atheists’ also critique the Talmud on the basis of its immorality. Richard Dawkins in his bestselling The God Delusion, quotes John Hartung, an evolutionary anthropologist, who argues regarding the Biblical injunction ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’:
In context, neighbor meant ‘the children of thy people,’ ‘the sons of your own people,’ ‘your countrymen’ – in other words, fellow in-group members.
This also echoes the arguments of Shahak, and is also a controversial misreading of the biblical text.
These are deep waters, and I have spent quite a few years researching, as I have as yet to be convinced by the various defences of the Talmud I have cited here.
I don’t claim to have all the answers; however, if this is of interest to people, I plan to write a few more articles developing some of the themes here around attitudes of orthodox Judaism to non-Jews.
I’d also welcome responses to this introductory article. These are emotive issues, which I have tried to approach in a balanced way and in a way which is not intended to offend. Any and all constructive responses to these difficult issues will be appreciated.