A ‘Modern’ Blood Libel


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.


Dan Rickman is an alumnus of Hasmonean High School and Oxford University who currently works in the IT industry. He has an MA in Hebrew and Jewish studies from the University of London, looking at attitudes in the Talmud to non-Jew and is author of a number of articles in the Jewish Chronicle, the Guardian, Huffington Post and Ynetnews
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

Perhaps the reason you have been unable to square this circle after many years of research and contemplation is because there is a fundamental contradiction which can only be solved by a fudge that you’re not convinced by?

Maybe the apostates have a point…

Dan Rickman
Dan Rickman
Reply to  Sam
3 years ago

maybe they do – that is what I am saying, in part, you can’t dismiss Shahak as a liar so easily

and I have more questions than “answers” – part of the motivation for writing this is to engage with others and share some ideas

Eliyahu Rooff
Eliyahu Rooff
3 years ago

My approach is a simple one. In the world to come, I’d rather have to explain why I was too kind to people than why I was too cruel to people. And if our actions in this world are repaid “measure for measure,” we need to act in a way that we’re ready to accept from others acting toward us and our needs.

Dan Rickman
Dan Rickman
Reply to  Eliyahu Rooff
3 years ago

thanks for your comment – and yes I quite agree with that. Your comment does, of course, bring to mind the various pesukim which say “lo tachos eynecha”(Devarim 19:13 for example) and the rabbinic dictum “One who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate” (Tanhuma, Parashat Mezora,1)

However, that is all beside the point (setting aside how we interpret all this in any case), as helping a fellow human being in need should be our natural reaction

So yes, I absolutely agree that we should be kind to each other – and if we are in error, let’s be too kind as you say

3 years ago

1. From a forensic standpoint it’s hard not to see how Shahak was lying about the incident.
It showed he wasn’t arguing in good faith. If he wanted to have a real discussion he could have brought up the halachic sources he didn’t approve to scholars and Rabbis for debate and discussion. Pablo Christinani at least challenged Nachmanides to a debate.

2. The Talmud is huge and if one is looking for anti Semetic fuel, they’ll, find something there without taking it into context.

3. The Talmud is a discussion and breakdown of Rabbinic law, theology, philosophy, and ethics. Not everything mentioned is the final opinion is practiced or was ever practiced as Jewish law. The final opinion if the Talmud is codified the in the Mishnah Torah and Shulchan Aruch.

4. Finally and most importantly, if one reads the biographies of any of the great Rabbis and Talmudic scholars from the past 2000 years one can clearly see that they always treated gentiles with the utmost respect and dignity. You’d be hard pressed to find one that didn’t. If the products of the Talmud is men who treat non Jews with utmost respect, I don’t see how it’s logical to say that the Talmud is racist or bigoted towards them.

Dan Rickman
Dan Rickman
Reply to  Alex
3 years ago


Thank you for your comments, much appreciated. My thoughts are as follows

1 You make two points, so I will address them separately

1a I think we will never know now how much basis of fact there was in Shahak’s account. However, as I pointed out in the article, it could have been true and this is worrying enough. I cited the case of the rabbi who did not help his neighbour with a potentially life saving injury on Shabbat afternoon, something I heard myself from the rabbi. There are also those who rely on the Mishnah Berurah

משנה ברורה סימן של 

כותית אין מילדין – ואפילו בשכר דבחול מילדין משום איבה כמבואר ביו”ד סימן קנ”ד הכא אסור משום דיכולה להשתמט ולומר דאין מחללין שבת כ”א לההוא דמנטר שבתא וכתב המג”א ובמקום דאיכא למיחש לאיבה גם בכה”ג שרי אם אין בה חלול. ודע דהרופאים בזמנינו אפי’ היותר כשרים אינם נזהרים בזה כלל דמעשים בכל שבת שנוסעים כמה פרסאות לרפאות עובדי כוכבים וכותבין ושוחקין סממנים בעצמן ואין להם על מה שיסמוכו דאפילו אם נימא דמותר לחלל שבת באיסור דרבנן משום איבה בין העו”ג [אף דג”ז אינו ברור עיין בפמ”ג] איסור דאורייתא בודאי אסור לכו”ע ומחללי שבת גמורים הם במזיד השם ישמרנו:

“…One must be aware that even pious doctors in our time totally disregard this halacha and travel and write on Shabbos for the care of a non-Jew. For even if one were to say that it is permitted to violate a Rabbinic prohibition to avoid aiva (and the Pri Migadim is unsure of even this much), one may certainly not violate a biblical prohibition according to all, and they are absolute deliberate transgressors of Shabbos, may God protect them (from such sins)”

1a I think you misunderstand Shahak, he rejected rabbinic authority, so why would he seek rabbinic engagement to his humanist concerns which he considered they would not understand? Having said which, he could and should have engaged more in my view and his critique lacks balance. Sadly it doesn’t lack substance though, which is what I find troubling (and I wrote the article, in part, to see if this troubles others)

2 OK, but you don’t have to look hard to find xenophic statements and they are hard to contextualise, nor have I seen much effort to do so. Of course, this also doesn’t make the Talmudim unique either, and you don’t have to go back far in history to find this (you can even find this today)

3 The genre of the Talmud is open to debate. It isn’t really a discussion, e.g. the Talmud is not Hansard. However, yes you can’t learn halakha direct from the Talmud. You can trace halakha back to the Talmud e.g. in the case of saving a non-Jew’s life on Shabbos see Avodah Zarah 26a .

I can think of many other discriminatory practical halakhot which exist today based on “difficult” Talmudic dicta and sugyot

4 There are no reliable biographies which go back 2000 years, and you could suggest that modern biographies of various tzaddikim or gedolim are more like hagiographies, so you won’t find many examples of challenging behaviour there, perhaps.

More to the point, I think we should look at the overall behaviour and attitudes here, not just those of the exceptional people, however exemplary. And, in this regard at least, I have to say there is much less respect for non-Jews.

You can readily find this in well read chareidi rabbis who are popular nowadays, easy to find such literature or lectures on YouTube. I recently read this blog which discusses on egregious example.

Thanks again for taking the time to comment, I do appreciate the feedback on the article

Dan Rickman
Dan Rickman
3 years ago

as an update, I have recently come across this blog which has a very sensible discussion of the issues

Close Cookmode
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x