Is Judaism by its Nature Racist?

(not in the Shulhan Arukh)

At the time of legislating the anti-racist law in the Knesset, the Orthodox bloc fiercely objected to adoption of the law. During this period the Sephardi Chief Rabbi issued a decision saying that according to the halakhah, it was forbidden for a Jew to rent a dwelling to a non-Jew in the Land of Israel. Nor was this bloc satisfied until a paragraph was included in the law specifying that no part of it could be applied to Judaism. Thus there was necessarily created among the general public the impression that Judaism is by its nature racist. Is this actually so?

At the outset we must define the term racism. We see racism as discrimination rooted in law, which restricts the rights of the citizen because of his race, religion or ethnic ancestry. When we say “law” in this discussion our intent is that which we see as emanating from the halakhah. At the same time there are considerations, which are broader than the halakhah. A properly inclusive answer must include not just technical Halakhah but also Aggadah and the philosophy of early and late Rabbinic leaders. The basic question is: what is the approach of Judaism to the non-Jew?

From its inception Judaism has had two fundamental bases:
1. The Jewish people’s essence and uniqueness based on its covenant with God to be a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People”.
2. Universalism in Judaism.

The first purpose is expressed by our laws in the Torah stressing separation. On the other hand, the monotheistic concept first expressed in the very same Torah is thoroughly universal. God creates prototype man who is the ancestor of all mankind; only twenty generations later does the first Jew appear. When the Bible deals with general moral questions it tends to do so via the involvement of non-Jews (for example, Sodom and Gommorah, the Flood story, the Books of Job and Jonah). And the Prophets are replete with universalistic references.

Of maximum importance is the relationship to the Ger in the Bible. “Ger” in the early Biblical period meant one whose origins are foreign and who resides among the Jewish people. (Not one who has converted to Judaism via a special ceremony. The latter meaning comes only towards the end of the Biblical period). Both the Torah and the Prophets include many statements protective of the Ger and of his rights. The later Prophets particularly welcome the Ger whether he has formally converted or whether he has simply abandoned idolatry and undertaken some of the mitzvot. (The latter were called “Righteous Ger” or “Fearers of Heaven”). Job, who is viewed by some as a non-Jew, nevertheless is praised as in some respects exceeding Abraham. Judaism was the first religion of the world to establish a form of ritual for the acceptance of converts without reference to race or ethnic origin.

In Jewish philosophy, the consistently positive approach to the non-Jew continues through the Talmudic period up to modern times. It emphasized that a Tzadik (a specially righteous person) may indeed be a non-Jew and that such a person would enjoy the benefits of the world to come. A special term is coined: Hasidei Umot Haolam, the especially righteous among the peoples of the earth.

Judaism is committed to an ongoing war against Avodah Zarah (literally, Strange Worship – usually rendered idol worship). From the beginning, Judaism has seen idol worship and all it entails as the ultimate source of ritual and moral pollution. Thus, the ongoing conflict with the various bearers of paganism throughout Jewish history. The books of the Bible are full of references to this conflict, which resurfaced as a (if not, the) major factor in the wars against the Hellenists and the Romans. In terms of this elemental conflict between good and evil, the pagan nations of the world are viewed in thoroughly negative terms; they are labeled Amalek, Esau or Edom. This of course does not contradict the concept elucidated above that individual non-Jews who were virtuous could rise to the heights, even without conversion. There is an important differentiation between pagan idol-worshipers who are by definition corrupt and wicked, and of non-Jews in general. One definition of virtuous non-Jews is those who observe the seven Noahide laws. Although in the early centuries of Christianity its practitioners were to be shunned first as Sectarians and then as Idol Worshipers as well, by the Middle Ages there is general affirmation that Christianity not be considered Idol Worship. And so, the Prohibition against associating with pagans does not apply to them.

Considering the history of Church hostility and periodic persecution, it is not surprising that this theoretical underpinning to necessary commerce was not quite unanimous. Further, there remained both ideological (the question of the Messiah) and concrete problems (the use of three-dimensional images in Catholic, Orthodox and Byzantine worship). These factors do not exist with Islam, which was uniformly viewed as being acceptably non-pagan. The descendants of Ishmael pose fewer theological/historical problems than the descendants of Edom (Rome).

The halakhic status of the non-Jew in the Land of Israel today: Although at the time of the original conquest, Joshua was commanded to drive out the practitioners of Idol Worship, one category of non-Jew was permitted to remain with his rights protected by a variety of laws. This was the Ger Toshav – the resident alien. By definition this was a non-Jew who was not an idol-worshiper but was minimally bound by the seven Noahide laws. The halakhic status of all non-Jews in the State of Israel today is that of Ger Toshav.

Conclusion: It clearly emerges from the above that Judaism is and always has been completely free of racial prejudice. On the contrary, in the application of its monotheistic approach, it is Judaism which has brought the idea of universalism to the world. Our current liturgy combines both covenantal separation and universalism by enunciating the prayer that all the nations of the world will join together in the worship of the one God.

Rabbi Tuvia Friedman
Approved Unanimously 5747

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