Home| Letters| Links| RSS| About Us| Contact Us

On the Frontline

What's New

Table of Contents

Index of Authors

Index of Titles

Index of Letters

Mailing List

subscribe to our mailing list:


Critique of Intelligent Design

Evolution vs. Creationism

The Art of ID Stuntmen

Faith vs Reason

Anthropic Principle

Autopsy of the Bible code

Science and Religion

Historical Notes


Serious Notions with a Smile


Letter Serial Correlation

Mark Perakh's Web Site

email this article to a friend printer-friendly format download format voice your opinion Digg It

Simple Halachic observations and Jewish universalism

By Alexander Eterman

Posted April 20, 2004

It all began with the following letter:


I saw this on the web and can't believe it is accurate. Is there anything similar in this location?
"Every Jew has the obligation to see that Christian churches are burned down and wiped out. The faithful must be insulted and the clergy killed."

Shulchan Aruch[1], Yore Dea, 146:14


The following is a reply to this letter.

1) Predictably enough, the internet text cited above has little to do with the actual content of Yoreh Deah, 146:14. To start with, let us look at the actual passage:

"The commandment requires anyone who finds an idol to destroy it. How is it to be destroyed? It is to be ground to powder and scattered to the wind or drowned in the sea. [The same applies to any objects that accompany the idol, as well as anything made for the sake of the idol, as written in the Torah -- 'destroy all these places completely'. Rama]".

We must note the following. First of all, this passage was taken by the internet translator from an actual chapter, "The Laws on Idol Worship". Secondly, the person who placed this fictitious quote on the internet manipulated the text of Shulchan Aruch (SA) in a calculated manner: judging by a number of indications, the English quote relies on the abovementioned paragraph from SA. We can even surmise how he came up with the phrase "and the clergy killed", although this is an obvious mistranslation. In fact, one should not expect to discover blatant anti-Christian utterances in classical Jewish texts: for obvious pragmatic reason, the authors (even those who resided in Moslem countries) tried to avoid such statements.

At the same time, an examination of this passage from SA, of its sources and context, is a highly interesting and instructive endeavor.

2) To begin with, the entire small section of SA devoted to idol worship (we should not take this heading too literally -- it merely deals with the most acute forms of relations between Jews and gentiles) is essentially a textual paraphrase of relevant writings by Maimonides. This does not mean that the author had no opinion of his own [2]; it is clear, however, that where those issues were concerned, his opinion was virtually identical to that of Maimonides. Furthermore, it is obvious that between Maimonides and SA, chronologically speaking, not a single eminent authority investigated this subject from a different, independent standpoint. Thus, in passing, we had to take a look at Maimonides' treatise. We will leave aside the technical findings from comparing the two treatises and we will share several additional thoughts below.

Next, it should be noted that it is at the very end of this section (158:1-2) that SA formulates its most problematic injunction, specifying the cases in which gentiles as such are to be punished by death. Naturally, this too is a fairly accurate quotation from Maimonides, who, in turn, faithfully quotes the Talmud. This secondary and tertiary derivation merits closer scrutiny. The very fact of the almost automatic adoption of the "deadly" decree from the 4th-5th centuries to the 12th century, and thereafter until the 16th century, is highly revealing, a clear indication that in this regard Jewish tradition underwent no substantial change, let alone moderation, for 12 centuries. This fact casts doubt on the popular claim asserting that it did change at a later date.

Before we proceed, we should point out that SA, unlike Maimonides, pays virtually no heed to irrelevant (i.e. practically inapplicable in the modern era) aspects of Halacha. Thus the very list of items included in SA is an informative and telling testimony to the relevance of one subject or another.

Chapter 158 of Yoreh Deah says:

(a) Idol worshippers who live among us in peace are not to be "caused to die", yet it is forbidden to save them from death. If, for example, one of them falls into a pit, it is forbidden to pull him out even for a payment. Therefore they are not to be given medical treatment even for a payment, unless there is a fear that refusing them treatment may have undesirable repercussions.

Rama adds: "And if such a fear exists, they can be treated even free of charge. Furthermore, it is permitted to try various remedies on a gentile slave, to see whether or not they have an effect on him."

(b) At the time of the Temple, it was common for Jewish heretics and idolaters, as well as those who demonstratively and/or for the sake of the process itself violated Torah commandments, to be put to death, in public whenever possible or by means of subterfuges if it could not be done in public. For example, if such an apostate were in a pit with a ladder leading down to it, the ladder would be removed under a false pretext. The apostate might be told, "I am taking the ladder for a short time, to take my son down from the roof, and then I will return it" -- or things to that effect.

These statements became the focus of a fascinating debate, both during the time of the SA and in later times. I do not intend to describe this debate in any sort of detail. Nevertheless, I would like to point out some of its more interesting elements.

To begin with, there is no doubt that the term "idol worshippers" (with many editions even referring to "idol worshippers belonging to the seven nations of Canaan") as used by the SA has no specific meaning, and is to be understood simply as "gentiles who were not granted (for what services is another question) the special status of the righteous". At the very least, the term refers to all members of other tribes and faiths who live in accordance with their own beliefs, distanced from Judaism and never Judaized. Another, more strict interpretation uses this term in reference to all gentiles. In any case, it applies to all Christians (with the possible exception of certain marginal sects), to all Moslems, and definitely to all adherents of non-monotheistic religions, to all ordinary Europeans, Asians, Africans, and so on -- i.e., to no less than 99% of gentiles. This is easily borne out, among other things, by textual analysis of the sources that employ the phrase in question. It is important to keep in mind that the author of the SA, who does not discuss irrelevant issues, would assuredly not include in his treatise any irrelevant speculations concerning, among other things, non-existent (from the standpoint of reality as well as of Halacha) peoples such as the ancient Romans or the Canaanites.

Next, it is important to note that the author of the SA himself understood formula (a) "neither to kill nor to save" in broad terms. That is to say, he believed that the first half of the formula ("not to kill") constitutes a sanction rather than a prohibition. In other words, those who do not wish to kill a gentile have the right not to do so; on the other hand, those who do wish to kill him are fully entitled to do it. What is more, the very sanction not to kill is viewed by the author of the SA as a groundbreaking innovation that must be elucidated. On the other hand, the prohibition against saving a gentile is seen by him as absolute, leaving no humanistic option. All of this is described by the author of the SA in his seminal work Beit Yosef. A fascinating review of this concept and some other halachic constructs was left to us by the Turei Zahav in his commentary on these passages in the SA.

Equally important is the seemingly innocuous story, recounted in the SA, concerning the fact that in the Temple period Jewish apostates were systematically executed -- sometimes openly, at other times clandestinely. I repeat: the SA is by no means a historical record, let alone a code of irrelevant commandments. The SA does not recount irrelevant things. In all likelihood, the phrase in question is to be understood as (b) -- a relevant guideline: since we cannot openly kill today's heretics, we should consider other, indirect methods of their elimination. Since at the time of the SA a large number of those renegades were Jewish converts to the dominant religions -- Christianity and Islam -- the author of the SA could not discuss this matter in open and explicit terms. This made him resort to transparent hints.

It should be noted that the original intent of the entire section in the SA which deals with idol worship was to prescribe the rules of conduct for Jews encountering open manifestations of pagan cults. It is plain to see, however, that the author went far beyond the confines of this subject matter. In this light, it is fascinating to consider the passages of purely social import, revealing the true nature of the coexistence between Jews and gentiles -- from the Jewish standpoint, to be sure.

In Chapter 152 of the SA it is written:

If an idol worshipper holds a feast to celebrate his son's marriage, a Jew [who happens to be there] is forbidden to eat even the food he has brought with him, and this holds true even if his own servant stands by his side and serves him.

This injunction merits a brief comment. In many instances, the Torah discourages the Jews from socializing with gentiles, urging them to avoid their company and never enter into friendly relations out of the fear that this might lead to intermarriage. Strangely enough, this serves as the rationale behind certain social-culinary prohibitions, such as the ban against buying bread from gentiles. The question of how to interpret these Torah prohibitions is far from harmless. This injunction in SA clearly reveals the Orthodox interpretation of these prohibitions: what is at issue here is mandatory, prescribed hostility toward gentiles, hostility that cannot be revoked under any circumstances. Importantly, this hostility also extends to "good" gentiles, for in their case too the very idea of intermarriage is inadmissible.

First of all, as to the meaning of the passage: it forbids a Jew to partake in the rejoicings of a gentile [3]. The commentators are unanimous in pointing out that since the Torah commands the Jews to live in enmity with gentiles, sharing in their joy constitutes a flagrant violation of the prohibition, which, in contrast to others, cannot be revoked for reasons of social expediency (see, for example, the commentary of Turei Zahav to this passage). For that reason, a Jew is forbidden to eat kosher food at a gentile wedding, even if refusing the food may cause considerable trouble for the Jews -- as opposed to other situations where allowances are made in similar cases. Commentators cite another example: if a gentile presents a Jew with a gift in honor of a gentile holiday, the gift should be refused. If, however, refusing the gift is fraught with repercussions, it should be accepted and only later destroyed. In our instance, however, the ban against eating at a gentile feast permits no exceptions -- even if this threatens danger to the Jews. Why? Because receiving a gift from a gentile -- in and of itself -- is not subject to a basic prohibition; such a case, therefore, compromises are permissible. At the same time, maintaining hostility toward gentiles and refusing to participate in their joys are subject to a basic Torah commandment, so that any pragmatic concessions are unacceptable.

In Chapter 153, the SA forbids:

(a) cattle that belong to a Jew to be left in the house of gentiles, for the latter are suspected of bestiality always and everywhere, except for those places where bestiality is a crime (Rama adds that its is also forbidden to leave a Jewish child with a gentile teacher as a pupil or an apprentice, since the gentile is liable to lead the child into heresy);

(b) a Jew to remain alone with gentiles, for the latter are suspected of a tendency toward bloodshed;

 (c) a Jew to walk in front of an armed gentile or to tell him where he is going;

(d) a Jewish woman to remain alone with gentiles, even if they are many and their wives are present.

Even a  token adoption of these principles is tantamount to a declaration of social war. This comes as no surprise: Orthodox Judaism has been waging war against the outside world for several centuries. This is evidenced by the history of Jewish kahals.

In Chapter 157, the SA decrees:

A Jew is forbidden to pretend to be an idol worshipper, even if he would be killed unless he did so.

Rama adds that where there is no immediate danger, a Jew is forbidden to wear the dress of an idol worshipper (so as to avoid recognition), even if doing so will enable him to pas through customs without paying duties. It should be noted that in this case the SA undoubtedly uses the term "idol worshippers" to refer to Christians and Moslems, through certainly not to them alone.

This rather incomplete halachic summary gives a sufficiently clear picture of the true nature of Jewish coexistence with gentiles within the framework of Halacha. It would not be difficult to show that this summary is valid to this day; however, such an exposition is not part of our present agenda.

3) Let us now refer to the analogous section of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah treatise. In the course of our brief study, this reference was inevitable for the simple reason that there is a need to compare the formulations featured in the two treatises. However, it had additional importance. Maimonides, unlike the laconic author of SA, considered it necessary to include in his halachic work certain crucial clarifications shedding light on both the relations between Jews and gentiles and a number of adjacent issues -- such as the vital issue of the religious and intellectual tolerance of Orthodox Judaism. We should stress once again that to this day, no prominent Jewish religious authority has added anything of significance to Maimonides' words.

In Chapter 2 of the book "Regulations on Idol Worship and Gentile Laws", Maimonides writes, among other things:

The core prohibition of idol worship is not to worship any creation, be it an angel, one of the spheres, a star, one of the four elements or something created from one of the elements. Even though a worshipper knows that the Lord is God but nevertheless worships one of the creations in the way that Enosh [4] and those of his generation did before they forgot God, he is still counted as an idolater.

This statement is plainly aimed against Christianity. It provides the theoretical foundation for Maimonides' view of Christianity as unmitigated idol worship.

Maimonides continues:

Idolaters wrote many books about their worship, what the main part of their worship is, how it is done and what the related laws are. God commanded us not to read such books all, and nor to think about them or any connected matter at all. Even to look at a figure is forbidden, as it is written, "Don't turn to idols"...

It is not just turning to idolatry by thoughts that is forbidden, but we are also warned not to consider any thoughts which may lead to [one's own] uprooting of any of the Torah's principles. We are warned not to think in this way or to turn one's attention to it, or allow oneself to become confused by following the [incorrect] impulses of one's heart. This is because a man's reasoning is limited, and not all ways of thinking can attain the truth of the creation [and Creator], and if a man is pulled by his impulsive thoughts he will appear to destroy the world by the limitations of his mind [when spreading such opinions amongst others]. What does this mean? Sometimes he will adopt idolatry, and sometimes he will consider the oneness of the Creator -- whether He exists or not, what is in heaven and beneath the ground, what existed before the world was created and what will be after it. Sometimes he will contemplate whether the prophecies are true or not, and sometimes he will contemplate whether the Torah is heavenly [in origin] or not, and he won't know the correct attributes necessary to know the truth, and he will become a heretic. The Torah warned us against this by saying, "...and that you don't follow your impulses and what you see, which lead you astray"; that is to say not to be attracted by the limitations of one's mind, which will prevent one from attaining the truth.

And further on:

A Jewish infidel is not considered as a Jew in all respects, and is never accepted in repentance... Infidels are those who follow the impulses of their hearts with respect to the aforementioned matters, so much so that they transgress the key commandments of the Torah in contempt and brazenness, and they will say that they are not sinning. It is forbidden to converse with them or make them repent at all...

This entire edifice represents a theoretical basis for the absolute intolerance manifested by Jewish tradition for any alternative opinion. Citing these words by Maimonides, Israeli religious institutions prevent non-religious speakers from delivering their talks. Maimonides' very admonition "not to think" in a certain way due to man's limited reasoning is akin to the concept of the Inquisition, popular during the Middle Ages. In contemporary political terminology, it echoes the idea of total ideological  censorship practiced in fascist and communist states. This appears quite strange against the backdrop of the inherent ancient intellectual liberalism that clearly attracted Maimonides -- yet it is quite natural in another, political sense when we recall that Maimonides himself, in imitation and with the blessing of Saladin, established a regime of ruthless repression in Egypt's large Jewish community.

In Chapter 7, Maimonides writes (this is in fact the original passage that is quoted in a condensed form by the SA; see above):

It is a positive commandment to destroy idolatry, associated accoutrements, and all that is made for idolatry... It is a commandment to pursue idolaters and idolatry in Israel until they are totally eradicated from our land, but we are not commanded to pursue them outside Israel, but from any place which is conquered [by us] we have to eradicate idolatry.

Thus Maimonides clearly shows that Jewish tradition not only has no qualms about conquering non-Jewish territory, but it views it as a natural state of things in the more or less remote messianic future. This is quite pertinent in the light of the following fundamental passage (from Chapter 10):

One may provide for the poor of idolaters as one does for the Jewish poor so as not to create enmity, and nor do we prevent them from taking any of the gifts of harvest for the poor, for the same reason, and one may enquire after their health, even on one of their festivals, for the same reason. One should not enter an idolater's house on one of their festivals in order to exchange civilities, but if, on one of their festivals, one met an idolater in the market [or street], one should exchange civilities with him in a quiet voice and with a bowed head.

The laws concerning the sale of property and support of the poor, et cetera, mentioned in this chapter apply only when the Jews are exiled amongst the nations, or when they are attacking the Jews, but when we are attacking them it is forbidden to have them in our midst. Concerning temporary residence or moving from one rented house to another; we may not allow a gentile into our land unless he has accepted upon himself the Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah, for it is written, "They shall not dwell in your land", even for a single hour. If a gentile accepted upon himself the Seven Commandments then he is classed as a settling stranger [5]. Settling strangers are accepted only at a time when the Jubilee is observed, but a righteous stranger, i.e. a convert, is accepted at all times.

Essentially, what Maimonides asserts in this statement is that relatively humane, or at least reasonable and rational relations with gentiles are possible only so long as they are more powerful than the Jews. When the situation is reversed, however (and Maimonides has no doubt that this time will come), the masks will be cast off and all gentiles will be banished from the lands under Jewish control. Here it is necessary to make two points of colossal importance.

According to Maimonides, no exception will be made for any gentile unless he converts to Judaism (and thereby ceases to be a gentile). The entire theory about "righteous gentiles", "settling strangers", and so on suddenly becomes irrelevant!

Next, it is no accident that in the passage in question Maimonides does not refer to Eretz Israel -- the Land of Israel -- but rather to "our land". Since the preceding passage clearly indicates that Maimonides takes for granted that other, non-Jewish lands lying outside the Land of Israel will be conquered (and cleansed of idolatry), there is no doubt that gentiles will be subject to banishment not only from the Land of Israel, but also from their own occupied lands, which will be innumerable in the messianic time.

Moreover, since in the messianic time [6] the entire world, according to Judaic sources, will belong to the Jews, banishment effectively implies extermination -- for the gentiles will have nowhere to go. This means that the gentiles will be faced with a simple choice: convert to Judaism or disappear, a choice that is even more brutal than that offered to the Jews and the Moslems in Maimonides' own Spain 287 years after his death.

[1] Shulchan Aruch -- a basic compendium of Jewish laws compiled by Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575). SA is a work that concludes the many centuries of Jewish religious creativity and ushers in a new era, and this accounts for its unshakeable authority. Its every statement (unlike those of other codes) is accepted as absolute truth, which can be commented on but never questioned. Thus SA put an end to the debates that took place throughout the post-Talmudic period: the period of the gaonim and rishonim (the "first sages"), which ushered in the era of "new Jewish teaching", and the era of the acharonim (the "last sages"), who used a somewhat different Judaist hermeneutic technique. The Orthodox Judaism of the last centuries is justly referred to as "SA Judaism", for it is the SA which forms the legal and practical backbone of its existence. 

[2] Anyone who studied his key work -- Beit Yosef -- knows that Joseph Caro is a distinguished and independent scholar.

[3] This injunction is even more transparent in Maimonides' work.

[4] Who believed, in accordance with Jewish tradition, that by worshiping the stars he served their Creator.

[5] That same semi-esoteric righteous gentile we have mentioned above.

[6] Judaism does not possess a detailed and consistent eschatological theory. Initially, it gave no thought at all to the remote future. A series of relatively late Biblical books begin to feature veiled references to the coming Kingdom of the Lord, yet these references are lamentably vague. The Jews borrowed their eschatology from others, above all from the Christians, who had fashioned it into a relatively well-formed edifice from the start. Essentially, Maimonides was the only one to have said anything specific about the ultimate destiny of the world. He views the Kingdom of God in utterly earthly terms. If a Jewish leader appears, one who descends from the house of David, who is a talmid chacham and a pious Jew, who will restore Jewish sovereignty and a strong Jewish state, is crowned as its king, and brings about the observance of all or most of the commandments while he is at it -- then we will retrospectively acknowledge him as the true Messiah. Thus restoring Jewish strength and sovereignty under the banner of religion is, by definition, the essence of the messianic time. What Maimonides probably implies is that with time, this earthly kingdom will witness certain miracles of an apocalyptic nature, that the Temple will be rebuilt, and that the entire world will accept Judaism as the one true religion and recognize the superiority of the Jewish state -- yet all this remains a rather vague concept. In essence, the messianic time, according to Maimonides, consists of a period of Jewish political and military greatness multiplied by religious devotion. With devotion assumed to be an entity that is hard to measure, the present may very well be regarded as just such a time, with Ben Gurion as the Messiah. To repeat, in Maimonides' opinion the Jewish rule, during the messianic time, will extent to the gentile world as well, which basically means the entire world.