The Jews Amongst the Nations: In Defence of the Talmud;A Disappointingly-Brief Talmud Apologetic That Includes the Use of Some Rather Creative Thinking,jan peczkis|Tuesday, November 22, 2016
This short (15-page) pamphlet was written in 1934 by Talmudic scholar Joseph Shapotshnick, who was President of the Rabbinical Association in England. The author called attention to the way that Adolf Hitler and Alfred Rosenberg were vilifying the Jewish people. (p. 3)
For today’s reader, the controversial passages in the Talmud remain topical even though no one would think of using them to justify persecution of the Jews. Clearly, the rejection of the accusation that Jews are using the Talmud to harm gentiles, and rejection of the accusation that Jews are using the Talmud as a blueprint to rule the world, does not itself relieve the reader of examining the questionable teachings in the Talmud.
THE “KILL THE BEST OF THE GENTILES” VERSES
Author Shapotshnick brings up KIDDUSHIN Chapter 4, in the Palestinian Talmud, and SOPHERIM Chapter 15, in the Babylonian Talmud. He attributes the “even the very best of other nations are to be destroyed” verses to times of war.
However, the author himself does not sound fully convinced of this explanation, as is evident from his comments, “Many Jewish scholars of the Rabbinical Literature have found this statement beyond their comprehension. Is it little wonder that non-Jews are filled with disgust whenever coming across these words in the Talmud?” (p. 9).
The question is evident: If these verses so obviously and straightforwardly refer to justified killings in times of war, then why have Talmudic scholars found them “beyond their comprehension?”
KILLING A GENTILE FOR OBSERVING THE SABBATH
The author presents the following scenario (p. 5) for the command to put to death a heathen found observing the Sabbath (SANHEDRIN 58b): The pagan Romans were persecuting the Jews. They sent spies to infiltrate the Jewish community, and, to function effectively as spies, they pretending to be Jews by observing Jewish practices. Therefore, a heathen found observing the Sabbath, or studying the Torah, was probably a Roman spy.
What are we to make of this? Clearly, Shapotshnick has told us an interesting story. However, reading the passage in SANHEDRIN 58b (as I did) makes it obvious that there is no mention of Roman spies in connection with the passage. In addition, other rabbinical opinions on this verse do not even consider the Roman-spy scenario.
The author also cites BABA KAMMA 38a, wherein a non-Jew who studies the Torah is like a High Priest. (p. 6). However, using this to nullify SANHEDRIN 58b implies that one verse in the Talmud can cancel out another verse. In addition, the passage in BABA KAMMA 38a is often stated to be in reference to a gentile observing the Noahide Laws, and the context of the verse appears to support such an interpretation.
Shapotshnick argues that the death sentence for a gentile observing the Sabbath (SANHEDRIN 58b) in no sense means that the Jews are trying to monopolize the Sabbath. (p. 6). In saying this, he is explicitly countered by Talmudic scholar Sacha Stern [see my review of Stern’s Jewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings (Arbeiten Zur Geschichte Des Antiken Judentums Und Des Urchristentums, Vol 23)], who indicates that the killing WAS in fact intended to protect Jewish exclusiveness.
Still another interpretation of killing gentiles for observing the Sabbath is provided by Rabbi Avigdor Miller. He does not indicate whether this teaching is, or ever was, literal. He suggests that it means that the gentiles' spiritual inferiority is such that a day off work for a gentile would only give him free time to cause harm. Click on, and read my review of, Rejoice O Youth: Rational Approaches to God's Existence and the Torah's Divine Origin .
Finally, all the foregoing explanations (or exculpations) are contradicted by those Talmudic apologists who suggest that the “kill the gentiles” verses in the Talmud are figurative, and that, in ancient rabbinic literature, they only meant severe displeasure over Jewish-imitating gentile acts. For instance, see my review of From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933. In addition, the verses, even if figurative, still convey an attitude of contempt for gentiles.
THANKS FOR NOT BEING MADE A GENTILE
The author attempts a novel interpretation for Jews thanking God that they were not created gentiles. (pp. 7-8). Shapotshnick suggests that “create” is used in the sense that Jews have not been made into a people because they need to strive to become one. (p. 8). However, other scholars have acknowledged that the verses in question do in fact imply Jewish superiority and do in fact create an invidious contrast between Jew and gentile. See my review of Sabbath Prayer Book.
The variety of proffered explanations, for the controversial Talmudic verses, is telling. It suggests that they are of an ad hoc, speculative, and exculpatory nature, rather than some kind of “correct” understanding of what the verses “actually” mean.
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