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Jewish racism;British Jewish Scholar Comes Close to Admitting the Jewish Racism in the Talmud. He Also Features Early Jewish Universalism

jan peczkis|Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The author is Professor of Rabbinic Judaism at University College London. He identifies himself as an Orthodox Jew. (p. xxii).

In his assiduous analysis of rabbinical literature, author Sacha Stern employs Talmudic sources (Mishna, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, and Bavli), many different Midrashim, and other sources. (pp. xi-xii). As part of my review of this and related works, I have regularly consulted the online Babylonian Talmud (Soncino edition), and have included specific references to it below. All my specific references below are from the Bavli, in CAPS, and from this online source.


Let us first put my review in perspective. Volumes upon volumes of books have been written by Jews (and not a few non-Jews) on the need for Christians and Poles, for example, to "be mature", to "get over the heroic narrative", to "come to terms with the past" and even to "confront the past". Jews should be held to the same standard. At least that is my opinion. This book is a step in that direction.

As for anti-Semitism, the reader must ask this honest question: What causes anti-Semitism--the candor about certain Talmudic verses, or the nearly-total exemption of criticism of Jews for them? Could taboo topics about Jews actually encourage the proliferation of anti-Semitic literature--with its strident, nonobjective portrayals of the Talmud, and its unsubstantiated and frequently-bizarre accusations against Jews?


Racism can be defined as a strong self-aggrandizement of one's own people and/or a consistently contemptuous attitude towards other peoples. Both are graphically obvious in this book.

Let us keep this oft-emotional matter in proper balance. Jewish racism and Jewish universalism are both real, and one does not negate the other. In addition, neither one of them defines, or represents the totality of, Judaism. For a detailed study of Jewish universalism, please click on, and read my review, of Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition. See also my analysis of Jewish universalism towards the end of this review.

The controversial Talmudic verses are not "mistranslated" or "misunderstood". Nor are they just the private opinions of one or two rabbis. Nor are they "cherry picked" out of the Talmud by anti-Semites. Instead of all this, there are very many verses involved, and moreover they come together in the form of specific, irrefutable THEMES. I specify some of these themes below. Moreover, the themes do not "float around" in isolation from each other. Instead, they coalesce together, forming a systematic pattern of Jewish self-exaltation and a systematic pattern of denigration of the gentiles.

Author Sacha Stern actually uses the term racism in reference to rabbinic Jewish thinking, albeit in quotations, as he comments, (quote) In way of apologetics, we may note that unlike other forms of "racism", the early rabbinic view of Israel as superior to the non-Jews was almost never called upon to vindicate the use of violence or exploitation. (unquote). (p. 4). [This is a separate issue, and is debatable. For instance, please see my review of Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World)].

As part of his Talmudic apologetic, Stern also points out that, in his words, the "racial" prejudice of this kind, and rabbinic "racism" (his words "racial", and "racist" in quotes) were common currency in the Late Antique near eastern world. (pp. 4-5). [However, the racism of one people does not negate or excuse the racism of another people. See first comment.]


The author is more critical of Eisenmenger's motives than of his findings. Stern quips, (quote) The passages I have quoted already suggest that the rabbinic image of the non-Jews is xenophobic in the extreme. Indeed, rabbinic sources assume, as we shall see in the course of this study, that non-Jews are intrinsically wicked and dedicated to murder, sexual offences and idolatry (see section I.3.A). They suggest, besides, that whereas the Jews are akin to angels, non-Jews are akin to animals (section I.4.A). Much of this material has been quoted by anti-Semitic writers of the early modern period--not least, by Eisenmenger in his ENTDECKTES JUDENTHUM--with the sole purpose of vilifying the Jews and their religion...Whilst his quotation of original sources is generally reliable, his translation and interpretation of them not always are. Eisenmenger makes no effort to hide his anti-Jewish stance and motives. (unquote). (p. 4).

Stern repeats the argument, based on Jacob Katz and his book, Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Studies in Jewish-Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times (Scripta Judaica, 3), that medieval Talmudic scholars had ruled that the negative portrayals of non-Jews pertained only to the pagans of Antiquity. They are no longer binding. (p. 5). [Katz is less than convincing. See my review.]


How did Jews become the Chosen People in the first place? Stern cites Israeli scholar Joseph Heinemann. He suggested that the teaching, that God offered the Torah to many nations but only Israel would accept it (e. g, AVODA ZARAH 2b), was an invention designed to ward off gentile criticism of the exclusiveness of Jews as the Chosen People of God. (p. 211).


Stern provides numerous, specific rabbinic citations for all the points he raises, as he writes, (quote) The world could not exist without Israel. It was created for the sake of Israel, and is maintained entirely through their merit. Without Israel, there would be no rain or sunrise. Israel brings light to the world. All the blessings in the world are due to Israel. This is because the Almighty attends only to Israel, whence the rest of the world draws indirect benefit. Therefore, the nations could not exist without Israel...This "ethnocentric", highly self-centered worldview, confirms the extent to which the authors of our sources are exclusively concerned with their own identity. The notion that the "others" (the nations, the world) are subordinate to the "self" (Israel) and owe it their existence, suggests a dialectical relationship of self and other where the other serves no purpose, and has no other RAISON D'ETRE, but to define and enhance the essence of the self. (unquote). (p. 46). [Isn't that exactly what racism is all about?]

The world-incapable-of-existing-except-for-Israel Talmudic verse is from TAANITH 3b, and the remaining verses are extra-Talmudic. Stern fails to mention the verse in BERAKOT 32b, wherein the stars were created for the Jews and only for the Jews. Please click on, and read my detailed review, of The Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Berakot.


Again, Stern provides numerous, specific rabbinic citations for all the points he raises, as he writes, (quote) Righteous and angelic, the superiority of Israel over the nations should be by now self-evident. Rabbinic sources do not shy away from stating that Israel are the choicest of all nations, the best, the greatest, the highest, the most beloved of the Almighty. One Jew outweighs all the nations put together. Appropriately, every morning is recited the daily blessing "that He has not made me a non-Jew". This superiority is said, in Talmudic and other sources, to provide substantial benefits to Israel...A non-Jew who hits a Jew is punishable by death..."Israel are mighty before the nations", like God, they are masters over all the inhabitants of earth...This superiority appears to represent a subjective, "internal" truth, transcending, on some other plane, the experiences of the outside world. (unquote). (pp. 42-44).

The Jew-hitting verse is from SANHEDRIN 58b, and the verse in which Jews thank God for not making them gentiles is from MENAHOT 43b. The remaining verses, for the foregoing quoted statements, are extra-Talmudic.

The Jewish privileges are, at least to some extent, ones that come solely from the fact of being born Jewish. For instance, the Divine Presence (the SHEKHINA) rests upon Israel even when they are impure. (YOMA 56b). (p. 41).

In addressing the disparity between fancied great Jewish power and the lack of it in reality, Stern comments, (quote) An attempt to rationalize this contradiction may be found in the Talmudic claim that were it not for the TORAH which restrains the Jews, no nation would be able to resist them. (BETZA 25b). (unquote). (p. 44).


Although this inflammatory theme is strongly denied in discussions of Jewish Chosenness, it is inescapably true. Stern writes, (quote) As we shall see in later sections, the WHOLE of Israel is described indiscriminately as righteous and angelic, just as the WHOLE of "the nations" are wicked and akin to animals. (unquote). (emphasis in original). (p. 7). Furthermore, (quote) The righteousness of Israel stands in direct contrast with the wickedness of the nations...The nature of this righteousness, however, is taken for granted more often than it is described. (unquote). (pp. 30-31).

Exceptions to these foregoing themes do not invalidate them. Thus, Stern brings up "wicked" Jews and "righteous non-Jews", but then stresses this salient fact, (quote) Broadly speaking, these exceptions are presented as marginal in our sources, and do not affect the general, rabbinic image of the non-Jews and Israel. (unquote). (p. 7).

The polarity between Jews and gentiles is almost absolute. Israel and the nations are juxtaposed with light and darkness [PESAHIM 103b]. This is repeated in extra-Talmudic literature. (p. 2).

Now consider antigoyism (my term) in more detail. The author elaborates on the rabbinical teachings about the abject moral inferiority of the GOYIM relative to the Jews, with the following introduction to this subject (quote) As we shall see, the wickedness of the non-Jews is taken for granted in our sources rather than actually reported and observed: in this respect, it is a purely "cultural", "theoretical" construct. Nevertheless, the rabbinic image of the non-Jew takes on a reality of its own which forms the background to a number of Halakhic rulings. (unquote). (p. 22).


In some respects, all humans, according to the Talmud are like animals, and some features of a specific animal may even be applied to Israel. (p. 33-34). However, Stern points out that such comparisons are superficial in scope and significance. (p. 34). In addition, the fact that human-animal comparisons are not always derogatory (p. 34), of course, means that they usually are.

In like manner, while some comparisons of animals and gentiles are superficial, others are clearly not. They form distinct themes. Stern comments, (quote) Some passages suggest a more general affinity between non-Jews and animals...These comparisons are not restricted to any specific, superficial feature: they refer to the non-Jewish person AS A WHOLE, and suggest that the latter is generally akin, in his lowliness, to animals. General, all-inclusive associations of this kind are common with reference to dogs...It is quite clear that these statements aim at conveying that the non-Jews share the GENERAL features of the animal world, and particularly the lowliness of dogs. (unquote). (Emphasis in original). (p. 35). The foregoing is based on specified non-Talmudic writings.

The author brings up Ezekiel 23:20, and how this reference to Egyptians had been applied, by the Talmud, in his words, indiscriminately to all non-Jews, as in reference to gentiles as donkeys (notably BERAKOT 25b and BERAKOT 58a). Stern assesses this, (quote) Indeed, far from treating this affinity as mere, figurative metaphor, the BABYLONIAN TALMUD treats it as a tangible and concrete reality to the extent that it requires PRACTICAL, Halakhic significance. (unquote). (Emphasis in original). (p. 37).

Clearly, Stern goes beyond the usual Talmudic apologetic about Halakhic fatherhood, which would essentially have us believe that the donkey-gentile equation was nothing more than a fancy way of expressing disapproval of Jewish-gentile marriages.

With reference to BERAKOT 25b, Stern writes, (quote) ...the suggestion that the non-Jew may have been treated IN CONCRETE PRACTICE as equal to the donkey suggests far more than mere metaphorical similarity between them. Finally, one passage in the Babylonian Talmud suggests that as donkeys, the CONCRETE PHYSIOLOGY of the non-Jews is different from the Jews'...[NIDA 45a] Here, more than anywhere else, we find that the affinity of non-Jews with donkeys may be treated as tangible and hence, as a form of VIRTUAL IDENTITY. (unquote). (Emphasis in original). (p. 38).

Finally, the equation of non-Jews with donkeys has sexual connotations. For instance, with reference to BERAKOT 58a, intercourse with non-Jewish women amounts to bestiality. (p. 39, 165). This, of course, further reinforces the fact that gentiles are virtual donkeys.

On a separate issue, non-Jewish slaves of Jews have an affinity with animals. (KIDDUSHIN 22b). (pp. 96-99).

However, the entire foregoing discussion is rather academic. The persistent equating of GOYIM and animals is racist on its face, and the racism is not dependent upon whether the equation is literal, metaphoric, or somewhere in between.


The rabbinical authorities, at the time, tended to doubt both the sincerity and permanence of gentile conversions to Judaism. (pp. 93-95).

Author Sacha Stern touches on several rabbinic verses that call for the killing, or allowance for death, of gentiles. He calls them variously idiosyncratic, heavily censored, and allowing a Jew to escape punishment for killing a gentile but not thereby allowing a Jew to kill a gentile. (p. 4). He does not elaborate.

On the other hand, the command to execute a gentile who observes the Sabbath [SANHEDRIN 58b](pp. 207-208), or even one who studies the Torah [SANHREDRIN 59a], in Stern's opinion, stems from the following, (quote) ...the non-Jews must be PREVENTED from engaging in them, lest this leads to the erosion of the distinctiveness of Israel. (unquote). (Emphasis in original.) (p. 215).


AVODA ZARA ("pagan", "idolater")(p. 9) is used throughout rabbinic literature. In fact, Stern suggest that it is used so broadly that it is functionally a loose (though inexact) synonym for non-Jew. (pp. 196-197).

According to some heavily-censored passages in the Bavli, AVODA ZARA can apply to Christians. (p. 28). MIN/MINIM does, or can, refer to Christians. (p. 9, 28, 107-108). Some Talmudic verses defending the Torah are, or may be, covert anti-Christian polemics. (pp. 74-75, 210).

AKUM does not appear in the early manuscripts. It is apparently an invention of censors. (p. 9).

Did Jews use code words for peoples? Yes. In the Bible, Edom referred to Idumaea, but, in the rabbinic period, it was applied to Rome. (p. 19).


Modern forms of Jewish universalism teach that gentiles can be righteous before God, moreover on a large scale, based solely on their ethical conduct, and can freely do so outside of Judaism. As elaborated below, the early rabbinical concept of Jewish universalism was almost the opposite.

Stern comments, (quote) In the TOSEFTA, R. Yehoshua is attributed the view that some exceptional non-Jews are righteous (TZADIKIM) are have a share in the world to come (while R. Eliezer maintains that no non-Jews have any share in it.) [SANHEDRIN 105a]. (unquote). (p. 30). The author then cites a variety of extra-Talmudic rabbinical literature to show that righteous gentiles were thought of as uncommon, and as needing to convert to Judaism. He concludes that, (quote) It seems that to be non-Jewish and righteous are so inherently contradictory that the only viable option, for these exceptional individuals, is to convert. Which confirms the adage: exceptions prove the rule. (unquote). (p. 30).

Modern concepts of Jewish universalism teach that the Noahide laws enable a gentile to be righteous by obeying only 7 laws, while Jews have the much greater duty of obeying 613 laws. Early rabbinical concepts, on the other hand, saw this situation as one that only deepened the chasm between Jew and gentile. For instance, it was stressed that the GOYIM were so ethically inferior to Jews that they were incapable of obeying even the 7 Noahide laws, let alone the 613 ones that Jews keep. (pp. 204-205; 215). Moreover, this meant, with some exceptions, that gentiles keeping the Noahide laws get no reward for doing so. [BAVA KAMMA 38a; AVODA ZARA 3a]. (pp. 205-206).

Rabbinic verses that praise the gentile who studies the Torah, comparing him to a high priest, refer to one who studies the Noahide laws. Otherwise, they are counteracted by the verses, noted earlier, that condemn gentile study of the Torah, even making it a capital crime. (p. 201, 212-213).

On another subject, the acceptance of gentiles in Jewish public worship is identified by Stern as an exception--in fact, virtually the only practice that Jews were willing to share with non-Jews. (p. 204). However, the later MIDRASHIM expressed hostility to this, even requesting the Almighty not to honor the prayers of non-Jews. (p. 203).


Circumcision was not limited to the Jews, even in the Middle East. It was also practiced by some Arabs, and Gibeonites/Gabnonites (YEVAMOT 71a). (p. 206).

Some commentators had taken SANHREDRIN 74a-b, and related teachings, as requiring Jews to wear distinctive clothing. Stern leans against this. (pp. 191-192).

As for Jewish resistance to assimilation, Stern brings up the Biblical prohibition against Jews adopting the ways of the nations (Leviticus 20:23). However, Halakhic prohibitions against specific forms of gentile-imitating acts were quite variable. (pp. 186-on).

Pork is exceptionally abominable to Jews--so much so that Jews are cursed merely for breeding pigs. (BABA KAMA 82b). (p. 57).

The Star of David has no basis in early rabbinical literature. It is mentioned in medieval Kabbalistic works, and only became a religious and political Jewish symbol in the late 18th century. (p. 86).


Author Sacha Stern elaborates how, in Jewish thinking, the Romans most embody the wickedness of the non-Jews. He comments, (quote) The only reason why they [Romans] do not completely exterminate the Jewish people (besides the fact that it would be impossible) is that they do not want to be called “the murderous kingdom”: PESACHIM 87b; AVODA ZARA 10b. (unquote).(the parentheses are in the original). (p. 16).

I was struck by the foregoing, because I hear it today! Some anti-Polish Jews accuse Poles of having wanted to exterminate their Jews, but not doing so because of incompetence, and for not wanting to have the onus of “a nation of murderers”. Furthermore, according to this Polonophobic canard, once the Germans exterminated Poland’s Jews, the Poles were satisfied that the Nazis had done the work for them, and--better yet--that it was the Germans who went down in history “a nation or murderers”.
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