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Rabbinical Policies Governing Jews and Gentiles in Antiquity

jan peczkis|Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The author identifies himself as Jewish. (p. x). His work consists of many details on the Jewish provisions, in rabbinical literature, dealing with gentiles


Gentiles had access to the Temple, though it was limited, (quote) The two relevant meanings for our purposes are the Temple as YHWH’s residence and the Temple as the Israelites’ ethnic shrine. (unquote). (p. 303). Though author Gary Porton does not put it this way, this situation reflects the ambivalence of YHWH as a Jewish tribal Deity, and YHWH as the God of all peoples. [This corresponds to Polish scholar Feliks Koneczny’s idea of Judaism consisting of both monolatry and monotheism. See my review of his Jewish Civilization].

While there is no doubt that Jews considered YHWH genuinely accessible to the GOYIM, one must also be careful not to read too much into the Jews’ acceptance of gentile participation in the Temple. Porton comments, (quote) However, one scholar [Schurer] has suggested that gentiles participated in the Jerusalem cult because “the originally very close connection between faith and worship often turns out to be [superficial],” and to “offer sacrifice at some famous sanctuary was very often no more than an expression of a piety that had become cosmopolitan, an act of courtesy towards the nation or city concerned….” Thus, one could argue that when Mishnah-Tosefta permit gentiles to bring sacrifices to the Israelite Temple, the texts reflect a general Hellenistic phenomenon, for foreigners regularly brought offerings to the deities of cities which they visited, without exhibiting any long term or profound allegiance to these gods. (unquote). (p. 263).


One common line of Talmud apologetics, which also applies to other rabbinical literature, would have us believe that the antigoyism is of no lasting consequence, because halakhic rulings had long determined that certain controversial verses refer exclusively to the gentiles of Antiquity, and not to gentiles of later times.

For examples of this apologetic, please click on, and read my detailed reviews, of:

Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Studies in Jewish-Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times (Scripta Judaica, 3)

From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933

This line of Talmudic apologetics tacitly assumes that halakhic rulings tell us what the Talmudic verses REALLY mean. They do not. They tell us the rabbis’ OPINIONS of what they mean, or what they should be understood to mean. Porton comments, (quote) Furthermore, the tendency among halakhic studies is to blur the distinctions among the various rabbinic texts and to accept later interpretations of earlier texts as accurate representations of what the earlier sources meant. (unquote). (p. 6).

In addition, halakhic rulings do not necessarily push Judaism in a more universalist direction. For instance, Porton writes that, (quote) The changes in Abram’s and Sari’s names occurred to indicate that they were the progenitors of “many nations”, but later tradition, which obviously had problems with this comment, suggested that this meant that Abraham was the father of many converts to Judaism. On the other hand, an Israelite must daily thank YHWH for not creating him a gentile. (unquote). (p. 233). [I looked up TOSEFTA BERACHOT online, and the reference, to Jews thanking God for not creating them gentiles, is not in TOSEFTA BERACHOT 6:18, as stated by Porton. It is actually in TOSEFTA BERACHOT 6:23. The same teaching can be found in the Bavli. See the online Babylonian Talmud (MENACHOT 43b)]. More on this below.


Especially when I deal with emotive or controversial issues, I try to be as objective as possible, avoiding the extremes of anti-Semitism (where false or unsubstantiated accusations are made against Jews) and philo-Semitism (where Jewish conduct is exempted from critical examination). Whenever possible, I look up the relevant verses in English-language translations of rabbinical literature. In addition, so as to avoid the possibility of misreading or misunderstanding the verses in question, I rely on the understanding of the Jewish scholar and quote him, as I do in the next paragraph.

One vexing question, in rabbinical literature, asks when a Jew is allowed to deceive a gentile. Apropos to this, author Gary G. Porton writes, (quote) MISHNA NEDARIM 3:4 states that an Israelite may claim that his produce is heave-offering or belongs to the State, even if this is false, in order to avoid its confiscation by murderers, robbers or tax-collectors. TOSEFTA NEDARIM 2:2 adds that to avoid paying the assessors or tax-collectors, an Israelite can falsely claim that the produce belongs to a gentile, the government, or that it is a heave-offering. The gentiles are mentioned because the Israelite would not be responsible for paying the former’s taxes. In addition, the passage seems to imply that the gentile government treated gentiles differently from the way it acted towards Israelites. TOSEFTA NEDARIM 2:4 makes the point that the rest of the nations of the world are judged harshly because they are not circumcised; that is, they have not entered the covenant of Abraham. (unquote). (pp. 85-86).

Jewish commentators tell us that the foregoing verses applied to the Jews under Roman rule, during which time they had been subject to extremely onerous and unjust taxation. Modern Jews follow the laws of the nations in which they live.

The foregoing explanation is reasonable. However, the question of cheating on taxes cannot be so easily dismissed. To begin with, the injustice of a tax is in the eye of the beholder. Furthermore, on what basis did Jews, living in post-Roman times, decide whether or not taxes are unfair enough for them to be deserving of evasion? Let us further consider this in the context of Polish-Jewish relations. Some Jewish authors acknowledge that, even in the 20th century, Poland’s Jews engaged in tax evasion. Please click on, and read my reviews, of

Private War: Surviving in Poland on False Papers, 1941-1945

In Search of Polin: Chasing Jewish Ghosts in Today's Poland (Washington College Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture)

[Of course, humans of all backgrounds have been cheating on taxes, owing to their perceived unfairness, since time immemorial. One needs no religious text to do that. However, if there is a religious text which can be taken to support tax evasion, this probably makes tax evasion easier to rationalize.]


As noted earlier, the Jewish prayer of thanks that they are not gentiles recurs in rabbinical literature. This prayer of thanks (p. 92, 102, 233) is sometimes portrayed as an innocent statement of Jewish gratitude for having the Torah. In contrast, Porton recognizes the fact that it is also a derogatory statement against the GOYIM. He quips, (quote) Obviously, Judah points to the special relationship which exists between YHWH and the People Israel, and his comment implies a negative view of the gentiles. (unquote). (p. 92).


In the rabbinical literature, Jews and gentiles are effectively different species. (p. 47). In fact, according to many of the sages of the Mishna-Tosefta, the dichotomy between Jew and gentile was as follows, (quote) Thus, while the idea of “chosenness” or “holiness” was important, it was equally relevant that the structure of the universe necessitated the separation of Israelites from gentiles. (unquote). (p. 238).

In Ancient Israel, laws governing the behavior of Jews towards other Jews were stricter than those that governed Jewish behavior to gentiles. (See p. 20, 28, pp. 30-31, 52, 75-76, 109, 222). Porton comments, (quote) The point of this essay is that one set of rules applies to members of the Israelite ethnic unit, while another set is used for dealings with a gentile. (unquote). (p. 31). He adds that, (quote) The gentiles and Israelites represent two classes of human beings, so that a person or an ox that intended to kill a gentile but killed an Israelite is not punished for an act of premeditated murder…In these SUGYOT, the distinction between the gentile and the Israelite parallels the division between human beings and other animals. (unquote). (p. 222).

Consider some implications of the fact that the Jewish majority in Ancient Israel enjoyed more favorable rights than the non-Jewish minority. Could this have set a precedent for later Christian conduct towards Jews, wherein the Jews—now a minority—were given less favorable rights than the Christian majority?


Porton discusses the frequent conflation, of gentiles and animals, in the Mishnah and Tosefta (e. g, p. 55, 89, 91, 222). The pairing of gentiles and dogs is common in TOSEFTA HULLIN. (p. 89).

The equation of gentiles and animals is often dismissed as inconsequential, owing to the many other verses, in rabbinical literature, that directly or indirectly affirm the humanity of the gentile. In contrast, Porton tacitly realizes that the GOY=animal verses are not nullified by the GOY=human verses. Commenting on one of the GOY=animal verses, he quips, (quote) The gentiles are seen as “others”; in fact, their being members of the human race is undermined in this passage. (unquote). (p. 55).

The reason behind the co-occurrence, in rabbinical literature, of gentiles as humans and animals, is not explained by Porton. Perhaps it reflects the ambivalence of Jewish attitudes towards gentiles—an ambivalence reflected by universalist as well as racist conceptions of the gentile. The latter corresponds to the racism of many tribal peoples, who commonly reckon people not of their tribe as monkeys, crocodiles, or other non-humans. (p. 298).
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