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Past Jewish Attitudes Towards Christians. Has a Widely-Quoted Talmud Apologetic.

jan peczkis|Wednesday, August 10, 2016

My original review (expanded in 2015) now covers the use of this book as an apologetic for the Talmud in Jewish-gentile relations. For an example of, and evaluation of, one of the specific uses of this apologetic, please click on, and read my detailed review, of Katz' From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933.

I first discuss some interesting facts in this present book, and then elaborate on its implications for Talmud apologetics in the latter part of my review.


Jews and Christians each had stereotypical views of each other (p. xiv), and Jewish views of Christianity were just as unflattering as the reverse. Katz comments: "The biblical name of Edom was, in Talmudic times, applied to Rome. In medieval poetry, however, it is synonymous with Christianity." (p. 16). Clearly, Jews could and did use various code words for peoples.


Throughout history, Jews had tended to see Christians as idolaters. (e. g., p. 24, 27, 53, 100). Following Talmudic law, this would've forbidden Jews from having business dealings with Christians. Consequently: "Practical considerations required the dissociation of Christianity from idolatry, and this was rationalized by means of halakhic casuistry. But this rationalization cannot be assumed to imply that, from a theological point of view, Christianity was no longer regarded as a `pagan' religion." (p. 162; see also p. 108).

Author Jacob Katz touches on the disingenuous nature of the medieval argument that Talmudic statements do not apply to Christians: "The disputants claimed that all disparaging references to Gentiles in Talmudic sources applied only to those `seven nations' which are mentioned in the Bible as the aboriginal inhabitants of the Land of Israel, and remnants of which survived as late as Talmudic times. But this statement is no more than an ad hoc device used in the course of controversy. There is no indication in the Talmud or in the later halakhic sources that such a view was ever held, or even proposed, by any individual halakhist. In fact, evidence to the contrary exists." (pp. 109-110).

In recent centuries, according to Katz, some Jewish thinkers did genuinely reject the Christians-are-idolaters premise--in part because Christians believed in creatio ex nihilo. (pp. 163-166, 191).

Put in broader context, Jewish goodwill towards gentiles, according to Katz (p. 58, 101-102), was motivated in part by expediency (e. g., avoid giving all Jews a bad name), and in part by genuine adherence to moral principles. Commensurate with both tendencies, the Talmud teaches loving-kindness to all human beings, helping the poor and sick, etc. (GITTIN 61a: pp. 59-60).


Until the 11th century, and sometimes later, Jews could own slaves. (p. 41). As for usury, both Christians and Jews employed a double standard. Christianity forbade usury among Christians, but regarded Jewish conduct as outside its jurisdiction. For its part, Judaism forbade Jew-on-Jew usury, but allowed Jew-on-gentile usury. (p. 57).


The usual trend nowadays, especially in Jewish-Ukrainian dialogue, is to blame Polish landlords for the Khmelnitsky Uprising and the massive pogroms that followed. In contrast, Katz implicitly acknowledges that the Jews were also partly at fault. He writes, "Jewish authorities in Poland tried to deter Jews from tax-farming and Rabbi Joel Sirkes gave the reason--lest people should say that Jews wanted to rule over them...This is exactly the complaint uttered by Chmielnicki himself..." (p. 152).


Since time immemorial, Jews had preferred to live among their own kind. Compulsory ghettoization came much later. Katz comments: "But contrary to what might be expected, the institution of the closed Jewish quarter was not in itself resented by Jews. It was accepted as a provision appropriate to a group of their status, and as corresponding to their social and religious needs; moreover, it provided a measure of security. Jews were content to be recognized as a socio-religious unit, distinct from the general population." (pp. 132-133).


As noted in the first statements of my review, this book has been cited as proof that the criticisms of the Talmud, as exhibited, for example, in Eisenmenger's ENTDECKTES JUDENTHUM, are often accurate in and of themselves, but are completely invalid and irrelevant--all because Jewish interpretations of the Talmud change through time.

There are immediate problems with Katz' line of argumentation. To begin with, it is obvious that many antigoy provisions in the Talmud, such as the fullness of the dual morality governing Jews and gentiles, could no longer be practiced, because Jews were now a minority, and the gentile authorities would never stand for it. For this reason alone, it is hardly remarkable that Jews outwardly abandoned certain Talmudic teachings. They had no choice!

Apart from all this, considerations related to the dual morality in the Talmud, and of Jews cheating gentiles, persisted to modern times. Please click on, and read my detailed review, of Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages (Medieval Studies) Paperback February 1, 2000.

Now consider more mundane matters, such as the previously-discussed Jewish buying and selling from and to Christians. It is clear that the disuse of certain Talmudic policies relative to gentiles, and the later rabbinic re-interpretations of them, had hardly been voluntary. It had arisen from the compelling economic circumstances that had become part of everyday Jewish life in early Medieval Europe. (pp. 28-30). The implications of this are not hard to deduce. Acting under compulsion under one circumstance (as per the Talmud) does not necessarily translate into acting voluntarily under another circumstance (as per the Talmud). [More on this below, in conjunction with the medieval disputation. In addition, the cynic could argue that, whenever there is a conflict between Jewish commerce and Jewish religion, it will often be resolved in favor of Jewish commerce.]

Next comes the question of normative practice. It does not follow that certain new interpretations of rabbis, about the Talmud, necessarily came into widespread use, even among other rabbis. In tacit concurrence with this premise, Katz comments, "The Rabbinate had never achieved institutional hierarchy and authority to the same degree as had the Catholic Church." (p. 10). The halakhic ruling of one rabbi does not have to be obeyed, or even known to, another rabbi. [Finally, there is no "Jewish pope" that could speak EX CATHEDRA, and dogmatically, authoritatively, and summarily waive or re-interpret sections of the Talmud.]

How powerful are the effects of altered understandings of the Talmud in the first place? Just because certain Talmudic verses are variously held in abeyance, deliteralized, reinterpreted, made nonbinding, etc., this does not mean that they have vanished. Instead, they can retain their essence, albeit in a more subtle or modern context. This is especially the case when Talmudic verses are subject to circumvention, casuistry, or glosses.

Finally, Yaacov Katz' entire Talmud apologetic does not add up. It is a collection of disparate events and personages, and it is unclear that there is necessarily any substantial connection between them. In addition, the reader has no way of knowing how representative they were of rabbinical Jewish thinking at the time. And even if they were validly representative, they do not, by themselves, tell us much about the course of normative Jewish Talmudic belief and Talmud-inspired conduct over the ages.


Author Yaakov Katz begins his own Talmud apologetic by bringing up a disputation involving a Jewish convert, who had made harsh accusations against the Talmud. (p. 107). The information from this event is of dubious value. Whatever a Jewish disputant says about the Talmud is hardly credible, as the disputation is hardly a neutral Jewish-Christian forum, and the Jewish side is under obvious duress. (p. 106).

Even then, the argument is fatally flawed. The Jewish rebuttal centered on the fact that Jews frequently disregard the Talmud, as vividly evidenced by their engaging in prohibited commercial activity with gentiles, and therefore gentiles should realize that Jews ALSO disregard ALL the controversial teachings of the Talmud. (p. 108). The NON SEQUITUR is palpable. The fact that certain Talmudic statements, pertaining to commercial and other practical matters, had fallen into disuse or been re-interpreted, does not necessarily imply the same for all essential Talmudic teachings on Jews and gentiles! Much less do they imply some kind of fundamental change in traditional Jewish attitudes and practices towards gentiles.


The author focuses on some Jewish personages. Again, he leaves it unclear as to what extent their ideas animated normative Jewish belief and conduct. However, it soon becomes clear that, whatever their movements towards Jewish universalism, and their rejection of the applicability of certain portions of the Talmud, these quoted sages nonetheless retained much of the standard Talmudic framework of Jewish supremacy and gentile inferiority.

Rashi [1040-1105] and his views are described by Katz, "Rashi...included it [Christianity] in the term `UNMOTH HA-`OLAM or under similar Talmudic expressions differentiating between Israel and all other nations." (p. 137).

Judah Ha-Levi [1086-1167] believed that the chasm between the gentile and the Jew is so profound and so permanent that, when a gentile converts to Judaism, he can never reach the highest level of religious attainment, and become a prophet. (p. 146). [Furthermore, Judah Ha-Levi not only believed that Jews are spiritually superior to gentiles, but also contended that this superiority was innate to Jews, and moreover was heritable. For details, please click on, and read my detailed review, of Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life].

Moses Maimonides [1138-1204] was probably the most famous of medieval Jewish thinkers. He taught that the Talmudic laws, concerning the relationship between Jews and gentiles, were to be accepted as valid with regard to contemporary Christians. (p. 120). [In addition, Maimonides advocated the persecution of idolaters, including Christians, within a State of Israel, had such a state existed in the Middle Ages. Please click on, and read my detailed review, of Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration Before the Enlightenment]. All this is perhaps ironic in view of the widespread opinion that Maimonides was very progressive for his time--so much so that his ideas got him in trouble with some rabbis.

Menahem Ha-Me'iri [1249-1310(?)] comprehensively tackled the matter of the Talmud on dual morality. [This itself is tacit admission that dual morality is a real teaching in the Talmud, and not an invented anti-Semitic idea about the Talmud.] Ha-Me'iri insisted that Talmudic teachings that allowed for lower standards of Jewish morality, when Jews deal with gentiles as opposed to other Jews, and which failed to put Jew and gentile on the same legal and moral footing, were applicable only to ancient peoples. (p. 118). However, some scholars have suggested that Katz is engaging in an apologetic over-interpretation of Ha-Meiri. Please click on, and read my review, of How Should Rabbinic Literature Be Read in the Modern World? (Judaism in Context). In addition, the validity of Ha-Meiri's halakhic reasoning has been challenged, and there are numerous overall problems with the argument that old halakhic rulings have effectively done away with the antigoyism in the Talmud. [For details, see the online article, titled "A Lonely Champion of Tolerance", by David Goldstein]. In any case, Ha-Me'iri retained the standard, pejorative Talmudic view of the GOYIM, as is admitted by Katz, "Neither is there any doubt that, emotionally, Ha-Me'iri felt himself attached to the symbols of the Jewish religion and retained, like any other Jew of the Middle Ages, his aversion to the Gentile world." (p. 127).

Maharal [1520-1609] is thus described by Katz, "However, his criticism [of Jews] did not affect his basic conception that Jews were, essentially, of a superior religious and moral caliber to others. Their inadequacies were incidental only, and attributable to the trials of the Exile; at a different level, Jewish deficiencies had a direct relationship to the Jews' superior spiritual nature." (p. 141; See also p. 148).

Mordecai Jaffe [1530-1612] presented his interpretation of the Talmudic verse in YEVAMOTH 22a, wherein a convert to Judaism is like a new-born infant. (p. 147). Jaffe, based on the ZOHAR and centuries of Kabbalistic thinking (pp. 146-147), understood this as saying that the gentile convert to Judaism gets an implanted new spirit and soul from God, and it is just as if his former life had never been. (p. 147). [This clearly has traditional Talmudic overtones of the GOYIM being so far beneath Jews that they are effectively soulless savages--even virtual animals.]
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