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From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and Its Interpretation in the Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy (Judaica: Hermeneutics, Mysticism, and Religion;Talmudic Dual Morality Governing Jews and the GOYIM: “It Depends on Whose Ox is Gored”,

jan peczkis|Friday, July 14, 2017

The double standard is systematic. It appears not only in the Talmud, but in other rabbinical literature. By way of introduction, author Steven D. Fraade, Mark Taper Professor of the History of Judaism at Yale University, writes, “There the context is the interpretation of the mishnaic rule (BABA QAMMA 4:3) that an Israelite is not culpable if his ox gores the ox of a gentile, whereas a gentile whose ox gores that of an Israelite must pay full damages regardless whether or not the gentile’s ox was a habitual gorer.” (p. 52).


Much of this book is a discussion of the means that the rabbis, of Talmudic times, had attempted to warrant the obvious inequality of Jews and the GOYIM in Jewish law. Of course, none of these "grounds" actually justify the denial to the gentile of basic fairness, such as indemnifying him for a gored ox, or returning his stolen property! Rather, they appear to be religious ways of justifying the racist notion that a Jew, by virtue of being a Jew, is entitled to various privileges that the GOY is not. However, I provide some examples of the rationalizations for the interested reader.

There was the argument that gentiles had rejected the Torah and the Noahide laws. (p. 52). According to the Babylonian Talmud (BABA QAMMA 38a), a Jew could appropriate the property of the gentile because, after all, the GOYIM had rejected the Torah and Noahide laws, one of which prohibits stealing, and so God “loosened” their property to Israel. (p. 216). In addition, the property of a gentile is “fair game” to the Jew because the gentile is not included in “his fellow” as specified in Exodus 21:35 (Bavli BABA QAMMA 38a). (p. 216). Still another Talmudic teaching (Bavli BABA QAMMA 113a-b) normally disallows the stolen property of a gentile, but allows for his lost property. (p. 217). In MEKILTA TO DEUTERONOMY, God proves his greater love to Israel by allowing the Jews to possess the lost, but not stolen, belongings of the gentiles. (p. 217). There was probably no “evolution” in attitudes towards gentiles: Different views of the propriety of stealing from a gentile coexisted in different discursive settings. (p. 218). Finally, the stealing of property from the gentile was forbidden, using modern language, whenever it would be bad public relations for the Jews. (p. 225).

The gentiles-rejected-Torah rationalization is internally inconsistent. For instance, a passage in MEKILTA states that God had never intended for the nations to receive the Torah, as they would never be able to fulfill it. (p. 197). [Parenthetically, does this not imply a bit of Jewish self-righteousness, in that it implies that non-Jews cannot keep the Torah while Jews are presumably morally superior because they can?] There are also contradictory views on whether the nations have no share [HELEQ] in the Torah, or if they do. (p. 201). In fact, SIFRE has an acknowledged “exclusivist attitude towards the nations” (p. 214) that strongly opposes the nations studying the Torah. (p. 214).

There is also internal inconsistency in the usage of the doctrine of the Noahide laws. Fraade quips, “These two somewhat conflicting views of the Noahide laws—that their authority derives from divine fiat or from human acceptance—are found elsewhere in rabbinic sources.” (p. 198). [So how can the GOYIM be legally mistreated, in accordance with Jewish law, presumably over something which they even had no choice?] The vacuous character of the Noahide-laws argument is shown by yet another contradictory teaching: According to the SIFRE, the nations rejected the seven Noahide commandments that they had previously accepted. (p. 227).

On the other hand, commentaries in the SIFRE and TOLEDOT ADAM speak of an arbitrary, exulted Jewish status that just IS. It is independent of any presumed superiority of moral conduct of the Jews. Fraade comments, “Incidentally, it should be stressed that our commentary does not so much credit Israel with having fulfilled the commandments as with having accepted, and continuing to accept, them. Israel may also include murderers, adulterers, and robbers, but it knows that such behavior does not accord with the covenantal obligations it bears.” (p. 198).

The author provides a variety of interesting information. For instance, he suggest that stories of meetings between rabbis and Roman officials serve as confirming foils for rabbinic self-understandings. (p. 215).

The content of this book overlaps that of another involving author Steven F. Fraade. Click on, and read my detailed review of:

The Other in Jewish Thought and History: Constructions of Jewish Culture and Identity (New Perspectives on Jewish Studies)
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