Israel Shahak's criticisms of Orthodox Jewish attitudes to non-Jews are still hotly debated. Is there anything to them?
The currently major debate within and outside Israel about Orthodox Jewish attitudes to non-Jews has its roots in a letter to Ha'aretz in 1965. Dr Israel Shahak, a lecturer in Chemistry at the Hebrew University and a Holocaust survivor, claimed that he had witnessed an Orthodox Jew refusing to let his phone be used on the Sabbath to help a non-Jew who had collapsed nearby (Orthodox Jewish law forbids the use of electrical devices on the Sabbath).
Immanuel Jakobovits, later to become the UK Chief Rabbi, accused Shahak of fabricating the story as part of a modern blood libel whereas the London-based Jewish Chronicle declared that "The halakha (Jewish law) abounds in such abominations ... in conflict with the humane instincts within which anyone raised in Jewish tradition is imbued."
The alleged incident gave rise to a legal ruling by the then Chief Rabbi Unterman who clarified that the Sabbath can and must be broken to save anyone's life, applying the principle that this avoids "generating hatred". Jakobovits places this within the general category of "ways of pleasantness and paths of peace" (Proverbs 3:17). Shahak saw this as a cowardly response, which did not address the ruling's central injustice.
Shahak developed this view in his main work, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight Of Three Thousand Years where he argues from a humanist and political perspective that rabbinic Judaism is intrinsically discriminatory against non-Jews. He cites primary texts from the Babylonian Talmud and other halakhic sources to justify this. Shahak stated that this bigotry is itself a cause of antisemitism.
Was Shahak right? Accusations that Jews are misanthropic pre-date Christianity and are addressed by the Jewish historian Josephus in Against Apion. The Babylonian Talmud does contain xenophobic statements , however this may be contextualised as a response against prejudice towards the Jews of the period; Greek prejudice towards oriental peoples and so on. For example, whilst the Talmud contains the blessing "who has not made me a non-Jew", Socrates similarly thanked fate that he was "a Greek and not a barbarian".
On the other hand, the Talmud is dialectical, and so it also includes much that fits well with a humanist world view, such as the statement "Whosoever preserves a single soul, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world."
It makes more sense to imagine that rabbinic society was split between those who held more and less chauvinist views and that this tension is reflected in the texts. In this way, the texts reflect a timeless social reality that people are more easily divided than united.
The Talmud itself discusses whether it discriminates against non-Jews. It tells the story of two Roman jurists who reviewed Jewish law and concluded "All the Torah is pleasing and praiseworthy, except for one thing ï¿½ that you say: 'What has been stolen from a Gentile is permitted, while what has been stolen from a Jew is forbidden." In one version of this story, the rabbis then changed this ruling to prevent profanation of the divine name.
Shahak ignores these aspects of the sources. Further, through overstating his case, his analysis fits into antisemitic traditions of such accusations against the Talmud. Copies of the Talmud have been burned and the text of the Talmud that is studied today is still heavily censored. Shahak's view that chauvinism in these sources in any way "justifies" antisemitism is also very troubling.
However, I do believe that his trenchant critique of Judaism is, tragically, not without some force.
The contemporary situation is that we do see some modern Orthodox rabbis utilise xenophobic sources in modern rulings. Orthodox rabbis in organisations such as Rabbis for Human Rights are sadly the exception rather than the rule.
Perhaps, like some rabbis in the Talmud, they have been driven towards chauvinism by the pressures of their day. This response is not inevitable response, however, particularly in light of examples such as Yitzhak Frankenthal, an Orthodox Jew who, out of his own tragic loss, created a foundation for Palestinians and Jews to promote reconciliation, tolerance and peace.
So, whilst I share some concerns of Rabbi Jakobovits, I don't share his rancour. Whilst we need to oppose the antisemites who exploit him and also identify the errors in his works, Shahak should be seen by the Orthodox not as an enemy but as a wakeup call to move us back to the "common sense" that Rabbi Herzog used to be able to take for granted.