The Conservative Movement this week made a bold attempt to confront bigotries within Judaism that differentiate between Jew and gentile. It should be commended for doing so, though it must be aware it is fighting an uphill battle.
On Monday, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which is the authoritative body determining Jewish law for Conservative/ Masorti rabbis, unanimously nullified all provisions in Jewish civil law that are discriminatory against non-Jews.
The move seemed to be motivated in part by a desire to fight “price tag” attacks – Israeli vigilantism directed against Arabs that is said to be inspired by the teachings of radical right-wing rabbis. Singled out for special mention was the 2010 book Torat Hamelech [The King’s Torah], which, among its rulings, specifically condones the killing of gentile children living in Israel under the assumption that they will grow up to be terrorists.
Any efforts to fight Jewish chauvinism and doctrines in Judaism that see non-Jews as less worthy of dignity should be supported. Former chief rabbi of Britain Jonathan Sacks accurately noted that the one belief, more than any other, that is responsible for the slaughter of so many is that “those who do not share my faith – or my race or my ideology – do not share my humanity… [they] are less than fully human… From it… ultimately came the Holocaust.” Sacks, an Orthodox rabbi, is quoted in the committee’s ruling.
Still, it is difficult to escape the feeling that the Conservative rabbis – and Rabbi Sacks for that matter – do not derive their moral sense exclusively from traditional Jewish sources, but also from sources to be found outside the Jewish religion. At the very least, these rabbis have chosen to emphasize Jewish sources that support their position while ignoring or nullifying voices within Judaism that espouse chauvinistic attitudes toward non-Jews. And this selection process is informed by a moral sensibility that is more universalistic in nature and, therefore, not rooted solely in the Jewish tradition.
We wholeheartedly support this effort, while recognizing that it requires a major overhaul of Jewish sources. No rabbinic committee’s ruling can make these aspects of Judaism disappear. For instance, in their ruling the committee’s rabbis argue that while traditional Jewish positions on non-Jews “present differing pictures: inclusive and exclusive, positive and negative, laudatory and condemnatory…
It must be emphasized… that the Torah itself and biblical writing in general posit the basic equality of all humankind and demonstrate God’s love of all human beings…”
If that is the case, how are we to understand the Torah’s support for genocide of the Amalekites or ethnic cleansing with relation to the Canaanites? Religious offenses such as the desecration of Shabbat are punishable by death, as is marital infidelity. These are the commandments of a vindictive god, not a God who loves all human beings.
The committee’s rabbis also note the distinction made by the 13th-century rabbi Menachem Meiri who argued that some of the most discriminatory rulings against non-Jews in Halacha – such as the ruling that a Jew who murders a non-Jew is exempt from capital punishment – are not applicable to non-Jews who are monotheists. But Meiri was no humanist. Only through allegiance to some form of civilized religion could a human be worthy of basic dignity. For Meiri, humans had no intrinsic value in their natural state.
For Maimonides the conduct and motivation of gentiles was not important. Rather it was the sources from which they drew their inspiration. Only if they relied on what they themselves regarded as the divinely revealed Torah could they merit Jews’ hospitality in the Land of Israel.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, influenced by Judaism’s mystical tradition, posited the invidious idea that God’s image in the Jew was “clearer” than that of the non-Jew.
Still, the committee of Conservative rabbis follows in a long Jewish tradition of trying to reconcile Judaism with contemporary thinking about how humans are to be treated. The State of Israel’s first chief rabbi, Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, struggled with finding Jewish sources that justified equal treatment of Arabs without forcing them to convert to Judaism or accept the primacy of Judaism. The UN authorized the creation of the State of Israel on condition it respect minority rights. It cannot renege on its promise to the world. Herzog’s efforts and those of the Conservative Movement must continue.