Parshat Yitro – פרשת יתרו

Parshat Yitro – פרשת יתרו


Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

Parshat Yitro – פרשת יתרו

February 3, 2018 – יח שבט תשעח


This essay is sponsored by Richard Hochman in memory of Abraham Albert Hochman; by Sol & Honey Neier in memory of Sam Neier; and by Evelyn Breslaw in memory of Max Sakow


Gentiles as Non-Idolaters


In the Decalogue, God issues a ban on the acceptance or worship of foreign deities.  “You shall have no other gods beside Me… You shall not bow to them and you shall not worship them (Exodus 20:3-5).”  Idolatry, identified in rabbinic literature as Avodah Zarah (strange worship), is a cardinal sin that a Jew may not commit; avoiding committing it requires him to undergo martyrdom (Sanhedrin 74a).  The Midrash exaggeratedly, asserts that one who accepts as true the theological premises of Avodah Zarah rejects the entire Torah and one who rejects Avodah Zarah thereby acknowledges the truth of the entire Torah (Sifre Deuteronomy 54).


The sages enacted many rules designed to steer Jews away from social and commercial interaction with devout pagans.  The bulk of this legislation is recorded in Tractate Avodah Zarah, currently being studied in the Daf Yomi program.  The ultimate fear was that such interaction could lead an individual Jew astray.  But there was also the concern that, following a profitable encounter with a Jew, a heathen might, in gratitude, invoke the name of his own deity.  The Jew would then be guilty of having “caused” that idolatrous worship (even though it is not the Jew, but the gentile, who is so engaged and the Jew’s “causation” is quite attenuated).  Halakhah bans transactions with pagans on, and for the three days preceding, their festivals (Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:1).


In the post-Talmudic period, many of the laws regulating Jew-gentile business dealings fell into desuetude.  In medieval Ashkenazi society, ordinary business activity continued unabated even on non-Jewish holidays.  Rather than condemning popular practice for being in breach of Talmudic law, the rabbis sought a legal basis for relaxed relations with non-Jewish society.  One justification was the need to avoid stoking gentile animosity toward Jews משום איבה.  Though this concern already existed in the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods, it was especially important in medieval Franco-German Jewish communities where Jews were a tiny minority entirely reliant upon the goodwill of gentile society for economic opportunity, right of residence, and basic survival.  If Jews were conspicuously to boycott non-Jews during their holiday season, the resultant inter-religious hatred could have devastated Jewish communities (see Rashi Avodah Zarah 7b “ba-golah,” Tosfot Avodah Zarah 2a “Asur,” and Rosh Avodah Zarah 1:1).


However, the primary justification for ignoring Talmudic law was the assertion by Ashkenazi Rishonim that then-contemporary gentiles were not true idolaters.  This assertion should not, of course, be misconstrued as legitimizing Christianity.  Nearly all the Rishonim, with the exception of the Meiri, regarded Trinitarian Christianity as Avodah Zarah and forbidden not only for Jews but even for gentiles.  Rather, the position was that gentiles are not true devotees of their own religion (Shu”t Rabbenu Gershom Me’or Hagolah 21).  Their rituals are hollow external acts devoid of theological conviction.  Even gifts given to their religious institutions are not sacrificed as offerings to their deity, but instead are pocketed by their ecclesiastics for personal enjoyment and enrichment (Tur Yoreh Deah 148).


Rabbi Joseph Karo recorded the lenient approach towards non-Jews in the name of “some say” and referenced the theory that in his era there were no longer any true idolaters.  Rabbi Moses Isserles concurred, and emphasized the value of not antagonizing gentile neighbors (Yoreh Deah 148:12).


The claim that gentiles are not idolaters has its origins in the Talmud.  Mar ruled that kosher slaughter done by a gentile renders the carcass neveilah (carrion).  A Jew may not eat the meat, but may derive other forms of benefit from it.  The Talmud then asks why the law does not assume the gentile to have been a devout pagan who slaughters in the name of his religion and thereby renders the carcass entirely forbidden as an item of idolatrous worship.  Rav Nachman answered, “There are no minim [heretics] among the gentiles.”  The answer is then qualified: “Most heathens are not true heretics.”  The Gemara notes that this ruling is consistent with Rabbi Yochanan’s dictum: “Gentiles outside the Land of Israel are not true idolaters; they merely follow the customs of their ancestors.”  (Hullin 13a).


Rambam explained that gentile practitioners of false religion can be divided into two categories.  The first group includes those who know the true of meaning of their rituals and the supposed theological import of their actions.  The second group, which comprises the overwhelming majority of gentiles, includes people who are theologically unsophisticated and who perfunctorily perform religious ceremonies.  They know no more than whatever silliness has been imparted to them by their clerics (Mishnah Commentary Hullin 1:1).


There is no historical basis for Rabbi Yochanan’s distinction between the gentiles of the Land of Israel and those beyond the borders of the Holy Land.  Devout pagans and sincere polytheists could be found all around the world in the 3rd century CE.  Most likely, Rabbi Yochanan was simply looking for an excuse to relax the law in the Diaspora, where rigorous implementation of the halakhah would have had deleterious consequences for the Jewish community.  Samuel, his Babylonian colleague, did precisely that, ruling that commerce is forbidden in the Diaspora only on pagan holidays proper and not during the three-day preparatory period (Avodah Zarah 7b).  Rav Yehudah and Rava sent gifts to various Babylonian officials on their holidays secure in the knowledge that the recipients were not idolaters (Avodah Zarah 65a).


David Novak suggests that the rabbis really did see a difference between the gentiles of Eretz Yisrael and of Babylonia.  The Romans who controlled the Holy Land were regarded as immoral cutthroats with no moral scruples.  The Persians who controlled Babylonia were regarded as enlightened men who ruled justly and protected Jewry.  Because the rabbis so closely associated correct theological thinking with moral behavior, perforce the “good gentiles” of Babylonia had not to be labelled “idolatrous.”  Instead of being true heretics, they merely go through the motions and without fervor mimic the ceremonies taught to them by their fathers.  To support his theory, Novak cites Rabbi Yochanan’s exposition of the Seven Noahide Laws, in which the commandment to establish courts of justice precedes the ban on idolatry (Sanhedrin 56b).


Another factor that might have motivated the Amoraim to claim that there were few idolaters left in the world was the decline in classical Greco-Roman paganism in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.  The old pantheon of deities no longer inspired the masses, who in large numbers turned to the “eastern cults” for spiritual succor.  A significant number became God-fearers, adopting selected elements of Judaism.  Many pagans adopted Christianity, an offshoot of Judaism.  Few people still worshipped graven images with the same naïve sincerity as their primitive forebears had done.  The Talmud tells a legendary tale about how at the beginning of the Second Temple period the sages successfully prayed that the evil inclination for idolatry should be destroyed (Sanhedrin 64a).  Just as the Jews had shaken off the scourge of idolatry, so too did the gentiles, albeit centuries later and incompletely, as residual elements of paganism remained in their forms of worship.


The Talmud questions the religious sincerity and fervor of heathens.  But, of course, questions about the behavior and beliefs of Jews in their practice of Judaism can also be raised.  How many Jews worship God with deep conviction vs. mindlessly copying inherited religious usages and customs that may only be tenuously understood?  In the post-Enlightenment period, an age of skepticism, the latter description may well be true for many Jews.  Consequently, even where some Judaic attachment is preserved, it is often weak and lacking conviction.  Those tasked with securing Jewish continuity should understand that filial piety, by itself, cannot successfully replace firm belief in, and devotion to, Revealed religion.