R. Lipshutz's Attitude towards Non-Jews

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau



Shiur #03: R. Lipshutz's Attitude towards Non-Jews


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



While the Torah's ritual law applies mostly in an exclusively Jewish context, ethical obligations bear a more universal quality.  Pirkei Avot, a tractate dedicated primarily to ethical responsibilities, thus may address the gentile world as well; ethical maxims in Avot might provide guidance for non–Jews along with Jews.  Additionally, the ethical demands made upon Jews can also apply to their social interaction with gentiles.  No rabbinic commentator developed this theme as extensively as R. Lipschutz.


Some background will provide a linguistic frame of reference for R. Lipshutz's comments.  R. Shimon bar Yochai taught that non-Jewish cadavers do not convey ritual impurity to other items or people located in the same building with them (tumat ohel).  The biblical verse about cadavers conveying impurity in this manner speaks of "adam" (Bamidbar 19:14), a term that excludes gentiles.  The Rabbis, however, disagree with R. Shimon (Yevamot 61a).  


Why does R. Shimon think that the term "adam" excludes gentiles?  R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes offers the simplest explanation.   Obviously, non-Jews are people just as Jews are.  However, the Jewish legal code addresses the Jewish people, so it employs "adam" in a more restricted sense.  In the same way, a teacher might use the term "everyone" but only refer to the students in that class and not those in other classes or outside the school altogether.


Tosafot (s.v. ve-ain) point out a contradictory passage.  The gemara (Sanhedrin 59a) states that a gentile who studies Torah is like the High Priest because the verse refers to "ha-adam," a term that includes non-Jews.  Rabbenu Tam suggests that the term "ha-adam" includes gentiles, whereas the term "adam" excludes them.   These semantic issues will help us understand R. Lipshutz’s commentary.


Hillel said that one should love "ha-beriyot" (Avot 1:12).  R. Lipshutz suggests that the term "ha-beriyot" encompasses more than the term "adam"; it includes non-Jews along with Jews.   It also instructs the teacher to speak compassionately towards the weaker students in his class.  Hillel advises us to adopt a loving posture towards every person we encounter (Yakhin, Avot 1:46).


Shammai stated that a person should greet "et kol ha-adam" with a friendly countenance (Avot 1:15).  Basing himself on Rabbenu Tam’s distinction, R. Lipshutz suggests that Shammai employed the term "ha-adam" to include all - rich and poor, Jew and gentile (Yakhin, Avot 1:59).  According to R. Lipshutz, the long-term rivals, Shammai and Hillel, both agreed that non–Jews deserve friendly treatment, either love or at least a pleasant greeting.


Adopting Rabbenu Tam’s distinction may cause difficulty with a later mishna.  R. Akiva taught: "Beloved is man (adam), who was created in the image of God.   An extra love was made known to him that he was created in the image if God, as it says, 'He made man in the image of God' (Beresihit 9:6).”  Since R. Akiva says uses the phrase "adam," one might suggest that he speaks only about Jews.  Yet we normally assume that God created all of humanity in His image.  R. Lipshutz says that the correct text for this mishna should read "ha-adam," as gentiles are clearly included.  The next line of the same mishna says, "Beloved is Israel," indicating that the previous line referred to a different and broader group.  R. Akiva cites a verse spoken by God immediately after the flood, when He addresses humanity as a whole, and not Jews alone.


Yehoshua lowered the hanging bodies of the king of Ai and of the five Canaanite kings before nightfall (Yehoshua 8:29, 10:26).  The prohibition not to leave bodies hanging overnight stems from the fact that those bodies belong to beings created in the image of God; this example indicates that gentiles also bear the divine image (Yakhin, Avot 3:88).


R. Lipshutz's Boaz commentary on this mishna (Avot 3:1) includes one of the most remarkable rabbinic passages on this issues.  He questions R. Shimon’s statement that the term "adam" excludes gentiles: could R. Shimon possibly think that gentiles are comparable to animals? The Jewish people's status as a "treasure among the nations" (Shemot 19:5) would be meaningless if the other nations did not have significant worth.  Furthermore, animals do not receive reward and punishment, but pious gentiles enter the world–to-come (Sanhedrin 105a).  Obviously, R. Shimon would not equate gentiles with animals.


Paraphrase does not do justice to the following section, so I will translate an extended section of R. Lipshutz's commentary.


Even without the holy words of our sages who told us this [i.e., that pious gentiles merit olam ha-ba], we would know this from our intellect because “God is just in all His ways and benevolent in all His deeds.”   We see that many pious gentiles recognize the Creator, believe in the divinity of Scripture, act compassionately toward Israel, and some have done great things for entire world.  The pious [Edward] Jenner invented the vaccine that saves tens of thousands of people from disease [namely, smallpox], death and disability.  [Sir Francis] Drake brought the potato to Europe, which has prevented famine on several occasions.   [Johannes] Guttenberg invented the printing press. 

Some of them never received their reward in this world, like the pious [Johannes] Reuchlin who risked his life to prevent the burning of the Talmud, which had been commanded by Emperor Maximilian in 1509 due to the incitement of the apostate [Johann] Pfefferkorn, who made an evil accord with the priests.  Reuchlin exerted every effort to oppose this and convinced the Emperor to retract this decree.  Due to this, his enemies the priests pursued him and made his life bitter until he died under pressure with a broken heart.  

Could you imagine that these great deeds will not be rewarded in olam ha-ba?  God does not withhold the reward of any creature.  Even if you say that these pious ones who keep the seven Noachide commandments would not have the status of a ger toshav (resident alien) because they never made a formal acceptance before a court or because we do not accept gerei toshav in our day, since they do not act like Esau, they have a portion in olam ha-ba.


R. Lipshutz's sense of divine justice emerges quite powerfully from this selection.  Decent people who did great things for humanity surely receive eternal reward.  It is inconceivable that technicalities regarding the formal acceptance of resident aliens could hold back such reward from the deserving. 


His universalistic orientation also emerges clearly.  There are gentiles of outstanding character and achievement, and there is no reason to deny this truth.  Note further that the good deeds listed extend far beyond being kind to the Jewish community; saving gentiles from disease or famine also commands great respect.  This, too, reflects a more universalistic orientation.


The question regarding R. Shimon's statement thus remains in effect.  R. Lipshutz explains that Jews and gentiles each have an advantage.  Israel's advantage is the unique divine revelation bestowed upon them.  Human intellect can achieve great things, but it can not match the supernal wisdom of the Torah.  Conversely, gentile achievements in ethics and religion are purely the products of their own free choices and their own efforts. 


This distinction mirrors the difference between the first man and subsequent generations.  Human beings enter the world as little babies who need to struggle to learn new skills.  In contrast, Adam was created as a fully formed adult.  Thus, the term "adam" refers to those whom God raised up to a higher level; this is why R. Shimon said that it only encompasses Jews, the beneficiaries of revelation.  "Ha-adam" cannot be talking about a particular person, because we do not employ the definitive article when referring to a specific person.  This term has the broader meaning of humanity and, of course, it includes gentiles.


The above reveals R. Lipshutz's positive orientation towards the best of the non–Jewish world.  He reads R. Shimon’s statement in a way that does not insult that world.  More strikingly, he states that our great advantage of revelation carries with it implications beyond the advantages.  It implies that the gentiles deserve special credit for their accomplishments absent the supreme advantage of revelation.


Another mishna in Avot strengthens this point.  R. Elazar ben Azariah taught: "If there is no Torah, there is no decency" (Avot 3:17).  One could read this line as suggesting that decent behavior does not exist outside the community of observant Jews.  As we have already seen, R. Lipshutz contends that reality belies such a reading.  Here, too, he points out that there are pious and moral gentiles who do not observe the six hundred and thirteen commandments.  He argues that "Torah" in this mishna means belief in revelation, reward and punishment, and immortality.  Decent gentiles share these beliefs even if they do not put on tefillin or keep Shabbat.  In this sense, such people have Torah and can have moral decency (Yakhin, Avot 3:114). 


Even the above formulation does not account for ethically sensitive secularists, and were R. Lipshutz still alive, we would have to ask him about this.  Leaving this question aside, we can identify further confirmation of his attitude towards the broader world, as two more sources outside of Avot provide more evidence about R. Lipshutz's worldview. 


A Jew whose ox gores the ox of a gentile is exempt from paying damages (Bava Kama 4:3).  This leads to two ethical questions.  Why does a Jew have more financial responsibility when his ox damages the ox of another Jew?  Where is the fairness of the above ruling, given that we charge the gentile when his ox gores that belonging to the Jew?   R. Lipshutz argues that rational morality would not clearly obligate the ox’s owner for damages committed by his ox in any situation, as the causal relationship between the owner and the damages is weak (Yakhin, Bava Kama 4:16).  This reflects a common strategy to explain halakhic discrepancies between treatment of Jews and gentiles.  The Torah demands basic moral treatment for all, but commands that we go beyond the norm for fellow Jews. 


Such an approach may explain why the prohibition of lending money with interest applies only to other Jews.  Interest is rationally defensible, as having money for a period of time truly is worth money, but the Torah demands that we go one step further for our brethren.   R. Lipshutz adopts a similar approach regarding responsibilities for damages cause by a person's animal. 


Why are gentiles responsible for the damages caused by their animals?  R. Lipshutz echoes Rambam's explanation (Hilkhot Nizkei Mamon 8:5).  Since Torah law does not apply to them, they have no incentive to watch their animals; if we did not impose liability upon them, society would suffer (Yakhin, Bava Kama 4:17).  In other words, Jews must watch their animals whether or not they will be held liable if their ox gores a gentile ox.  This is not the case for gentiles, so Halakha makes them liable. 


In the Boaz section of the commentary (Boaz, Bava Kama 4:1), R. Lipshutz emphasizes the prohibition of theft from a non–Jew and of retaining money mistakenly given to us by a gentile.  He cites the Be'er ha-Golah of R. Moshe Rivkes (Choshen Mishpat 348) that no good comes from those who take advantage of the monetary mistakes of gentiles.  On the contrary, those who return mistaken money sanctify the name of God and will find greater business success as well.  R. Lipshutz adds that the two hundred years between R. Rivkes and himself have only strengthened that point.  Our "brethren among the nations" accept monotheism, recognize the sanctity of scripture, observe the Noachide laws, protect Jews, and support the Jewish poor. How can we behave towards them in an ungrateful fashion?  R. Lipshutz appreciates the benefits that modernity bestowed upon the Jews and contends that these benefits demand more scrupulous honesty in our business transactions with the broader world.


A mishna in Sanhedrin (10:1) famously states that all Jews have a portion in the world–to–come, with a handful of exceptions.  What about gentiles?  The Rambam rules that the pious among the nations also achieve this exalted state (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva 3:5). In theory, this entry might be restricted to a very small group.  R. Lipshutz infers, however, from the mishna's specific exclusion of Bilaam that even the average among the gentiles makes it to olam ha-ba.  The gemara (Sanhedrin 105a) utilized the exclusion of Bilaam to infer that some non –Jews make it.  R. Lipshutz takes this further and contends that a significant portion of them make it (Yakhin, Sanhedrin 10:2).


Interestingly, in the same commentary R. Lipschutz goes on to posit an inherent difference between Jew and gentile.  Wicked gentiles receive their punishment and are destined to extinction.  Jews who have committed serious crimes also receive punishments, but their upper soul remains and returns to the proximity of God.  Apparently, a rabbinic thinker can believe in some intrinsic difference between Jew and gentile, and yet adopt a positive orientation towards the non–Jewish world.  R. Avraham Yitzchak ha-Kohen Kook represents another example of this phenomenon, although the degree of difference between peoples is far more pronounced in his thought than in that of R. Lipshutz.


The growing rights that emancipation granted Jews probably influenced R. Lipshutz's thought.  While anti– Semitism certainly lived on well into the nineteenth century, gratitude for decent treatment afforded by gentiles is morally obligatory.  As mentioned in earlier lectures, R. Lipshutz saw value in secular studies, another point related to one's orientation towards non–Jews.   If you view the non–Jewish world as decent, you are more likely to be interested in their ideas.  Conversely, if you find their ideas profound, you are more likely to see the people themselves as decent.   R. Lipshutz represents a powerful voice in our tradition for recognizing the decency in gentile society and the important ideas in their intellectual world.