How the Torah Changed the World

February 9, 2012

The Torah Revolution - Fourteen Truths that Changed the World, Reuven Hammer, Jewish Lights,$24.99


The influence of the ideal of the equality of all humans can be felt in the laws of the Torah found in the last four books, Exodus through Deuteronomy, even though the laws therein are intended for the people of Israel alone. They envision Israel living in its own land-the Land of Israel, formerly Canaan, that had been promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-and form the constitution of the new state of the Israelites.

Nevertheless, the Torah makes provision for non-Israelites who will be dwelling there, grants them many rights, and cautions the Israelites concerning their treatment. These people are known as gerim, "strangers," or literally "dwellers." It is a term that Abraham had used to describe himself in relation to those who lived in the land to which he had come. "I am a ger and a resident among you," he said and then asked for permission to buy land (Gen. 23:4). Although there is no explicit ruling in the Torah prohibiting the resident stranger from owning land, most scholars assume that this was the case.

The exilic prophet Ezekiel states that when the people of Israel return to the land and divide it among the tribes, "You shall allot it as a heritage for yourselves and for the strangers who reside among you, who have begotten children among you. You shall treat them as Israelite citizens; they shall receive allotments along with you among the tribes of Israel" (Ezek. 47:22). Certainly, this was an innovation; in the original division of the land among the tribes, there is no such provision for a "stranger," but this innovation is very much in the spirit of the Torah's revolutionary concept of human equality.

Similarly, there is no specific prohibition in the Torah against selling land to a non-Israelite; such prohibitions were enacted in Jewish law against idolaters at a later period, when Jewish independence was no more and Jews did not control the land. Within Jewish law, there were different opinions as to who was prohibited from owning land and, in general, who was referred to whenever the laws spoke of "idolaters." Although some sages took it as referring to all non-Jews, others restricted it literally to those who worshipped idols.

The most liberal position on this question was taken by a thirteenth-century rabbi from Provence, Menachem Hameiri, who held that any such prohibitions applied only to the seven Canaanite nations who no longer existed and certainly not to people who were "guided by religious norms," which included both Christians and Muslims. (footnote 1) Although there may be harsh statements against non-Jews found in the vast works of Jewish tradition, these reflect the agony and suffering of Jews under their oppressors at various times in Jewish history and as such are understandable. Such harsh words, however, "did not thereby become Jewish religious teachings and are not to be considered as an authoritative statement of Judaism." (2)

Rabbi Haim Hirschensohn, an early twentieth-century Orthodox Zionist thinker, taught that the Torah is democratic in viewing all citizens as equal before the law, including the Jew and the stranger-the non-Jew-in their midst. As paraphrased by the philosopher Eliezer Shweid, "In principle, Hirschensohn insists, the Torah advocates complete social, political and moral equality between Jews and Gentiles, in the sense that any demand based on human morality applies equally to all.… The differences in religious and ritual considerations do not in the slightest impinge on the full equality between Jew and Gentile in the eyes of the Torah." (3)

As Jacob Lauterbach puts it, "For we are mindful of the fundamental principles of our religion, that we all have one Father in heaven and that every human being is made in the image of the Father and that we sin against God if we harm any man." (4)

Common Ancestry in Rabbinic Judaism and Beyond

Rabbinic Judaism went far in developing and emphasizing this concept. A late midrash expresses the idea that all are equal in the sight of God: "I call heaven and earth to witness, that whether one be Gentile or Jew, man or woman, slave or handmaid, the Holy Spirit will rest upon them according to their deeds!" (5) As we have already pointed out, the Sages used the Torah's creation story to indicate that we all have one common ancestry. The early sage Hillel taught that we should be like Aaron, "loving all those created [by God] and bringing them closer to the Torah" (Pirkei Avot 1:12).

Hillel does not say "loving Israelites" but "loving all those created," which specifically includes non-Jews. Rabbi Akiba well understood the meaning of this and taught, "Beloved is the human being, for he was created in the image of God. The human being is exceedingly beloved in that it was made known to him that he was created in the image of God" (Pirkei Avot 3:18). Hillel's contemporary, Shammai, taught that one was to greet "every human being with a cheerful face" (Pirkei Avot 1:15).

In an interesting discussion between Akiba and Ben Azzai on the question of which verse of the Torah is the basic verse on which everything else depends, Akiba suggests, "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). Ben Azzai objects, contending that "this is the record of the begettings of humankind. At the time of God's creating humankind, in the likeness of God did He make it" (Gen. 5:1) was an even greater verse. (6) Although Ben Azzai does not explain himself, we may assume that he felt that "your neighbour" could be understood to mean your fellow Israelite alone, whereas Genesis 5:1 speaks of all humanity as being in God's likeness and would therefore apply the Torah's ethical principles and concern to them all.

The eighteenth-century mystic Pinhas Eliah Hurwitz reinterprets the verse from Leviticus that Akiba chose to apply to all human beings:

The essence of neighborly love consists in loving all mankind, all who walk on two legs, of whatever people and whatever tongue, by virtue of their identical humanity…. The meaning of the verse "You shall love your neighbor as yourself " is not confined to Jews only, but the sense is "your neighbor who is a human being as yourself"-people of all nations are included, any fellow humans. (7)

Perhaps that was the way that Akiba had understood it. Walt Whitman, the nineteenth-century poet of America and American ideals, expresses much the same idea in the opening verses of his Leaves of Grass:

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume;
For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to
In all people I see myself-none more, and not one a
barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself, I say of them.

At the conclusion of the Second World War, Henry Alonzo Myers of Cornell University wrote a book titled Are Men Equal? He viewed that war as the ultimate struggle between Jefferson's ideal of the equality of men and Hitler's ideal of the inequality of men. Myers acknowledges that this doctrine was much older than Jefferson, having been stated in theTorah thousands of years earlier: "From beginning to end the Bible teaches the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. The story of the creation of Adam and Eve, the parents of all men, is the first lesson." (8)

Because of the importance of that struggle, Myers attempts to strengthen the grounds for the belief in human equality:

The lessons of history are clear enough. The doctrine of superiority has always been, even in its noblest forms, a means of dividing men, of setting one class or one people over others and against others. The proposition of equality, on the other hand, by its very nature implies the unity of men. Already a giant force in world politics, it will in time prevail over armed force-if men believe it to be true. (9)

It is ironic that the Torah's concept of human equality was so well expressed in German in the words of Friedrich von Schiller, which were later immortalized and sung so gloriously in the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: "Alle menchen weirden bruder"-"All humans shall be brothers." Had these words been taken to heart in twentieth-century Germany, the great tragedy of that time would have been averted.

1. Beit HaBechirah, Avodah Zarah 20.
2. Jacob Lauterbach, "The Attitude of the Jew toward the Non-Jew", Central Conference of American Rabbis Yearbook 31, 1921: p 185
3. Eliezer Schweid, Democracy and Halakhah (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002), 66.
4. Lauterbach, "Attitude," 222.
5. Tanna d'vei Eliyahu 9.
6. Sifra, Kedoshim 4.
7. Sefer HaBerit, cited by Greenberg, Studies, 387. Notes 197
8. Henry Alonzo Myers, Are Men Equal? An Inquiry into the Meaning of American Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1945), 35.
9. Ibid., 16.

Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT .

Last updated: 7:13pm, June 7 2012