What the Talmud Says About Gentiles, Revisited

Talmud StudyI originally wrote this article in October of 2009 for the Congregation Shema Yisrael blog. While I no longer am affiliated with that congregation (for many reasons previously stated), I wanted to “import” the article here, since there have been some recent conversations on the blogosphere issuing a “warning” that overly studying the Talmud or other Jewish writings could result in a Christian apostatizing from the church and abandoning faith in Jesus. Speaking for just myself, I find a great deal of value and wisdom in reading the Jewish writings and don’t find myself being drawn away from my faith. In fact, quite the opposite. I find many parallels between how the sages taught and the teachings of my own “Rebbe”.

The Talmudic sages are often depicted as being very much against non-Jews in general and Christians in specific. While I believe, given the long history of Christian persecution of Jews, that the tzadikim had good reasons to feel leery of the church, if we actually look at what the Talmud has to say about non-Jews, we see a more evenly balanced perspective. I wanted to inject the content from my almost three-year old article into my current blog to provide a reminder that Jews and Christians don’t have to be at odds with each other and particularly, that Christians don’t have to be at odds with the Talmud or avoid Jewish study. Here, for your illumination, is the content of my original article What Does the Talmud Say About Gentiles? in its entirety.

The Talmud contains many references to righteous gentiles whose behaviour is held up as a model for all people. The example of Dama ben Netina is known to all Jewish children (Kidushin 31a): ‘They asked R. Eliezer how far one should go in honoring parents. He said to them: Go and see how one idol worshipper in Ashdod honored his father, and Dama ben Netina was his name. The sages wished to purchase gems from him for the Ephod [for a tremendous profit] … but the key [to the box containing the gems] was under his father’s pillow [while his father was sleeping] and he did not trouble his father [by waking him even though he gave up a tremendous profit].’ Dama was rewarded for his virtue the next year when a red heifer [required for the Temple service] was born in his flock. When he sold it to the sages he told them that he knew that they would pay any price he asked for it, but he asked only for the amount he had not earned the previous year when he refrained from waking his father.

-quoted from a now defunct website

Messianics and many traditional Christian churches support Israel and the Jewish people as chosen and established by God. We seek to “honor the root” of our faith in Yeshua (Jesus) by honoring Jews; the only people who worshipped the one true God, and kept His Shabbat and Holy Torah for thousands of years, while the rest of the world was immersed in idolatry.

While many Messianics particularly, feel a close connection to the Jewish people though the keeping of the Shabbat, the prayers, and many other Hebraic practices, we sometimes we don’t realize that the door swings both ways. What does the Talmud and other writings teach Jews about Gentiles?

I’ve been interested in this topic for quite some time, but what made me dig a little deeper into the subject was a thread in a discussion forum at Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news service, started by a former Christian living in Israel, who had recently converted to Judaism (the non-Messianic kind). You can read her reasoning in the thread and the many responses her post elicited, but one of the main reasons she felt led to embrace Judaism and reject Yeshua as the Messiah, is that Judaism and Torah doesn’t teach that God can be a man. In that view, Yeshua as the earthly incarnation of the God of Heaven is impossible.

I’m not going to explore the view of the Christian Trinity through Jewish eyes, but I do want to take a more general look of how Gentiles are viewed in classic Judaism. Interestingly enough, some of the best sources I found on the topic are no longer available on the web or may soon become unavailable.

For instance, one of the best collections of Talmud quotes relevant to Gentiles was housed at The Talmud Exposed, formerly maintained by M. Gruda. Unfortunately, the site hadn’t been updated in almost a decade, and even worse, it was hosted at GeoCities. I came across it only days before Yahoo! permanently closed down all GeoCities sites. Fortunately, I copied the text content off of the page and will present it later in this blog for your review.

Another extremely helpful site is The real truth about the Talmud, hosted at angelfire.com. The angelfire hosted site is maintained by Gil Student and hasn’t been updated since 2000 (as far as I can tell). Since Angelfire is also a free web hosting service, it could also, in theory, disappear at any time, and so the content may not be as durable as if it resided at a more reliable (paid) host.

Before continuing, I want to emphasize why the Talmud is such an important information source in Judaism. For those of us without a classic Jewish education, we tend to look at the extra-Biblical Jewish writings as “mere commentary”, that we can either take or leave. The following from Daf Digest may help illuminate the Jewish perspective somewhat:

On today’s daf we find the unerring honesty of Rav Huna who explains why the halacha is like Rav Nachman, not himself.

Rav Wolbe, zt”l, once explained why absolute honesty must be attributed to the true chachamim of each generation. “Every Torah Jew must have absolute confidence in the great achronim of every generation. We must never suspect the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, or the Chazon Ish, zt”l, of falsehood even in worldly matters and certainly not in the all-important area of halacha.

“When the Chofetz Chaim rules in a certain way it is as if he says this in the name of his teacher and his teacher’s teacher all the way back to Moshe (Moses) at Sinai. Someone who doubts this, doubts the veracity of Hillel and Rabi Akiva as well since what is the real difference? Even this confused person must concede that if the halachic process of our greatest authorities is based on falsehood, perhaps the same is true regarding the earlier authorities, chas v’shalom!

“When Hashem sent prophets to warn powerful kings that they would fall and their kingdoms would be destroyed, they did so fearlessly despite the terrible dangers involved. The word of Hashem burned in their hearts and they foretold these events without the slightest change. Even though some suffered blows or even imprisonment for telling people what they did not wish to hear, they would not falsify or even hold back their prophecy. “Like the prophets, the sages valiantly taught Torah whatever the consequences, since their only interest was to promulgate the truth. There can be no doubt that regardless of pressure or political considerations, the great sages of each generation remained true to the halacha which burned in their hearts. It is not for nothing that Chazal teach in Shabbos 138b, that ‘devar Hashem’ refers to both prophecy and halacha!”

From the Daf Digest
Bava Basra 65
Stories off the Daf
“The Halachic Process”

As you can see, Talmud commentary is considered in the same light as the writings and sayings of the ancient Prophets of God. To question Talmud, in some sense, is like questioning all of the Prophets, going all the way back to Moses. A Christian wouldn’t question something said by Jesus or Paul in the Apostolic Scriptures, nor of the Prophets in the Tanakh. Think of how Judaism sees the commentaries of the wise Sages. With that under our belts so to speak, let’s continue with how Judaism and Talmud speaks of Gentiles.

Talmud Study by LamplightAccording to the Judaism 101 site, “Judaism maintains that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come”, however, Jews are seen as especially chosen by God and the Jewish people possess a favored position, and very specific responsibilities to God. Only Jews are responsible for keeping of the entire Torah, while Gentiles, in order to merit a place in the World to Come, must only keep the Seven Laws of Noah.

Many Christians have the idea that Jews disdain or otherwise dislike Gentiles. I recall having an extended email conversation with one fellow who was actually angry at Jews for denying Gentiles access to God and Heaven, by not evangelizing Gentiles and attempting to convert them (us) to Judaism. From a Jewish perspective, it’s not necessary for the rest of the world to convert to Judaism, and Jews do not believe that God rejects the rest of the non-Jewish world. Being Jewish or non-Jewish is a matter of roles and responsibilities to God, not the presence or absence of God’s ultimate love and compassion.

This actually goes a long way to explaining the sudden shift in theology of the Messianic educational group First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), who now state that only Jews are obligated to comply with the Torah commandments, while Gentiles are “divinely invited” to keep as many as they are called. This isn’t quite what Judaism teaches, as illustrated in my article up to this point, but it is a solid move in that direction.

As a Messianic or a traditional Christian, you might be asking yourself right now why any of this should be important to you. If you are a person who has visited, or is intending to visit a traditional synagogue to share Yeshua with your Jewish brothers and sisters, it might help to understand something of the Jewish perspective. It’s also important for us as Messianics to see where our worship and faith practice aligns with Judaism and where it deviates. Much of the theology of “Messianic Judaism”, at its core, is Christian rather than Jewish. Many in the Messianic movement haven’t explored the real “Judaism” part of “Messianic Judaism”, and I think it behooves us to become more knowledgeable in this area.

What does the Talmud say about Gentiles? From M. Gruda’s now non-existent site, here are the available quotes. This list is somewhat long and the text is verbatim:

“They said of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai that no man ever greeted him first, even idol worshippers in the market” [i.e., Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was the first to greet every person, even idol worshippers] (Berachot 17). At the same location the sage Abaye advocated soft speech and words of peace to everyone, especially including idol worshippers.

“[it is proper to] support the idol worshippers during the sabbatical year… and to inquire after their welfare [commentators: even on the days of the holidays of their idols, even if they do not keep the seven Noahide commandments] because of the ways of peace.” (Shevi’it 4,3)

The rabbis taught: ‘We support poor Gentiles with the poor people of Israel, and we visit sick Gentiles as well as the sick of Israel and we bury the dead of the Gentiles as well as the dead of Israel, because of the ways of peace.” (Gitin 61a)

The Talmud contains many references to righteous gentiles whose behaviour is held up as a model for all people. The example of Dama ben Netina is known to all Jewish children (Kidushin 31a): ‘They asked R. Eliezer how far one should go in honoring parents. He said to them: Go and see how one idol worshipper in Ashdod honored his father, and Dama ben Netina was his name. The sages wished to purchase gems from him for the Ephod [for a tremendous profit] … but the key [to the box containing the gems] was under his father’s pillow [while his father was sleeping] and he did not trouble his father [by waking him even though he gave up a tremendous profit].’ Dama was rewarded for his virtue the next year when a red heifer [required for the Temple service] was born in his flock. When he sold it to the sages he told them that he knew that they would pay any price he asked for it, but he asked only for the amount he had not earned the previous year when he refrained from waking his father.

Another example of righteous gentiles whose behaviour is held up as a model is to be found in the story of the King of Katsia and his subjects. One of his subjects purchased a ruin from his neighbor and found a treasure in it. He insisted on giving it back to his neighbor, claiming he had purchased only the ruin, and not a treasure. His neighbor refused to take it, insisting that he had sold the ruin and everything in it. The two litigants came to the King to decide the issue. When the King discovered that one neighbor had a son and the other one had a daughter he ruled that the children should marry and share the treasure. It is related that Alexander of Macedonia saw this judgement and was amazed by it. He told the King of Katsia that in his country the two neighbors would be executed (since in his land found treasure had to be delivered to the King at the pain of death). The King of Katsia is reported to have asked Alexander if the rain fell and the sun shone and if there were animals in the land of Alexander. When Alexander answered affirmatively the King of Katsia told him that the sun shone and the rain fell in the merit of the animals, not the people of his land. (Gen R 33 – further sources are referenced at this location).

Baba Kama 38a: “But we learned: R. Meir says – whence do we learn that a gentile who is occupied in the Torah [the reference is to those commandments which apply to gentiles] is like the High Priest? As it says [a proof text is given]…”

Kidushin 32 contains descriptions of the manner in which our sages honored and respected the elderly. The passage specifically refers to elderly gentiles who were honored in various fashions by the sages.

In TY Baba Metzia there are a number of descriptions of sages going out of their way to return lost objects to gentiles (Elu Metziot).

Avot 3,14: “He [Rabbi Akiva] was accustomed to say: Beloved is man [commentators: the reference is to all mankind], for he was created in G-d’s image ..”

Tosefta BK 10,8: “.. it is more grievous to steal from a gentile because of the desecration of G-d’s name ..”

Tosefta BM 2,11: “.. one who sees a lost donkey of an idol worshipper must take care of it exactly the way he takes care of the lost donkey of an Israelite ..”

At Avoda Zara 18a the Talmud relates the remarkable story of how a Roman guard of one of the sages who was brutally murdered by the Romans repented. It was made known to the sages that the guard and the sage were welcomed to the World to Come together.

At Hullin 7a there is a report of how the sage Pinchas ben Yair miraculously split a river in order to speed his way to carry out the commandment to redeem captives. He went out of his way to split the river again in order to allow a gentile who was accompanying his group to also cross the river to speed his way.

The TalmudFrom M. Gruda: This approach characterized sages throughout all generations. Some examples have been quoted in the earlier parts of this article. Two further examples of interest follow. Many more appear in the literature.

Maimonides (over 800 years ago) in Laws of the Sabbatical Year and Jubilee, Chapter 13, Halacha 13, writes .. “and not only the Tribe of Levy [merits special closeness to G-d] but every single person of those who walk the earth who … walks straight in the manner G-d created him … behold this person is sanctified as the Holy of Holies and [he will receive his reward in the World to Come] as the Priests and Levites.”

Tiferet Yisrael (Boaz) (approximately 150 years ago) on Avot 3,14 writes, ” … even if our sages had not explicitly taught [that righteous Gentiles have a place in the World to Come as we learn in Sanhedrin 105 and Maimonides Chapter 8 of the Laws of Kings] we would have understood this ourselves since G-d is righteous in all His ways … and we see many of the righteous Gentiles who not only recognize the Creator and believe in the divine origin of the Torah and also act charitably … we will say something which is a commandment to publicize … for behold, some of the them have done tremendous good for all mankind, such as Yenner who invented the … which saves tens of thousands of people from disease and death and deformities … and Draka (?) who brought the potato to Europe thus saving [people] from hunger … and Gutenberg who invented the printing press, and some who never received any reward in this world such as the righteous Reuchlin who risked his life [to prevent the burning of the Talmud] … Can anyone imagine that these great deeds are not repaid in the World to Come? ..”

As I mentioned earlier, another good source of information that remains available on the Internet is Gil Student’s The real truth about the Talmud:

In the Jewish worldview all gentiles who are ethical monotheists will achieve salvation. Judaism does not denigrate gentiles and does not see them as condemned to eternal damnation. Rather we see them as fellow human beings, from other nations, searching for G-d and for meaning in life. Judaism wishes them well with their search and celebrates those who succeed in becoming ethical monotheists. Jews are obligated in many rituals and ceremonies and those Jews who fail to fulfill these rituals are considered sinners. Gentiles, however, are not obligated in these commandments and are only obligated to be ethical monotheists. Those who fulfill this obligation receive their full reward in the world-to-come.

This article wasn’t written as a denial of faith in Yeshua, but as an attempt to offer some insight to Messianics/Christians on how traditional Judaism, using the Talmud, views the “ethical monotheistic” Gentiles. While our message about the Messiahship of Yeshua isn’t readily accepted in the Jewish world view, we are accepted as fellow creations of the God of Abraham. May we all find our home and our salvation in the arms of the God of Heaven, Jew and Gentile alike.

Blessings.

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14 thoughts on “What the Talmud Says About Gentiles, Revisited”

  1. Hi James,

    Great post. However, I did want to comment on a particular statement you made in the article:

    “Talmud commentary is considered in the same light as the writings and sayings of the ancient Prophets of God. To question Talmud, in some sense, is like questioning all of the Prophets, going all the way back to Moses.”

    Although it is true that the traditional view of the Talmud does hold that there is a connection with the Talmud all the way back to Moshe, it is not perceived on the same level as the Prophets, or other canonical texts. Judaism clearly understands and respects a difference of authority between what is often called the “Written Torah” and the “Oral Torah.”

    This is especially true in the development of halachah, and within the Talmud itself. For example, according to Professor Ethan Tucker of the Jewish Theological Seminary:

    “The body of Jewish law is not uniform in texture, but is rather composed of materials which fall into two main categories, usually referred to as de-oraita (biblically ordained) and de-rabbanan (rabbinically developed). That which is de-oraita can be considered to be the very core of the system, which holds it in place and provides a frame of reference. It therefore must be treated as inviolable. Tampering with that which is de-oraita is tantamount to destroying the core of the Jewish pattern of life as it has existed for millennia …The much greater (that is, in terms of volume) overlay which is de-rabbanan, on the other hand, comes with procedures for change and development. What is de-rabbanan can develop, is in fact meant to develop, as the conditions of the Jewish community change. That is what ensures the vibrancy and the continuity of the halakha as the coordinate system which roots all Jewish communities.”

    Although traditional Judaism sees the halachic process as divinely inspired, it is still not held on the same par with Scripture. Furthermore, the Talmud itself is viewed as a conversation, and often contains disputes (machloket) over particular positions. And often there is no final decision given. Although this drives those from a Western mind-set crazy, it helps to enforce the fact that Gemara is a written conversation – that is linked back to Moshe (in process), but dynamic in the fact that it itself evolves. Whereas, the canon of Torah (and all Scripture) does not.

  2. Good Morning, Joshua.

    I figured I made a few mistakes in my almost three year old blog. I have much to learn in this arena, but I felt it was important to “refresh” this information on the web to try and dispel some myths about the Talmud and Judaism that have been going around.

    I appreciate your comments and your clarification. Thanks.

  3. James:

    This is a nice service you are providing. I appreciate the positive comments about non-Jews you have posted from Talmud. Often there is too much emphasis on the not-so-positive.

    The Talmud in particular is liable to be mined for embarrassing citations and not-so-nice things ancient rabbis once said. Since the Talmud records discussions between sages and thus records many opinions (even ugly opinions about a variety of topics such as the place of women, gentiles, Christians, and so on), there are negative examples and some people have made a business out of damning to Talmud to “Christian” readers. Your positive sayings here are a breath of fresh air.

    And as for the negative sayings that happen in Talmud, I’d remind people the Bible itself has plenty of not-so-nice and less-than-loving comments too (not criticizing the Bible, which I love, but we have to face the facts about such passages). But for every “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psa 137:9) there is also a “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him” (Psa 27:27-28).

    Derek Leman

  4. Nice post, James. It should be noted that MOST if not all of the prejudicial statements in Talmud concerning Gentiles are directed at non-Jews who are idol worshipers. In that, it very much reflects what the Bible itself says about idol worshipers (even so, Talmud also cautions Jews to treat even the idol worshipers fairly and kindly). On that other hand, Gentiles who forsook idols (G-d-fearers) or gentiles who were seeking a conversion to Judaism are very much praised in Talmud.

    Also, as others already said above, what one sage/rabbi said in Talmud may not reflect the opposing opinions of other sages/rabbis, which are found also in Talmud. This particular nature of Talmud, that is an argument/conversation between sages, is, as Derek pointed out, “liable to be mined for embarrassing citations”, especially when one prejudicially seeks out obscure or even rejected arguments, quotes out of context or just plain misrepresents the original intent behind certain passages, or chooses to ignore the target audience (e.g. idol worshiping Gentiles vs G-d fearing ones).

  5. Also, as others already said above, what one sage/rabbi said in Talmud may not reflect the opposing opinions of other sages/rabbis, which are found also in Talmud.

    This certainly could add to the Talmud’s “vulnerability” to being misused. Anyone could take a few comments from one or two Rabbis way out of the conversational context and make them seem as if they are absolute conclusions in Talmud.

    I think what also adds to the confusion is that people (Christians, anyway) are accustomed to reading the Bible as a book containing statements of absolute truth from God and looking at the Bible as completely internally consistent and a document that never contradicts itself. As I’ve seen illustrated by various NT scholars including Bart Erhman, in actuality, there are plenty of “hiccups” in the Bible. It’s not meant to be read as a series of conversations (and disagreements) between various Biblical authors (as opposed to how the Talmud is constructed).

    If you try to read the Talmud (or any portion of it, since it’s vast) with the same mindset as one often reads the Bible, it’s bound to lead to gross misunderstandings of not only the Talmudic writers specifically, but of Jews in general. The Talmud is not a simple thing to approach and addressing it in an inappropriate context will lead to lots of problems.

  6. I had a question/comment about this particular “post” but see that it has been a long time since any activity on this one. So, will my comments or questions get any attention if left here? It is related to “Righteous Gentiles and the Early Church/NT”

  7. Can anyone assist me with the question of Gowy salvation?

    I have scoured the Old Testament of the Bible and have not found many references to Gentile ( Gowy ) salvation ( in the world that is to come ) bar 2 scriptures :

    Deuteronomy 32:43 “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people; for He will avenge the blood of His servants, and render vengeance to His adversaries; he will provide atonement for His land and His people.”

    In this scripture it says that the Gowy will rejoice with G-d’s people at His vengeance and the atonement that He will provide for His land ( adamah ) and His people ( am ).

    Isaiah 11:10 “And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, who shall stand as a banner to the people; for the Gentiles shall seek Him, and His resting place shall be glorious.”

    What I understand from this scripture is that it is poiting to Yeshua ( Root of Jesse ) who shall stand as a banner to the people (am), for the Gowy shall seek Him.

    Amos 9: 11 “On that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down, and repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old;12 That they may possess the remnant of Edom, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name,” says the LORD who does this thing.

    Here is a reference to Goye who are called by the name of G-d.
    Are any of these prophets’ writings in the Torah and do they agree with the biblical interpretation?

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