by Gil Student
Yebamoth 98a. All gentile children are animals.
Berakoth 58a. In addition to having Elijah float down from heaven to deceive the gentile court, the Talmud teaches that gentiles are actually animals, hence Rabbi Shila (and Elijah) did not really lie at all. It also teaches that anyone (even a Jewish man) who reveals this Talmudic teaching about non-Jews deserves death, since revealing it makes gentiles wrathful and causes the repression of Judaism.
This is a complex issue and the following explanation will fully address the issue in great detail. What we will demonstrate is that the Talmud does not state anywhere that gentiles are animals. Both the passage in Yevamot and the story about Elijah are misrepresented by the accusation.
What the passages actually mean is that, due to the biblical prohibition against Jews marrying outside their religion, there is no legal standing to sexual relations between a Jew and a gentile. While this may seem offensive to some, it is the view of the Talmud
Talmud Berachot 58a
R. Shila administered lashes to a man who had intercourse with a gentile woman. The man went and informed on him to the government. He said: There is a Jewish man who holds court without royal appointment. The king sent an orderly to him [summoning him to appear]. When he came, they said to him: Why did you flog that man? [R. Shila] answered: Because he had relations with a donkey. They said to him: Do you have witnesses? He replied: Yes. Elijah came in the form of a man and testified. They said to him: If so, he is liable for death. [R. Shila] said: From the day we have been exiled from our land, we do not have permission to put someone to death. You can do whatever you want with him.
While they were analyzing his case, R. Shila began: (1 Chronicles 29:11) "Yours, LORD, is the greatness, the strength, the splendor,..." They said to him: What are you saying? He replied: This is what I am saying: Blessed is G-d who has given an earthly kingship similar to the heavenly Kingship and has given you dominion and made you merciful in judgement. They said to him: The honor of the government is so dear to you? They gave him a strap and appointed him as a judge.
When [R. Shila] left, the man [who was punished] said to him: Does G-d perform miracles for lies? He replied in this way: Wicked one, are they not called donkeys, as it says (Ezekiel 23:20) "whose flesh is the flesh of donkeys"? He saw that this man was going to inform on him [to the government] that he had called them donkeys. He said: This man is a pursuer and the Torah says that if someone comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first. He hit him with the strap and killed him.
There are a number of interesting points to be raised about this passage. However, first and foremost is the inference that has been drawn by some that this passage states that gentiles are considered donnkeys by the Talmud. Reading through this passage, that seems like a correct inference. However, considering another passage that discuss this verse, it becomes clear that this is not the case at all. In fact, as we shall soon see, the Talmud actually states that possibility and quickly rejects it.
Let us first put this event into its proper historical context. Aaron Hyman [Toldot Tannaim Ve'amoraim, vol. 3 pp. 1111-1112] places this during the time of R. Shimon ben Gamaliel II which is early second century. Around fifty years earlier the Temple had been destroyed and large portions of the Jewish population brought to Rome and sold as slaves. The Jews were still persecuted due to the decrees of the emperor Trajan (reigned 98 to 117) and, when he died and Hadrian became his successor, Hadrian's early policy of tolerance was changed to one of persecution as well, some say due to Jewish informers who warned against giving Jews too much independence. In the year 114 [CE], the huge Jewish population of Alexandria was almost wiped out by rioting gentiles with the tacit approval of the Roman government. In the year 123, Hadrian forbade Jews from observing their Sabbath and circumcizing their sons [Mattis Kantor, The Jewish Time Line Encyclopedia, pp. 103-105]. These were dangerous and scary times for Jews. This difficult situation culminated in a revolt in the year 127. However, the events in our passage evidently precede the revolt.
The man in our passage had committed a religious offense and was being punished by a Jewish court. Having relations with anyone other than one's wife is forbidden under Jewish law, as is marrying a gentile [see Deut. 7:3; Ezra 9; Nehemiah 13:23-28]. This man had sinned and the court tried and convicted him for this offense. [Courts such as this no longer have the religious or secular authority to punish for such sins.] However, this court was not recognized by the Romans and had no authority to punish the man for religious crimes.
When R. Shila, who presided over the court of three judges, was summoned before the Roman authorities, he could have been killed for administering Jewish laws. Therefore, he claimed that the man had violated a Roman law and that the court was merely doing what any Roman court would have done. When the Romans decided to judge the case themselves, R. Shila realized that this man might be punished more harshly than his crime deserved. R. Shila then tricked the court to save this man's life by saying that the man had slept with a donkey. However, this statement was not an entire lie because there is a biblical verse in which gentiles are compared to donkeys, particularly in respect to relations. Therefore, R. Shila could claim that he was speaking metaphorically and the court mistakenly understood him literally. Was he one hundred percent honest? No. However, he was dealing with a vicious government that was cruelly persecuting Jews. This turn of phrase saved a man's life. It was not, however, an outright lie. And that distinction is crucial in determining whether it was permitted or not, even during those dreadfully dangerous times.
Afterwards, this man was lacking in gratitude to R. Shila, although understandably since he had recently been flogged by him, and threatened to inform on him to the Roman government. This would have meant certain death for R. Shila, and possibly a massacre of thousands of Jews. Since this man was pursuing R. Shila -- he was trying to cause his death by informing on him to the Romans -- R. Shila had the right to save himself by killing this man first.
[The descent of Elijah is a fascinating example of the slow decrease in divine revelation that began with G-d speaking directly to man in the early biblical period, descended to G-d only speaking through a prophet, gradually reduced the clarity of prophecy until it was totally ended in Ezra's time. There still remained non-prophetic ways of G-d revealing himself to man. However, over centuries these too diminished until we are currently left with almost no way of knowing G-d's will except by looking to the past. R. Shila lived during the end of the last period of divine revelation and he was, therefore, still able to witness Elijah's descent from heaven. This, however, takes us well off topic and is best left for another time. Cf. R. Ya'akov Kaminetsky, Emet LeYa'akov Al HaTorah, Exodus 7:22]
While we have made the plausible contention that R. Shila did not mean this equation between gentiles and donkeys literally, and that those who claim he did are guilty of reading an historical episode overly literal, we have yet to prove our claim. The following passage, however, does that.
Talmud Berachot 25b, Shabbat 150a
R. Yehudah said: It is forbidden to recite the Shema prayer in front of a naked gentile. Why [does he say] a gentile? [It is] also [forbidden in front of] a Jew. [In front of a Jew] is obvious that it is forbidden. However, in front of a gentile one might say that since it says (Ezekiel 23:20) "whose flesh is the flesh of donkeys" they are like donkeys, he came to teach us that they are also considered nakedness.
What we see here is a talmudic sage addressing exactly this issue. One might think that this verse teaches us that gentiles are like donkeys. Contrary to some claims, talmudic rabbis were very familiar with the Bible and knew about this verse in Ezekiel which, while stated regarding Egyptians, is generally understood as referring to all gentiles. Some might read this verse and understand it to mean that within Jewish law gentiles are considered as animals. Some might come to the conclusion that this verse means that gentiles are not really human and therefore their standing before us naked is like an animal standing before us naked and the ritual law forbidding prayer before a naked person is not applicable.
However, R. Yehudah teaches, that is not the case at all. Gentiles are people and not merely animals and the verse in Ezekiel does not mean that gentiles are animals. To understand the verse literally, the Talmud says, is to misunderstand the verse. Gentiles are unquestionably human, created in G-d's image, and Jewish law recognizes this as do the rabbis of the Talmud.
This verse is understood as implying that Jews and gentiles are maritally and sexually incompatible. The Bible tells us that it is forbidden for Jews to marry gentiles [see Deuteronomy 7:3; Ezra 9; Nehemiah 13:23-28]. While this certainly seems like a logical law since it would be very difficult for one spouse to fully observe the detailed Jewish religious laws while the other does not. It would also be difficult to raise fully observant children. The verse in Ezekiel, however, is coming to tell us that a Jew who marries or sleeps with a gentile, while violating a religious law, is not legally accomplishing anything. The marriage and/or relations has no legal standing and no divorce is necessary. Normally, when a married woman has an affair, the woman is forbidden both to return to her husband and to marry her lover after divorcing her husband. However, since relations with a gentile has no legal standing, a woman who has an affair with a gentile can subsequently marry her lover (if he converts to Judaism). This is not because gentiles are not human or because they cannot have relations. It is because there is a legal incompatibility which makes marriage or relations with a gentile (while still forbidden) legally ineffective. [Cf. Tosafot, Ketuvot 3b sv. Velidrosh; R. Betzalel Ashkenazi, Shitah Mekubetzet, ibid. (particularly sv. Mihu)]
This is the message of the verse in Ezekiel. Just like relations with a donkey has no legal standing (except for the punishment for the act) and cannot cause marriage or separate lovers, so too relations with a gentile [Cf. R. Hershel Schachter, Eretz HaTzvi, p. 114]. Again, it is not because a gentile is considered a donkey. It is because in this legal dimension they are both in the same category. In every other dimension, particularly in the arena of interpersonal dynamics, gentiles are compatible with Jews. However, in the area of marriage, Jews and gentiles can never be married as recognized by Jewish law.
A corrollary of this idea is that a Jew with gentile ancestry is not considered related to the gentile. Since, in Jewish law, gentile relations has no standing, the biological connection does not create a familial relation. This is mainly applicable to converts or children of intermarriages. While there is every reason to express gratitude and friendship with a biological relative, every convert to Judaism knows that he or she is breaking all familial ties by converting.
Rava said: What the rabbis said, "There is no father of a gentile", do not say that it is because [gentiles] are immersed in licentiousness and do not know [who is whose father] but if one knew we would be cautious [and treat him like a father]. Rather, even if we know we are not cautious... we learn that G-d has freed his descendants, as it says (Ezekiel 23:20) "whose flesh is the flesh of donkeys."
A gentile who converts to Judaism no longer has a father [cf. Rashi, ad. loc., sv. Ha]. It is not, the Talmud is careful to point out, because we assume that gentiles are licentious and his biological father may not really be the man who impregnated his other. That is not the case. Rather, a Jew and a gentile are existentially separated by this chasm and the relations of a gentile has no legal standing regarding a Jew.
This is certainly a difficult concept to accept and it is understandable if gentiles might find it perplexing and maybe even offensive. However, it is not labelling gentiles as animals and that is important to point out. These passages can and have been misinterpreted as stating that the Talmud considers gentiles to be animals. That is absolutely false, as has already been demonstrated.
Proof that this is only talking about converts to Judaism and not about all gentiles, can be brought from Talmud Kiddushin 17b where it is stated that a gentile inherits from his father. If a gentile has no connection to his biological father, how can he inherit from him? Similarly, Talmud Yevamot 62a tells us that a gentile who has children, and thereby fulfills the blessing/commandment of "be fruitful and multiply", who subsequently converts to Judaism, is not obligated to have more children. Since he already fulfilled the blessing/commandment when he was a gentile he does not have to fulfill it again as a Jew [cf. Rashi, Yevamot ad. loc, sv. Bnei Noach]. If a gentile has no father, then how can a gentile man ever fulfill the blessing/commandment of "be fruitful and multiply"? His children will never be considered his. Rather, the above passages regarding the donkey are not discussing gentiles in general but only the specific cases mentioned above.
Cf. R. Chaim Soloveitchik, Chiddushei R. Chaim HaLevy, Issurei Biah 13:12; R. Elchanan Wasserman, Kovetz He'arot, 51:3.
Copyright 2000 Gil Student