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Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities (Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion) Hardcover – April 21, 2017
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"Elegantly written, fluidly organized, and argued with creativity and care, Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals is a joy to read. Mira Beth Wasserman is especially skilled in the pedagogy of taking readers through the intricacies of texts. She makes complicated talmudic passages comprehensible and allows readers to experience their richness fully."—Beth Berkowitz, Barnard College
"Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals is a highly original work that combines a broad view of patterns and structures with insightful readings of individual texts in their full semantic range. The work engages rigorous studies in rabbinic literature as well as theoretical discourse, balanced by a commitment to allowing the ancient texts to resist and talk back."—Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, Northwestern University
About the Author
Mira Beth Wasserman teaches rabbinic literature at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
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I encourage the reader to look up the quoted passages in the online Babylonian Talmud (Soncino edition), as I did. It is a rewarding experience. The abbreviations in the book used in this review are as follows: m--Mishna, b--Bavli (also known as Gemara and Babylonian Talmud), t--Tosefta.
“US” and “THEM”: THE POLARITY GOVERNING JEWS AND NON-JEWS
The term GOY means something different in the Talmud from what it meant in the TENACH (Old Testament). Wasserman writes, “A transformation occurs in the early rabbinic period, whereby GOY comes to connote an individual non-Jew, so that the plural GOYIM comes to mean ‘Gentiles’ rather than ‘nations’”. (p. 9).
This redefinition of GOY had practical implications, “With this term, the rabbis divide the world into two, with Jews on one side and Gentiles, their binary opposite on the other…each law is structured on a binary opposition between Jews and all other people.” (p. 9).
The prejudices reflected by such dualistic thinking are unambiguous. Wasserman quips, “The Mishna preserves a range of opinions, some more lenient and some more stringent, but none of the rulings in Mishna AVODAH ZARAH distinguish between different categories of Gentiles, or allow for individual difference among GOYIM.” (p. 9).
RACISM? ETHNOCENTRISM? OR WHAT?
Author Mira Beth Wasserman does not flat-out state that the Talmud is racist, but she does use euphemistic synonyms such as “ethnocentrism” (p. 14, 94, 242) and “xenophobic content” (p. 8, 13, 95). She also speaks, in her words, of “vilifications of non-Jews in the Talmud.” (p. 13, 14), the “Talmud’s degradations of non-Jews” (p. 15), and of “the venom with which non-Jews are denigrated” (p. 219).
As for the Jewish sense of moral superiority, and with reference to MISHNA AVODAH ZARAH 2:1, Wasserman comments, “The Mishna paints a picture of non-Jewish society as being bereft of the most basic semblance of law, ethics, and decency, and depicts non-Jews as lacking all moral compunctions.” (p. 75). She adds that, “My overarching argument is that ideas about the animal nature of non-Jews, women, and other humans skulk beneath the surface of this entire Talmudic chapter’s legal discussions, and coil around almost every account of interpersonal encounter.” (p. 91).
Wasserman pulls no punches as she tells the reader, in her words, of AVODAH ZARAH’s “extreme expressions of malice and revulsion towards non-Jews.” (p. 292). She also writes of the push-and-pull of Talmudic dialectic, which can also be pictured as the swing of a pendulum in perpetual motion. (pp. 231-232). There can be a more favorable portrayal of gentiles, as part of this dialectic, but it does not remove or negate the antigoyism. In addition, this dialectic does not change the overall picture, which she calls “the dominant assertions of Jewish supremacy.” (p. 219).
In addition, what little GOY-favorable teachings are in the Talmud, even these need not be. For instance, the story of King Shapur (b. AVODAH ZARAH 76b) can be interpreted as one where the Gentile, for once, is the “good guy”—moreover one who is more clever, wise, and pious than a Jew. However, the story can be purely Jewish-utilitarian, as described by Wasserman, “On the other hand, the story neutralizes any possible objection to the complex of stringencies and suspicions that segregate Jews from non-Jews, depicting a foreign king who not only accedes to rabbinic strictures but even embraces them…sealing these rabbinic instructions with the imprimatur of the king, and immunizing them from accusations that they are offensive to non-Jews.” (p. 252).
This is not unusual. The informed reader probably realizes that it was a common strategy, throughout history, for Jews to recruit compliant gentiles in order to advance Jewish interests.
CENSORED TALMUDIC REFERENCES TO JESUS CHRIST
Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman thus alludes to the uncensored version of b. AVODAH ZARAH 17a, "In the Munich, Paris, and JTS manuscripts for 17a, Ya'akov is identified as 'a disciple of Yeshu the Nazarite,' a reference to Jesus, while the parallel story in t. HULLIN 2:25 identifies Ya'akov as a follower of Yeshu ben Pantera [Pandera], a derogatory epithet for Jesus." (pp. 270-271).
On a related subject, the term MIN/MINIM (heretics) can encompass Christians, at least those of Talmudic times. (p. 132; pp. 270-271).
JEWS NEED NOT RESCUE A GENTILE WHO FELL INTO A PIT
Author Wasserman points out that, “According to the baraita [b. AVODAH ZARAH 26a-b] Gentiles and Jewish shepherds (generally reputed to be thieves) are two groups whom a Jew need not trouble himself to save from a pit, while MINIM along with informers and apostates are not only not to be raised from the pit, they may actually be cast into it.” (p. 132; See also p. 260). This baraita also appears in b. SANHEDRIN 57a. (p. 271).
ASTONISHING PARALLELS WITH DER GIFTPILZ
Wasserman stresses the fact that the extensive body of law governing Gentile food and wine, in AVODAH ZARAH, is an elaborate system for distancing Jews from close relationships with non-Jews. (p. 230). But why?
She thus summarizes AVODAH ZARAH’s characterization of gentiles, “Like the snake who manages to fill a wine cask with water and thus gain access to the drink inside, the Gentile is cunning and resourceful. Like the snake who sneaks into the Temple and contaminates sanctified wine, the Gentile is sly…Non-Jews are menacing not because of any obvious, apparent danger, but because of risks that are hidden and undetectable…the real threat that Gentiles pose is not that they are qualitatively different from Jews, but that they are so very much the same. For the Bavli, it is precisely the invisibility of Jewish-Gentile difference that is the foremost danger posed by Gentiles.” (p 146, 147, 148).
Although Wasserman does not mention this, the informed reader can see the astonishing similarities of the foregoing with DER GIFTPILZ, a 1938 Nazi German cartoon designed to instill anti-Semitism in German children.
Talmud: The GOYIM are sly and resourceful.
DER GIFTPILZ: The Jews are sly and resourceful.
Talmud: The toxicity of the GOY (snake) is not always apparent.
DER GIFTPILZ: The toxicity of the Jew (poison mushroom) is not always apparent.
Talmud: The GOY is especially dangerous because of his similarity to the Jew.
DER GIFTPILZ: The German Jew is especially dangerous because of his similarity to the Aryan German.
ENHANCING JEWISH SEPARATISM, NOT "PROTECTING JEWS FROM IDOLATRY"
Wasserman upends one common exculpation for Talmudic teachings on gentiles. She writes, “Contrary to the centuries-old tradition of defending AZ from accusations of anti-Christian sentiment by arguing that the only non-Jews that AZ disparages are idolaters, I am arguing that the laws of YEYN NESEKH are fundamentally engaged with separating Jews from non-Jews of all kinds. The strict ban on Gentile wine emblematizes the way that rabbinic law functions as a social barrier.” (p. 165).
CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION OF JEWS FORCED JEWS TO DISGUISE OFFENSIVE TALMUDIC CONTENT
In the Middle Ages, parts of the Talmud were rewritten owing to Christian censorship. That is, fictional redefinitions took place. Thus, GOYIM became AKUM (star-worshippers), or archaisms such as “Canaanite”. (p. 12). This fiction served as both a Talmud-apologetic as well as a push for the evolution of Jewish thinking. Wasserman comments, “Replacing the term GOY with ‘idolater’ addressed the Talmud’s most troubling xenophobic content by projecting it into the past, identifying the despised ‘Others’ of the Talmud as an all but extinct species, unrelated to contemporary non-Jews in Europe. [e. g, as proposed by Rabbi Ha ‘Meiri]. The specific changes wrought by censorship allowed for Judaism to be reconceived in universalistic terms, easing Jewish entry into modern Europe.” (pp. 12-13).
But how much did these once-forced outward changes (redefinitions) actually stop individual Talmud-informed rabbis and everyday Jews from still thinking of Christians as debauched idolaters? As a matter of fact, pre-censorship understandings of the Talmud persist to the present day (e. g, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef), and one wonders how common they are. Finally, one must ask how much of the Talmudic spirit persists in modern secular Jews who may never have even heard of the Talmud. One example of this is elaborated in the next section.
AN INSTITUTIONALIZED TALMUDIC DOUBLE STANDARD ON IDOLATROUS OBJECTS
The author writes, “According to m. AZ 3:4, the idol of a Gentile is banned immediately upon being completed, but an idol belonging to a Jew becomes prohibited only when it is actually worshipped.” (p. 184). In addition, “E. E. Urbach argues that the reason an idol manufactured by a Jew is prohibited only once it has been worshipped, while an idol made by a non-Jew is prohibited as soon as it is produced (m. AZ 4:4), is to allow Jews to participate in the idol market.” (p. 281).
This hypocrisy has unstated implications for the Auschwitz Carmelite convent and Cross controversies. Some Jews had made a major issue of these, telling the world that the Cross is idolatrous and is a painful reminder of past Christian persecution of Jews. Polish leaders acceded to the Jews. However, other Poles sagely pointed out the fact that Jews never had problems beholding, and even handling, Christian religious objects whenever they could make money off them by selling them.
Evidently, an object is either idolatrous or not idolatrous, to the Jew, in accordance with his wishes. Moreover, this has precedent in the Talmud itself, and unfortunately continues to persist, to this day, with and without the Talmud.
I wouldn't say this is a complete waste of time to read though. It was eye-opening to see what kind of "Scholarly Works" are published these days. Very disappointing though.