Monday, April 23, 2012

Stricter Abortion Law?; Eating a Limb; When Can a Gentile Keep the Torah?

I have three items for my write-up today on David Novak's The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism.

1. In Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 57b, we find that abortion is prohibited for Gentile Noachides, to the point that the death penalty is prescribed as the penalty for that crime. No exceptions to this prohibition are mentioned. Tannaitic sources, however, do not treat abortion as a capital offense for Jews, plus they allow abortion to save the life of the mother. So is the law stricter for Gentiles than for Jews? As Novak documents, Jewish interpreters have said "no". They have either affirmed that Noachide morality applies to the Jews, or that the Gentiles, too, are allowed to resort to abortion when the fetus threatens the life of the mother. There is a queasiness about asserting that Noachide morality is stricter than the Torah.

And yet, in my latest reading of Novak, there do appear to be times when the Torah is more lenient than what is required for Gentiles, and the reason is that Gentiles are viewed as corrupt. For example, on page 103, we read that "for gentiles premeditation may be inferred, whereas for Jews it must be explicitly verified in capital cases." For Jews, it must be established that the suspect was aware of the prohibition that he violated and acted with premeditation, whereas premeditation is assumed with the Gentiles (or so I understand Novak's point). But Novak also refers to the view within Judaism that "In cases of ignorance of circumstances...Jewish law is also lenient with gentiles" (page 103).

2. One of the Noachide commandments prohibits eating a limb torn off of a live animal. Why? One view is that this was an idolatrous rite. Another view is that this commandment teaches people to refrain from cruelty. And a third view is that eating a limb from a live animal violates God's boundaries and order, since we're supposed to eat the meat of animals that have died, not meat from animals that are alive.

3. On pages 198-199, Novak talks about the late medieval Jewish thinker Meiri, who wrestled with the issue of whether Gentiles could observe and study the Torah. According to Novak, after the destruction of the Temple and the schism between Jews and Christians, there was an attempt within Judaism to set up clear boundaries between Jews and Gentiles, and the result of that was removing "Anything suggesting a quasi-Judaism". Consequently, the third century Palestinian amora Rabbi Simon b. Lakish affirmed that a Gentile keeping the Sabbath deserved death, and his brother-in-law Rabbi Johanan ben Nappaha stated that a Gentile studying Torah merited death (B.T. Sanhedrin 58b-59a).

But things get murkier when we come to Maimonides and Meiri. Meiri justifies these rabbinic rulings by saying that their concern was that people would think that Gentiles observing the Jewish laws were themselves Jews and would thus try to learn from them. Meiri probably does not want for Gentiles to get their impression of what Jews are like from religious syncretists who may hold views that mainstream Judaism regards as unacceptable, and so Meiri wishes that Gentiles did not keep certain Jewish customs. (Many Jews today have the same issue with Messianic Judaism.) At the same time, Meiri does believe that Gentiles can observe some commandments in the Torah because he notes that Gentile offerings and donations were deemed acceptable at the Temple while it still stood. Similarly, Maimonides "permits Gentiles to observe Jewish commandments and receive reward from God" (page 198). And Meiri allows Gentiles to study the Torah "if their study of the Noahide laws likely will le[a]d them to conversion" (page 198).

Novak then asks a good question: "What is the difference between religious syncretism, which both Maimonides and Meiri judge as the basis for the prohibition of gentile observance of the Sabbath and Torah study, and electing to observe some Jewish commandments?" The answer is this: If a Gentile is trying to start a new religion and is incorporating Jewish elements into that, then what the Gentile is doing is prohibited. If, however, the Gentile accepts Jewish revelation and is electing to observe parts of it as a Gentile, then that is okay. Maimonides applied the latter to the ger toshav, a Gentile who dwells within Israel. And Meiri applied it to Christians, who accept the legitimacy of Jewish revelation. Meiri's view on this probably was not unanimously received, for there were Jews who regarded the Christians as idolaters.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog