Defending oneself against a rabbi

As you can probably guess by the title of this article, as with the subject matter of other of my articles, I’m not aiming to score points with anyone. This blog has been about my own path, no one else’s. So … errr … here goes?

During my walk along this path of life, in my dealings with the Seven Commandments and the people somehow associated with it, every now and again, I’ve come against a rabbi who feels that he can essentially throw his weight around, that he and he alone should be listened to, that his view is correct and either all others are incorrect, or that a Gentile doesn’t have the learning to oppose his claims. Now rabbis are supposed to be experts at Jewish law and the written and oral traditions. They’re supposed to be respected gentlemen who have refined their character. I’m disappointed to say that experience has taught me differently. A rabbi is first and foremost a human being, and that can overshadow the title negatively.

The problem is that when a rabbi shows up amongst non-Jews who respect Torah and know of the seven laws and either demands to have his opinion respected or belittles Gentiles (and other Jews) who don’t agree with him or just goes in the midst of Gentiles expecting to be the authoritative teacher amongst the lowly students, when such a rabbi shows up, it’s difficult to defend oneself against his errors.

The issue is compounded by two possibly related issues: rabbi worship; and gentile ignorance.

To start with the last one first, the problem for us non-Jews is that generally we don’t have extensive Torah knowledge and in our cultures and nations, it is questionable if we have basic principles of objective standards to test our own systems and behaviours much less the claims of Jews who are supposed to have a more direct contact with the objective truth in Torah. From what I can see, a significant portion of the population in western countries suffer from mental laziness or apathy with an education system, society and culture much more focused on making workers, making money or creating distractions than raising critical thinkers. But regardless of the factors, non-Jewish culture and society suffers from fundamental levels of ignorance.

And then comes a person with the title of rabbi claiming to have something called “smicha” which somehow gives him or demonstrates his authority or extensive knowledge of some part of the Torah tradition. And the humbly honest amongst the non-Jews, seeing the dearth in their own knowledge of Torah, will gravitate towards that rabbi to different extents. Unfortunately too many drop whatever critical thinking they have and seem to hang on the words of this individual rabbi as if he is the source of true Torah itself.

I used to have a thing for Jews. Yeah … maybe I should have phrased that better before I said it. Let me try that again. Actually I won’t. Let me run with it. OK, so I used to have a thing for Jews. I had a sort of “worship-complex” towards Israel. Coming from a christian background, I knew that the nation had this pact with God himself, given at Sinai or Moab or the places in between. They had the Torah tradition and were supposed to be immersed in it. I didn’t have much interactions with Jews when I grew up as I just didn’t live in the areas where there was a notable presence of them. With this unrealistically high view of them, if I saw a religious one, I would want him to pray for me as I thought his prayers may have more of a chance of “getting through” than my own. I would cling to the words of their rabbis or my teachers with inadequate scrutiny of their words.

I don’t clearly or precisely know why or how. But somewhere along the line, especially since I’ve been learning about the Seven Laws, my nigh-idolatrous view of Jews and rabbis matured. The glisten that seems to cover all Jews or all religious Jews faded. I think one of the principles that helped me to wake up was the fact that these people, as connected to Torah as they may be, were still human. The modern Jews are not by nature the upper echelon, standing beside the Biblical greats like Moses or Abraham or David (and even those guys were fallible). They’re humans, fallible and limited. The rabbis are supposed to be well trained not only in the matters of Torah and have their behaviours and character moulded by conformity with Torah, but this is by no means guaranteed.

Another principle that lighted the way for me was that many rabbis are definitely trained in Jewish Torah law, Torah law as it applies to Jews. In the vast majority of cases, rabbis have to be there for their Jewish students and Jewish community to help interpret and apply law as it applies to Jews. This is not the case for the Torah law as it applies to Gentiles. When a person takes the time to look on what the Talmud and words of the early rabbis would say about the Seven Laws, it should be seen that there is some basic or fundamental difference with regards to how the Seven Laws applies to Gentiles in contrast to how the 613 laws (or whichever portion of that Jews can keep these days) applies to Jews. That’s why Rambam, when describing the Seven Commandments, can say a number of times something like “this is not the same for Jews.”

Yet another thing that warned me about what rabbis or Jews say about matters concerning the Seven Laws, which is related to the previous point, is the bleed that seems to happen when certain rabbis start to teach about the role of a non-Jew. This not only has to do with the setting aside of the teaching of Dinim (courts, the prohibition against injustice) by many rabbis. This not only has to do with the teaching of many issues that are irrelevant to a Gentile’s observance of the Seven. It has to do with the notion that Israel is called to be a holy nation.

Now, that Israel is called to be a holy nation is a fact. That they have laws that distinctly have to do with Israel being set-apart and differentiated from the nations is a fact. A clear example is the shabbat law as depicted in Shemot (exodus) 31. But some rabbis seem to take “holy” to mean “positive” and therefore what is not holy – for example, any other nation – as “negative.” And under this banner, they teach that a Gentile’s “goodness” is intrinsically linked to his proximity to Israel. It may be part of the incentive for non-Jews to join this “ger” fad that’s going around these days, that somehow taking on this “ger” identity makes someone better simply because they’re closer to Israel, the goy kodesh as one rabbi put it to me (otherwise known as “holy nation”).

It is understood that the point of Israel, under Torah, is to be holy. Part of the purpose of their law is to make and keep them holy. The Seven Commandments aren’t meant to make a person or a nation holy. In fact, even the supplements of the Seven Commandments aren’t meant to do that. Look, even the principles that are similar to Jewish laws that one can derive from logic or rationality aren’t to make a Gentile holy. And you know what? That’s ok! Why? Because a Gentile doesn’t need to be holy. A Gentile should be good, to remove himself from the base desires through keeping the seven commandments, and aiming to fulfil what it means to be truly human, made in God’s image. And you don’t need to be holy to do that.

But it’s that culture bleed that happens all too often with rabbis and Jews that helps blur the lines. The difficulty is extricating the Gentile obligation found in Torah from the Jewish obligation, that Jewish obligation that many rabbis and Jews know so very well that sometimes it seems like the only way for a Gentile to elevate himself to to become just that bit more Jewish.

So how does a Gentile negotiate in a world where he has deal with the ignorance that exists both amongst Gentiles and – don’t shoot me – amongst a good amount of Jews and rabbis? How does he or she properly deal with a history that is many a time bereft of Torah and the fact that there are some Jews and rabbis who may excel at “Judaism” and speak with the gusto and hutzpah and pomp of the heritage, but may very well be leading Gentiles astray?

This is not going to be an instruction guide as if I somehow am greater than every rabbi and every Torah-educated Gentile. It should be blatantly obvious that I’m not. I’ll only share my experience. You can take it or leave it.

Firstly, I appreciate the fact that although I don’t have the wealth of Torah knowledge that the Jewish nation has and although I may not have the specific Torah learning an individual rabbi may have, I still have the ability to read, to listen and to think and to think critically (yes, I said two different things: “to think” and “to think critically”).

Secondly, I appreciate the fact that although the Jewish nation has God’s Torah, no individual Jew, nor rabbi, nor the entire covenant keeping people of Israel has the authority or right to dictate anything to a Gentile, to command him or her to do or believe anything. A rabbi is not the ruler or authoritative judge of a Gentile.

Thirdly, I understand that even rabbis have different opinions. One rabbi can tell you one thing and you go to another rabbi and he’ll tell you something else that contradicts the first. This is one of the worst things about modern day “Judaism” and an issue that dissuades many from giving the rabbis the credit many of them actually do deserve (yes I mean that in a good way). But it is also something that allows a Gentile a little space to breathe and re-focus when facing a rabbi who tries to impose his credentials on the Gentile in order to belittle him or make him feel small for “not knowing the Hebrew inside-out.”

Fourthly, I know that although a rabbi may be an expert at one thing or some things in the Jewish Torah tradition, that doesn’t mean that he knows everything about Jewish tradition. To be more specific, although a rabbi knows a lot about Jewish obligations and the holiness of Israel, that doesn’t mean that he’s got any worthwhile understanding of the Gentile obligation to God or how a Gentile should live his or her life applying the Seven Commandments and additional principles to live as a Gentile amongst his or her own people.

I’m not sure if I have to keep on going up the numbers to say “fifthly.” Does it help separate out the points? Are these points? Aaarrgggghhh, the mental issues of writing a blogpost … oh yeah, I remember a rabbi denigrating me for writing blogposts.

Anyway, next point. I’m thankful to God that so much of the tradition and the writings of the ancient rabbis who are much more closer to the “source” than the modern rabbis is available for a Gentile to read. Thanks to different Jewish organisations, a Gentile can learn Hebrew; he can read the Talmud in English with commentary; he can see the Hebrew/Aramaic words of the Talmud and find their meaning in an online dictionary of the Talmud and other rabbinic sources; he can find the words of Rambam and Ramban and Malbim and many others in the books offered by Artscroll and others; he can find the quotes from other rabbis; he can find various books about the Seven Commandments and compare them with older writings; he can compare a great work like “the Divine Code” (just because I disagree with some of it, doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s great) with other great works like The Seven Laws of Noah or the other books that are about that discuss the Seven Laws and that provide quotes from ancient rabbis. A Gentile can do all this and find a balanced way to live his own life in accordance with at least the basics of those teachings.

Take for instance: I can read in the Talmud (with its commentaries) that the core Seven Commandments are prohibitions, things that you should not do, e.g., the prohibition against idolatry. So when a Jew, even a rabbi, comes up to me and tells me that Gentiles are given an active command by God to worship God, I have an earlier source that says differently. For example, if a rabbi tells me that a “ger tzedek” can be a non-Jew, I can point out that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Tobias Goodman contradicts that absolutely. It’s not as if I’m going on, solely on, the knowledge of David (my name’s David, by the way). I’m not just hearing a rabbi and saying to myself arrogantly, “Hey, I know better just because I know better!” But that’s what a Gentile can do: he or she can study and get as many root texts as possible to form a foundation for an option of what is best for Gentiles, not simply how a Gentile can become as Jew-like as possible. These days it is possible to ask various rabbis for opinions, compare them with the texts and do the best that one can.

And even if the rabbi mocks or belittles the Gentile for not having his credentials or his heritage or for not being from a certain place in Israel or not being taught by some specific rabbi, the Gentile who not only thinks and listens but also studies, asks questions and does his best to live consistently according to God’s Torah as it applies to the Gentile can have a chance even against the overbearing rabbi.

So being that a Jew, even a rabbi, has no authority over a Gentile and therefore has no authority to dictate or command, if he comes at the Gentile with an argument or a claim, the Gentile is well within his or her right to ask for relevant evidence that is understandable to that Gentile (thus in the Gentile’s native language), that is accessible to that Gentile. And if the rabbi fails to produce that evidence, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the rabbi is wrong (unless the Gentile has valid counter-evidence). But it does mean that the Gentile cannot be faulted for leaving the rabbi’s claim to one side to focus on things that he or she can grasp and find foundation for.

Another point is that whereas a rabbi can give his advice to Jews and then walk a similar walk as a fellow Jew, the same obviously doesn’t apply to Gentiles. The rabbi isn’t a fellow Gentile. The path of a Jew and a Gentile may have some similarities, but it’s important to recognise the difference in actually “walking the walk.” For a non-Jew, there may be times where it is better to get advice from someone who’s walked the walk, if possible, rather that someone who’s very educated but has only observed others walk in the path.

The most important thing for a Gentile to do, whether it is living his daily life, facing an ignorant Gentile or Jew or a knowledgeable Gentile or Jew, is to study and to think with the aim of not pleasing oneself but to live in accordance to God’s standard based on the obligations and principles God has set down for the human being. It is a non-Jew’s responsibility to know his own obligations. The Rebbe warned about it and so have others amongst those who have helped and taught me:

1) B’nai Noah [Gentiles] must themselves study and “acquire Torah” (regarding all the laws and values of Torah that pertain to all mankind);

2) B’nai Noah [Gentiles] must become fully conversant in Torah for themselves, rather than relying on Jewish teachers constantly;

3) B’nai Noah [Gentiles] should understand that Jewish teachers may know less about the laws and principles that apply to B’nai Noah than Noahide themselves;

4) the two systems, the Noahide and Torah systems, often differ in their particulars.

As the Rebbe put it: “They [B’nai Noah] are required to learn Torah to know how to conduct themselves, because they are meant to become fully conversant in their own right and not to rely on answers from Jews in every instance, and there is indeed no guarantee that Jews will always know the right answers for them, since there are often differences between Jewish and Noachide decisions on any given topic.” (from another article on my site called Noahides and Torah Study.)

A controversial idea I’ve had running around in my head is that even though we Gentiles have our Seven Laws that we have to keep, there may be aspects of the application of it that have more to do with logic than having an extensive knowledge of the oral Torah. But that’s just an idea for now. Something that I’ll mention but not make too much of.

Anyway, in light of all this, I think it’s possible for a Gentile, a non-Jew, to defend herself or himself when even an individual rabbi tries to throw his weight around. The point of such defence should not be to “smash the opposition.” It’s not to humiliate anyone. It’s not to hurt or offend. Such things may be inevitable but should be avoided at all costs. It should be to listen, to learn, to make one’s point in a clear and precise fashion and then, if necessary, to withdraw and continue to learn. Don’t aim to be a winner, as if you’ve conquered someone. Just aim to make sure it’s all for “for the sake of heaven,” with pure and goodhearted intent. If I find myself facing such a rabbi and I feel that there’s not enough respect or good-intent between me and that person to have a healthy dialogue, normally I believe it better to leave the conversation and not get involved. It would take some “exceptional” circumstance for me to prolong a conversation in such a dialogue which is rooted in negativity.

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6 Comments

  1. This a beautiful post. It has helped clarify a number of vague and imprecise thoughts which have been going through my mind. Thank you

    • I’m glad it was of some use to you.

  2. Elisheva Barre

    To me too, this is a beautiful post! Rabbis on the “outreach” for Gentiles should ponder what you express very seriously.

    What you say is confirmed and succintly defined by Halacha (see: Rambam Laws of Torah Study, IV 1 and 2). Discipline of conduct is called morality, discipline of thought is called reason and the Torah demands of ALL men to (please) be in possession of both (see also: Rambam, Prohibition 47).
    Of all topics and encounters, that of Israel and the Nations has always been the most challenging and the most loaded. Yes, the time has come to meet!

    What you should know is that Gentiles too CAN very well become holy – I say “become” because whereas Jews are holy for being born into the nation that was sanctified, Gentiles can acquire this sanctity by their own personal moral and intellectual behavior (see: Laws of Shmita and Yovel, the last law of that Book). This law has been misinterpreted by the Rabbis of the type you describe who cannot conceive that a Gentile could become holy without the study and observance of the whole Torah, so they distort the expression “Kol Baye Olam” (loosely translated as “all the men who walk on earth” and refering specifically to Gentiles) to make it mean restrictively Jews, which is linguistically incorrect (like the distorted new definition of Ger).
    As you can see, in this Law, the Rambam does NOT make Torah study and the observance of Mitzvot a precondition. This is a wonderful and far-reaching Law! It is based on the Talmudic saying that a Gentile who observes his own laws can “be sanctified to the highest degree and is like the High Priest in the Holy of Holies”. One cannot get any higher than that!
    So why does the Rambam NOT mention in this Halacha the Gentile’s observance of own laws?!
    That is because he takes the Talmudic saying to refer to the overall and underlying SPIRIT of the Torah (like Abraham is said to have observed “the whole Torah” and we know the Patriarchs literally did not). So Rambam translates for us, by way of explanation and for clarification, what the Sages MEAN (in fact Rabbi Meir) by using the expression “to be as straight as God created him”. That too is a deep and wonderful thing! In THAT there is NO DIFFERENCE between Jews and Gentiles (a thing I must stress), and were we to reach that point! But at least we know what to strive for…

    The views I present stem from my study of Rambam with Rabbi Yossef Kappach (also spelt Qafih). He has no equal, but that is another story…
    (All the texts I refer you to are available on the internet – just make sure you get a correct translation. Machon Mamre is I think a good place).

    • Thanks for such a substantial and meaningful response. I had heard from others that Gentiles can be holy. I just only saw that in the Tanach only Israel is holy, so I wasn’t sure if Gentiles could be. You give further evidence that I shouldn’t be so much like a Karaite in my views. But thank you so much

      • Elisheva Barre

        So I will add to my previous post: There are different TYPES and LEVELS of holiness.
        For instance, a Cohen is “holier” than an Israel by birth and that imposes on him certain specific laws. A Jew who makes a vow of “Nezirut” (Numbers 6) acquires a type of holiness he did not have before by the restrictions he takes upon himself (a Gentile cannot make such a vow because the laws of purity and impurity do not apply to him).
        In the Tanach, only Israel is called holy because the Tanach speaks of the holiness of the NATION. The holiness acquired by a Gentile is an individual holiness.
        Not having access to the Oral Torah does NOT make you a Karaite!

        PS – I WOULD like to be notified of new comments – can you do something this check box?

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