Shiur #09: Perek 3, Mishna 18 - Jew and Gentile

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers


Shiur #09: Perek 3, Mishna 18

Jew and Gentile

By Rav Moshe Taragin

In the eighteenth Mishna of the third perek, Rabbi Akiva provides an important tandem of values. He articulates the ever-important issue of how to balance our dual identities as Jews and as human beings. He assumes that inability to identify with a broader community of humans is both xenophobic on a moral level, and myopic at an experiential level. By contrast, sole investment in the human condition accompanied by disregard for the unique Jewish experience attenuates our religious sensibilities and dulls our awareness and appreciation of Jewish history. Balancing these dual and, oftentimes, conflicting identities is no mean task, and is addressed here by Rabbi Akiva.

He writes, "Man is beloved as he was created in the Divine image. Extraordinary love was showered upon him in this regard. Jews are loved in that they are referred to as Hashem's children. Extraordinary love was displayed in designating them as Hashem's children." Rabbi Akiva's statement contains both symmetry and disparity. Substantively, Rabbi Akiva distinguished between Gentiles, who possess a Divine image, and Jews, who are identified as "Hashem's children." Stylistically, though, Rabbi Akiva hints at some parity when he employs the same terms - beloved, extraordinary love (chaviv, chiba yeteira) – to describe each population. The only appreciable difference in syntax lies between the term chaviv (Gentile) and chavivin (Jew); however, the distinction, though apparent, appears too subtle to imply a broad distinction between Jew and Gentile.

II. Image and Proximity

Broadly speaking, Rabbi Akiva affirms the Divine image within every human being, but accounts for a unique status for Jews, captured by the label of 'child.' Rabbi Akiva's source for applying the Divine image to Gentiles is, of course, the Torah's employment of the term in Bereishit (1:27, 9:6), in each instance instructing about the general population prior to the founding of the Jewish experience. In fact, the gemara in Sanhedrin (57a) prohibits a Gentile from murder based on one of these verses (Bereishit 9:6): "One who spills a person's blood – his own blood should be spilled, since man was crafted in the Divine image." Based on this pasuk, the gemara even applies capital punishment to a Gentile who murders a Gentile fetus. The gemara clearly assumed that tzelem Elokim applied equally to Jew and Gentile alike. (See the Rambam's comments in Hilkhot Melakhim 9:4, where he codifies the prohibition against murder for a Gentile, and cites this entire pasuk, including the phrase of tzelem Elokim.)

Understandably, this assignment of Divine Image to all human beings has given rise to considerable controversy. One question pertains to wicked individuals who may have adulterated their Divine image. Ample source for the tainting and abrogation of one's tzelem Elokim exists in the Zohar, and, presumably, the abdication of this 'image' can be committed by Jew and Gentile alike. The more sensitive question pertained whether Gentiles in general - even righteous ones – really do possess a Divine image – as Rabbi Akiva asserts and as the pesukim imply. Again, the dominant opinion designated Divine image to all humans, but there were several dissenting opinions who were uncomfortable granting this status to Gentiles. Rav Yom Tov Lipman Heller, who wrote a seminal commentary to the mishna entitled Tosafot Yom Tov, cites an opinion which denies the Divine image of Gentiles. This view is based on the gemara's ruling (Bava Metzia 114b) that Gentile graves do not confer tum'a since non-Jews are not referred to as "Adam" (see Yechezkel 43:31). This position reasoned that if they are not designated as "Adam," then they should not be granted tzelem Elokim. Though the syntactical logic holds, we witness numerous instances in which Gentiles are indeed referred to as "Adam," thus rendering this proof questionable. The Tosafot Yom Tov dismisses this opinion, while adopting the classic view – that Rabbi Akiva indeed awarded tzelem Elokim status to Gentiles.

However, Rabbi Akiva certainly did discriminate between the two, recognizing in Jews the unique status as children. It would be instructive to compare Rabbi Akiva's statements to a seemingly unrelated discussion about the source of ethics and morality. As is well known, Rabbi Akiva designated "ve-ahavta le-rei'akha kamokha ("love your neighbor as thyself") as the most cardinal pasuk in the Torah. By assigning such import, he establishes this pasuk and its inherent theme as the basis for interpersonal moral behavior. Lesser known is Ben Azzai's dissenting opinion, that the principal verse in the Torah is Bereishit 5:1, which reads, "This is the record of man's offspring; when he was created, he was fashioned in the image (demut a parallel word for tzelem) of the Divine." Ben Azzai targets the Divine image in Man as the true source for chesed and morality. Assisting the desperate and aiding the sufferers preserves and restores their tarnished Divine image. If chesed is prompted by sensitivity to the imperiled Divine image, it should apply equally to Jew and non-Jew, each of whom possesses this image. Interestingly, Rabbi Akiva did not offer this pasuk as the source of chesed, choosing instead a more 'parochial' verse which highlights our common 'Jewish' brotherhood as the impetus for relieving distress. As the gemara in Pesachim suggests, the mitzva of ve-ahavta does not obtain to sinners, and, presumably, it would not apply to Gentiles. Just as Rabbi Akiva structured a hierarchy between non-Jew and Jew, awarding the latter with the title of "beloved child," so does he anchor the basis of chesed on a uniquely Jewish experience of brotherhood.

Rabbi Akiva's refusal to broaden chesed into, primarily, a universal human experience sheds light on yet another interesting gemara. The gemara in Bava Batra (10a) records a challenge lodged at Rabbi Akiva by his acquaintance – the Roman general/philosopher Tunus Rufus. The latter questions Rabbi Akiva on the advisability of charity: had Hashem intended for the poor to receive these provisions, the Roman argued, He would have supplied them Himself. Attending to human deficiency thus appears to entail a contradiction of Divine will. Though the question initially seemed universal or philosophical in nature, it quickly became apparent that Tunus Rufus was challenging Rabbi Akiva with regard to charity to unfortunate Jews. As Hashem had 'clearly' abandoned and discarded them by exiling them, it was inappropriate to rally to their support. Rabbi Akiva answered that since Jews are referred to as children, their "Father" never truly spurns them. Rather, he momentarily disciplines them, without ever ceasing to be interested in their welfare. Supporting that welfare is thus, indeed, pursuing Divine will. Once again, Rabbi Akiva highlights the unique status of a Jew and cited their unique identity as "children" as a source for chesed obligations, uninterrupted by intermittent suffering and national exile. Had chesed been based purely upon tzelem Elokim, Rabbi Akiva might have viewed it as fragile and more subject to both personal retention of that image, as well as historical circumstances.

The balance between loyalty to a broader 'planetary community' and our focused investment in the Jewish experience is an issue which strikes at the very heart of our religious experience. Perhaps centuries of anti-Semitism and historical marginality have reduced our interest or commitment to the broader population with whom we share this world. Rabbi Akiva's statement at once establishes the supremacy of the Jewish nation while it also underscores a general respect for all humanity. Throughout Jewish history different attitudes prevailed about balancing these oftentimes conflicting values at both a theoretical and practical level. Conventionally, philosophers (among them Jewish thinkers), divided the world into four elements: unliving (domem), inanimate (tzomei'ach), living (chai) and human (adam). In a famous 'response' Rebbi Yehuda Halevi formed yet a fifth category - yisrael. This simple reconfiguration of categories boldly asserted a distinct 'natural' difference between Jew and Gentile. Rabbi Akiva described a 'religious' difference; one community was exposed to Divine revelation and formed a unique 'child-like' relationship with Hashem. Rebbi Yehuda Halevi's statements assume a more innate difference; Jewish experience is so vitally different that it warrants its own cosmological category.

Regardless of the precise nature of this balance it remains crucial that we reaffirm our dual identities. Humanistic trends may erode our national profile while the focused passion of religious experience may blind us to our broader community. Rebbi Akiva both reinforced the hierarchy as well as mandated authentic commitment to each.

This past year we witnessed a horrifying tragedy which, among other things, challenged us to live by Rebbi Akiva's dictum. Last fall the trauma of the tsunami and the great toll of human life and suffering prompted (or should have prompted) a revisiting of this issue. When the Shulchan Arukh describes the 'pecking order' for tzedaka delivery it does not factor in unpredictable natural disasters which occur a half a globe away. Yet failure to respond to this event – at some level- reflects a complete evisceration of our moral commitment to those who share the Divine image with us.