Monday, July 18, 2016

Ethnocentric law in the Talmud

LAST WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: One Law for Jews, Another Law for Gentiles. In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi,’ non-Jews are denied equal protection under the rules of the Talmud.
This is all clear enough, so long as both ox-owners are Jews. But what if a Jew’s ox kills a gentile’s ox, or vice versa? I imagine this situation couldn’t have arisen very often in ancient times, since Jews would usually have lived among Jews. Even if it did arise, I don’t know whether the gentile involved would have been judged by Jewish law. Presumably a Roman or Persian involved in a dispute with a Jew would have gone to a government official, not a Jewish judge. But still the question remains: Does Talmudic law treat Jew and gentile the same, or is there a legal difference in their status, even when it comes to non-ritual matters like this one?

In this case, there is no avoiding the fact that the Talmud is heavily biased in favor of the Jew against the gentile. The mishna in Bava Kamma 37b says, “With regard to an ox of a Jew that gored the ox of a gentile, the owner of the belligerent ox is exempt from liability. But with regard to an ox of a gentile that gored the ox of a Jew, regardless of whether the goring ox was innocuous or forewarned, the owner of the ox pays the full cost of the damage.” In other words, a gentile doesn’t even benefit from the rule about an innocuous ox costing only half the damages; his ox is automatically considered forewarned and so responsible for full damages. But a Jew’s ox can hurt a gentile’s ox with impunity.

The inequity here is blatant—so much so that the rabbis of the Gemara are made distinctly uncomfortable by it. ...
Ethnocentrism was the norm in antiquity. The ancients lived in a very different world from ours.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.