One of the most delicate and unsettling issues for me, in writing about my Daf Yomi reading, is the Talmud’s treatment of the relationship between gentiles and Jews. As a Jew in 21st-century America, I have a basic sense that religion should be irrelevant to questions of law and justice. If a Jew and a non-Jew are parties to a lawsuit, I take it for granted that they will go before a government court and receive impartial justice. Any suggestion that Jews owe loyalty to each other and their own laws, rather than to common laws and universal standards of justice, distresses me. And if I am honest, one of the reasons it distresses me is that I worry what non-Jews will make of it. Anti-Semites past and present love to charge that Jews are loyal to each other but hostile to outsiders—which is one reason why modern Jews have been such passionate universalists.The ancient world did not live by modern rules — see, e.g., here and here and links. People conducted themselves accordingly.
But universalism was not a reality for Jews living in the Roman and Persian Empires in the first centuries CE. As we have seen in various ways in the Talmud, non-Jews were assumed to be hostile; Rome, in particular, was seen as Edom, an ancient enemy of the Jews, the destroyer of the Temple and persecutor of Judaism. The safest course for Jews was to have as little as possible to do with gentiles. Back in Tractate Eruvin, for instance, the rabbis warned that a Jew should never live among non-Jews. A similar idea came up in this week’s reading, in Bava Kamma 114a, where Rav Ashi says: “In the case of a Jewish man who sells a gentile a plot of land that is on the border of the property of his fellow Jew, we excommunicate him.” Why such a harsh punishment? “Because we say to him: You have placed a lion on my border.” A non-Jewish neighbor would, the Talmud assumes, cause trouble for a Jew—and the non-Jew would have the power of the government and its laws on his side.
Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.