Christianity and the Middle East: New Shahak Book Challenges Jews, Christians, and Others

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Christianity and the Middle East: New Shahak Book Challenges Jews, Christians, and Others

By the Rev. L. Humphrey Walz

Dr. Israel Shahak's regular articles in this magazine's pages have stirred many questions. Among them are: "How did a professor of organic chemistry at Hebrew University ever get to be so vocal on the interrelationships of Zionist nationalism, Orthodox Jewish politics, and Israeli violations of the human rights of non-Jews? And how did he come to devote his spare time in his professional career--full time in retirement--to researching and reporting such little known but highly pertinent facts?"

As he tells it, in his new book, Jewish History, Jewish Religion (Pluto Press, London), it all began quite unexpectedly in the mid-'60s when he inadvertently triggered a "media scandal."

One Saturday a man collapsed in a Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood. A concerned passer-by asked an Orthodox resident for permission to use his phone to call an ambulance. The householder refused, on religious grounds, stating that it was the Sabbath and the stricken person was a Gentile.

Shahak, who witnessed the event, was deeply troubled. He had been brought up in the tradition that God's requirements included the practice of mercy and justice toward all. His experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp under the Nazis had driven home to him the urgency of the universal application of this requirement. He regarded it, in fact, as central to his understanding of Judaism. Hence he approached the members of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court with this question: Could that refusal of aid, perhaps at the cost of the victim's life, possibly accord with their understanding of the Jewish faith? To his consternation, the government-appointed rabbis replied that the person who withheld the telephone had behaved "correctly," even "piously." They confirmed their decision from "an authoritative compendium of Talmudic Law."

When his report of the incident, and the Rabbinical Court decision, appeared in the Hebrew-language daily Ha'aretz, it prompted a vigorous public exchange of views. The results he hoped for, however, didn't materialize. Neither in Israel nor abroad did any rabbinical authorities contradict the ruling that "a Jew should not violate the Sabbath to save the life of a Gentile."

Dr. Shahak had been acquainted with the role of the Talmud as the official body of Jewish laws and commentaries developed and interpreted by rabbis in the first through the eighth centuries and enforceable by rabbinates ever since. He had not, however, been aware of the degree to which its rulings were, and in application continue to be, anti-Gentile and, especially, anti-Christian. Their sacrosanct status with Israel's "religious" political parties will make his fifth chapter on "The Laws Against the Gentiles" particularly worrisome to Palestinians, not to say perplexing to some interfaith dialoguers.

"A Jew should not violate the Sabbath to save the life of a Gentile."

From that chapter come the following samples pertaining to the taking of human life: Murdering a Jew, no matter by whom, is a capital offense. But "a Jew who murders a Gentile is guilty only of a sin against the laws of Heaven" (punishment for which is left in the hands of God). A Gentile who murders a Gentile and converts to Judaism is also to go judicially unpunished. For a Jew to cause the death of a Gentile indirectly (say, by removing a ladder after he has fallen in a crevice) is permissible unless it may cause the spread of hostility toward Jews.

Although the State of Israel's criminal laws do not openly distinguish between Jew and Gentile, the Talmud does. The resultant published counsel circulated to Israeli soldiers by military chaplains and rabbinic advisers, as excerpted at length by Shahak, comes close to being a warrant for ethnic cleansing in wartime.

"As for Gentiles with whom we are not at war," Maimonides, the celebrated twelfth century Talmud codifier, decreed, "their death may not be caused, but it is forbidden to save them if they are at the point of death; if, for example, one of them is seen falling into the sea, he should not be rescued. …