Thursday, May 29, 2014


No sooner did I put up the last post on humanitarianism in ancient Judaism than I came across the following quote of Lionel Trilling, which I found in Jacqueline Rose’s States of Fantasy. She quotes him as saying, “neither the Jews nor the Greeks thought like humanists—they believed that nothing could be, or should be, more incomprehensible than alien cultures, the ways that goyim or barbaroi chose to go about being persons or selves.” It is a very shortsighted vision of humanism.
In the post below, I cited some of the Jewish trial rules in the Mishnah as evidence of high humanitarianism. Almost one hundred years ago, classical scholar Richard Husband was of the same opinion. He was impressed with how infrequently the death penalty was applied and how close the rabbis came to abolishing it. He was also impressed that the “rules of procedure were drawn in such a way that they seemed to favor the defendant to a remarkable degree.” That is a true humanitarian insight. I should also say, on behalf of the ancient Greeks, that Socrates’ search for rational truth as opposed to prejudiced preconceptions is also evidence of the same.
But even as to Trilling’s point about regard for alien cultures, he overlooked how often the Torah speaks favorably of the stranger, the non-Jewish immigrant, among Jews. The Torah declares that the immigrant and native should be subjected to the same laws. The immigrant shall not be judged by separate laws. That is a higher standard than many modern nations follow. Of course, it depends on which laws are at issue. If the Torah meant only criminal laws, it is not that remarkable, but still highly humane, I would argue. If the Torah also means to apply all kinds of civil laws as well, then it is even more impressive.
I am not an expert on this, so I am not sure how far Torah expected to extend this equality under the law. I suspect it was the latter (e.g., enjoying festivals and rest on Shabbat was applied to immigrants). But the least we can conclude is that there was not a uniform hostility towards alien cultures in the Torah. At one point, we are told that God gave foreigners their own ways of worshiping him, like the sun and the moon and the stars. The non-Jews in the mixed multitude that went up out of Egypt were also included in the covenant with God. And in light of the subsequent history of other cultures and religions, I would also venture that the omission of any command to Jews to conquer the world and convert everyone else to Judaism is also evidence of the humanitarianism in the Torah. Trilling’s judgment was shortsighted indeed.
I bring all this up because I think Trilling’s misconceptions about ancient Jews and Greeks are still common. We are constantly told that ancient peoples were tribalistic and narrow-minded in contrast to our supposed ability to be universal. That is quite a distortion of what the ancient world was like and an overestimation of our own accomplishments (somehow with all this universality, we are at the same time a more greedy culture than the ancient ones).

The rabbis, Socrates, and Plato set a higher standard for humane thinking than we are capable of admitting and it was one that was considerably less greedy than our own standards. We just don’t like paying attention to the details of their thoughts, and that, we think, entitles us to make up anything we want about them. Fiction turns out to be the modern scholar’s greatest tool. Like Vroomfondel says in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “We don’t demand solid facts! What we demand is a total absence of solid facts!”
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

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