Jewish Attitudes Toward Non-Jews

Level: Basic

• You don't have to be Jewish to find favor in G-d's eyes
• G-d gave only seven basic commandments to gentiles
• Yiddish words for gentiles are goy, shiksa and shkutz
• Judaism does not approve of interfaith marriage, but it is very common
• Jews do not proselytize, but it is possible to convert to Judaism

FriendsJudaism maintains that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come. This has been the majority rule since the days of the Talmud. Judaism generally recognizes that Christians and Moslems worship the same G-d that we do and those who follow the tenets of their religions can be considered righteous in the eyes of G-d.

Contrary to popular belief, Judaism does not maintain that Jews are better than other people. Although we refer to ourselves as G-d's chosen people, we do not believe that G-d chose the Jews because of any inherent superiority. According to the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 2b), G-d offered the Torah to all the nations of the earth, and the Jews were the only ones who accepted it. The story goes on to say that the Jews were offered the Torah last, and accepted it only because G-d held a mountain over their heads! (In Ex. 19:17, the words generally translated as "at the foot of the mountain" literally mean "underneath the mountain"!) Another traditional story suggests that G-d chose the Jewish nation because they were the lowliest of nations, and their success would be attributed to G-d's might rather than their own ability. Clearly, these are not the ideas of a people who think they are better than other nations.

Because of our acceptance of Torah, Jews have a special status in the eyes of G-d, but we lose that special status when we abandon Torah. Furthermore, the blessings that we received from G-d by accepting the Torah come with a high price: Jews have a greater responsibility than non-Jews. While non-Jews are only obligated to obey the seven commandments given to Noah, Jews are responsible for fulfilling the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, thus G-d will punish Jews for doing things that would not be a sin for non-Jews.

The Seven Laws of Noah

According to traditional Judaism, G-d gave Noah and his family seven commandments to observe when he saved them from the flood. These commandments, referred to as the Noahic or Noahide commandments, are inferred from Genesis Ch. 9, and are as follows: 1) to establish courts of justice; 2) not to commit blasphemy; 3) not to commit idolatry; 4) not to commit incest and adultery; 5) not to commit bloodshed; 6) not to commit robbery; and 7) not to eat flesh cut from a living animal. These commandments are fairly simple and straightforward, and most of them are recognized by most of the world as sound moral principles. Any non-Jew who follows these laws has a place in the world to come.

The Noahic commandments are binding on all people, because all people are descended from Noah and his family. The 613 mitzvot of the Torah, on the other hand, are only binding on the descendants of those who accepted the commandments at Sinai and upon those who take on the yoke of the commandments voluntarily (by conversion). In addition, the Noahic commandments are applied more leniently to non-Jews than the corresponding commandments are to Jews, because non-Jews do not have the benefit of Oral Torah to guide them in interpreting the laws. For example, worshipping G-d in the form of a man would constitute idolatry for a Jew; however, according to some sources, the Christian worship of Jesus does not constitute idolatry for non-Jews.

Goyim, Shiksas and Shkutzim

The most commonly used word for a non-Jew is goy. The word "goy" means "nation," and refers to the fact that goyim are members of other nations, that is, nations other than the Children of Israel.

There is nothing inherently insulting about the word "goy." In fact, the Torah occasionally refers to the Jewish people using the term "goy." Most notably, in Exodus 19:6, G-d says that the Children of Israel will be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," that is, a goy kadosh. Because Jews have had so many bad experiences with anti-Semitic non-Jews over the centuries, the term "goy" has taken on some negative connotations, but in general the term is no more insulting than the word "gentile."

The more insulting terms for non-Jews are shiksa (feminine) and shkutz (masculine). I gather that these words are derived from the Hebrew root Shin-Qof-Tzadei, meaning loathsome or abomination. The word shiksa is most commonly used to refer to a non-Jewish woman who is dating or married to a Jewish man, which should give some indication of how strongly Jews are opposed to the idea of intermarriage. The term shkutz is most commonly used to refer to an anti-Semitic man. Both terms can be used in a less serious, more joking way, but in general they should be used with caution.

If you are offended to hear that Jewish culture has a negative term for non-Jews, I would recommend that you stop and think about the many negative terms and stereotypes that your culture has for Jews.

Interfaith Marriages

I once received a message from a man who told me that many Jews do not like gentiles. He knew this because his (Jewish) girlfriend's friends and parents disapproved of him. I explained that these people did not disapprove of him because he was Christian; they disapproved of him because he was a Christian dating a Jew, which is another issue altogether.

Traditional Judaism does not permit interfaith marriages. The Torah states that the children of such marriages would be lost to Judaism (Deut. 7:3-4), and experience has shown the truth of this passage all too well. The 2000 National Jewish Population Survey found that only a third of interfaith couples raise their children Jewish, despite increasing efforts in the Reform and Conservative communities to welcome interfaith couples.

This may reflect the fact that Jews who intermarry are not deeply committed to their religion in the first place: if something is important to you, why would you marry someone who doesn't share it? Certainly, the statistics show that intermarried Jews are overwhelmingly less likely to be involved in Jewish activities: 85% of Jewish couples have or attend a Pesach seder, while only 41% of intermarried Jews do; 66% of Jewish couples fast on Yom Kippur while only 26% of intermarried Jews do; 59% of Jewish couples belong to a synagogue while only 15% of intermarried Jews do. These statistics and more are sufficiently alarming to be a matter of great concern to the Jewish community. And the rate of intermarriage has grown dramatically in recent years: according to the Jewish Databank, the rate of intermarriage has risen from 13% in 1970 to 47% since 1996, though the rate of intermarriage seems to have stopped increasing. One Orthodox Jew I know went so far as to state that intermarriage is accomplishing what Hitler could not: the destruction of the Jewish people. That is an extreme view, but it vividly illustrates how seriously many Jews take the issue of intermarriage.

The more liberal branches of Judaism have tried to embrace intermarried couples, hoping to slow the hemorrhaging from our community, but it is questionable how effective this has been in stemming the tide, given the statistics that intermarried couples are unlikely to have any Jewish involvement or to raise their children Jewish.

Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin provide an excellent discussion of the issues involved in intermarriage in their book The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism. They note that if the non-Jewish spouse truly shares the same values as the Jewish spouse, then the non-Jew is welcome to convert to Judaism, and if the non-Jew does not share the same values, then the couple should not be marrying in the first place.

If you are considering interfaith dating or marriage, consider this:

Many people who are considering interfaith marriage or dating casually dismiss any objections as prejudice, but there are some practical matters you should consider. And before you casually dismiss this as ivory tower advice from a Jewish ghetto, let me point out that my father, my mother and my brother are all intermarried, as well as several of my cousins.

The Stereotypes
Why are you not seeking out a Jewish partner? If you ask many Jews why they don't want to date other Jews, you will hear the ugliest list of antisemitic stereotypes this side of Nazi propaganda. They will tell you that Jewish men are cheap, neurotic mamma's boys, not handsome and macho like gentile men. They will tell you that Jewish women are frigid, materialistic and plain, not fun and sexy like gentile women. Interestingly, the stereotypes you hear from gentiles seeking Jews are quite different: that Jewish men are good providers, that they treat women well, that they don't abuse women or get drunk, and they don't sleep around; that Jewish women are smart, level-headed and loyal, not bubble-headed bimbos. In fact, there are quite a lot of gentiles who have registered for JDate, a Jewish dating network, because they specifically want to date and marry a Jew. If you think the negative stereotypes don't fit you, what makes you think they fit Jews of the opposite sex?
 
The Marriage
Where will you get married, who will perform the ceremony and how will it be performed? Most movements of Judaism don't allow interfaith marriages to be performed in their synagogues, nor do they allow their rabbis to perform interfaith marriages, and before you casually dismiss this as bigotry, let's remember: you're the one who is imposing your beliefs (or lack of beliefs) on them, not the other way around. You're asking them to put a religious stamp of approval on an act that has nothing to do with their religion. You might as well ask the rabbi to say "amen" to a blessing over a ham and cheese sandwich. But now that you know you may have to be married in a church: how do you feel about being married under a cross or crucifix? How will your relatives feel when they are told, "in Jesus' name, let us say 'Amen'," as happened at an interfaith marriage in my family?
 
The Holidays
What will you do when Christmas and Chanukkah overlap? When Easter and Pesach overlap? Whose holiday will you celebrate? Will your gentile husband veto the annual Chanukkah visit to your parents because Christmas is more important, as happened to an intermarried friend of mine? Will your gentile wife be willing to cook and/or eat the cardboard meals of Pesach? Will your gentile spouse be willing to sit through the lengthy seder ritual at your parents' house, or the lengthy High Holiday services?
 
The Children
How will the children be raised? The Jewish grandparents want a bris, and the gentile grandparents insist on baptism. The Catholic grandparents want the child to learn catechism while the Jewish grandparents are looking forward to the bar mitzvah. Many interfaith couples think they are being oh-so-enlightened by raising the children with both faiths and letting them choose. This makes about as much sense as asking your child to choose which parent's surname he wants to keep: ultimately, you're requiring the child to pick favorites with his parents. A Reform rabbi provides an excellent discussion of the problem here. Aside from that, the message you are giving your children is that none of it is real, that none of it matters, that religion is a Chinese menu and you can pick one from Column A and one from Column B. You are certainly welcome to believe that, but don't expect your local church or synagogue to agree with you. Even the more liberal movements of Judaism don't approve of bar mitzvah training for a child who is simultaneously receiving religious training in another faith, because it causes too much confusion for the child. If you want your children to learn about all faiths, don't send them to bar mitzvah training; send them to a comparative religion class.

These are just a few of the more important considerations in interfaith relationships that people tend to gloss over in the heat of passion or in the desire to be politically fashionable.

Conversion

In general, Jews do not try to convert non-Jews to Judaism. In fact, according to halakhah (Jewish Law), rabbis are supposed to make three vigorous attempts to dissuade a person who wants to convert to Judaism.

As the discussion above explained, Jews have a lot of responsibilities that non-Jews do not have. To be considered a good and righteous person in the eyes of G-d, a non-Jew need only follow the seven Noahic commandments, whereas a Jew has to follow all 613 commandments given in the Torah. If the potential convert is not going to follow those extra rules, it's better for him or her to stay a gentile, and since we as Jews are all responsible for each other, it's better for us too if that person stayed a gentile. The rabbinically mandated attempt to dissuade a convert is intended to make sure that the prospective convert is serious and willing to take on all this extra responsibility.

Once a person has decided to convert, the proselyte must begin to learn Jewish religion, law and customs and begin to observe them. This teaching process generally takes at least one year, because the prospective convert must experience each of the Jewish holidays; however, the actual amount of study required will vary from person to person (a convert who was raised as a Jew might not need any further education, for example, while another person might need several years).

After the teaching is complete, the proselyte is brought before a Beit Din (rabbinical court) which examines the proselyte and determines whether he or she is ready to become a Jew. If the proselyte passes this oral examination, the rituals of conversion are performed. If the convert is male, he is circumcised (or, if he was already circumcised, a pinprick of blood is drawn for a symbolic circumcision). Both male and female converts are immersed in the mikvah (a ritual bath used for spiritual purification). The convert is given a Jewish name and is then introduced into the Jewish community.

In theory, once the conversion procedure is complete, the convert is as much a Jew as anyone who is born to the religion. In practice, the convert is sometimes treated with caution, because we have had some of bad experiences with converts who later return to their former faith in whole or in part. However, it is important to remember that Abraham himself was a convert, as were all of the matriarchs of Judaism, as was Ruth, an ancestor of King David.

For more information about conversion to Judaism, see The Conversion to Judaism Home Page. The information provided at that site is written from a Conservative perspective, but is valuable to anyone considering conversion to any movement of Judaism.


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