When I was 15, and attending high school in Baltimore, I was once drawn into one of those long, late night bull sessions in the bais medrash. The debate started with an offhand comment that a friend of mine had made as we were walking out after maariv. A small discussion began with a me and a few other kids, but as the debate went on and on and grew louder and more passionate, other students, including some of the older yeshiva boys wandered over and joined in, until the group had grown to about 30 boys.
The topic was whether non-Jews have souls or not. I took the position that they did, although I was certainly no expert on the subject.
Every other boy in the room took the position that they did not.
I was badly outgunned. By the end of the discussion, which finally broke up in the early hours of the morning, I was exhausted, frustrated and angry – still clinging to my apparently unfounded notion that goyim have souls.
People can argue about the ultimate source of morality, but one thing which I can identify for certain is the ultimate source of immorality. It is the creation of a super-race and/or of a sub-race of a segment of mankind. Once this is done, the path has been paved for some of the most heinous crimes of our history.
One can nitpick about whether some of the ancient commandments of the Torah are morally acceptable; Amalek, women’s rights, etc., and the apologists can rummage through their bag of tricks and come up with their rationalizations. We can congratulate ourselves about how moral and socially responsible we are as a people. But, in the end, if the life of a Jew is more important than the life of a non-Jew, then what we have here is racism in the purist form.
I am aware of how inflammatory this issue is. The statements in the Talmud and Rishonim which differentiate between Jewish and Gentile life and property are widely cited in anti-Semitic propaganda pieces, alongside abject forgeries and misquotes. The Modern Orthodox community, at least, has become highly sensitive of what a lightning rod the issue is. About two years ago there was a micro-scandal involving a brief piece published in YU’s Beit Yitzchak Journal, which only mentioned in passing some of the less politically correct opinions.
I am also very aware of how many orthodox Jews are highly moral and fair minded people. So, for those with enough empathy and intellect, religious beliefs do not have to be the determining factor in moral behavior. As with everything else in Torah, one can argue both ways on this issue, and certainly the Talmud is filled with contradictory messages about the laws which govern non-Jews. So those within the orthodox community who are uncomfortable with the Jewish Spiritual Supremacy theories have room to find a way to believe in equality.
But, still, thirty years after my high school debate, non-Jews are still though to be very much ‘less than Jews’ in the yeshiva world. The examples of areas where goyim have reduced legal status are many. I won’t recite them because I do not want to feed the polemic.
If your frum, you may be insulted by all this, and I do not mean this as a general attack on Orthodoxy. But before you click away and forget this, perhaps make a note to talk to your kids about it.
After all, one of my ex yeshiva friends may be their rebbe.