See the Introduction to Sacred Slogans for methodology and goals
Click here for a downloadable PDF source sheet
Not long after he accepted
While “a Jew is a Jew” does not appear in that exact form in traditional Jewish texts, the Rabbinic analogue can be found in the Talmud. Commenting on Joshua 7:11, R. Abba b. Zavda says, “even though he has sinned, he is still ‘Israel’”.1 Meaning, a Jew who sins is still part of the Jewish people. This is a fundamental concept for Jewish outreach among those who try to ignite the latent “Jewish spark” within all Jews.
At the same time, “a Jew is a Jew” hits at the core issues of inclusion and exclusion in the Jewish community. This is a particularly contentious issue in Israel where non-Orthodox denominations lobby for official recognition and legitimacy in the Jewish state. As discussed at length in a previous podcast series, the politics of exclusion has been a constant theme throughout Jewish history. And as we will see in this post, certain people may be halakhically Jewish, but may still be excluded from society due to their actions. The point of this entry is to differentiate between the status of one’s Jewish identity and one’s role in a Jewish society, in that the former does not guarantee the latter.2
The most obvious example of social sanction is the
A common reason for being put under this ban was for denigrating the Sages. This does not only refer to insults but also for disparaging Rabbinic laws such as hand washing,5 not observing the second day of Yom Tov outside of Israel,6 or not following the judgment of the court.7 It is also worth mentioning that excommunication may not be abused. Those who put others in
Maimonides compiles twenty-four reasons why a person would be subject to excommunication,9 some which we will see later.
The above applies when someone transgresses to fulfill a personal desire. But someone who transgresses out of spite faces a higher degree of exclusion to the point that such a person is not redeemed from captivity,13 and even be classified as a sectarian.14
Other transgressions are severe enough that their ramifications extend beyond a specific infraction. For example, sacrifices are accepted from sinners of Israel in the hopes that they repent, except for idolaters and those who violate Shabbat in public.15 While these individuals retain their Jewish identity,16 they have also removed themselves from the Jewish community by their actions.
Aside from individuals who sin for themselves, Rabbinic Judaism holds particular contempt for those who entice others to sin. A “rebellious elder” who instructs people contrary to the high court faces capital punishment.17 Even those who do not meet the technical requirements to be a rebellious elder are still sanctioned for teaching Torah in opposition to the law.18
According to the Yerushalmi, whoever prevents the masses from performing a commandment must be excommunicated,19 as should someone who causes the masses to “desecrate God’s name,”20 a category which includes sinning.21 Furthermore, someone who causes others to sin will not have an opportunity to repent.22
While there is some latitude for leniency regarding those who were not raised in a halakhic tradition,23 no such latitude is given for those who actively promulgate to others actions which are contrary to
A Confederacy of the Wicked
The above examples all refer to individuals, but we also find evidence of exclusion for an entire collective.
|B. Sanhedrin 26a|
What is [the reference to] ‘a confederacy of wicked men’? — [It is as follows:] Shevna [Chamberlain of the Palace of King Hezekiah (Is. 22:15)] expounded [the law] before thirteen myriads, whereas Hezekiah expounded it only before eleven. When Sanheirev came and besieged Jerusalem, Shevna wrote a note, which he shot on an arrow [into the enemy’s camp, declaring]: Shevna and his followers are willing to conclude peace; Hezekiah and his followers are not. Thus it is written, For lo, the wicked bend the bow, they make ready their arrow upon the string. So Hezekiah was afraid, and said: Perhaps, Heaven forfend, the mind of the Holy One, blessed be He, is with the majority; and since they wish to surrender, we must do likewise! Thereupon the Prophet came and reassured him: Say ye not a confederacy, concerning all of whom this people do say, A confederacy; it is a confederacy of the wicked, and as such is not included in the counting [for the purpose of a decision].
|תלמוד בבלי סנהדרין כו:א|
מאי קשר רשעים? שבנא הוה דריש בתליסר רבוותא, חזקיה הוה דריש בחד סר רבוותא. כי אתא סנחריב וצר עלה דירושלים, כתב שבנא פתקא, שדא בגירא: שבנא וסיעתו – השלימו, חזקיה וסיעתו לא השלימו. שנאמר כי הנה הרשעים ידרכון קשת כוננו חצם על יתר. הוה קא מסתפי חזקיה, אמר: דילמא חס ושלום נטיה דעתיה דקודשא בריך הוא בתר רובא, כיון דרובא מימסרי – אינהו נמי מימסרי. בא נביא ואמר לו: לא תאמרון קשר לכל אשר יאמר העם הזה קשר. כלומר: קשר רשעים הוא, וקשר רשעים אינו מן המנין
Jewish law normally follows a majority,25 but not everyone’s opinion is considered to be part of the consensus. In this case, because Shevna and his followers were considered “wicked,” even though they held a numerical majority, their opinion essentially did not count.
It is fair at this point to ask at this point is who is classified as “wicked.” Minimally, this includes people who transgress Biblical prohibitions for which the punishment is lashes,26 such as eating non-kosher food,27 or anything more severe.28
The ‘Am Ha’Aretz
For a final example of social exclusion, I would like to include the example of the ‘am
There are several Rabbinic statements encouraging separation from the ‘am
We also find regarding the ‘am
Many years ago I wrote that all communities are pluralistic, but only up to a point of their choosing. The above limitation, defined by Torah, is just one example of how Jewish communities shape their boundaries. Those on the more liberal ends of Judaism define their own boundaries for exclusion as well, based on their own standards and interpretations. This has become particularly noticeable in the age of Trump. Jane Eisner, Editor-in-Chief of the Forward bluntly put it, “Jews should disown Stephen Miller” for promoting policies that were contrary to her understanding of Judaism.39 Those who take this approach may understand and define the boundaries of Judaism differently, but do not deny social marginalization and exclusion as a concept, and may even view it as a social and moral necessity.
There are rabbis and Jewish communities who adopt a more welcoming approach towards all Jews and do so without compromising their own beliefs. But the claim that there is some religious40
- אף על פי שחטא, ישראל הוא – B. Sanhedrin 44a
- It is worth mentioning the instances of karet, where certain transgressors are literally “cut off” from the Jewish people. Some examples include not performing circumcision (Gen. 17:14), eating leavened bread over Passover (Ex. 12:15), violating the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14) or Yom Kippur (Lev. 23:29), or violating the laws of family purity (Lev. 20:18). I did not include these examples because in the Rabbinic tradition the punishment of karet is not social ostracization or exclusion, which is the current primary focus. According to Talmudic source, karet refers to an early death (B. Moed Katan 28a), and later commentaries include additional opinions.
- B. Moed Katan 15a
- B. Moed Katan 17a. Reish Lakish disagrees with Shmuel saying the taint of excommunication leaves when the ban is lifted, but during the period of excommunication, the ban affects the entirety of a person.
- B. Berachot 19a
- B. Pesahim 52a
- B. Moed Katan 14b
- B. Moed Katan 17a
- Hilkhot Talmud Torah 6:14
- B. Hullin 3a
- M. Eiruvin 3:2, M. Eiruvin 6:1-2
- B. Menahot 18b
- B. Gittin 47a
- B. Avoda Zara 26a-b. A parallel passage in B. Horayot 11a uses “Sadducee” instead of “sectarian.”
- B. Hullin 5a. Cf. B. Eiruvin 69b
- Even if someone who converted according to halakhah subsequently retracted his conversion, his marriage to a Jewish woman is still valid (B. Yevamot 47b).
- M. Sanhedrin 11:1-2
- M. Avot 3:11, M. Avot 5:8
- Y. Mo’ed Katan 3:1 81d
- Y. Ta’anit 3:10 67a
- As mentioned in the Sacred Slogans entry on “Light unto the Nations” and in greater detail my class on Chillul Hashem
- M. Avot 5:18
- The category is called, “a child who was imprisoned among the gentiles” referring to those who were completely unaware of Jewish law. Such individuals may be treated more leniently up until the time they are taught. See B. Shabbat 68a.
- See for example Maimonides who distinguishes between Zadok and Baitus and their immediate followers who rejected the Oral Law, but not the children of the followers (Mamrim 3:3). Those who assume the authority to preach contrary to Jewish law and actively leads others astray then becomes like Zadok and Baitus themselves (Teshuva 3:10)
- Ex. 23:2
- Mekhilta D.R. Shimon b. Yohai 23:7
- B. Sanhedrin 27a
- E.g. B. Yevamot 25a
- E.g. Gen. 23:7, 23:12-13
- M. Avot 2:5, B. Berakhot 47b
- B. Berakhot 47b, B. Berakhot 61a, M. Avot 5:10, B. Shabbat 152a
- M. Demai 2:2
- M. Avot 3:10
- B. Shabbat 63a
- B. Pesahim 49a
- B. Pesahim 49a-b
- Deut. 23:3, B. Yevamot 23b
- M. Horayot 3:8
- I have learned not to read too much into headlines because those are often written by editors rather than the authors. However, since Ms. Eisner is the Editor-in-Chief, I am assuming she chose her own headline.
- I stress “religious” to contrast with political, recognizing they often overlap in Israel.
- All the above sources assume the individuals in question are in fact Jewish according to the standards of Torah. This too is a point of contention as denominations have their own standards and demand official recognition of Jewishness on their own terms.
- M. Kiddushin 1:10