Andrew E. Mathis, Ph.D.
Refutation of Shahak
June 8, 2000
The Interpretational Errors of Israel Shahak
The Israeli professor of chemistry and self-styled human-rights activist Israel Shahak published Jewish History, Jewish Religion in 1994. The study purports to be a critique of Classical Judaism from its rabbinical, Talmudic roots through its present-day Orthodox form -- particularly in the State of Israel. Shahak's central thesis is a classic example of "blaming the victim"; he theorizes that it is Classical Judaism's attitude toward non-Jews that has been at the source of much persecution of World Jewry. Furthermore, he posits that the alleged anti-Gentile attitude of Classical Judaism is at the heart of the State of Israel's treatment of its non-Jewish minority and the Palestinians under its military occupation. This essay seeks to show that Shahak has incorrectly cited and/or interpreted some of his sources in presenting his case. This is not to say that Shahak's theories are completely incorrect. Indeed, no thinking individual can deny that Israelis such as the late Meir Kahane (mis)use Jewish law (halakha) to justify their hatred of non-Jews. However, it can be shown that Shahak has played fast and loose with some of the source material he cites, and these sources are both Biblical and rabbinical.
1. Shahak's Misrepresentation of Ezekiel
In Chapter 5 of Jewish History, Jewish Religion (hereafter cited as JH), entitled "The Laws Against Non-Jews," Shahak includes a section that he subheads "Sexual Offenses." Shahak writes, "The Halakhah presumes all Gentiles to be utterly promiscuous and the verse 'whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue [of semen] is like the issue of horses' is applied to them" (Shahak 87, bracketed explanation in original). Shahak footnotes his quoted material with No. 40, and in his Notes and References section, the footnote declares this quote is Biblical, specifically from Ezekiel 23:20 (Shahak 116).
Turning to the Book of Ezekiel, we should examine Shahak's quotation of the prophet in its full context. Here is Ezekiel 23:1-23:
1. And the word of the Lord came to me, saying: 2. Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother; 3. And they committed harlotry in Egypt; they committed harlotry in their youth; there were their breasts pressed, and there was her virgin bosom handled. 4. And their names were Aholah the elder, and Aholibah her sister; and they were mine, and they bore sons and daughters. Thus were their names: Samaria is Aholah, and Jerusalem Aholibah. 5. And Aholah played the harlot when she was mine; and she doted on her lovers, on the Assyrians her neighbors, 6. Who were clothed with blue, captains and rulers, all of them desirable young men, horsemen riding upon horses. 7. Thus she committed her harlotry with them, with all those who were the choicest men of Assyria; and with all on whom she doted, with all their idols, she defiled herself. 8. Nor did she give up her harlotry brought from Egypt; for in her youth they lay with her, and they handled her virgin bosom, and poured out their lust upon her. 9. Therefore I have delivered her into the hand of her lovers, into the hand of the Assyrians, upon whom she doted. 10. These uncovered her nakedness; they took her sons and her daughters, and slew her with the sword; and she became notorious among women; for they had executed judgment upon her. 11. And her sister Aholibah saw this, yet she was more corrupt in her inordinate love than she, and in her harlotry more than her sister in her harlotry. 12. She doted upon the Assyrians her neighbors, captains and rulers clothed most gorgeously, horsemen riding upon horses, all of them desirable young men. 13. Then I saw that she was defiled, that they took both of them the same way.
14. (K) And that she increased her harlotry; for when she saw men portrayed upon the wall, the images of the Chaldeans portrayed with vermilion, 15. Girded with girdles upon their loins, with flowing turbans upon their heads, all of them looking like captains, after the custom of the Babylonians of Chaldea, the land of their birth; 16. And as soon as she saw them with her eyes, she doted upon them, and sent messengers to them in Chaldea.17. And the Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their lust, and she was polluted by them, and her soul was turned from them. 18. And she uncovered her harlotry, and uncovered her nakedness; then my soul was turned from her, just as my soul was turned from her sister. 19. Yet she multiplied her harlotry, recalling the days of her youth, when she had played the harlot in the land of Egypt. 20. For she doted upon her paramours, whose members were like those of asses, and whose issue is like that of horses. 21. Thus you recalled the lewdness of your youth, when those of Egypt handled your bosom, for the sake of the breasts of your youth. 22. Therefore, O Aholibah, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will raise up your lovers against you, from whom your soul turned, and I will bring them against you on every side; 23. The Babylonians, and all Chaldea, Pekod, and Shoa, and Koa, and all the Assyrians with them; all of them desirable young men, captains and rulers, great lords and renowned, all of them riding upon horses. (Kantrowitz, Tanach, Prophets, Ezekiel 23:1-23)
There are several points here that need to be made. First and foremost, the Gentiles being referred to in this passage are of two specific groups: Assyrians and Babylonian. These two groups were responsible for the destruction of the ancient Israelite kingdoms of Samaria and Judah in 722 BCE and 586 BCE, respectively. Samaria was sacked by Assyria, while Babylon destroyed Judah, destroying the First Temple in the process.
Ezekiel is one of the Major Prophets of Judaism (along with Isaiah and Jeremiah), and all the Major Prophets wrote extensively on the imminent destruction of the Israelite kingdoms by neighboring empires. (Jeremiah also wrote Lamentations -- an eyewitness account of Jerusalem's destruction by the Babylonians.) In Chapter 23 of Ezekiel, God foretells the fate of the Israelite kingdoms to the prophet by means of an allegory. Rabbi Dr. S. Fisch's explication of the chapter is particularly informative:
The prophet portrays in vivid allegory the history of the two kingdoms centered respectively in Samaria and Jerusalem. They are compared to two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah, who were unfaithful to their husbands and sought association with strange men. Similarly, the nation of Israel from its inception in Egypt abandoned the service of God and worshipped the idols of its neighbours. Samaria contracted political alliances with foreign Powers against the counsel of God's prophets, and the result was moral degradation and national downfall. The young sister, Oholibah, the kingdom of Judah, learned no lesson from that fate and followed the same path. Jerusalem will therefore share the doom of Samaria and drink to the full the cup from which she had drunk. (Fisch 149)
Thus the entire content of this chapter must be taken as allegory, but Shahak has not done so. Instead, he has made two mistakes. First, he has read the chapter (or at least the single verse he cites) literally, ignoring rabbinical commentary to the contrary. For example, Fisch comments specifically on Ezekiel 23:20, writing, "Judea was ready to become one of the many vassal States of Egypt to be under that country's protection . . . As a harlot is attracted by sexual potency, so Judea was allured by the military power of Egypt" (153-54). Among the earlier rabbinical sources that Fisch cites here is the medieval French rabbi Rashi, whose commentary on the Bible (and specifically the Torah) is considered authoritative.
Shahak's second mistake here is in generalizing a statement about the flesh and semen of Babylonians to apply to all of non-Jewish humanity. He further complicates this error, writing, "Therefore, the concept of adultery also does not apply to intercourse between a Jewish man and Gentile woman; rather, the Talmud equates such intercourse to the sin of bestiality" (Shahak 87). Here, he footnotes the word "Talmud" with No. 41 and gives in his Notes and References section the Talmudic reference Tractate Berakhot, p. 78a (Shahak 116). Unfortunately, there is no corresponding blatt (i.e., page) of Tractate Berakhot; it ends with blatt 64a. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that Shahak or his editor made a simple mistake with this citation, but the point remains: Shahak's attempt to generalize the statements about Babylonians in Ezekiel 23:20 to all non-Jewish men remains unsubstantiated by any source of halakha.
Before continuing, we should note that while Shahak's specific quote denigrates the Babylonians, this specific chapter of Ezekiel is equally critical of Assyria. However, Assyria, despite its destruction of Samaria, is not forever condemned Biblically. Indeed, the Book of Jonah is specifically about the redemption of the Assyrians. Few Jews or Gentiles know much about the Book of Jonah besides the titular prophet spending three days in the belly of a whale (actually dag gadol, i.e., a "big fish"). The full thrust of this short prophetic book is the redemption of a non-Jewish nation by a reluctant but ultimately compliant Israelite prophet. The final sentence of the Book of Jonah, uttered by God, is particularly indicative of compassion for non-Jews, even those who have caused pain to Israelites: "And should I not spare Nineveh [the capital of Assyria], that great city, where there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?" (Kantrowitz Tanach, Prophets, Twelve Prophets, Yona 4:11, bracketed material mine). The Book of Jonah is worthy of mention here because it occupies a special place in the liturgy of modern Judaism. It is the haftarah (i.e., reading from the non-Toraic portion of the Bible) for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Clearly, if Classical Judaism took the point of view that all humankind was equivalent to animals, its rabbis would not have dictated that a book about the redemption of one of Israel's greatest historical enemies be read on the most solemn day of the year. But this evidence, too, Shahak ignores.
Finally, we should note that by citing as a source of purported Jewish hatred of Gentiles a prophet of the Hebrew Bible, Shahak falls into an easily avoided trap. Thanks to the inclusion of the entire Hebrew Bible in the Christian Bible as the so-called Old Testament, Ezekiel is considered an important prophet of Christianity. Furthermore, as Islam reveres the Jewish prophets (as well as the Christian prophets), Ezekiel is also a prophet of Islam. Shahak seeks to prove that Classical Judaism is hostile to non-Jews, and much of JH concerns Jewish relations with Christians and Muslims. To choose a Biblical prophet to make his point is at the very least quite foolish, if we consider that this same prophet holds important status to both of these religions.
2. The Jewish Prayerbook as Characterized by Shahak
Continuing in Chapter 5 of JH, Shahak discusses the Jewish ritual of daily prayer under the heading of "Abuse." Again, his intention is to expose the supposed anti-Gentile nature of even the most basic practices of observant Orthodox Jews. For instance, he notes that the morning prayers of male Jews include a blessing to God in thanks for not having been made a Gentile (Shahak 92). Shahak does not note that this blessing is juxtaposed with two other blessings thanking God for not being made either a slave or a woman. While, on their face, these blessings may seem offensive, the spirit of their meaning is not anti-Gentile at all, but rather pro-Jewish. Only a free Jewish man is required by God to fulfill the commandments of the Torah, and it is considered an honor in Classical Judaism to do so. Thus, a Jewish man thanks God for his status as a free Jewish male as a means of gratitude for an honor bestowed. Rabbi Nosson Scherman writes:
Male, free Jews have responsibilities and duties not shared by others. For this, they express gratitude that, unlike women, they were not freed from the obligation to perform the time-related commandments. This follows the Talmudic dictum that an obligatory performance of a commandment is superior to a voluntary one, because it is human nature to resist obligations . . . (19, emphasis in original)
We should note here that while Rabbi Scherman cites halakha in making his argument, Shahak does not.
Getting specifically to supposed Jewish hatred of Christians evidenced in daily Jewish prayer, Shahak writes:
In the most important section of the weekday prayer -- the 'eighteen blessings' -- there is a special curse, originally directed against Christians, Jewish converts to Christianity and other Jewish heretics: 'And may the apostates have no hope, and all the Christians perish instantly'. This formula dates from the end of the 1st century, when Christianity was still a small persecuted sect. Some time before the 14th century, it was softened into: 'And may the apostates have no hope, and all the heretics perish instantly', and after additional pressure into: 'And may the informers have no hope, and all the heretics perish instantly'. After the establishment of Israel, the process was reversed, and many newly printed prayer books reverted to the second formula, which was also prescribed by many teachers in religious Israeli schools. (Shahak 92)
The most widely used Orthodox Jewish siddur (prayerbook) is The Complete Artscroll Siddur, which is published in Brooklyn, N.Y., and distributed worldwide via Brooklyn, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, and Tel-Aviv. Turning to the section of the Artscroll containing the Shmonei Esrei (Hebrew for "eighteen," this is the Hebrew name for the eighteen blessings that Shahak mentions), we find the following "formula" in the place Shahak cites: "And for slanderers let there be no hope; and may all wickedness perish in an instant" (Scherman 107).
Clearly there is a difference in point of view of how this "formula" is translated. Once again, Shahak's footnotes are informative. Shahak's footnote No. 61, which he uses to explicate the word he translates as "apostates," claims, "The Hebrew word is meshummadim, which in rabbinical usage refers to Jews who become 'idolators', that is either pagan or Christians, but not to Jewish converts to Islam" (Shahak 117). Several points arise here. First, the Artscroll does not use the word meshummadim in the relevant "formula" bur rather uses the word malshinim, which is translated as "slanderers." The word is footnoted in the Artscroll with this information:
The blessing was composed in response to the threats of such heretical Jewish sects as the Sadducees, Boethusians, Essenes, and the early Christians. They tried to lead Jews astray through example and persuasion, and they used their political power to oppress observant Jews and to slander them to the anti-Semitic Roman government . . . Despite the disappearance from within Israel of the particular sects against whom it was directed, it is always relevant, because there are still non-believers and heretics who endanger the spiritual continuity of Israel. (Scherman 107)
Consulting the Artscroll makes clear two points: 1) Shahak is incorrect in asserting that this "formula" presently targets apostate Jews or idolaters, since he cites an incorrect word. Certainly nowhere does it target Christians of non-Jewish origin; and 2) The present spirit of the "formula" is to thwart those who would "inform" against the Jewish community to anti-Semitic authorities. While in ancient times, as the Artscroll footnote concedes, this would include heretics including early Christians (who were almost all Jews), today it includes all those who constitute a threat to the continuity of the Jewish faith.
Shahak also footnotes, with No. 61, the word "apostate," and he explains in his Notes and References, "The Hebrew word is minim, whose precise meaning is 'disbelievers in the uniqueness of God'" (Shahak 117). Shahak's problem here is again twofold: 1) The word minim does not have the "precise meaning" he ascribes to it. The word applies to any heretic. Talmudically it was reserved for early Christians (and we should note again that these Christians were almost entirely Jewish); 2) The word minim does not appear in the blessing, at least in the Artscroll. The fully transliterated "formula" is thus: "V'la'malshinim al t'hi tiqvah, v'khol ha'rish'ah k'rega' toveyd" (Scherman 106). Shahak's contention that the "formula" damns "heretics" is thus without weight. As cited above, the "formula" condemns only informers and "wickedness." Shahak cites no specific siddur, gives the wrong word in a crucial place, and fails to give a proper translation of the "formula" as it presently exists in the most widely used siddur in circulation.
To concede a minor point to Shahak, much of the early rabbinical hostility to Christianity stemmed not only from its position as an apostasy within Judaism but also what was perceived as idolatry committed by Christians. Idolatry is among the sins forbidden, by Jewish authority, to all human beings. As Islam is forcefully anti-idolatrous, Shahak is correct in pointing out that Jewish converts to Islam bear less of a stigma than Jewish converts to Christianity. However, Shahak ignores an important controversy within Christianity itself regarding the Biblical injunction against idolatry, to be found both in the story of Noah and, more prominently, in the Ten Commandments. To this day, Roman Catholics, who are fond of statuary, particularly of Jesus and his mother, Mary, do not consider the injunction against idolatry from the Ten Commandments to constitute its own unique commandment. Instead, Catholics, interpret the injunction as part of the first commandment ("You shall have no other gods before Me"), and they make the coveting of a neighbor's wife into its own commandment, thereby still reaching a total of ten commandments.
Protestants, however, maintain the Jewish tradition of keeping the injunction against idolatry as a unique commandment (the second one) and, as in Judaism, retain one commandment against covetousness, whether it is against one's wife or one's property. The Protestant distaste for statuary in places of worship and elsewhere is thus no accident but rather a reaffirmation of the Toraic law against idolatry. Of course, since Catholics (and all Christians) believe Jesus to have been God incarnate, they put forth the argument that statuary of Jesus and other holy figures is not idolatry, since idolatry can be interpreted to imply only idols of false gods, and there is a certain validity to this position when viewed from their point of view. In any case, Shahak reserves his examination of the purported existence of idolatry in Christianity to Classical Jewish sources, glossing over the controversy within Christianity without regard to Judaism that centers on this very point.
3. Cursing Gentile Houses
Another of Shahak's charges, continuing under the subheading of "Abuse," is that Classical Judaism, in the Talmud, "lays down that a Jew who passes near an inhabited non-Jewish dwelling must ask God to destroy it, whereas if the building is in ruins he must thank the Lord of Vengeance" (Shahak 93). Shahak footnotes his information here with No. 63, and in the Notes and References section, we find he is referring to the Talmudic source Tractate Berakhot, p. 58b (Shahak 117). Here is the relevant Talmud portion Shahak is citing (numbers refer to footnotes within the text being cited):
Our Rabbis taught: On seeing the houses of Israel, when inhabited one says: Blessed be He who sets the boundary of the widow;1 when uninhabited, Blessed be the judge of truth. On seeing the houses of heathens, when inhabited, one says: The Lord will pluck up the house of the proud;2 when uninhabited he says: O Lord, thou God, to whom vengeance belongeth, thou God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shine forth.3 (Kantrowitz Talmud, Mas. Berachoth 58b)
Shahak's principal error here is that he essentially fails to follow his own guidelines regarding citations of halakha. In his introduction to Chapter 5, Shahak writes that "because of the unwieldy complexity of the legal disputations recorded in the Talmud, more manageable codifications of talmudic law became necessary and were indeed compiled by successive generations of rabbinical scholars" (Shahak 75). Shahak then cites Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Yosef Karo's Shulkhan 'Arukh, and the Talmudic Encyclopedia as his primary sources for halakha.
Still, in the case of cursing Gentile houses, Shahak relies on a purely Talmudic source. By doing so, he leaves the stated point of view (which does, as indicated, appear in the Talmud) unclear as to whether or not it actually constitutes halakha, or whether it is just something that Rabbis used to say. Shahak fails to point out that much of the Talmud -- indeed most of it -- is not halakha but commentary on halakha, and that is why it was necessary for later rabbis such as Maimonides and Karo to compile the majority decisions of the rabbis that came to constitute halakha and codify them in their own texts. If it was an halakhic imperative for a Jew to curse a Gentile's home upon passing it, then surely this dictum would appear in one of the three sources of halakha that Shahak himself cites in the introduction to the chapter. However, Shahak does not cite any of the three sources, leaving only the Talmudic citation. It therefore remains unclear if this rabbinical opinion recorded in the Talmud indeed qualifies as a statement of halakha. Nonetheless, Shahak treats the statement as if it constitutes law, offering no proof to support his stance.
4. Comparing Gentiles and Dogs
Shahak makes another Talmudic mistake in the "Abuse" subsection, this time in his discussion of preparing food for the Sabbath. As Shahak points out, the commandments against preparing food on the Sabbath are somewhat relaxed for holy days that do not fall on the Sabbath itself. Shahak writes, "In particular, on a holy day which does not happen to fall on a Saturday it is permitted to do any work required for preparing food to be eaten during the holy days or days [sic]. Legally, this is defined as preparing 'a soul's food' (okhel nefesh); but 'soul' is interpreted to mean 'Jew', and 'Gentiles and dogs' are explicitly excluded" (Shahak 94). A footnote -- No. 67 -- directs us to a Talmudic source, Beytzah, p. 21a, b (Shahak 118). Here, once again, is the Talmudic source being cited (numbers indicating footnotes):
R. Hisda said: An animal half of which belongs to a heathen and half to an Israelite is permitted to be slaughtered on a Festival, because as much as an olive of flesh is unattainable without slaughtering; [but] dough belonging half to a heathen and half to an Israelite may not be baked on a Festival for it is possible to divide it at the kneading. R. Hana b. Hanilai raised an objection: Dogs’ dough,14 if the shepherds eat of it, is subject to hallah,15 and one may prepare an ‘erub16 therewith, effect a partnership17 therewith, pronounce a blessing over it,18 and say grace after it,19 and it may be baked on a Festival,20 and a man can fulfil his obligation therewith on Passover.21 But why [may it be baked on a Festival]? Surely it is possible for him to divide it during the kneading! — Dogs’ dough is different since it is possible to appease them [the dogs] with carrion.22 (Kantrowitz Talmud, Seder Mo'ed, Mas. Beitzah 21a)
To clarify what is being discussed here, the argument hinges on whether or not an animal that is owned by both a Jew and a Gentile may be slaughtered for consumption on a holy day. The argument is put forth that this is allowable because there is no other way for the animal to be split evenly and fairly and still be kosher. However, as the passage continues to point out, dough that is co-owned may not be baked in preparation for a festival because it can be split during the kneading, i.e., well before baking. As for so-called "dogs' dough," Footnote No. 14 makes it quite clear that this is dough specifically for the consumption of dogs (Kantrowitz Talmud, Seder Mo'ed, Mas. Beitzah 21a). The rabbis do point out that it is still fit for human consumption and shepherds may eat it. Thus, if jointly owned, dogs' dough must also be split during the kneading, since carrion (dead meat -- not fit for Jewish consumption under kosher law) can be used to feed dogs instead of "dogs' dough." We should note that the shepherds being discussed here are clearly Jewish shepherds, since they would be applying the commandments of taking challah, saying a blessing, and observing Passover.
While this Talmudic citation clearly nowhere equates Gentiles with dogs, Shahak nonetheless concludes, "an Orthodox Jew learns from his earliest youth, as part of his sacred studies, that Gentiles are compared to dogs" (Shahak 94). Perhaps he is misled by the continuation of the discussion in Beytzah 21a-b, which involves a rabbinical argument over whether one may prepare food for a Gentile, an animal, or both on holy days. No clear conclusion is reached. For instance, Rabbi Joseph admits to having provided non-Jewish soldiers with food on a holy day and justifies his actions by pointing out that the food was not kosher. Rabbi Joseph's story is followed immediately by this passage (numbers indicating footnotes):
Tannaim differ on this; for it was taught: ‘Save that which every soul34 must eat, that only may be done by you’.31 From the implication of the expression ‘every soul’ I might assume also that the soul of cattle is included35 as it is said, ‘And he that smiteth a soul of a beast mortally shall make it good’;36 the text therefore says, ‘for you’ [intimating] but not for dogs. This is the opinion of R. Jose the Galilean. R. Akiba says: Even the soul of cattle is included; if so, then why does the text say ‘for you’? For you, but not for heathens — And what reason do you see to include dogs and to exclude heathens? I include dogs, since you are responsible for their food, and I exclude heathens because you are not responsible for their food.1 (Kantrowitz Talmud, Seder Mo'ed, Mas. Beitzah 21a-b)
The information contained within the footnotes is particularly important. Footnote No. 34 notes that "soul" means "man" (not "Jewish man," as Shahak states), and No. 35 indicates that even cattle have souls (Kantrowitz Talmud, Seder Mo'ed, Mas. Beitzah 21a). Rabbi Akiva's position that food may be prepared for dogs but not Gentiles on holy days concludes the cited passage, but Footnote No.1, which accompanies this opinion, states, "Thus R. Akiba permits the preparation of animal's food, while R. Jose forbids it" (Kantrowitz Talmud, Seder Mo'ed, Mas. Beitzah 21b). Clearly there is a difference in point of view. Where does the halakha come down on this point? It remains unclear and Shahak offers no help, citing only two commentaries on the Shulkhan 'Arukh, but nothing from the Shulkhan 'Arukh itself (Shahak 118). We can perhaps conclude that you are responsible, in some rabbis' opinions, for preparing food for your dogs because you own them, while you are not responsible for Gentiles' food, as they can feed themselves. In any case, any equation of dogs and Gentiles is entirely lacking from the Talmudic source Shahak has chosen.
Israel Shahak's Jewish History, Jewish Religion purports to offer important insights into the nature of Classical Judaism and its present-day Orthodox form and how this nature has contributed to the conduct of Jews in both in the State of Israel and in the exile communities of the world. However, as has been demonstrated, it is so littered with errors of interpretation, citation, and translation, that it is extremely unreliable as a source on Jewish law. Even a cursory look at some of the material he cites shows his inability to comprehend allegorical meaning or meaning to be gleaned from context. Ironically, the renowned American linguist and social dissident Noam Chomsky calls Shahak an "outstanding scholar" on the front cover of the paperback edition of JH. Perhaps Shahak was an outstanding scholar in the field of organic chemistry, but as a student of halakha, he leaves much to be desired.
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