What Defines a Jew? by: Nachi Farkas


To understand what really differentiates Jews from the rest of the world, we need only look to our guidebook to life, the Torah. While the Torah is unique, it shares similarities with the Semitic laws and codes that existed when the Torah was given. Upon a deeper analysis of these Semitic laws, such as the Code of Hammurabi, the Hittite Laws, Middle Assyrian Laws, etc., a critical difference can be identified which lends itself to a more pronounced explanation of the difference between Jews and Nochrim.

 There is a simple way to explain the similarities between Jews and Nochrim: all of humankind shares a basic sense of morality which can be found in every culture and religion. Additionally, the teachings of righteous non-Jews, such as Shem, Ever, and Methushelach, were beneficially transmitted throughout the Semitic nations. In this way, the morality and the reasons behind the Semitic laws may all be the same. It is possible that the pre-existence of these similarities made it easier for the Jews to accept the Torah; it wasn’t a compilation of far fetched absurdities, but a legal code that closely paralleled the morality of the generation of the Jews’ non-Jewish contemporaries. Nevertheless, the differences in the punishments for immorality between the Torah and other Semitic codes may shed light on the stark contrast between the Torah and the other Semitic codes.

One similar moral law amongst the Semitic codes deals with the rape of a virgin. According to both the Torah and many other Semitic codes, if she is raped in a field, she is exempt from any inquiry as to her promiscuity in lying with a man, whereas if the rape occurs in a city, she is suspect for not crying for help. The Torah and the other Semitic codes, in fact, are quite similar in Bein Adam LeChaveiro, or interpersonal, law. They diverge, however, with Judaism’s acknowledgement of God’s direct interaction in the world. While the Semitic laws recognize Bein Adam LeChaveiro laws, they fail to realize that an element of Bein Adam LeMakom (divinity) exists within interpersonal interactions; they do not comprehend that social contracts are, in fact, dictated by divine wills. For example, according to the Assyrian laws, one is allowed to collect a ransom instead of executing a rapist or murderer. Such a practice is explicitly forbidden in Judaism, as it is written in the Torah “VeLo Tikchu Kofer Li Nefesh Rotzeach Asher Hu Rasha LaMut: Ki Mot Yumat” “And do not take ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death; but he shall surely be put to death” (Bamidbar 35:31). The Torah considers the murder an offence to God, not just a human matter. Through this example, it becomes apparent that our social justice is infused with godliness; not only do we punish for offences against each other, but we must also be mindful of the affect our actions will have towards God’s will. It is for this reason that Yosef had to tell Eishet Potifar that sleeping with her would be a sin towards God, i.e. not just to her husband.

The Torah also puts a much greater emphasis on a human life than on any other set of laws. For example, the Torah states that as punishment for having one’s ox gore a person three times and kill him, the owner is put to death (and see Rashi). The laws of the other nations pose a similar case of an ox goring three times, yet in this case, the owner is not held accountable to the point of death. The law states: “If an ox, while passing on the street, gored a man and killed him, the case is not a matter fit for a legal claim. If an ox be a goring ox, and it was shown that he is a gorer, and he did not cut his horns, or fasten the ox up, and the ox gore a free-born man and kill him, the owner shall pay one-half a mina in money” (Code of Hammurabi, 250-251). Astonishingly, the owner is responsible only monetarily and not with his life.

While the differences listed here are by no means an exhaustive list, they begin to demonstrate that the Torah is not only fair but also contains a firm moral intensity (and divine origin) that defines our roles as Jews as moral and sensitive people. While maintaining such a high standard of morality is not often so easy, it enables us to lead a truly proper way of life. May we all find the strength to maintain a sense of high morality in our lives.

Utilizing the Torah by Eli Lehman

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