This page provides a very brief introduction to Jews, Judaism, the Jewish people, religion, and the Jewish "Holy Books" or more properly, the law books. It is in the form of an FAQ with links to other sources where appropriate. It is intended mainly to counter racist slanders that seem to be everywhere on the Web. If you have read or heard strange things about the Talmud, Hesronot Shas and other Jewish "holy books" (more properly called law books) and beliefs, read on.
Jew & Jewish - Definitions
Who is a Jew?
A Jew is a member of the Jewish religion, ethnic group or people. Different Jews define themselves differently and "Jew" has been defined differently by non-Jews as well. Jews are descendants of the original inhabitants of the land of Israel or Palestine, and of people who converted to Judaism and became part of the Jewish people. Not all Jews are religious. Some are atheists or agnostics. Israel has one of the highest percentages of atheists in the world. Some people defined as Jews by Israeli law are members of the Christian faith according to religious law.
What are the Oral Tradition and the Talmud?
The Talmud is a compendium of arguments and pleadings regarding religious rulings, comprising the Mishna and the Gemara. There were two such compendia, one produced in Roman Palestine and called the Jerusalem Talmud and the other written in Mesopotamia and called the Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud is the more extensive and authoritative one. The Jerusalem Talmud was closed in the fifth century and the Babylonian Talmud was closed to further additions about 500. They reflect the knowledge and circumstances of the times.
The Talmudic discussions and rulings are based on the Mishna, which was the codification of Jewish oral law. Orthodox Jews believe that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament (the "Torah") and at the same time handed down a tradition of oral teachings which amplified and explained the law. The Torah itself may not be changed. The oral teachings were needed to apply the law to different cases and to adapt it to changing circumstances without changing the intent, just as the US Supreme Court interprets the constitution. For example, when the Jewish people were exiled and the temple was destroyed, all the laws pertaining to worship at the temple and sacrifices were modified to suit the new circumstances. Both Jews and Christians believe that some laws of the Old Testament were not intended to be interpreted literally. The final authority on the law was the Great Sanhedrin, an assembly of rabbinical sages which was the recognized authority. Since the Sanhedrin was dissolved about 500, there has been no single accepted Jewish religious authority. However, the law was modified and interpreted according to various rabbis which most Jews recognized, including for example, Rabbi Gershom, who made a ruling prohibiting polygamy, and Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon). These rulings are called "Halachic Law" or Halacha.
Do Christians and Jews interpret the law differently because of the Talmud?
Anti-Semitic authors and Web sites charge that Jews follow the Talmud while Christians follow the Old Testament. In fact, Jewish and Christian practice both depart from the literal words of the Old Testament. They reflect the Jewish oral tradition and customary law. For example, most Jews and Christians do not advocate stoning people to death if they violate the Sabbath or curse God, or taking out someone's eye as punishment according to "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." The interpretations and modifications of the literal Old Testament law are based in part on the tradition of oral law, which were already known in Jesus's day, and were later codified in the Talmud.
Does the Talmud contain slanders against Jesus and Christians?
There are several references to Yeshu (Jesus) in the Talmud and to Maryam (sometimes thought to be Mary). However, these were common names, and in each case it can be shown that the persons in question lived before the time of Jesus and that the incidents described probably had nothing to do with Jesus. Mary's name was possibly not "Miriam" or "Maryam," after the sister of Moses, but rather "Meri," meaning "rebellion." The Mishna and Talmud were for the most part compiled at a time when Christianity didn't exist or was a tiny and unimportant sect. The major "rivals" of the Jews at that time were pagans. The notion that the Talmud slanders Jesus and the Christians was an invention of medieval Christians and Jewish apostates attempting to find favor with their new Christian fellows.
Do Jews or the Jewish Religion have a different law for Gentiles and for Jews?
Anti=Semites claim that Jewish law treats gentiles differently than Jews and considers gentiles to be "animals." Under Jewish law, gentiles do not have ritual and religious obligations that are incumbent on orthodox Jews. This gave rise to some rulings in which gentiles and Jews are treated differently. However, the law was generally intended to be equitable and to treat everyone equally in non-religious matters. According to Leviticus, 24:22, Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the Lord your God.
The tractate "Avodah Zarah" deals with gentiles, but the reference is to pagans, rather than Christians. It specifically mentions as their holidays pagan Roman celebrations such as Kalends and Saturnalia. Pagans were referred to as "Akum" - which is an acronym for worshipers of stars and astrological signs. Jewish law books have some very unkind things to say about these "heathens," but so do Muslim and Christian holy books.
There are some bigoted references to non-Jews and people of other races in Jewish writings, just as such references exist in Christianity and Islam, but there is no foundation for the charge that the Jewish religion is racist, made on numerous Web sites. Ethiopian Jews are black Africans and according to tradition, the wife of Moses was black.
The Talmud has been interpreted in various ways by different scholars. A remarkably liberal and somewhat controversial interpretation was given in the book "Nine talmudic readings" by the French Jewish humanistic philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. He presents the issues in the spirit of responsibility to the other and to the one who is a stranger to us. It is edited and translated to English with an introduction by Annette Aronowicz and has published in several languages.
Regrettably, some Jews, like the late Rabbi Kahana and his followers, are bigots or racists, just as some Christians and Muslims (including those who publish the anti-Semitic material on the Web) are bigots or racists. The holy books and teachings of each religion were created a long time ago, and in part reflect the prejudices and errors that were popular at the time they were written. Many bigots find "proofs" of their beliefs in over-literal or incorrect or fake interpretations of the holy books and teachings of each religion.
You can read more about treatment of non-Jews in the Jewish religion here.
What is the Hesronot (Chesronot) Shas?
In Christian countries, the Talmud and other Jewish law books were censored by Christian authorities, who believed that certain passages of those books contained insults to Christianity or Gentiles. The passages to be censored were compiled into a manuscript or manuscripts that also found their way as underground literature to Jews, known as Hesronot Shas (or Chesronot Shas). When it became possible to circulate unmutilated versions of the books, corrected editions were published. However, the older versions continue to exist and are reprinted. Therefore, the Hesronot Shas was published as a separate book to be used in conjunction with the censored versions of the books.
Examples of censored materials that appear in Hesronot Shas include:
A rabbinical observation that Jews cannot achieve full sanctity in the Diaspora because of their sufferings there was censored as insulting to gentiles, though obviously Jews did suffer in the Diaspora.
A curse on Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians was censored because the censors insisted it was a secret allusion to Christians, even though specific cities in Babylon were mentioned and the context was obvious.
If a person drinks something poisonous and could die, there is a ruling that he must spit out the poison, though it is rude, even in the presence of a king. The censor removed the word "king."
This is the sort of material in Hesronot Shas, which is described at racist Web sites as a secret and diabolical book containing plots of Jews against Christianity. It is not secret. Anyone can buy it, and its contents are harmless. Most Jews, who are not Talmudic scholars, don't even know of its existence. I didn't know what it was until I found it mentioned at anti-Semitic Web sites, and a rabbi and PhD in the United States did not know what it is.
Do all Jews believe in and follow the Talmud and other Law Books?
Some Jews are atheists or agnostics and do not believe in any of the "holy books" except as cultural legacies, others don't know what is in these books even in a general way. Noam Chomsky is Jewish and he certainly doesn't follow the laws of the Talmud, and neither does Israeli PM Ariel Sharon. Within the Jewish religion, there are several different branches. Orthodox Jews follow the Talmud and later rulings by different accepted rabbinical authorities on the Halacha. Different orthodox Jewish sects follow different rabbis and have slightly different laws. Most orthodox Jews do not accept several important rulings of the chief Rabbinate of Israel, for example. Conservative Jews follow a slightly different Halacha, and Reform and Reconstructionist Jews and the Jewish Renewal movement are even more liberal in their interpretation of the law.
Do orthodox Jews believe everything in the law books?
The law books include both Halachic law and incidental opinions that entered into discussion when deciding the law. For example, in deciding what things people were allowed to carry on the Sabbath, the Talmudic sages took up the question of whether or not they could carry amulets against sickness and described some of these amulets and remedies. However, the different remedies that are described as a by-product of these discussions are not considered to be Halacha and neither are incidental opinions about natural law, race and other matters that may appear in the Talmud or other books. Moreover, there is no "Jewish Pope." There is no central authority that is respected in the way that Christian denominations abide universally by the decisions of their leading bodies. For example, Ashkenazi Jews (those from Europe) and Sephardic Jews (from Arabic countries, and originally from Spain and Portugal have different Halachot regarding what foods are kosher for Passover. Different orthodox sects have different rules for kosher slaughter of animals, and sometimes insist that the food prepared under the Kashrut supervision of other sects is not kosher.
Is the Talmud the basis of Zionism?
This claim, that Zionism originated in the Talmud, is made at some anti-Zionist Web sites and is patently false. Many of the founders of Zionism, including Theodore Herzl, were not religious Jews and did not follow the Talmud. There are several non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish sects, such as the Neturei Karta and the followers of the Satmar rabbi (originating in the Transylvanian town of Satu Mare). All of them follow Talmudic law, and include many Talmudic scholars. None of them are Zionists. The same Web sites that claim that the Talmud is the basis of Zionism often proudly link to Neturei Karteh and Jews against Zionism Web sites, which explain why, in their view, the Talmud forbids Zionism!
Is the Talmud kept secret from Gentiles?
The Talmud and other Jewish books are not kept secret from anyone. The Talmud was written in Aramaic and recorded in a sort of telegraphic style that requires extensive exegesis and study for good understanding. Regardless of religion, people who do not have this background will find it very difficult to understand, even if they understand Hebrew, which is somewhat similar to Aramaic. However, there are English translations, and large parts of the Talmud in translation have been placed on the Web.
What is the origin of slanders about the Talmud that appear on anti-Semitic Web sites?
In times past, Christians and apostate Jews published manuscripts and books of incorrect information about the Talmud. Some of these were used in public "debates." When Jews lost the debates, entire communities were sometimes forced into exile or forced to convert. A fairly recent compendium of such fake quotes was made by a Catholic priest, Father August Rohling of Prague, who published his pamphlet "The Talmud Jew", Der Talmudjude. It was a vicious anti-Semitic attack widely circulated among Catholics. Rohling later lost a libel suit, vindicating the claim that his book was false, but the material remains in circulation. Another source of such slanders is the recent work of Israel Shahak, a Jew who bent the facts a bit in his crusade against fundamentalist Jews. Shahak is another example of a Jew who does not follow Talmudic law. Most of these Web sites provide the same false or distorted quotes.
Many of the anti-Semitic Web Sites quote a "Libbre David," though there is apparently no such book.
The International Jew: Protocols of the Elders of Zion
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a document that was forged by the Czarist Okhrana secret police in the nineteenth century. Its true origin has nothing to do with Judaism or Jews. It claims that the Jews plan to take over the world in conjunction with the Freemasons. The fabrication was apparently concocted by plagiarizing from an 1864 non-anti-Semitic satire by Maurice Joly and from an 1868 anti-Semitic novel by one Hermann Goedche written in 1868. In 1921, the New York Times exposed the protocols as a hoax, relying on a book by Lucien Wolfe published in London, on research by Alan Dulles and information supplied by an anti-Semitic Russian emigre. The Protocols are sometimes entitled "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion."
A version of the document and elaborations on the theme of the "International Jew" were published by Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent newspaper in a series of articles in the 1920s. Ford had printed 500,000 copies of the Protocols, but he later retracted and apologized. Nonetheless, numerous racists cite Ford as an "authority" for the authenticity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion have been translated into many languages including Arabic and regrettably enjoy a wide readership in Arab countries. The Hamas Charter assumes that they are factual.
Some references for Protocols of the Elders of Zion
Wikipedia - Protocols of the Elders of Zion Christian Action: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (quotes Ford's repudiation) The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Anti-Semitic Conspiracism The Protocols of the Elders of Zion among Palestinians. Some Web sites that give the texts of protocols are biblebelievers.org.au/przion1.htm which calls it the "Zionist" plan for conquest. This site - biblebelievers.org.au/intern_jew.htm publicizes the "International Jew" articles of Henry Ford. This page documents Egyptian publicity for a television series based on the: Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This article by an Egyptian comments on the TV Series: "Knight without a Horse" that dramatized the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Are Jews descended from the Khazars?
The late Arthur Koestler speculated that European (Ashkenazy) Jews are all descended from a central Asian tribe, the Khazars, that converted to Judaism en-masse. Antisemites and anti-Zionists have used this theory to claim that Ashkenazy Jews have no right to the State of Israel. Subsequent research has shown that the claim that Ashkenazy Jews descended from Khazars is very doubtful. At different times, many tribes did convert to Judaism, including Arabian tribes the kingdom of Yemen and the Khazars, and some may have intermarried with "original" Jews.
Similarly, many Jews converted voluntarily or by coercion to Christianity or Islam. The best evidence indicates that Jews dispersed throughout Europe from Rome. There were Jewish communities in France in the dark ages evidently. Other Ashkenazy Jews are descended from Spanish (Sephardic) Jews who were force to leave Spain in 1492. Genetic evidence indicates that European Jews are probably closer to Palestinian and Syrian Arabs than to central Asians who are partly descended from the Khazars; see articles here and here for example. In any case, the claims of a people to nationhood are almost never based on genetics or "race." Nobody claims that all the French are descended from ancient Gauls, or that all the British are descended from the Celts and Picts. When Americans talk about "'our' forefathers," the 'our' doesn't usually exclude the generations of immigrants who came after the Mayflower settlers. Today's Arab Palestinians are not descended from ancient Canaanites and Philistines.
Some are converted Jews. Some are descended from Arab families who arrived with various conquerors. Whatever the merits the genetic arguments, claims that anyone has no right to a country because they are not racially "pure" are racist claims, and identify the people making those claims as racists.