Gentiles - Where do gentiles fit into the Jewish world view?
Written by Gil Student
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4 based on Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:1; Talmud Sanhedrin 105a
Righteous gentiles have a place in the world to come.
Jerusalem Talmud Peah 1:1
It says (Job 37:23): "With justice and an abundance of kindness, He does not deal harshly." G-d does not withhold reward from gentiles who perform His commandments.
In the Jewish worldview all gentiles who are ethical monotheists will achieve salvation. Judaism does not denigrate gentiles and does not see them as condemened to eternal damnation. Rather we see them as fellow human beings, from other nations, searching for G-d and for meaning in life. Judaism wishes them well with their search and celebrates those who succeed in becoming ethical monotheists. Jews are obligated in many rituals and ceremonies and those Jews who fail to fulfill these rituals are considered sinners. Gentiles, however, are not obligated in these commandments and are only obligated to be ethical monotheists. Those who fulfill this obligation receive their full reward in the world-to-come.
There are three main categories of gentiles [see R. Yom Tov ben Avraham Alshevili, Chiddushei HaRitva, Makkot 9a n.].
The first category is the gentile who fulfills his obligations as an ethical monotheist. This person is generally called a Ben Noach (or Noachide) meaning a proud descendant of the biblical Noah. In the Jewish tradition Noah and his sons were commanded to fulfill seven commandments which amount to ethical monotheism [see Aaron Lichtenstein, The Seven Laws of Noah]. Those gentiles who observe these commandments are considered righteous gentiles. They are, however, not Jews and are not considered part of Jewish society. They are righteous people and recognized for their accomplishments. However, they remain part of the human brotherhood but not part of Jewish society.
There are those who go beyond this step and approach a Jewish court and, in exchange for entering Jewish society, they vow to observe their commandments and be ethical monotheists. Such a person is called a Ger Toshav. By pledging that he will fulfill his obligation to be an ethical monotheist he enters Jewish society. He is not a convert and does not become Jewish. In fact, he can worship any monotheistic religion he chooses. He is, however, a righteous gentile and is gladly received into the Jewish community. He is welcome to live in Jewish neighborhoods (should he so choose), is supported by Jewish charities (if he so needs), and is considered part of the fabric of Jewish society in many ways [see Talmud Pesachim 21b; Talmud Avodah Zarah 65b; Nachmanides, Additions to Book of Commandments, 16; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Zechi'ah Umattanah 3:11, Hilchot Melachim 10:12; Ra'avad of Posquieres, Comments to Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah 14:8]. Both the Ben Noach and the Ger Toshav are righteous gentiles. However, the Ben Noach has not entered Jewish society and perhaps does not wish to. Therefore, he is treated like a stranger. He is respected as a righteous human being, one who is fulfilling his divine purpose in the world. However, he is not part of the Jewish community.
It is of these two categories of gentiles that the Talmudic literature states:
Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 8:2
(Psalms 146:8) "G-d loves the righteous." G-d said: 'I love those who love Me and so it says (1 Samuel 2:30) "For I honor those who honor Me." They love Me so I love them in return.' Why does G-d love the righteous? Because righteousness is not an inheritance or a family trait. You find that priests are from a priestly family and Levites are from a levitical family as it says (Psalms 135:19-20) "O house of Aaron bless G-d! O house of Levi bless G-d!" If someone wants to become a priest [from the family of Aaron] or a Levite he cannot because his father was not a priest or a Levite. However, if someone wants to become righteous even if he is a gentile he can because it is not a family trait as it says (ibid.) "O those who fear G-d bless G-d!" It does not say the house of those who fear G-d but those who fear G-d. It is not a family trait rather on their own they chose to fear and love G-d. Therefore, G-d loves them.
Midrash Sifra, Acharei Mot 9:13
(Leviticus 18:5) "Which man shall carry out and by which he shall live." Rabbi Yirmiyah would say: We see from here that even a gentile who fulfills his laws is like a [Jewish] high priest. He would also say: (2 Samuel 7:19) "And that would be fitting for priests, Levites, and Israelites" is not what it says rather "and that would be fitting for great men - O Lord G-d." He would also say: (Isaiah 26:2) "Open the gates so the priests, Levites, and Israelites may enter" is not what it says rather "Open the gates so the righteous nation, keeper of the faith, may enter." He would also say: (Psalms 118:20) "This is the gate of G-d; priests, Levites, and Israelites" is not what it says rather "This is the gate of G-d; the righteous shall enter through it." He would also say: (Psalms 33:1) "Sing joyfully, O priests, Levites, and Israelites" is not what it says rather "Sing joyfully, O righteous, because of G-d." He would also say: (Psalms 125:4) "Do good, G-d, to the priests, Levites, and Israelites" is not what it says rather "Do good, G-d, to good people." We see from here that even a gentile who follows his commandments is [as righteous as the Jewish] high priest.
The third category is of the gentile who is not an ethical monotheist. He is violating the covenant G-d made with Noah and his descendants and will be punished for those sins. It is with these people that Judaism has a very ambivalent attitude. On the one hand, they are acting contrary to G-d's purpose in the world. For this reason, Judaism tries to distance Jews from them. On the other hand, they are people created in G-d's image and must be respected as such. The compromise is that their positive traits, examples of which we will shortly see, are recognized and respected. However, their negative traits are never fully forgotten and full societal integration with such people is discouraged.
Talmud Semachot 1:8
Rabbi Yehudah said: [The euology of a gentile is] Alas! The good, alas! The faithful who eats the fruit of his own labor. [The sages] said to him: What then did you leave for the worthy? He replied: If he [the gentile] was worthy why should he not be lamented in this manner.
Professor Saul Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine, p. 77
The virtues enumerated in this eulogy are purely secular; there is no trace of religion in them. The man was good, faithful and enjoyed the fruits of his labor. The Gentiles spoken of is a heathen; he is neither a semi-proselyte nor a Christian; no mention is made of his fear of G-d... The Rabbis understood the heathen society and credited it with the virtues it was not devoid of.
Talmud Avot 4:3
[Ben Azzai] would say: Do not regard anyone with contempt, and do not reject anything, for there is no man who does not have his hour and nothing that does not have its place.
Talmud Avot 3:10
[Rabbi Chaninah ben Dosa] would say: Whoever is pleasing to his fellow creatures is pleasing to G-d; but whoever is not pleasing to his fellow creatures, G-d is not pleased with him.
Talmud Avot 3:14
[Rabbi Akiva] would say: Beloved is man who was created in the divine image. An extra amount of love is given to him because he was created in the divine image as it says (Genesis 9:6) "For in the image of G-d He made man."
Those gentiles who have the status of Ger Toshav, who have requested acceptance into Jewish society and have pledged obedience to their commandments, are treated almost like Jews. Those who have the status of Ben Noach because they have not requested acceptance are respected but are not treated like brethren. They receive letter-of-the-law treatment because to treat them beyond that would be to detract from our brothers. What has a Ger Toshav gained if a Ben Noach is treated the same? What extra connection is there between fellow Jews and within the entire Jewish/Ger Toshav society if everyone is treated extra specially?
Consider the case of a family. My brother needs to borrow money and knows that if he asks me I'll give him the special interest-free family package. This type of family treatment solidifies us as a unit and increases love between us. I don't hate everyone else because I treat my brother specially but I have an agreement that my family receives special treatment. Now, what if a stranger off the street knocks on my door and I give him also my special interest-free family loan? It loses its specialness and there is no difference between my bond with my brother and my bond with some guy off the street. Should I treat every human being equally or should I treat everyone properly and reserve extra-special treatment for my family?
The same applies within the Jewish/Ger Toshav society. All members, both Jewish and gentile, are joined together as a community united in its single goal of worshipping the one G-d. While we treat all human beings with the respect due to someone created in the divine image, those within the Jewish/Ger Toshav society get slightly better treatment. They are handled above and beyond the letter of common human interaction.
There are those who point out these differences in treatment and wish to demonstrate that Judaism is anti-gentile. Quite the opposite. Judaism is one of the few religions that recognizes that even those outside its faith can be saved and allows them into its community. Righteous gentiles have a place in the world to come and can choose to join Jewish society if they wish. If they decline this invitation then they are given the full respect that these righteous people deserve. We shall show that the differences in treatment are reasonable and that all gentiles are treated honestly and respectfully.