Universalism and the Rabbis

The foundational Jewish legal sources were compiled during the Roman and Sassanid empires, thus predating the modern concept of universalism. Nevertheless, in an area in which people primarily defined themselves along familial, tribal, and ethnic boundaries (remember, the concept of the modern nation-state had not yet come into being), Jewish law went out of its way to exhort its followers to extend its code of ethics not just to Jews, but to non-Jews as well – in other words, it saw its ethical code as universalist in nature.

Babylonian Talmud Gittin 61a*

Our Rabbis taught: We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.

1. What do you think “sake of peace” means?

Two alternative theories I have heard posed are: 1. For the sake of peaceful relations – the rabbis realized that distinguishing between Jewish and non-Jewish would cause animosity between Jews and non-Jews 2. Because peace is an ideal, and caring for those of different backgrounds is one of the building blocks of building a peaceful  society.

Source 2: Maimonides, Laws of Kings and their Wars, 10;12*

Our sages commanded us to visit the non-Jewish sick and to bury the non-Jewish dead along with the Jewish dead, and support the non-Jewish poor along with the Jewish poor for the sake of peace.  Behold, [Psalms 145:9] states: “God is good to all and God’s mercies extend over all God’s works” and [Proverbs 3:17] states: “[The Torah’s ways are pleasant ways and all its paths are peace.”

Question: Why do you think that Maimonides adds to the Talmudic reason, by inserting those passages? Do you think that these verses are additional reasons to the one given by the Talmud (sake of peace) or merely textual supports for that reason? How might God’s mercy extending over God’s works extend to universally applying social justice? What do you think these verses show about the way that Maimonides interpreted the Talmdu’s words when it said “for the sake of peace”?


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