The Talmud in Anti-Semitic Polemics
Recently there has been a renewal of attacks on Judaism and Jews through
recycling of old accusations and distortions about the Talmud. Anti-
Talmud tracts were originally developed in the Middle Ages as Christian
polemics against Judaism, but today they emanate from a variety of
Christian, Moslem and secular sources. Sometimes such "studies" have
blatantly anti-Semitic tones; sometimes they are more subtle. Yet all of
them remain as false and pernicious today as they did in the Middle Ages.
Because of their unfortunate frequent reappearance, there is a need to
formally rebut these accusations and canards. The Anti-Defamation
League developed the following essay that explains in an honest and
scholarly way the Talmudic teachings as understood by Jewish religious
The Talmud in Anti-Semitic Polemics
Attempts to denigrate Judaism by quoting from classical rabbinic works are on record
from as early as the twelfth century. By selectively citing various passages from the
Talmud and Midrash, polemicists have sought to demonstrate that Judaism espouses
hatred for non-Jews (and specifically for Christians), and promotes obscenity, sexual
perversion, and other immoral behavior. To make these passages serve their purposes,
these polemicists frequently mistranslate them or cite them out of context (wholesale
fabrication of passages is not unknown). They usually dismiss attempts to correct their
misreadings as "hairsplitting" or dishonest attempts to portray Judaism in a favorable
In distorting the normative meanings of rabbinic texts, anti-Talmud writers frequently
remove passages from their textual and historical contexts. Even when they present their
citations accurately, they judge the passages based on contemporary moral standards,
ignoring the fact that the majority of these passages were composed close to two
thousand years ago by people living in cultures radically different from our own. They
are thus able to ignore Judaism's long history of social progress and paint it instead as a
primitive and parochial religion.
Those who attack the Talmud frequently cite ancient rabbinic sources without noting
subsequent developments in Jewish thought, and without making a good-faith effort to
consult with contemporary Jewish authorities who can explain the role of these sources in
normative Jewish thought and practice. Even the more traditional Orthodox stream of
Judaism has developed and changed over two thousand years, and despite the
unquestioned importance that the Talmud and early rabbinic literature continue to play in
contemporary Jewish education, law and thought, the Jewish approach to that literature is
more nuanced than the literalist readings which polemicists portray as the standard
Are the polemicists anti-Semites? This is a charged term that should not be used lightly,
but the answer, by and large, is yes. Now and then a polemicist of this type may himself
have been born Jewish, but their systematic distortions of the ancient texts, always in the
direction of portraying Judaism negatively, their lack of interest in good-faith efforts to
understand contemporary Judaism from contemporary Jews, and their dismissal of any
voices opposing their own, suggests that their goal in reading ancient rabbinic literature is
to produce the Frankenstein version of Judaism that they invariably claim to have
uncovered. Their tendentious argumentation, participation in extremist groups and
espousal of extremist ideologies, when present, tend to support such suspicions; the
invocation of classic anti-Semitic stereotypes, nearly universal among the polemicists we
describe, confirms them.
In fact many anti-Talmud polemicists have never studied the Talmud at all. The
consistent manner in which the same gross errors (both in citation and analysis) are
passed down through successive literary generations of anti-Talmud crusaders suggests
that individual writers often merely recycle old attacks. Trying to impress their readers
with their purported knowledge of the Talmud, they betray their ignorance.
II. The Charges
Non-Jews as Non-Human
Probably the most far-reaching claim made by anti-Talmud polemicists is that Judaism
views non-Jews as a subhuman species deserving only hatred and contempt from its
Jewish superiors.1 The visceral hatred that Jews are alleged to bear for non-Jews is
proven, they claim, by a variety of statements in the Talmud and by Jewish law itself,
which purportedly encourages Jews to exploit their non-Jewish neighbors and engage in
criminal activities against them. Many go so far as to claim that Jews are intent on
subjugating non-Jews around the world and even on committing genocide against them.
1 Dilling (1964) p. 10, 54; Shahak (1994) p. 94; Hoffman (2000) p. 43; Duke (2002) p. 62.
In its long history, Judaism has had its share of bigots, racists and xenophobes, some of
whom expressed their prejudices in religious terms. In certain historical periods there
have even been Jewish sects whose worldview placed Jews higher than non-Jews in
inherent value. But normative Judaism has never diminished the essential humanity--
and the concomitant holiness, derived from the doctrine of creation in imago Dei--shared
by Jews and non-Jews alike. Based on verses in the biblical verses in Genesis 1:26-28,
the principle that all men and women are created in the image of God is codified in the
Mishnah (Avoth 3:14) and Talmud (Avoth 9b):
This doctrine is echoed by one of the great rabbis of the twentieth century, Rabbi Joseph
B. Soloveitchik (Man of Faith in the Modern World, p. 74):
Even as the Jew is moved by his private Sinaitic Covenant with God to embody
and preserve the teachings of the Torah, he is committed to the belief that all
mankind, of whatever color or creed, is "in His image" and is possessed of an
inherent human dignity and worthiness. Man's singularity is derived from the
breath "He [God] breathed into his nostrils at the moment of creation" (Genesis
2:7). Thus, we do share in the universal historical experience, and God's
providential concern does embrace all of humanity.
In the face of these Jewish doctrines expressing concern for men and women of all
religions, the attempts of anti-Semites to portray normative Judaism as bigoted and
hateful are revealed as thorough distortions of Jewish ethics. They claim, for example,
that the Hebrew term goy (pl. goyim), which refers to non-Jews, means "cow" or
"animal." In fact, however, the term means "a member of a nation" (see e.g. Genesis
35:11, Isaiah 2:4) and has no derogatory connotation. The Bible even refers to the Jewish
people as `goy' (Exodus 19:6) but through the millennia has become a generic term for
"gentile." Of course, like terms used for any other ethnic group, the context and tone in
which it is spoken or written can render it pejorative (think of the history of the word
"Jew"), but that should hardly prejudice someone to the appearance of the term in
classical Jewish literature.
A far more serious accusation than name-calling is made when anti-Semites echo the
blood libel and claim that Jewish law enjoins or permits Jews to murder non-Jews
whenever feasible. To support this allegation polemicists cite a passage in the Jerusalem
Talmud2 stating in the name of R. Simeon b. Yochai (mid-second century C.E.) that "The
best of the non-Jews should be killed." But Jewish tradition has always understood this
statement as referring only to a situation in which Jews are at war; at such times, R.
Simeon says, the status of a non-Jewish opponent should not be taken into account, for
war cannot be waged with half-measures. That R. Simeon referred to wartime may be
gleaned from his life story, for he lived amidst the Hadrianic persecutions of the second
century C.E. and participated in the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome. More importantly,
however, every subsequent citation of R. Simeon's statement in Jewish legal literature
has appended the words "[Hebrew characters]" -- "in times of war."3 Yet polemicists continue to
cite the unqualified passage from the Jerusalem Talmud in an effort to raise suspicions
that contemporary Jews are secretly commanded to murder their non-Jewish neighbors.
Such propagandizing is a purposeful misrepresentation.
B. Child Molestation
One of the more horrifying charges leveled at Judaism is that it condones the sexual
molestation of young girls. This charge was made in 1892 by the Russian Catholic cleric
Reverend I.B. Pranaitis in his Latin book, Christianus in Talmude Iudaeorum. Despite
Pranaitis' humiliation at the Beilis blood libel trial in 1913, where as an "expert" witness
for the prosecution he demonstrated during cross-examination that he could not answer
even simple questions about the Talmud, his book was translated into English in 1939,
and the charge has been making the rounds in anti-Semitic circles ever since.4
2 There are two editions of the Talmud; one was composed by Babylonian Jews and one by Jews who lived
in ancient Jerusalem. Generally a citation from the Talmud refers to the Babylonian version, which is
considered authoritative. The Jerusalem Talmud is not generally taught in even the most Orthodox Jewish
schools today, though advanced Talmud scholars sometimes study it.
3 See e.g. Tractate Soferim 15:7; Machzor Vitri 527; Beit Yosef Y.D. 158:1.
4 For more information on Pranaitis, see: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Cyprus/8815/pranaitis.html.
The source for the charge that Judaism permits child molestation is a passage from the
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot, pg. 11b:
From this quote, anti-Semites argue that Judaism permits the sexual molestation of young
girls. This, however, is not true. In fact, in several places the Talmud makes clear that
Judaism possesses its own version of the American law of statutory rape. A formulation
of this law may be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, pg. 33b:
An honest reading of the passage from Ketubot shows that it is part of a technical
discussion regarding the evaluation of a woman's ketubah a reverse dowry that Jewish
law requires a man to pay his wife in the event of divorce. A major factor in the
determination of the ketubah in traditional Jewish law is whether the woman had been a
virgin at the time of the marriage; virginity is considered a positive value that would
enable the woman to claim a higher ketubah. The quoted passage indicates that if a girl
had been molested before the age of three, she is still considered a virgin and is entitled to
the higher ketubah. In no way does the passage or the discussion in Ketubot imply that it
is permissible for Jewish men to molest young girls.
That anti-Semites have taken the passage from Ketubot out of context and ignored
Judaism's law against statutory rape demonstrates their true agenda: to instill others with
hatred for Judaism and Jewish people.
C. Kol Nidrei and Jewish Truthfulness
An equally baseless attack on Jewish tradition is sometimes made regarding "Kol
Nidrei," a ritualistic formula which, some polemicists allege, allows those Jews who
recite it to lie without moral or religious compunction. (One recent anti-Semite cited Kol
Nidrei as proof that Judaism is "more of a crime syndicate than a religion.") In fact there
is a prayer called Kol Nidrei that many Jews recite on the Jewish Day of Atonement
(Yom Kippur)--though some congregations, sensitive to the fact that the prayer is
sometimes misconstrued, have excised it from the prayer book. Far from any "license to
lie," however, Kol Nidrei constitutes only a declaration in advance that any voluntary
religious obligations a Jew may take upon himself (while inspired by a sermon, for
example), should not be binding if it subsequently becomes clear that those additional
obligations were unrealistic or unnecessary. The Code of Jewish Law (Shulhan Arukh),
considered authoritative by all traditional Jews, makes clear that the Kol Nidrei prayer's
potency is limited to personal vows of religious obligation (Y.D. 211:4):
This [prayer] refers to a vow or oath promised to one's self; if the oath
was sworn at the behest of someone else, however, the [Kol Nidrei]
nullification does not work at all.
Thus an innocuous prayer that frees Jews from ill-conceived personal religious vows is
distorted by haters into a fiendish component of some Jewish conspiracy to deceive
others or that Judaism allows Jews to lie at will.
D. Non-Jews and the Study of Torah
To substantiate their depiction of Jews as conspirators and plotters against their non-
Jewish neighbors, anti-Semitic polemicists often cite a passage found in several places in
the talmudic and midrashic literature stating that non-Jews who study Torah are
deserving of death; in their minds, this statement amounts to a secrecy pact among Jews
to prevent news of their nefarious creed from reaching the rest of the world. In his
autobiography My Awakening, David Duke dramatizes his encounter with this Talmudic
statement when he first read selections from the Talmud:
One of the first passages I read really surprised me. It said,
"A heathen [Gentile] who pries into the Torah [and other Jewish Scriptures] is
condemned to death, for it is written, `It is our inheritance, not theirs.'"
If a 16-year-old boy reads something forbidden like that, he is certain to read on.
The passage was completely alien to everything I had always understood about
religion. Why would they not want all men to read the holy word the same way
Christians want to "spread the good news?" Just what is in these scriptures that
would oblige the Jews to kill a Gentile that read them? Why would public
knowledge of Jewish scriptures be dangerous to Jews? (My Awakening, p. 241)
Duke apparently did not read on, however, or he would have seen another Talmudic
opinion on the matter. The entire passage reads:
In its larger context, it is clear that neither R. Yohanan nor R. Meir is speaking literally--
a non-Jew who studies Torah would neither be put to death nor be permitted to perform
the Temple services of the High Priest (a job which is reserved for descendants of Aaron,
the brother of Moses). Rather, in the classic style of Talmudic dialectic the two are
presenting alternative perspectives on the question of non-Jews learning Torah, both of
which are to be respected, and ultimately harmonized by later authorities into a coherent
approach to the subject. R. Yohanan's forceful statement stresses that in some essential
way, the study of Torah is reserved for believers only, those to whom the dictates of the
Torah possess binding authority. To treat Torah as the subject of detached, academic
study would be akin to studying mysticism without being able to take the mystical
journeys of the true practitioner, or to studying medicine while denying the efficacy of
the treatments. Indeed, the dispassionate, detached study of Torah, the Word of the
Living God, is viewed by R. Yohanan as bordering on blasphemy.
As developed by later rabbinic commentators, R. Meir does not disagree with the point
made by R. Yohanan about the sanctity of Torah study. Yet he stresses that Torah has
relevance even to the detached, non-Jewish reader. Like the ancient prophets of Israel,
whose exhortations on righteousness and belief in God have inspired both Jews and non-
Jews throughout history, Torah offers essential truths to Jews and non-Jews alike; indeed,
on his or her own level, the non-Jew may also be elevated by the study of Torah to the
stature of the High Priest in his or her service of God.
Far from Duke's depiction of Judaism as being unwilling to "spread the good news," an
essential aspect of Jewish doctrine has been to spread God's light to the non-Jewish
nations of the world. Though R. Yohanan's exhortations are never discounted, this
mission is reflected in the Jewish legal tradition on the teaching of Torah to non-Jews,
which is permitted far more often than it is prohibited.5
5 For an extensive survey of the literature on the subject, see J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic
Problems vol. 2 (New York: Ktav, 1983), pp. 311-340.
E. Jesus and Balaam
To agitate Christian readers, anti-Talmud writers often attempt to portray the Talmud as
demeaning the figure of Jesus. In the opinion of most scholars, the Talmud only refers to
Jesus in a handful of places, and though these references may not reflect the courteous
ecumenicism of the modern world, neither are they particularly inflammatory.6 But the
Talmud bears much harsher animus towards the biblical figure of Balaam, the pagan
magician who sought to curse the Jews as they traveled through the desert after the
Exodus from Egypt.7 Rabbinic tradition ascribes other crimes to Balaam as well, and in
various places describes some of the punishments he may have suffered after his death.
In the nineteenth century, when the field of academic Jewish studies was in its infancy, a
small group of Jewish scholars suggested that in some cases the term Balaam in the
Talmud may be a codeword for Jesus. Though later scholars showed that this suggestion
could not be true (for reasons pertaining to the context of the Balaam references and the
lack of manuscript variants substituting Jesus for Balaam),8 anti-Semites have ever since
claimed that the true hatred that Judaism possesses for Christianity is expressed in these
coded expressions against Balaam found in the Talmud.9
This is not to say that historically Jews have historically borne no animus towards Jesus
and the Apostles, or to Christianity as a whole. In the two-thousand year relationship
between Judaism and Christianity, many of them marred by anti-Jewish polemic and
Christian persecution of Jews, some rabbis have fulminated against the church, and in
some places Jews developed a folk literature that demeaned Christianity. But
contemporary anti-Semitic polemicists are not interested in learning or reporting about
the historical development of Jewish-Christian relations. Their goal is to incite hatred
against Judaism and Jews by portraying them as bigoted and hateful. Their use of the
long-discredited Balaam hypothesis is another example of this phenomenon.
6 For an exhaustive analysis of the references to Jesus in the Talmud, see Jacob Z. Lauterbach, Rabbinic
Essays (Cincinnatti: HUC Press, 1951; reprinted by Ktav, 1973), pp. 473-570.
7 See Numbers chapters 22-25.
8 See Lauterbach, p. 509.
9 See Dilling (1983), p. 14; Duke (1998), p. 244-245; Hoffman (2000), p. 48.
10 Those with no knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic may prefer the Soncino edition; although its English
is sometimes stilted, it takes care to include few Hebrew or Aramaic technical terms in the translation itself
(a difficult task for the legal sections). The Artscroll edition contains a more modern translation, but
assumes that its reader is somewhat comfortable with these two ancient languages.