How should Jews interact with others?

October 23, 2017 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the Rabbi…Rabbi Raymond will proffer his answers.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. What do Jewish teachings say about the way in which Jews should interact with non-Jews?

A. The Talmudic attitude to gentiles was ambivalent.

It is obvious from the Mishnah tractate Avodah Zarah that there was considerable contact with non-Jews, but at the same time Jews were warned not to get involved in their idolatrous ways.

The Jew had to behave morally to a gentile, supporting their poor, visiting their sick, burying their dead, etc. (Gittin 61a), but Jews had bitter experience of the cruelty and immorality of the gentiles.

This began in the days when gentiles were heathens, but even – indeed especially – under monotheistic faiths Jews suffered from gentile hostility and developed an inbuilt suspicion of the gentile.

Nonetheless Maimonides and other authoritative writers insist on Jews treating gentiles with respect and honouring Christians and Muslims for their monotheism.


Q. How can a printing of the T’nach (Hebrew Bible) be copyright?

A. There are two aspects of copyright – the author’s and the publisher’s rights. In both cases, the basic Biblical rule is “hassagat g’vul”, the prohibition of encroaching upon another’s territory (Deut. 19:14).

It is obvious that the author’s work must be respected. But what about a printer or publisher who re-issues a classical text such as the T’nach? If the text comes with a new translation the translator has rights to his/her work, but what if it is a Hebrew-only edition?

The responsa of the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Sofer, 1762-1839) state that a publisher or printer has to be protected in order to make publishing classical works economically feasible. This applies all the more if thought, planning and even creativity have gone into the design and typeface of the work.

One responsum deals with the Roedelheim prayer books edited by Rabbi Wolf Heidenheim, which became highly popular among Ashkenazi Jews.

Though the Chatam Sofer focusses on Heidenheim’s effort in editing and translating the liturgy, a Talmudic principle he cites has wider application and can guide us in relation to a redesigned edition of the T’nach.

The Talmud says, “One must keep fishing nets away from a fish which another fisherman is trying to catch” (Bava Batra 21b). Though the fish itself does not belong to any particular fisherman, the first fisherman has made the effort to stake out this fish, and others must respect his initiative and efforts.

Likewise, the Hebrew text of the Bible belongs to us all, but the publisher/printer who has made a special effort to produce an attractive edition must be respected and protected.


Q. Why are some Jews called Gordon? Isn’t this a Scottish surname?

A. Levy and Cohen are Jewish surnames. Everybody knows that. Even the fact that some Levys and Cohens have left Judaism does not take away from the inherently Jewish character of both names. But what about Gordon?

The Scots probably think it is a Scottish name, and it undoubtedly is. Nonetheless there are many Jewish Gordons who have no Scottish connections whatsoever.

As a Jewish surname, Gordon has no occupational associations like Schuster, Schneider or Schreiber. Is it geographical, like Berliner, Frankfurther or Wiener? If it were, it would suggest a background in Grodno, and indeed there are Jewish surnames like Grodner, Grodence, etc.

Another possibility is that it is a tribute to Lord George Gordon, son of the 3rd Duke of Gordon, who was a controversial figure in British politics in the late 18th century: it was said that Parliament had three parties – the government, the opposition, and Lord George Gordon.

Gordon applied to Chief Rabbi David Tevele Schiff for conversion to Judaism. Schiff refused, but Gordon was converted by the rabbi of Birmingham, grew a long beard and even when imprisoned in Newgate for five years he ate only kosher food and was scrupulous with his Hebrew prayers. He died in prison in 1793.

His story penetrated Eastern Europe and some families might have adopted his surname in his honour. This is borne out by the fact that Gordon only became a Jewish surname in the early 19th century.

You might ask why Lord George Gordon would appeal to the minds of Polish and Russian Jews. An answer is suggested by the late Rabbi Dr J Litvin who, in an obituary of the first Viscount Samuel, said that “in Russia a Jew could not be even a nightwatchman” but in England a Jew could be a member of the government – and even a lord: thus “England enjoyed special esteem in the eyes of Russian Jewry. It was like a mythical island of justice and glory”.

No wonder a Jewish lord became a legendary figure.

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