More Discussions for this daf
1. Who are the "nations?" 2. Idol worshippers 3. Business with Notzrim
4. Tosfos about the "Kedeishim" 5. אמת ליעקב ויוסף דעת

Yafit naor asked:

The attachment is the section that was given. The assignment again was, Read carefully the selection from Avodah Zarah. Whom do you think the "nations" represent--pagans, Christians, or non-rabbinic Jews? Be sure to defend your answer with specific evidence.

Yafit naor, Cincinnati Ohio

The Kollel replies:

Given the three choices, I would say that "nations" in this selection of Avodah Zarah refers to pagans.

The selection from Avodah Zarah 2b is taken out of context. The passage begins on 2a, where R. Chanina bar Papa or R. Simlai expound: "In the future, Hash-m will hold a Sefer Torah and offer reward to all who engaged in Torah; all the "Ovdai Kochavim" will come together; Hash-m will insist that one nation come at a time." The term "Ovdai Kochavim" (literally - those who worship stars) clearly refers to idol worshippers or pagans.

The "nations" could not refer to non-rabbinic Jews, because the selection discusses how the "nations" did not recieve the Torah. Non-rabbinic Jews did receive the Torah.

The term also would not be refering to Christians, because the Gemara is discussing all nations, and even mentions Rome and Persia by name. Clearly, the selection is not refering to one particular religion or sect.

However, it seems to me that the term "nations" here refers to all those who deny G-d or the validity of the Torah. Hence, the whole discource on how they didn't accept the Torah!

Let us know how we did on the answer!

Good Luck,

Peretz Silverman

Yafit naor responds:

Alright...I wrote the paper with similar points, this is what the proffesor wrote back:

You begin with the reasonable assumption that when the rabbis say nations, they mean nations, i.e., pagans. There are several problems with this assumption, however.

1. The rabbis may not always have pagans in mind when they use the term "nations". Think of it as using the vocabulary of the Bible to discuss contemporary events. You speak with the vocabulary that you have.

2. The pagan/nations in reality cannot be classified under one group, but reflect a variety of systems which include god-fearers and Christians. So if the rabbis wanted to talk about god-fearers and christians, they would use the term "nations".

3. The characterization of the "nations" in the story does not fit the followers of traditional Greek and Roman religions.

a. The nations know torah and how to interpret it.

b. They want to be considered as receivers of Torah. They may have initially denied the Torah, but now the want to receive it again. Don't you think that offering a pared downed Judaism to Gentiles (ovdei cochavim) is a plausible way of defining Christianity (I have problems with such a definition of Christianity, but it is definition that has been used)?

c. They want to share final redemption with Israel.

d. They try to build a sukkah

e. the text is a literary disputation which parallels such disputations in Christian literature.

4. The only thing we know for certain about the nations in this story is that they are not part of rabbinic Judaism.

5. It is equally reasonable to assume that rabbis classified Hellenistic Jews or Christians or God-fearers as the goyim. That some orthodox Jews refer to Reform Jews as goyim indicates that such a worldview is possible. Similarly, particularly in the Middle Ages, Christians and Moslems were view as the nations.

6. It is not surprising to me that a medieval source would lump all non-rabbinic Jews in the category of "nations." If, however, we look at the passage in its historical context, we can see how, for example, it might apply in particular to Christians or Hellenistic Jews. In other words, how do you distinguish rabbis referring to pagan Greeks and Romans as the nations from rabbis referring to Christians etc. as the nations as a kind of insult?

7. Perhaps it might be helpful to consider how you would use the story to determine the rabbinic attitude towards Christians, non-rabbinic Jews, or God-fearers.If this is how the rabbis feel about the nations, what is their critique of Christianity.

8. My main objection was that you used medieval sources who could not possibly distinguished between the various non-rabbinic groups in antiquity. If you cited people like Julian, Longinus, and even the anti-Jewish Alexandrians, you could demonstrate that there were some pagans interested in Judaism and knowledgeable about the Bible. Of course this would still beg the question as to why they want to participate in the final redemption and claim to be willing to accept the Torah.

9. My impression of smart Jewish people (I cited you guys) is that they do not possess a detailed familiarity with the non-rabbinic aspects of the Greco-Roman world. Because they do not know the difference between a pagan, a Christian (of the time), a god-fearer, and a Hellenistic (non-rabbinic) Jew, of course they will lump them all together under the category of nations. Even Schiffman, an extremely smart person, wrongly claims that Judaism became a single, undivided system after 70CE and anything that deviated from (rabbinic) Judaism was somehow not Jewish or heretical.

The Kollel replies:


Your professor, ?Matthew Kraus?, has some very interesting points. He sounds like an earnest, deep-thinking intellectual.

When attempting to understand a text, it is of paramount importance to take into consideration two factors: (1) The context in which the text appears, and (2) the style and nuances of the author. The latter may be determined through a careful examination of related texts produced by the same author or by his contemporaries, who may have strongly influenced the author's own style. Sometimes, these factors can be even more important than a detailed familiarity with the Greco-Roman world, because they give us a perspective of the text using the eyes of the author himself.

In our particular case, it is important to see the entire passage at hand from the very beginning (which starts earlier than the excerpts you sent via email). The passage clearly refers to "Every single nation," singling out Rome and Persia as examples. (The text also explains why it singled out those two - it has nothing to do with their forms of religious worship.)

The Talmud and Midrash use the same term, "every single nation," many times in an Agaddic context (cf. Sukah 29a). As far as I can tell, in no place is there any reason to believe that it means anything other than simply "the nations of the world." (It often refers to them as "the seventy nations," and the reference in Sukah, referred to above, singles out Egypt.)

Another point worth noting is that the passage in question tells us clearly that it is not referring to any events of the past. Rather, it is telling us what will happen when the Final Redemption comes, when the Creator announces that the Jewish People are His Chosen Nation and have earned their reward. It seem quite reasonable to me that any other nations around at the time would want to "jump onto the bandwagon" - as the Talmud relates.

Many of the ideas expressed in the Agadah are reiterated numerous times in Agaddic literature. The idea that nations will be punished for refusing to accept the Torah, or that they will want a second chance are also a common themes.

(In my meager knowledge of Talmudic literature, I cannot think of a single example where a non-practicing Jew is referred to as a "nation." To the contrary, the Talmud emphasizes that even a sinner has the full status of a Jew (cf. Sanhedrin 44a). Even in contemporary terminology, I have never heard anyone refer to a non-practicing Jew as an "Umah" or "Umos ha'Olam" - the term for "nations" used in the passage we are discussing. It seems to me that it would take quite a stretch of the imagination to have that term include non-practicing Jews, without any concrete examples of such a usage in either Rabbinic or non-Rabbinic literature.)

When analyzing statements of our Sages, once must begin with a fine sensitivity and a broad familiarity with the texts under discussion as well as all related texts. (From experience, I can promise you that even computers are no substitute for this type of familiarity.) Fortunately, we were blessed with leaders of past generations who possessed just these traits, and who prepared for us glosses on the texts of the Talmud and Midrash to help us approach them without allowing our own deficiencies to mislead us.

Your professor, undoubtedly a learned man, seems pretty sure of himself and must have invested considerable time and effort into trying to prove his thesis. I do not believe that anything I am writing will be of interest to him or even new to him. Therefore, I would prefer not to have this communication passed on to him.

You yourself do sound genuinely interested in the Talmudist's approach to this and other Agaddot, and therefore I have written to you at length, trying to clarify some of the general issues involved.

Wishing you much luck with your curriculum,

Mordecai Kornfeld

Kollel Iyun Hadaf

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