Thursday, June 22, 2006

R. Yechiel Heller and the Status of Non-Jews

Some have recently posted regarding the status of non-Jews vis-à-vis Jews. Although, they are more focused upon the medieval time period, I though it would be instructive to discuss a more contemporary view. This view, is striking in its breath as well in its authorship.

R. Yechiel Heller, author of the teshuvot Amudi Ohr, is well-known in Yeshiva circles. While respona literature is generally not studied as one of the commentary on Talmud, there are at least two of R. Heller's responsa which are standard fare in Yeshivot when studying Talmud. (One is a discussion regarding toch k'edi dibur k'dibur and the second deals with misasek). However, R. Heller has a lesser known responsum, which does not appear in his Amudi Ohr but in a different and rare work. This work, Sheni Perakim'al Davar haHov l'Ohev haKazar (Two Chapters on the Obligation to Love the Czar) printed in St. Petersburg in 1852. One of these chapters is authored by R. Heller. In this chapter he makes a very novel and very important arguement regarding the status of non-Jews.

R. Heller argues that non-Jews today, have the status of Geri Toshav. This is so even without any formal acceptance of that status. R. Heller explains that such formal acceptance is necessary only for individuals, but when an entire nation (he focuses on Christians) falls into the category there is no need for any formal acceptance. Today, he argues, the nations of the world more or less follow the seven Noahide laws (he explains idolatry for this catogry allows for shituf) and therefore automatically considered geri toshav.

This position has tremendous ramifications which R. Heller himself notes. Specifically, all the laws in the Talmud regarding non-Jews are not applicable to geri toshav. Thus, R. Heller explains, that yayin nesach is not applicable with a ger toshav. Nor is the special prohibition against selling weapons, returning a lost object, or yihud (seclusion). Additionally, one can lend with usery to a ger toshav. All of this, R. Heller explains, is applicable to the non-Jewish people we find our self living with.

This stunning opinion did not go unchallenged. There are those who question whether, without a formal acceptance one can be considered a ger toshav. In fact, there is an entire work written to refute R. Heller's position, however, this work is still in manuscript form and has never been printed. (If someone is willing, I would like to get a copy of this from the JNUL- you can email me).

However, it is important to note, that irrespective of whether this position is the correct one, at the very least it is an important historic position, one that bears further dissemination and study.

Sources: For more on R. Heller see R. E. Katzman's biography, "Mofet haDor, HaGoan R. Yechiel Heller ZT"L - Ba'al Amudi Ohr" in Yeshurun 4 (1998) 648-681; 682-695 (reprint of the eulogy of R. David Luria for R. Heller); R. A. Mandelstamm, Sheni Perakim, St. Petersburg, 1852; Peli [R. Pinchas M. Heilprin] Iggeret Cheil Bet HaElyi, The Jewish National and University Library Ms. Heb. 8°5224, [1855].

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