Do Jews have to treat Non-Jews and Jews the same way?

Dear Jew in the City,

Why aren’t Jewish people, who are supposed to be “a light to the nations,” obligated to treat non-Jews the same as they treat fellow Jews? 


Dear Eileen,

Thanks for your question. (Actually, this question was submitted in the comment section of a different article. I thought it was such a good question that I decided to answer it in its own article so that more people would see it.) I can answer your question in a single word: reciprocity. I’ll explain.

Let’s say that you have a neighbor named Mr. Smith, the back of whose house faces the back of your house. Your front door faces Elm Street and his front door faces Oak Street. Rather than walk all the way around the block, you make a deal with Mr. Smith that he can cut through your yard to get to Elm Street and you can cut through his yard to get to Oak Street. That’s reciprocity.

But what happens when you see some stranger cutting through your yard?

“Hey, you! Get out of my yard!” you yell.

“But I’ve seen you let Mr. Smith cut through your yard,” he implores.

“Smith and I have an understanding,” you say, cocking your shotgun. “You and I don’t.”

There are other forms of reciprocity. People from New York can drive in Alabama, and vice versa, because the states practice reciprocity in drivers’ licenses. But a US driver’s license would not allow you to drive in Japan, nor vice versa, because these countries do not have such reciprocity.

There is also reciprocity in mitzvos.

Jews have 613 mitzvos. A lot of these, like keeping Shabbos and eating kosher, are “ritual” responsibilities, but a lot of mitzvos have to do with interpersonal relationships. I’m not allowed to kidnap you and sell you into slavery. I’m not allowed to talk smack about you behind your back. If you work for me, I have to pay you on time. There are many such mitzvos, large and small, both obligations and prohibitions.

We typically say that non-Jews have seven mitzvos, but that’s really not quite right. Really, what they have is seven categories of mitzvos, which comprise some thirty-odd discrete mitzvos. For example, a Jew is not allowed to burgle your house, mug you in an alley, or defraud you in business. For a Jew, those are three separate mitzvos. Non-Jews are also prohibited in those things, but they all come under the general heading of “not to steal.” Got it?

Okay, so Jews are obligated towards one another in mitzvos that apply only to Jews, but Jews are only obligated towards non-Jews in mitzvos in which non-Jews are also obligated. This is because of reciprocity, and it’s in no way unfair to non-Jews.

The example that people usually harp on is charging interest. The Torah prohibits one Jew charging another interest (Leviticus 25:37); a Jew may charge a non-Jew interest. So how is that not unfair?

Because it cuts both ways. I can’t charge my neighbor Chaim interest, and he can’t charge me interest. We have a level playing field. I can charge my neighbor Abdul interest if I so choose, and that’s perfectly fair because if I borrow from Abdul, he can charge me interest. Again, we have a level playing field with one another. If we couldn’t charge interest to non-Jews but they could charge interest to us, that would make us patsies. (Patsy: a person who is taken advantage of; a sucker.)

The fact that Jews can’t charge interest to one another is irrelevant. That’s a courtesy that we extend to one another. It’s like how my deal with Mr. Smith has no bearing on anyone else’s right to cut through my yard. I’m not depriving them, I’m just not giving them the “privilege of membership.” (“Membership has its privileges” is a legitimate religious concept. For example, if I were to go to a Catholic Mass, I couldn’t legitimately complain about not being given communion because I’m not Catholic and that’s “members only.”)

Sometimes we go beyond the letter of the law. For example, there’s a mitzvah for Jews to return lost objects to one another (Deuteronomy 22:1). Jews don’t have to return lost objects to non-Jews because non-Jews have no such obligation to return them to us. But the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 266:1) recommends doing so despite the lack of an obligation in order to make a kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of God’s name). Not only that, if failure to do so would create a chillul Hashem (a desecration of God’s name), then returning it would be obligatory (ibid.). So sometimes we forgo a level playing field for a higher purpose.

In no way are we allowed to treat anyone badly – neither Jews nor non-Jews. If anything, we should treat everyone well! We give tzedakah (charity) to non-Jews just as we do to Jews (Gittin 61a; Rema Yoreh Deah 251:1) and we violate Shabbos to save non-Jews just as we do for Jews (Iggros Moshe OC 4:79, et al.). We’re just not obligated to extend certain courtesies to people unless they extend the same courtesies to us.

Jewish relations with non-Jewish neighbors have a complex history. The way we interacted with Zoroastrian neighbors in 500 BCE Babylon, with Muslim neighbors in 1000 CE Spain and with German neighbors in 1938 Berlin differs from what most of us are used to in the 21st century, recent unpleasantness notwithstanding. When we don’t get along with our neighbors, we may choose to withhold these courtesies so as not to be taken advantage of. When we get along well, however, it’s advisable to go beyond the letter of the law in order to promote ongoing good relations.

But we’re never allowed to mistreat or take advantage of anyone. Our interactions must always be honorable and aboveboard. It’s simply a question of when they must be exemplary.


Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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1 comment

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  • Avatar photo Catholic Mom says on February 27, 2024

    “While we have time, let us do good unto all men, and especially unto those who are of the household of faith.”

    Galatians 6:10

    Refers to charity, but the same principle.


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