By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
“Do not take interest from your brother, whether money or food... take interest from a Gentile” [Devarim 23:20]. The fact that we are permitted to take interest from a Gentile led to an increase in the phenomenon of anti-Semitism and hatred of Yisrael. Many people used the fact that interest is allowed as justification for increased hatred of the Jews. One who took this to an extreme was Shakespeare in his famous play, The Merchant of Venice, where he portrayed the Jew as a pitiful creature who lusted for wealth and who had no mercy. (See an article written by Rabbi Zevin, where he shows that Shylock’s behavior was not representative of Judaism, and in fact that if he had turned to a rabbinical court his demand would have been rejected. He only won his case by turning to a civil court of Venice.)
This issue of different treatment for Jews and Gentiles is not limited merely to the subject of interest but also appears in other laws, such as damages and business. For example, if an ox belonging to a Jew gores another ox the owner must pay for the damage, but if the injured ox belongs to a Gentile the Jew does not have to pay. If a Jew buys or sells something and he was fooled in the price by more than one-sixth, the sale is cancelled, but if a Gentile buys the item the sale remains, because it is written, “Let no man cheat his colleague” [Vayikra 25:17] – this refers to a colleague but not a Gentle.
The Talmud teaches us that the Senate in Rome sent a mission to the wise men of Yisrael to investigate the reason for this discrimination. “Many of those who hated Yisrael slandered our ancient literature... And this slander, which struck at us like the stabbing of a sword, has been on the lips of the oppressors of Yisrael in each and every generation.” [Torah Temimah].
Rabbis such as the Rambam and the Maharal tried to explain the reason for this difference. “The fact that a person is required to guard over his animal so that it will not harm another is an innovation of the Torah. True logic would insist that the owner of the injured animal is required to guard over his own property.” [Maharal, Be’er Hagolah, 7]. And the Rambam wrote, “Since the Gentiles do not make the owner pay compensation for damage done by their animals, we are simply judging them according to their own laws.” [Hilchot Nizkei Mamon 8:5].
The same is true of fraud. After all, the buyer and seller have agreed to do business without being coerced, and there does not seem to be any logical reason to cancel a deal if fraud has taken place.
Interest is also paid willingly and by mutual agreement. A commercial environment cannot be maintained without interest. Only in internal relationships within the community of Yisrael does the Torah set a higher standard of behavior, because the people are “one nation, not only from the physical but also from the spiritual point of view. Since they cling to one G-d, their souls are united to each other, and they are responsible for each other.” [Maharal, Nativ Hatzedakah].
The foundation of all of this was explained by the Maharal: “All of the mitzvot of the Torah are Divine, and the Torah is not a religion based on nature or proper actions, or behavior to maintain human relationships” [Tiferet Yisrael 26]. Rabbi R.Z. Pinnes wrote in his book “Hamussar, Hamikra, V’Hatalmud” as follows: “There is legal justice and there is moral justice. The main goal of legal justice is to protect another person from me, from any actions which I might take. This is not so for moral justice, where the main goal is ‘for myself alone’ – To make me into a person who has reached a higher level.”
In “Kli Chemdah” it is written that Bnei Noach have been commanded to obey financial laws because in this way the world will live in peace, but that the detailed financial halacha of the Torah goes beyond this.