It is also an urban legend that am ha-arets refers to non-Jews. This urban legend came up during the Mendel Beilis blood libel trial which I translated to English and blogged.
Among Jews there were several levels of practice. One was the am ha-arets which literally means “people of the land.” In Talmud this always means Jews who don’t observe all the details of tumah.
Such Jews had economic limitations imposed on them. Merchants would watch out for them and prevent them from handling merchandise because that would mean the merchant could only sell that merchandise to another am ha-arets. A fully observant Jew would not buy it. Considering that most people in a community had known each other all their lives, the merchants knew who was who. Also we’re not talking about modern self-serve supermarkets. Merchants served the customers personally and counted the merchandise out to them.
If somebody among the am ha-arets got tired of this second class status, he could take an oath to obey all the enactions of the courts and was called a chaver. But he had to avoid associating with any am ha-arets, or he would give the impression that he didn’t mean it when he took the oath, or that he had backslid.
There were two levels of ger, strangers associated with Judaism. A ger toshav accepted the Noahide laws, about which you will find plenty of information on the internet, in front of a court. The payoff was that he got certain protections and privileges.
A ger tsedeq, on the other hand, undergoes full and complete conversion out of sincere conviction. If a man, he undergoes circumcision. The ger tsedeq is required to uphold all the 613 commandments as defined by halakhah.
And that’s the rub, as it always is with legal systems. A man is sitting in jail in the U.S. right now, and will be until 2045, unless he gets parole. He obtained U.S. citizenship, which means he promised to obey U.S. law. Then he acted according to the norms of the country he came from. His daughter ended up dead as a result. He obviously was interpreting “murder” in the sense that he didn’t commit a murder, but U.S. law says he did. When a person converts to Judaism and then tries to live as if its terms meant what they mean in secular society (for example, that free speech red herring I wrote about), the convert gets a rude awakening.
Jewish law is what Jewish experts in Jewish law say it is. That is based on Torah, as Gd’s word. There is no possible combination of numbers of laypersons from outside the Torah-based tradition that can change things. That would be like allowing the European Union to change the U.S. Constitution. There’s no sense getting upset about it, any more than there’s any sense in getting upset over the laws of physics. In fact anybody who espouses the U.S. Constitution and its first amendment religious freedom, has to admit that Orthodox Jews must be permitted to hold to their own legal system in matters like who is really a convert. The first amendment isn’t just about freedom not to be religious. It’s also about freedom to be religious.
So it doesn’t matter if people think Judaism is a religion – in which case it’s covered by the first amendment – or understand that it’s a whole culture, just like the U.S. is. There is no logic in objecting to Judaism running its own system. Even with bases in similar principles, legal systems differ, the same as everybody has DNA, but they all have different DNA.
And now that discussion about logic.© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved