My friend Noah Feldman, in his much-discussed article in the New York Times, quoted the talmudic debate as to whether a Jew is allowed to desecrate the Sabbath to save a non-Jewish life, with the Talmud concluding that yes, one is allowed to do so for the sake of peaceful relations with non-Jewish neighbors. This, of course, gave the impression that Judaism does not value non-Jewish life for its own sake.

In his response to Prof. Feldman, Yeshiva University Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm wrote, "Surely you, as a distinguished academic lawyer, must have come across instances in which a precedent that was once valid has, in the course of time, proved morally objectionable, as a result of which it was amended, so that the law remains ‘on the books’ as a juridical foundation, while it becomes effectively inoperative through legal analysis and moral argument." This highly learned response is characteristic of Rabbi Lamm, whose brilliant writings I have enjoyed since my youth. But its complexity escapes simple laymen like me.

And yet, a proper understanding of this famous Talmudic pronouncement is essential, especially to those of us who believe in the universality of Judaism and the moral excellence of its teachings. The light of Judaism is meant to illuminate the earth and it cannot do so if it teaches reprehensible racism, something which is, and should forever, be an abomination to our faith.

Is the Jewish religion really so heartless as to give a Jew pause before rescuing a non-Jewish life on the Sabbath? Could it be possible that a religion that so courageously declares, at the very beginning of its Bible, that all humans are equally created in the image of God suddenly reverses itself and declares a non-Jewish life to be not only inferior to that of a Jew but scarcely worth saving?

Of course not. The Talmud was written at the time of the vicious Roman occupation of the Holy Land. The unbearable cruelty of the Romans led to two Jewish rebellions that were squashed so mercilessly by Rome’s mighty legions that millions of Jews were slaughtered in cold blood. Indeed, the utter ruthlessness of the Romans is something clearly evident to any non-Jew through the horrible and gruesome death by crucifixion that they inflicted upon an innocent Jesus and the approximately ‘50,000 other Jews whom the Romans similarly crucified. Indeed, crucifixion remains till this day the most abhorrent and painful form of death ever devised.

The Talmud’s discussion, therefore, centered on whether brutal, gentile oppressors like Roman centurions, who were the principal non-Jews with whom the Jews had contact at the time, ought to be saved on the Sabbath. It is in the context of the fate of deadly, sworn enemies of the Jewish people that the Talmud’s debate must be considered.

If the Rabbis alive at the time of the Holocaust had debated whether Germans — who democratically elected Hitler into power and then remained silent while he exterminated millions of innocent people — ought to have the Sabbath violated for their physical salvation, we would perhaps be forgiving for their slight feelings of contempt for their German neighbors.

While this has always been my understanding of this talmudic pronouncement, it was Rabbi Menachem Genack, one of American orthodoxy’s leading lights, who recently shared with me that the great talmudic exegete, Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1’49-1310), says something very similar, that the Talmud’s reference is to an akum, or pagan defiler of the faith.

During the Second World War, great and moral men like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who saved the world from Nazi tyranny, decided that it was moral to bomb German cities, especially Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden, that killed hundreds of thousands of civilian non-combatants. Harry Truman then authorized the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thereby killing hundreds of thousands more. Now, few would construe these actions as being proof that these great Western leaders believed that a German or a Japanese life was inferior to an American or British life. Rather, these decisions were made in the context of Germany and Japan being the sworn enemies of the West who were dedicated to democracy’s destruction. The same is true of why the Talmud questioned whether the Romans, who were similarly committed to the enslavement of the earth, were worth saving.

But when it came to everyday non-Jews, the Talmud was emphatic about their equal place before God and the equality and sanctity of every human life. Indeed, talmudic pronouncements on non-Jewish life are a model of universalism and egalitarian thinking that preceded Western ideas of equality of all races by nearly two millennia. The sages of the Talmud declared in their most important ethical tract, Ethics of Our Fathers, "Do not despise any man." (4:3) They went further. In a pronouncement that is as astonishing as it is inspiring, they declared, "Even a gentile who studies God’s law is equal to a High Priest." Incredible. At a time when ecumenical thinking was absolutely unheard of and nearly every religion declared that only members of their own faith would go to heaven, the greatest Rabbis were declaring that a righteous non-Jew is as holy as the Jewish High Priest.

The Rabbis of the Talmud further declared that any righteous individual — Jew or Gentile — is guaranteed a place in eternity as long as they have led an ethical life: "The righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come." (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13) The same thing applied to the question of proximity with God. It was righteousness, rather than Jewishness, that granted us a relationship with the Creator: "I call heaven and earth as witnesses: Any individual, whether gentile or Jew, man or woman, servant or maid, can bring the Divine Presence upon himself in accordance with his deeds." (Tana Deei Eliahau Rabba 9)

Witness the fact that Judaism is the only religion on earth that does not actively proselytize people outside the faith, because we do not believe that a non-Jew upgrades his existence by becoming a Jew.

That this attitude is true not only in a legal but a practical sense is demonstrated in how the tiny State of Israel, with its extremely limited resources, is always at the forefront of sending doctors and medical personnel to regions hit by natural disasters, most notably in the wake of the destruction of the December ‘004 tsunami. This commitment to the welfare of non-Jews is the direct result of Judaism’s advocacy of the equal sanctity of every human life, notwithstanding race, color, or creed.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s upcoming book, "The Broken American Male," will be published soon by St. Martin’s Press. www.shmuley.com