Building Noahides' Ark
KARIN KLOOSTERMAN, THE JERUSALEM POST
Aug. 30, 2005
They can be found in small pockets around the world from small Russian villages to Palestine, Texas. They reach out to small lights in the fog as family, friends and communities chastise them for saying the unthinkable.
One of the lights collecting souls like moths flitting to a candle is Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, head of a Har Nof yeshiva and rabbi for the haredi unit of the Israel Defense Forces for seven years. Schwartz has become well-known as a source of answers for people who have questions that no other rabbi can – or wants to – answer. In March, he also became the chief rabbi of the newly formed Sanhedrin set up especially for the Bnei Noah movement.
Some of the people who turn to Schwartz from around the world are former Christians. While a few are seeking to convert to Judaism, others have accepted themselves as "Noahides" – that is, gentiles who keep the seven commandments proscribed by the Torah (see box).
A person can become a Noahide or "Bnei Noah" by making an official declaration in front of a Jewish court of law. In so doing, the person promises to keep the seven prohibitive commandments while limiting his belief in icons such as Jesus to no more than as a historical figure.
Schwartz knows of a story where frightened parents of two Muslim boys came to a Har Nof rabbi and asked the rabbi for an Arabic translation of Schwartz's book A Light Unto the Nations. After reading the book, the boys, Schwartz says, "understood that they didn't have to be Shi'ite suicide bombers to be close to God."
Like perhaps the Muslim boys, and Christians who struggle with the basic tenants of their religion, the Noahide movement offers an alternative approach to monotheistic belief and worship. For Schwartz, this work is an important part of Jewish practice. "It is a commandment for a Jew to teach Noahides... to make sure that everybody loves God, even if they are not Jewish."
ACCORDING TO tradition, Adam was the first Noahide. In the Garden of Eden, he was given prohibitive commandments such as not eating meat. Like Adam, non-Jews, too, can be Noahides and thus, they believe, enter into a partnership with the Jewish religion.
Schwartz says would-be converts to Judaism are often surprised to learn that this alternative option exists. It is, he says, an option which follows Jewish concepts of morality, but with many fewer restrictions.
"It is better to be a good gentile than a bad Jew," says Schwartz, who tells prospective converts to Judaism to remain as they are and to go and teach the world about Noahide law instead.
The historical growth of the Noahide movement is not clear, and today numbers are impossible to measure as people tend to teach themselves and generally lack spiritual leaders. One of the first Noahides in modern history is believed to be a Frenchman, Aime Palliere, 1868-1949, a former Catholic who spent all of his adult years in the study and teaching of traditional Jewish texts.
As Palliere may have learned, agreeing to abide by the seven laws of Noah opens up new sets of questions. "The minimum of not-to-dos are written as the seven commandments, but the Noahide soul needs something else – they can't only be passive, but need active commandments as well," says Schwartz.
For this reason he has helped them write a prayer book. Schwartz says the prayer book is "too long and too Jewish," but it is not clear if he is joking or not. He says that the basic prayers could be reduced to only a single page.
But this was not enough for the Noahides who consulted with him.
Schwartz understood that "the Noahides need ceremonies as well," as former holidays such as Easter, Christmas and Ramadan would no longer be celebrated. He turns to his wall of books where he points out guidebooks that help navigate the Noahide through Jewish holidays and observance as a non-Jews.
When all is said and done, Schwartz makes it clear however that he is not teaching a new religion. He is, he says, simply "providing a way for non-Jews longing for Torah-based values to partner with the existing Jewish religion without actually converting, since traditionally Judaism discourages conversion."
It hasn't been easy helping the Noahides with their questions on Noahide "Halacha" or laws, since unlike the Jewish laws which have been constructed over the centuries, the Noahides have no formal, written code of conduct.
"We are building their law from the beginning and must renew Halacha directly from the sources," he says. When questions get too tough, Schwartz turns to his superior, the great posek or "legal decider" Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, the major halachic authority in the haredi world.
Still, with only handful of Torah-scholar rabbis like Schwartz found throughout the world, Noahides are often dissatisfied, since their former Christian friends find it difficult or even impossible to relate to the changes in their religious life, while Orthodox Jews are often suspicious, fearful that the Noahides are actually proselytizers in disguise.
Many feel very lonely.
"When you convert [to Judaism]," explains Andrea Leigh Woodward, 59, from Longview, Texas, "you are able to join a community with established authority, rites of passage, rituals, holidays, fellowship – a way to share your life and learn proper conduct in all things. None of those things exist for the Noahide."
She relies on cyberspace to find most of her Noahide friends; she has traveled hundreds and thousands of miles – even to Israel – to meet others or to take part in the rare conventions that are offered for her benefit.
She used to feel alone until a friend pointed out to her that when Noah was building the Ark for many years, no one understood what he was doing – that the people of Noah's time hadn't even seen rain.
"Are we pioneers in this restoration that Hashem [God] is bringing to the world? That is what we have been told," says Woodward.
Jason, a Noahide from Toronto, spent about three years preparing for an Orthodox conversion and in the process "lost most of my childhood friends" he says. At the time, even his father would not speak to him. Since he believes that conversion would have demanded an authentic attempt to keep the 613 Jewish commandments, he opted to be a Noahide.
"If I had to eat my mother's lasagna it was better to do so as a gentile then as a Jew," he quips.
Schwartz does not encourage Noahides to settle in Israel.
"Jerusalem and Israel is not the place for Noahides," he says. "They feel like they have nothing to do here," he explains, and encourages them to remain in their respective communities in Russia, the United States, Norway, England and Canada.
Will Noahides lead the world back to Israel and mankind's joint messianic destiny? Perhaps, Schwartz answers evasively. But in the meantime Noahides will have to overcome the basic problems "of being new," says Schwartz.
Until his dream of building Noahide universities, one in the United States and one in Jerusalem (where the laws and philosophies of Noahide tradition would be taught) is realized, the pockets of Noahides scattered around the world will mainly rely on the "virtual" community of the Internet instead.