Is There a Noahide Obligation to Sanctify the Name of God???
By RABBI MICHAEL KATZ
ADDRESS TO NOAHIDE NATIONS CONFERENCE THURSDAY JUNE 26, 2008
Good evening, friends. It is wonderful to be here and to share with you words and thoughts from our Torah.
The topic that I have chosen for my address this evening may seem startling and in the world of the hypothetical but, perhaps, as we explore the topic, we will find relevance for our times.
First, it is important that we define our terminology.
I am going to find it difficult to avoid using this term, Kiddush haShem, in the Hebrew, so let us, first and foremost, understand its literal meaning. Most of you are familiar with the Kiddush prayer that is recited over a cup of wine at the beginning of the Sabbath and Festivals. It is the same word, meaning sacred, holy, sanctified, that we are employing tonight. And, of course, you all know that haShem, literally, "The [Divine] Name," is the term we use to refer to G’d when speaking informally. So, Kiddush haShem literally means “Sanctifying G’d---expressing His holiness in a public manner.
There is a colloquial use of the term, Kiddush haShem, that refers to any public act of nobility, kindness or generosity that is motivated by one’s religious outlook. Thus, when we read in the newspaper that someone, motivated by his religious teachings, behaved in a noble manner, we think of it as a Kiddush haShem. This form of Kiddush haShem is incumbent upon all of us, Jew and Noahide. For a Noahide it is simply a corollary of the injunction against blasphemy. As one is forbidden to blaspheme, one is required to magnify G’d.
But I am not going to speak of this more mundane form of Kiddush haShem tonight. What will engage our discussion tonight will be the ultimate expression of Kiddush haShem as it is discussed in the Torah, the Talmud and the Codes: giving one’s very life for the glory of G’d.
VeNikdashti beToch B’nai Yisrael…Leviticus 22:32 G’d says that He shall be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel. This is the source text for the requirement that we do what we can to glorify G’d. We will return to the particular wording of this phrase a little later.
What is the natural state of mind of the Jew? Is it more natural for him to die for the opportunity to achieve a higher spiritual level or is it his natural status to preserve his own life at all costs?
We find an amazing dialogue between G’d and Moses in Exodus Chapter 19. This is in preparation for the Revelation at Mount Sinai. Verse 12: G’d says to Moses, “You shall set boundaries for the people roundabout, saying, ‘Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely die.’” Later, Verse 21: G’d said to Moses, “Descend, warn the people, lest they break through to haShem to see, and a multitude of them will fall….” It certainly seems that G’d is repeating his instructions and warning. Moses, incredibly, has the chutzpah to suggest that G’d is unnecessarily repeating Himself. Verse 23: Moses said haShem, “The people cannot ascend Mt. Sinai for You have already warned us, saying, ‘Bound the mountain and sanctify it.’” G’d then pretty much instructs Moses to go and do as he is told.
This is an unprecedented piece of dialogue. No one else would have the temerity to suggest to G’d that His instructions are not needed. Abraham could bargain with G’d to spare Sodom but only Moses could question G’d. The Ohr haChaim (R. Chaim ben Attar 18th Century) explains this exchange. Moses feels that the people, once warned of the fate that will befall them should they venture on to the mountain, will not dare to disobey G’d. They, therefore, do not need to be warned a second time. G’d says that He knows how eager the people are to achieve ever greater spiritual heights and that they will ignore His instructions in order to absorb the holiness of the mountain as the Shechina [Divine "Presence"] descends onto it, even if it costs them their lives. This, says G’d, is the natural state of Israel: to be willing to die for Torah. And He does not want them to always do that.
G’d then has Moses repeat the caution not to approach the mountain because G’d would rather they live without that added spiritual dimension than die with it. G’d then formally declares this principle in Leviticus 18:5 You shall observe My decrees and My laws, which man shall perform and by which he shall live…and the Talmud stresses, by which he shall live and not die.
Now, there are exceptions to this rule. There are some sins that are so severe that one cannot continue living with the damage caused by these sins. They are known as the three cardinal sins and they are: idolatry, certain sexual sins such as adultery, and murder. That the sex sins and idolatry are derived from specific texts whereas the exception of murder is derived from logic is significant. The verses that exempt the sex sins and idolatry are in that part of the Torah reserved for Israel and will not, therefore, include B’nai No’ach. Logic, on the other hand, applies to everyone.
Let us first examine celebrated cases of Kiddush haShem in the Bible. Samson gives his own life to destroy the idolatry of the Phillistines. Saul gives his life in order to avoid a desecration of G’d (desecration by having G'd's anointed one, Saul himself, killed by the pagans). Chananya, Mishael and Azarya, together with Daniel, are willing to surrender their lives rather than bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. But these are all Jews and, therefore, do not really set examples for our discussion as to whether the concept of Kiddush haShem applies to Noahides. We could suggest the example of the young Abraham cast into the furnace by Nimrod but that is not explicit in the Torah and relies on Midrash for substantiation.
We are more interested in the two cases where the subject does not offer his or her life to avoid the sin.
I wasn’t trying to be politically correct by saying “his or her”. I was giving you a clue as to the name of the first subject we will refer to. Queen Esther shares intimate relations with Achashveirosh. Were she to refuse she would be killed. But the Talmud entertains the opinions of those who say that Esther was the wife of Mordechai. How can she commit adultery when that is one of the three cardinal sins for which one must die rather than transgress? Answers are given and we will concentrate on one in particular. Esther was a passive participant rather than an active one. The Talmud opines that this distinction is valid. We will come back to this distinction shortly. But first, let us visit the second subject, one who chooses to transgress rather than die. And here we finally come to a more useful example for our discussion tonight: a Noahide not a Jew.
The Second Book of Kings, Chapter 5, tells us the story of Na’aman, a general in the army of the king of Aram, who suffers from leprosy. The prophet Elisha instructs him on a cure which is successful. Na’aman declares his faith in the G’d of Israel but pleads for Elisha’s understanding as he continues to bow before the pagan idol when accompanying the king to the temple. He is afraid that if he refuses to do so he will be killed. This statement is not in the Bible but it is understood. Surely if it only meant that he would lose his job, Na’aman would not have continued in this forbidden practice. The consequences had to be extreme for him to have made this request for forgiveness from Elisha. It seems that Elisha accepts this decision. You might well ask why. And, surprisingly, the answer is not that obvious: that Na’aman did not believe in the power of the idol when he bowed to it, he was only doing if for show. We know from the children of Hannah of Chanuka holiday fame that that excuse is not adequate. The Talmud tells us that Elisha accepted Na’aman’s behavior because it would be performed privately and not publicly!
Now it is time to return to that earlier quote from Leviticus: veNikdashti be’toch B’nai Yisrael. “And I, G’d, will be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel.”
For the act to be labeled a Kiddush hShem and, therefore, be required, it must be “in the midst of the Children of Israel.” It must be viewed by a congregation, defined as ten adult male Jews. It doesn’t matter how many gentiles witness the act, it is still not required to refrain from transgressing the sin, if a minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish men, does not witness it. Na’aman’s transgression of the law prohibiting idolatry, although witnessed by many gentiles, would not be witnessed by Jews.
We mentioned earlier that one answer that excused Esther was that she was a passive participant in the sin. This distinction between active and passive related to the action of the sin itself. But would this distinction also hold related to the act of Kiddush haShem? Is it only required for the individual to allow himself to be put to death in a passive manner or must he actively bring death upon himself to avoid the forbidden transgression?
In other words, in the Bible's Book of Daniel, Chananya, Mishal and Azarya were thrown into the furnace by Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers. Would they have been required by the law of Kiddush haShem to actually climb into the furnace themselves?
We find an interesting incident quoted at the end of the first chapter of Talmud tractate Kiddushin. A gentile noblewoman with powerful political connections enticed Rabbi Tzadok to commit an immoral act with her. She could have him executed if he refused her. He complained that he was feeling too weak and asked if there was something to eat in the house. She said that she had some non-kosher meat in the house. Rabbi Tzadok told her that he understood from this circumstance that the only thing she had in the house to feed him was non-kosher meat that it is fitting for the one who commits this immoral sexual act to be fed non-kosher meat. The gentile woman then lit the oven to cook the meat. Rabbi Tzadok then climbed into the oven. The woman was shocked and demanded an explanation of this bizarre behavior. Rabbi Tzadok told her that the one who commits this immoral act deserves to burn in the fires of Hell. She then excused him from the deed saying that had she realized how severe he considered the sin, she would not have bothered him in the first place.
A similar incident is quoted about Rabbi Kahana who threw himself off a roof to avoid committing the forbidden act. He is saved by the prophet Elijah who catches him. The Talmud tells us, the prophet was not too happy with having to drop his other business in order to save Rabbi Kahana.
We see that these rabbis took an active part in offering their lives as a Kiddush haShem.
Now, you might wonder how any of this is really relevant. We, thank G’d, are not living in times of forced conversions. But, here is a situation that could happen to any of us: a situation in which our lives might depend on a sin.
A person is dying of a fatal condition that can only be cured or rectified by transgressing one of these cardinal sins. The Talmud discusses a young man who is so lovesick for a married woman that he will die if he cannot have her. Perhaps the medicine that will cure a fatal illness is derived from a tree that has been worshipped by idolaters. Or, probably most likely, an illness which requires an organ transplant to be cured. Not too long ago a heart transplant was a novelty. Today it is routine. But we need to take a closer look at the method in which the donor heart is harvested. The most successful transplants involve a heart that is taken as soon as possible from the donor. Today's practice of medicine has its own definitions of death which don’t necessarily jibe with ours. Modern medicine wants the time of death declared as early as possible while the organs can still be completely fresh when harvested. Jewish law frequently wants a later time before declaring that the donor is dead. If the doctors have to wait for the later time, the organ can be compromised. The doctors are motivated to declare what Jewish law would consider a premature time for death. To take even minutes away from a person who is anyway dying is murder. The recipient of the organ taken from that donor who has his body cut open before Jewish law says that he is dead is saving his own life at the expense of another’s.
I said earlier this evening that it makes a difference whether the source to exempt the cardinal sins from the obligation to live and not die by the commandments of the Torah is based on texts or is logical. That one must give one’s life rather than commit certain sexual sins or idolatry is based on verses in the section of the Torah that was given only to Israel. Thus, it could be argued that B’nai No’ach are not bound to give their lives for these two sins. On the other hand, the same argument can be used to show that the injunction that we shall live and not die by the commandments also appears in the section of the Torah given only to Israel and, therefore, should Noahides be obligated in Kiddush haShem, it would apply to all of their seven laws.
Let us focus a little more intensely on murder. We are required to sacrifice our own lives rather than commit murder because of the logical argument: why should we think that our blood is more red than someone else’s. How can we justify taking someone else’s life to save our’s? Logic applies to all, both Jews and Noahides. If a Jew is required to give his life rather than murder an innocent man, then the same logic would extend to a Noahide who would also be required to give his life. It would seem that the Jerusalem Talmud in the second chapter of tractate Avodah Zarah support such an assumption - that a Noahide is not permitted to heal himself at the expense of someone else’s life. Practically, it is not clear that we can derive an ultimate ruling from this piece of Talmud as there are differences of opinion among the commentators
I have thrown a lot of source material at you this evening. Is there a conclusion that can be drawn?
At the end of the eighth chapter of Talmud tractate Sanhedrin, the Talmud asks Rabbi Ami whether B’nai No’ach are commanded concerning Kiddush haShem, giving their lives rather than transgressing any of their laws. Two proofs are suggested and both are rejected. And, regrettably, that is where the Talmud leaves the question….without an answer. Although there are some authorities who feel that the inconclusive Talmudic discussion requires the conclusion that Noahides are required to die for Kiddush haShem, most authorities take the more permissive viewpoint and rule that Noahides are not required to die for Kiddush haShem. And this is how it is formulated in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings: If a Noahide is forced to transgress one of his laws under pain of death, he should transgress and not die even for the sin of idolatry because they [Noahides] are not commanded concerning Kiddush haShem.
However, we would be justified in making a distinction between “being forced under pain of death” and voluntarily transgressing. Therefore, if someone held a gun to your head and threatened to shoot you if did not behead an innocent victim, you could commit murder to save your own life. But, if you needed to take the heart of a living man while he was still alive in order to transplant it into your body so that you might live, I would think you would not be allowed to do so even if it meant sacrificing your life. This is also the conclusion reached by Rabbi Yehuda Grodner in his work, Mishpat haMelucha.
In the few minutes that we have left I would like to speak of a different sort of sacrifice. I frequently hear the lament that there are no Noahide communities and that individuals are struggling to maintain the life of an observant Noahide when there are no like-minded people to share their lifestyle. This is especially lonely for single adults and for those hoping to raise children free of the corrupting influences of those who do not share our values and beliefs.
When Jews first came to this country, they spread into small towns in the South and the West. They always tried to have a community around them as they knew that they needed Jewish facilities such as a quorum of ten adult males to say the kaddish for the dead, a Jewish cemetery, kosher meat, etc. As these communities disappeared the remaining Jews usually moved to the big cities before they lost everything identifying them as Jews. It was not easy to give up a business and close relatives buried in local cemeteries who would no longer be visited, but they understood that there was no alternative if they wished to preserve their Jewishness.
There will not be a viable Noahide community in this country unless those who lament their loneliness where they are living make a similar sacrifice as these Jews of a past generation. There are areas with a stronger Noahide presence and these should be developed into functioning communities with appropriate services. Those living in areas that are desolate have two options: pick up and move to the larger community, making whatever sacrifices are necessary, or aggressively look to build up their own communities through advertising and canvassing for new recruits. This is how Jews have preserved their communities and it is the way you must follow before you disappear as have so many over the centuries. The future is in your hands. Don’t wait for others to create it for you. Do it yourself.