Mishpacha Jewish Family Weekly
Issue Number 152 March 28, 2007 (Passover 2007/5767 Issue)
Keep the Seven, Go to Heaven
By Chaim Revier
The innocent student of the King James Bible is unlikely to come up with the idea that Bereishis [Genesis] 2:16 (“And the Lord G-d commanded the man saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden thou may freely eat’ ” ) lays down the seven so-called Noachide laws, the mitzvos [commandments/connections] that are binding upon the those descendants of Noach who repopulated the world after the Deluge. Our Sages, however, have an oral tradition telling what these laws are. This tradition found its way into the Tosefta (Avodah Zarah 9:4) and the Talmud Bavli (Sanhedrin 56a ff). The gemara [Talmud] on Sanhedrin 56b asks the question, “mena hanei milei, from where do we derive these things,” and answers in the name of Rabbi Yochanan with the above pasuk [section].
In the order given by the Talmud, these are the seven Noachide laws: Dinim, setting up courts of law and appointing judges to enforce the other six laws; Bircas HaSheim, not to blaspheme; Avodah Zarah, not to worship idols; Giluy Arayos, not to engage in forbidden relationships; Shefichus Damim, not to spill blood; Gezel, not to rob or steal; and Ever Min Hachai, not to eat the limb of a living animal. Transgression of any of these laws is punishable by decapitation; one who keeps them will be rewarded in Olam HaBa [the World to Come].
Western society, on the face of it, shouldn’t have too much trouble abiding by the Noachide laws. Even without threat of decapitation, blasphemy is frowned upon in polite company. For stealing or murdering you could go to jail. Lawyers and law firms are everywhere, so there must be courts, too, and most people live on a conventional diet. Even gourmets with a taste for French or Chinese cuisine in their more extreme manifestations wouldn’t so easily transgress the mitzvah of Ever Min Hachai. Eating the brains of a live (and shrieking) monkey isn’t a popular pursuit, and even the French habit of eating live oysters doesn’t necessarily count as a transgression of this mitzvah.
Doing What Comes Naturally
It could be argued that the seven Noachide laws are rather close to what is called “natural law” in philosophy; the concept, found in the works of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and others, is that in order to survive, prosper, and constitute a society in which it is safe to live, man entered into a “social contract,” creating and subjugating himself to laws. Stealing and murdering endanger the fabric of society, as does engaging in illicit relationships, the family being, after all, the cornerstone of civilization. Even the Gemara offers a source for this approach (Yoma 67b): “Our rabbis taught, ‘My laws alone shall you observe’ ” (Vayikra 18:4). These are the [laws] that, if they hadn’t been written, should have been written. And they are [the prohibition of] idol worship [literally, avodah zorah, "strange worship"], illicit relationships, bloodshed, stealing, and desecration of the Name.”
A Religion for Atheists? It would seem that even atheists could claim to keep the Noachide laws and not even inadvertently. But, the staunchest atheists of all, those who hold by one form or another of communist ideology (there even used to be a Museum of Atheism, housed in an “abandoned” church in Leningrad), might be said to have stumbled into the area of idol worship during the last century. Most communist leaders of yesteryear (who, incidentally, upheld none of the Noachide laws), whether giants like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or relatively small fry but no less lethal dictators like Ceauscescu of Romania and Enver Hoxha of Albania, created cults around their personality. In the guise of “Infallible Leader,” “Valiant Hero,” “Father of the Nation,” and “Supreme Master” in all sciences and arts, they provided the world with more photographic, painted, and sculpted portraits of themselves, apparently for devotional purposes, than many organized religions managed to turn out of their deities.
The claim that one could be an atheist and still keep the Noachide laws must be rejected in the Rambam’s [Maimonides, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, c. 1120 C.E.) opinion. “Everyone who accepts upon himself the seven commandments and is careful to act upon them, he is one of the righteous among the nations and has a part in the World to Come. That is, if he accepts them and does them because HaKadosh Baruch Hu [the Holy One Blessed be He] commanded them in the Torah … But, if he does them because his reason tells him to … he is not one of the righteous among the nations and not one of their wise men” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim, 8:11). Some hold that there must be a scribal error in the last sentence and that it should read, “… but he is one of their wise men” (ela instead of v’lo). This interpretation is based on wishful thinking, for there is no manuscript evidence to support it. Besides, true wisdom would lie in the conviction that the seven Noachide laws are, indeed, G-d-given. This is borne out by the fact that the pasuk from which the seven Noachide laws are derived is a commandment in itself (in combination with the next pasuk), the commandment not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of good and bad. This commandment, says Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on the Chumash [the Five Books of Moses], is not rational; on the contrary, it goes against human intellect, and man would never have thought of it himself. It is, says Rabbi Hirsch, a “chok in optima forma,” a commandment [literally statute] that is kept for no reason except that G-d said so.
Are We Talking About the Same G-d?
So, if you aren’t Jewish, and you would like to get to Heaven for your observance of the seven Noachide laws, you would also have to acknowledge that Hashem runs the world. Suppose you were an adherent of one of the monotheistic religions, such as Islam, for example. Would that count as an acknowledgement of Hashem as Ruler of the world? Apart from the question of whether they actually keep all the seven Noachide laws, you can at least say of the Muslims that they are shtark [fervent] in their monotheism. What about the Christians? Can the same be said of them? As their version of Tanach [the Hebrew Bible] has been translated into every known language, every Christian knows that, by all opinions, G-d is One. Yet many Christian denominations hold by the so-called Trinity, the concept that G-d is sort of a three-in one combination of a father, a son, and a holy spirit. On the other hand, the Christians subscribe to the Ten Commandments as binding upon themselves, so if they’re good Christians, there’s a good chance that within that framework, they do get around to keeping the seven Noachide laws. Not all Christians believe in the Trinity. Some sects hold that G-d is simply One, not three-in-one, and that the son in question wasn’t a son at all but a regular fellow who happened to have a message that they think is important. There aren’t too many anti-Trinitarians, and the largest Christian denomination, the Roman Catholics, do worship the “son,” and they also venerate, rather emphatically, his mother. Rabbeinu Tam on Bechoros 2b [a tractate of the Talmud], seems to permit Trinitarianism to non- Jews because “their mind is set upon the Creator of heaven and earth, even though G-d is associated with something else.” There is another problem with Christianity. It is a relatively recent development that many Christians, but certainly not all of them, have started to look at Jews and Judaism with sympathy and genuine interest, sometimes with amazing consequences. A friend of mine, an elderly gentleman, is a long-time convert to Judaism. In his previous life, he was a Roman Catholic. It was the priest of a particular church in Amsterdam who unintentionally kindled his interest in Judaism. “He preached me, so to speak, right into the synagogue,” my friend told me.
Bnei Noachism: A Religion?
There is another option, which allows a person created as a non-Jew to acknowledge G-d, accept and keep the seven Noachide laws, and endorse G-d’s special relationship with the Jewish people all at the same time. This option is to become a member of the bnei Noach. The ben Noach is loosely modeled after the ger toshav, the non-Jewish stranger who, upon accepting the seven Noachide laws with all their ramifications (which were left to the discretion of the beis din [court]), was allowed to live in Eretz Yisrael in the days of yore, when the Jews were still masters of the land. It was a mitzvah incumbent upon the Jews to help and give sustenance to the ger toshav. In modern fashion, the role of the bnei Noach, who choose to live under the jurisdiction of the Torah, has changed. Today, very few of them live in Eretz Yisrael. They can be found all over the Western world but mainly in the US, helping the Jewish people to be a “light unto the nations” by not only accepting the seven Noachide laws but also by voluntarily fulfilling a number of other mitzvos, as well as by their warm interest in things Jewish and their willingness to share what they know with other non-Jews. By taking on this role, they are also playing their part in hastening the arrival of Mashiach [Messiah], may he come speedily in our days. For that reason, the last rebbe [leading rabbi] of the Lubavitcher chassidim, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, took a keen interest in the bnei Noach. So has the Jerusalem-based Root & Branch Association, Ltd., which is perhaps more sensitive to the imminent geulah [redemption] and more eager than the rest of us to be prepared.
The person who consciously proclaims himself to follow the Noachide laws is a relatively recent phenomenon. The bnei Noach of today are only the first generation, and their grand old man is Vendyl “Texas” Jones (born 1930), former Baptist preacher and well known, also among Jews, for his activities as an amateur archaeologist hunting for lost Temple treasures. About a century ago, there was a follower of the Noachide laws named Aime Palliere (1875–1949), an originally Roman Catholic French writer and philosopher. He felt drawn to Judaism but was advised by the Italian rabbi Elia Benamozegh (1822–1900), whom he had approached for conversion, to stick to the seven Noachide laws.
Aime Palliere has been called the precursor of today’s Bnei Noach, although, at the end of his life, Palliere returned to the faith in which he was born and brought up and which he apparently had never really been able to give up. The bnei Noach of today, on the other hand, seem intent on making a clean break with the past.
Who’s Running the Show?
The bnei Noach are hard to count, being a rather amorphous category. Philip Levy, a member from Virginia whose father is Jewish, gives a rather pessimistic estimate, guessing that the number of “self-aware, declared bnei Noach” runs “in the hundreds.” Michael Dallen of Detroit, author of the book The Rainbow Covenant and a Jew himself, is much more optimistic. Asked about their number, he states: “If you mean bnei Noach who have abandoned any other religious affiliation and self-identify as Noachides exclusively, religiously, I would say thousands or, more likely, tens of thousands. If you mean bnei Noach in the last classification who also believe that they have a lot to learn from the people of Israel — that is, Noachides who accept the legitimacy of the whole Torah system — I would say thousands.” [Bold-type emphasis added]
The High Council
In January 2006, the High Council of bnei Noach was convened by the recently formed, and largely ignored, Sanhedrin in Israel, which gave the organization its official seal of approval. Regardless of the validity of such a shtempel [seal], the ten members of the High Council, including “Texas” Jones, present in his capacity as Honorary Noachide Council Elder, took a pledge in front of the rabbis, stating among other things: “I pledge my allegiance to Hashem, G-d of Israel, Creator and King of the Universe, to His Torah and its representatives, the developing Sanhedrin. I hereby pledge to uphold the Seven Laws of Noah in all their details, according to Oral Law of Moses under the guidance of the developing Sanhedrin.”
Where there is a chief rabbinate, there is a network of community rabbis; but nothing of the sort can be said here. There is a High Council, but there are no lower councils. Not only that, but the High Council itself has a competitor, an “official” body called the United Noachide Council Inc., an initiative of former High Council member Billy Jack Dial. This council has as its main purpose to sponsor “a five- to ten-year Hebrew-only educational program in Israel” for selected Bnei Noach, in order to meet an anticipated future demand for educators and judges. The people thus educated will work within the bnei Noach communities and “will have the right and honor of being nominated by their … communities and presented to the United Noachide General Council and be appointed by such council to sit upon the positions of the United Noachide Supreme Council.” Billy Jack Dial has a vision for the future, that much is clear: “The Structure of the United Noachide Council perhaps could be patterned after the United Nations General Assembly. Theoretically there should be seventy courts, one for each nation. Each bnei\ Noach court has the role of prophet, oracle, or interpreter of Torah for that nation.”
In the meantime, at the grassroots level, things do seem to be happening. People are getting together physically in local groups or, if there is nobody like-minded in the neighborhood, over the Internet, learning about the seven commandments and about Judaism. Some, like Philip Levy, partake in activities at their local Orthodox shul [synagogue](“the congregants could not be more welcoming and supportive of our presence,” he writes). The bnei Noach aren’t forming a new faith, they emphatically state. And, indeed, the seven Noachide laws have always been extant, at least according to the majority of Rishonim [early authorities, pre 1400 C.E.] and Acharonim [later authorities, post 1400 C.E.] (some hold that the Noachide laws were abrogated because of lack of success, based on Baba Kama 38a [Talmud tractate]).
This is more or less confirmed by the Druze, who are supposed to be descended from Yisro [the Bible's Jethro, Moses' father in law], whom they call Shoaib; his tomb in Kfar Chittin, near Tiberias, is their holiest site. From a certain angle, Yisro can indeed be seen as a very early follower of the Noachide laws in the narrow definition. Interestingly enough, in January 2004 the spiritual leader of the Israeli Druze community, Sheikh Mowafak Tarif, signed a declaration calling upon all non-Jews in Israel to observe the Noachide Laws.
Where Do They Stop?
Now, as our hypothetical non-Jew, no rites of passage, no bris milah [covenant of circumcision], and no tevilah [ritual immersion, part of the rite of conversion to Judaism], are required in order to become a member of bnei Noach. You don’t even have to make any pledge or take any oath in front of any body of rabbis. That doesn’t mean that there are no difficulties, even hardships, entailed by breaking away from one’s old faith and community and maybe from friends and relatives too. But, is it harder to tell your buddies that you don’t believe in Christianity any more than to tell your Christian friends and family that you want to become Jewish? And don’t forget that, in the latter case, you would have the added problem of getting the Jewish community to accept you. Perhaps taking on the yoke of seven commandments, part of which are in the Code of Law of any civilized country anyway, cannot be compared with conversion. But many bnei Noach like to keep as many mitzvos as they are allowed. They are not allowed, for instance, to lay tefillin [prayer phyllacteries] or to write a mezuzah or a sefer Torah [scroll of Torah], so they refrain from doing those mitzvos. They cannot keep Shabbos either, on pain of death. Some don’t keep Shabbos at all, while others observe the holy day of rest just like Jews, except for making sure to do a token act of chillul Shabbos [violating the sanctity of the sabbath], such as lighting a cigarette or writing a check, to avoid being subject to the death penalty. As for other mitzvos, they are free to keep them if they like. They may eat kosher, circumcise their male children, and honor their parents to their hearts’ content, and they may avoid practices proscribed by the Torah, such as tattooing, or shaving one’s beard with a razor [scraping the face, not just cutting whiskers]. Some build a succah and sit in it and take part in a Seder [the festive meal and worship service inaugurating the annual Passover holiday]. I can’t remember seeing anywhere that the bnei Noach also take upon themselves to fast on our regular fast days, but I imagine that there are those that do. The question is where do they stop? Do they toivel [ritually cleanse] their dishes? Do they sell their chometz [leavened or yeasty foods such as bread, which one should remove from one's possession during Passover]?
Not being Christian anymore and not being Jewish, the bnei Noach find themselves in a no man’s land, in an uncharted area regarding what they should actually do. Dr. Aaron Lichtenstein, in his book The Seven Laws of Noah (1986), elaborates on the seven Noachide laws, expanding them into sixty-six actual mitzvos from the Torah, a portion of our 613 (according to the Rambam’s count), but only fourteen of these are “thou shalts” and, of these, only one, prayer, can be called a positive religious activity. Unlike the Jews (“Judaism is beautiful but a spot laborious,” one of my rabbis in Amsterdam used to say), the bnei Noach lack outward forms and actions of their own, a framework by which to live what they believe. As Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld so eloquently put it in the introduction to his translation of Rav Hirsch’s Horeb [Horeb is also called Mt. Sinai] (1962), “There is need, in addition to the toroth [This bracketed statement is from the author, Chaim Revier: i.e. ‘the general religious truths of the Torah and the essential principles of a righteous life’], of symbolic words and actions, which will stamp the fundamental religious truths indelibly upon the soul.” These symbolic words and actions are the edoth in Rav Hirsch’s classification of the mitzvos. The edoth might be defined, in brief, as all those things that make Jewish life Jewish. A case in point is prayer. The bnei Noach do want to say tefillos [prayers] and, according to Dr. Lichtenstein, they are even enjoined to do so, but they don’t have a siddur [prayerbook] to tell them what to say. One can find various recommendations, and Chabad has a Noachide siddur in preparation, but these don’t go back to Chazal [the Sages of Israel of ancient times] and are not hallowed by tradition. Furthermore, in an article in one of the many Noachide newsletters, Rabbi Y. Bindman, author of The Seven Colors of the Rainbow (2000), states that a non-Jew can join the silent prayer of Jews in shul, “not necessarily standing as they do but not kneeling” [this is a unique statement validated by no one except R' Y. Bindman], and his prayer will be joined with theirs. “There is no requirement for the content of his prayer, only on condition that he prays to G-d alone for his own needs and those of others, without any intermediary at all.” On the other hand, “there is no loss in his not attending, as prayer is accepted at any time.”
Finally Seeing the Light
These quotes illustrate the dilemma of one who follows the Noachide laws. I asked a few converts I know what they thought about the concept of following the Noachide laws. They simply couldn’t see the point in it. I also asked a few people in the Noachide world whether it wouldn’t make more sense to convert. Philip Levy and Michael Dallen provided answers that show that there can indeed be a point in following the Noachide laws. Philip Levy writes: “The impact of [non-Jews] encouraging Jews to fulfill their Torah obligations should not be underestimated. Jews have long been affected by their [non-Jewish] neighbors, albeit usually in a negative way. (...) As bnei Noah, we play a supporting but vital role in encouraging Jews to fulfill their obligations to keep Torah and do mitzvot by acknowledging the truth and importance of their purpose. (…) We hope to give Jews a positive reason to run to and embrace Torah: the nations they have been a light unto for so many generations are finally beginning to see that light.” And Michael Dallen writes, “A convert becomes another Jew. The zealous Noahide becomes a center of Torah learning among the [non-Jews]. (…) When the Noahide becomes another Jew, he’s very unlikely to have much influence on his fellow Noahides. (…) They won’t envy the restrictions his new life places on him. In fact, this may even put them off the path of Torah and Hashem. (…) [The Ben Noach] deserves … the help of the Jewish people. They are, after all, our brothers in faith. We, Jews, need to bless them, just as they have chosen to bless us.” [Emphasis added]