By Adam Penrod
Legalism and Spirituality, Among a Few Other Things
I have thoroughly enjoyed the discussion on the matters of legalism and spirituality. Perhaps with a little editing and further development of concepts this would make an interesting book. I appreciate Alan Cecil’s clarification of his points, and I think that on many things all of us are on the same page. However, there are some things that we are not in agreement on. Instead of responding to each point I think I would like to separate out some terms and define what they mean to help move the discussion forward.
I believe that there is a need to clarify some terms. I do not think this usually happens in regard to Noachide discussion of any given issue, and I think the reason I find myself getting agitated over articles and material on the Seven Laws is because no one really distinguishes what people must do (halachah) from what they think people ought to do (piety). They refer to it all as halachah. They are not clear on the fact that what they think people ought to do is just their opinion and does not carry any weight beyond their ability to make a good argument.
I think the main issues I would like to discuss here are halachah, piety, legalism and spirituality. I’ll go through and examine each of these and then sum things up adding any additional comments that occur to me (if any).
There is a complete lack of precision among Noachides in regard to Halachah. I do not think this is any one person’s fault. I think largely the Noachide Laws have been taught this way, discussed this way, and even those who have come to elucidate the Noachide Laws have done so in a manner that is confusing at best. A distinction between piety and halachah is rarely, if ever, made. The legal minutiae that people do discuss are at times irrelevant and based on so many other misunderstandings that by the end of it it’s questionable as to whether or not they have said anything at all. Really, the minutiae is a result of people wanting to explain both what people are required to do (the halachah) and what they think people ought to do (piety) with a precision that is required of halachah but is not required with piety. Unless a person desires to do an extra mitzvah the way it is supposed to be done precision is not necessary, and even then those extra mitzvot are already defined—there’s no need to debate.
Instead of talking about halachic issues and acts of piety in their proper category the ideas are mixed and mingled together. If only the halachah were discussed and then a suggestion of what a person ought to be doing follows, I think the headaches many of us get when reading about the Noachide Laws would disappear.
I think a ready example is the discussion of ever min hachai, in Michael Dallen’s book “The Rainbow Covenant”, in particular the question of whether Noachides can eat blood or not. According to the Rambam in Hilchot Melachim U’Milchamot 9:10: “[A gentile] is permitted blood from a living creature”. That’s the halachah for Noachides. There is not a need to say anything further in regard to the halachah—we’re done. However, as Dallen gets into the subject of whether Noachides can eat blood the halachah becomes unclear. I think the problem is not that he does not know that Noachides can eat blood (if you read the book carefully he says that they can) only that Dallen thinks it is a really bad idea to do so, but he did not make enough of a distinction between what the halachah is and what he though it would be a “good idea” for Noachides to do (see particularly pages 100-101 of “The Rainbow Covenant). This is the problem with most discussions about the Noachide Laws.
Our lack of precision of what the halachah is causes the stress and controversy of many issues that if we would be precise we would understand that we are not arguing, in many cases, about what the halachah is but about what path the wise person ought to follow.
This is the problem in the area of Noachide study. I think Alan Cecil’s reasoning for why Noachides should not study Kaballah is wrong. I don’t want to get into the full issue of Noachide study, let me summarize my opinion on this by saying “theoretically Noachides are not prohibited from studying anything they want”. The sources used to claim that there are limitations are always referring to Idolaters. Idolaters are restricted in what they can learn, Noachides are not, as Jack pointed out in his second installment.
To return to the discussion of halachah; precision in halachah will allow us to know what issues are not up for debate (prohibiting the worship of other gods, for example is not up for debate) and which issues are up for debate (largely the discussion we are having here).
The problem that we face, as everyone has commented in one form or another (whether they realize they have said this or not), is that no one really knows what the details of the Noachide Laws are. Establishing the basic halachah is the most important issue that needs to be addressed. Once the basic halachah is established and we know where the edges of the cliffs are we can move on to discussing issues of piety.
Another problem that we have with the Noachide Laws is that it seems clear that there are positive mitzvot that are implicit to the Noachide Laws, however, the discussions of the Noachide Laws only ever deal with the prohibitions. I think in establishing the basic halachah we need to also establish which positive mitzvot are basic halachah—or can they ever be considered as halachah for B”N? Understand that one reason this is difficult is because the Noachide Laws are only concerned with discussing what a person can be punished for by the court. The Seven Laws are aimed at establishing a peaceful society. Matters of the individual are largely not discussed. Possibly because it is trusted that we will know from the Jewish example or by reason what the positive mitzvot are. Not being a person who likes to rely on “leaving it up to” the individual I dislike this possibility so I am still considering the answer.
We know that the prohibitions are halachah because they are sins which a Noachide receives punishment from the court of man and or the court of heaven. In regard to positive mitzvot there are some that seem manifest, but we need to discover if they are truly manifest or only appear to be so.
The basic principle that I use to guide my understanding of what is and is not halachah is that unless something is explicitly forbidden it is permitted. This is the method of the Torah as far as I can tell. So really, unless someone can offer a clear prohibition for a Noachide on a certain matter, we should not consider something halachah. This means that even issues where there is a doubt of whether it is halachah or is not becomes clearly not halachah.
Although the principle that unless something is explicitly forbidden it is permitted is a good one; the problem is apparent. This principle does not guide us in determining which positive mitzvot are imperative (if any). The Jewish people were commanded all of their positive mitzvot. What does this mean for Noachides? Clearly we need to come to some conclusions about this.
Moving on to the discussion of piety we should all understand that this involves those things which are “a good idea”. These are not matters that we should force others to uphold but are a matter for the individual to decide. I think that there are obviously items that we should adopt first before other things. Anything that strengthens Noachide halachah ought to be adopted by those wishing to increase their level of piety. Things which do not do this should be adopted later by Noachides. However, the decision of what a person will or will not do in matters of piety is always up to the individual. What more on the subject of piety can be said than this except “do not be overly righteous” (Ecclesiastes 7:16)?
I think legalism is nothing more than taking non-halachic subject matter and attempting to apply to it the precise standards required in discussions on halachah. Because these issues are not halachic then what we have are technical discussions over opinions. The result is that we waste so much time nit picking one another’s opinions and frustrate ourselves with how we ought to behave (when such a decision is ultimately up to the individual).
Examples of wrongful hair-splitting abound. I think this is what is really frustrating us with the Noachide Laws. I do not believe that there are really that many true halachic discussions being had among Noachides. I think there is a mish-mosh of ideas being discussed that people think is halachah but in reality is not. As I said above about halachah, in many areas it is very straight forward when we only focus on the halachah.
Instead of splitting hairs on “good ideas” I think we ought to discuss general principles for a person by which they can choose extra acts that are not required but will add the maximum amount of benefit to them as a Noachide. And because we are clear that we are offering an opinion and the person is free to do as they like we have removed the need to be technically “correct” in everything we say. We have also removed a burden from people that does not need to be made a burden for them in the first place. Thereby, allowing for the maximum number of people to see the attractiveness of keeping the Noachide Laws.
I really appreciate Jeremy’s comments on spirituality and I think he has given one of the few really good explanations of what spirituality is and is not. Jack’s words, as always, really helped shed some light on all of this as well. In fact, I think this discussion of Spirituality from both Jeremy and Jack has cleared up some confusion in my own mind about what spirituality is.
I think that developing holiday celebrations are important for Noachides. I do not mean that we should institute new celebrations, but I think we should encourage people to participate in certain Jewish holidays. People need these kinds of activities and they definitely increase spirituality (they regularly attach a person to thinking about God and how they ought to behave and how they can improve, more often than not it is a positive experience). Obviously Sukkot is the Holiday for Noachides. We ought to hold this up as our primary observance. Any Noachide, who is able, should try to visit Israel during this holiday in anticipation of the Messianic era. Shabbat is an important weekly observance that was first observed by Adam HaRishon. Noachides should also participate in this holiday. Hopefully everyone understands that in this section I am not saying any of this is required by halachah but is “a good idea”.
I will share with you the effect I’ve seen in people who celebrate Shabbat. Even in our community here we’ve started holding weekly Shabbat meals and even people who are not Noachides look forward to this part of the week. It makes them much more open to learning Torah and we all have an opportunity to talk with one another and enjoy fellowshipping together. I think that anyone who institutes a weekly Shabbat observance will immediately see positive effects from it.
During this year’s Chanukah while discussing the holiday amongst even ourselves it has become so clear as to the benefit of keeping this holiday. By observing it we do not do anything elaborate, we light candles and say the blessings on the lighting of the candles and that’s about it, but we’ve had people coming over just to do that. It’s pretty amazing.
I will also say that since we instituted an evening group prayer of the Amidah we have all been positively influenced. When we first began doing it we would study the Amidah for about fifteen minutes and then pray. Those fifteen minutes before every prayer were really important because during that time we went through each of the nineteen blessings and debated over whether or not it was applicable to Noachides. Some of the points we came away with we have added as commentary for the Amidah of the Rasag that we have translated.
The best was that as we studied it one member of our group started off absolutely dragging their feet when it came to praying because they did not want to say Jewish prayers. Through studying just fifteen minutes a night together he came around and saw how the Amidah is not just a Jewish prayer but how it holds real meaning for Noachides as well.
Beyond his connecting to the idea that these prayers are relevant to Noachides; all of us have had marked changes in our personalities for the better. The tendency toward being negative and in a crummy mood has been greatly reduced over the weeks since we instituted these prayers (as something we as a group have decided to do together). We all feel a deeper connection to Hashem and each other.
All of the above are real world examples of spirituality and I think it is a must that people do similar things if not in their communities then in their homes. None of these piety items are required of Noachides but all of them are beneficial. I think that spirituality is doing those things which are beneficial to the individual. In order for them to be beneficial, though, a person must do them regularly.
I will briefly summarize the four areas I looked at. Halachah teaches us our absolute expectations from the creator, piety helps us to perfect ourselves for the benefit of ourselves and others, legalism are halachic style debates over non-halachic issues, spiritualism is where we connect with each other and Hashem with a depth not possible only keeping the basic halachah. It gives us a sense of focus and inner meaning but is not identical to emotions, as Jeremy stated in his article.
I hope that separating these issues out was beneficial. I found it to help me understand what I should be debating about and what is only moderately important. I think it might even give us some direction in further discussions.
I look forward to hearing any ones comments about what I have said. Hopefully we are drawing closer to some conclusions with the discussions we’ve been having. I know that if we are careful with identifying halachah this will give us clearer focus in how to live our lives and it will also be a sign for where the starting point is for pious behavior. We can avoid pointless heated debates over things that are not ultimately vital if we are careful with knowing the halachah.