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Symposium. Third Paper

By Adam Penrod, responding to Jeremy Lawson's essay (which itself was a response to Alan W. Cecil's paper) 11/28/06


Dear Jeremy,

I was glad to read your e-mail response. I totally agree with the sentiment of your letter, if not with all of its details. Let us put to the side Kabbalah for the moment and deal with it separately later.

I think you are totally right that Noachides ought to avoid only focusing on the "legalistic" aspects of Torah at the expense of the "spiritual" aspects. Any religious system that will be successful in making a human being whole must address all aspects of life: the intellectual, spiritual, the everyday practical needs. Please forgive me for using the word "religion" I have no other word that describes the sense of what I mean as this word does. The Noachide "religion" is incomplete, or it seems incomplete at the very least to us.

I would like to protest the idea that Kabbalah is what makes the religious "experience" complete. Yemenite Jews lived for centuries without Kabbalah (although not necessarily without mysticism). I digress.

I was actually surprised that you mentioned that you felt there was an over focus of legalism in regard to Noachides. I've had a very dissimilar experience. My experience has been that most Noachides do not care about the "legalism" they just assume that they are keeping the Noachide Laws. They’re sort of lazy about this. Instead, their aim has often been at acquiring various pieces of the Jewish puzzle without regard to an understanding of how each these elements work together. The result, a Frankenstein’s monster of irrelevant religiousness, that although it may be "alive" spasms on the ground with little ability to function normally.

It is strange to me that we have had two different experiences, but I should not be surprised. Life is a dynamic and unpredictable thing. So I hope you will forgive me if the perspective I offer does not tally with your own. Perhaps through both of these perspectives we can come to some positive conclusions together.

The Noachide is not limited in their Torah exploration. At least I am unaware of anything that could hinder such exploration. I am aware of the standard texts that are used to say that Noahides are restricted in their studies, but either this is sloppy scholarship or there is information that no one has revealed to us (and if there is hidden information and they have not told it to us they must reason it is not relevant for Noachides, and if it is not relevant for Noachides to study then it has no bearing on this discussion anyway). The passages in the Talmud that seem to claim that Noachides can only study their seven laws is actually talking about Idolaters. The term Oved Kochavim (lit. Star Worshippers) is used in the Talmud to refer to idolaters. Some Rabbis argue that the Talmud has been censored so we don’t really know what was written in this section. If that’s the case (that they don’t know if the Talmud originally said idol worshiper or Noachide) then why have they assumed that it meant all non-Jews? There isn’t any reason (as far as I can tell) to do this.

However, the issue is settled very simply. Although the Talmud may have been censored there was a writer who codified the Talmud. His codification was based on an uncensored Talmud. This was the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam. The Vilna edition of this masterpiece has been corrupted. However, the Yemenite edition is free of all such censorship. The Rambam uses the word goy, which according to him in another place in the Mishneh Torah means “idolater” unless he specifies otherwise (see the article by Dom Lewis called “What can Noahides Study” on ). He does not specify otherwise in the section under discussion so we can conclude that the Rambam understood that the Talmud was restricting idolaters in regard to the Torah that they could study but not observant Noachides.

I do believe that we ought to guide Noachides in their studies and teach them from sources that will help protect them from wrong ideas (but more importantly give them right ideas) and prepare them to take on the larger mass of Torah material.

I think when we are teaching people who are still Idolaters that we ought to heed the Talmud’s restriction, it is practical advise after all, and focus on teaching them about the Noachide Laws. Other material they will likely scoff at or use against the Jewish people and other Noachides. There is sense to restricting knowledge to non-observant people.

Some might raise the argument that the Noachide should only study those sections that he is going to do. I agree with this to a point, however, how would a Noachide know if he wants to keep an extra mitzvah if he does not first know its details? This is a question that a Yemenite Scholar has posited and I think it is a sensible way to approach the question. In other words, even though a Noachide may not ultimately keep a section of law that he is studying, he is still free to study it to learn whether or not he wishes to study it, therefore there is no restriction with this.

We have dealt with the limitation of Noachide study.

As to Noahide prayer and Holiday observance; in this matter I think you are correct that there has been a tendency to avoid doing anything that is considered Jewish. The only uniquely “Jewish” holiday that occurs to me at the moment is Pesach, for which it is not forbidden for us to celebrate the events of Pesach and relate them (for they culminate in the giving of the Torah and the re-reception of the Noahide Laws in fact the halachah gives details on how non-Jews are to celebrate Pesach: only circumcised Jews can eat the Korban of the Temple).

I think part of the issue of “forbidden” Holidays is the result of well-meaning Noahides who have misunderstood halachah (thus a need to study the halachah so that we do not forbid what is permitted). The other part of the issue is well meaning Rabbis who do not themselves know Noachide Halachah. This is definitely an area of disagreement that I would engage in with the author of the article under discussion. A Rabbi, who does not know the details of the Noahide laws, although he may be well versed in Torah as a whole, has very little guidance he can offer Noachides on how and what they should observe. There are aspects of Holidays that Noachides cannot do…but those are limited and honestly Noachides are likely to violate the “true” keeping of these Halachah because most of us do not study the halachah relevant to these holidays. Very few of us have studied or applied these laws to any extent, and those of us who have are very aware of how easy it is to not keep the Holy day like a Jew. There is little to fear from keeping these Holy days, and much to gain (as you point out).

In regard to anything that concerns us as to whether or not it is forbidden: I was told by the same Yemenite Scholar that he understands that anything not specifically forbidden to Noachides is permitted. This is a simple answer that, I feel, will clear away much of the pointless speculation and confusion surrounding these issues.  

The lack of a Noachide Siddur should not prevent a Noachide from praying. If a Noachide wants a formalized prayer book to use (whether a Noachide Siddur exists or not he can choose to use a Noachide Siddur or not) then he should use the Jewish Siddur. He or she should skip over those parts that are clearly referring to Israel. However that leaves the majority of the Siddur for Noachides to use. Some believe that Noachides should not pray the Amidah, but there is nothing in the Amidah that should prevent them from praying it. Even the beginning where it says “God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob…” should not be misunderstood to mean that this prayer is only a prayer for Jews. Clearly God is the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, and so forth. It is merely a way for the person praying to specify to whom they are praying.

I also want to point out that people should read the Psalms regularly. This is a staple in the spiritual diet of Jews (generally Jewish women)…why aren’t we meditating on them?

I would now like to briefly discuss Kaballah. It is a mistake to equate Kaballah with “spirituality” this is not the correct understanding of Kaballah. Kaballah is a type of knowledge. It is mystical knowledge that only a few could ever hope to master. And while we may find our lives illuminated by the words of Kaballistic masters such as the Ramban and others, we should not presume that they have taught us the true Kaballah that people seem so intent on “mastering”. Very often the secrets they tell us are “lower” teachings that are sometimes as much Midrash or halachah, as secret. The Rambam teaches mysticism in the context of Halachah. Thus, the study of Noachide Law and Jewish Law can carry a person into the arena of mysticism and will explain practical applications of such mysticism. Jack Saunders conducted an excellent study of Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah in which he covered some of these mystical teachings which the Rambam established as Law (I was only able to attend two of these classes but found the subject matter invigorating).

Much of what is taught as “authentic” Kaballah today is little more than sugar-coated Judaism. Authentic Kaballah, I would imagine, is something that requires a person to have mastery of halachah, medot, and the other levels of Torah learning. Without such knowledge one would only learn that there is a mystical tradition that teaches certain things but you would lack the understanding of true meaning.

This is similar to someone who studies Relativity physics but has not mastered the mathematics that Relativity Physics is based on, much less the mathematics that truly explains relativity physics. At best one could come to a limited understanding by analogy but would lack true understanding of the subject matter.

Some of the “sugar-coated” Judaism that I have spoken of is helpful for helping us explain things emotionally when that is the kind of explanation that we need. However, a person who is only learning things according to his or her emotions eventually makes themselves into fools. This is why we should always encourage people to ingest a diet of solid Torah learning so that they will have balance (of course it seems that you have a great deal of learning under your belt and I have not meant the word “fool” to be applied in any way to you or others who may have a similar grasp of Judaism).

As I said, Kaballah is not spiritualism it is a kind of knowledge. If it were spiritualism then how have the Yemenites existed so long without it? Clearly there is a spiritual aspect that they have maintained that does not require Kaballah. We should be wary of ascribing to Kaballah properties that it does not have. The spiritualism of Judaism seems to be more a result of individual perfection, prayer (private and communal), and Chesed (this seems to be the secret to true spirituality). Noachides who are not involved in these aspects of the Noachide life (although not clearly defined but still available) should not be shocked at their lack of spiritualism. Men need other men to debate with, learn with, work with and they need communities to be in charge of or to at least have a role in (I will deal with the issue of community in a moment). Similarly, women need activities that engage them in spiritual activities. They need this even more than men, but the spirituality that men and women need is not Kaballah (which is a kind of complex knowledge which you rightly point out in regard to “legalism” can divert spirituality).

A problem does exist in regard to communities for Noachides. There are very few communities that exist. The best and most established community that I’m aware of (within the US) is the Cleveland TN community. The Central Texas Community is establishing itself and I predict will have many new Noachides shortly. I am working with Noachide friends (Andrew Overall and Jacob Scharff) in Louisville to establish a community here. There are other groups but they are scattered and weak, but hopefully through passionate friends like you and me and others that can be changed).

Some would say that there is a lack of communities because we are lacking things like educated leaders, prayer services and so forth. However, I say that all we lack in establishing communities is the will to do so. The above issues are excuses to avoid taking on the responsibility of doing what clearly needs to be done. It is like Pirke Avot says “In the place where there is not a man, be a man!” We Noachides should not be complaining that we lack communities or leaders or any of this. We should be encouraging one another by telling ourselves and each other to “be a man”!

We don’t require certificates and doctorates or ordinations and titles to have Noachide Leaders (these things are helpful but not necessary). What we need are people to stand up and say, “We Noachides need X, Y, and Z, and I’m a Noachide and I’m going to do my best to provide those things to my fellow Noachides because no one else is”. That is what it means to be a man according to Pirke Avot. Such individuals should seek out other individuals with like minds and work with them. We do not need to reinvent the wheel in our communities. This is mostly done because people desire to promote themselves not the work that needs to be done. Credit for doing things, the exact how of doing things, the ideas of things that need to be done are irrelevant, what matters is whether or not we are doing them! This has been the failing in the Noachide world, the unwillingness to stand up and do, and the tendency to sit down and complain and divide. “Be a Man”! This is the battle cry we need as Noachides.

What about for our children, what can we provide for them? I am not a parent yet, but hopefully will be one soon. I have already begun to think of the same issues that plague your family. Again, the lack of opportunity for our kids is the result of a lack of community. Both of these can be overcome by doing what needs to be done. What needs to be done? You listed a lot of those issues. I can tell you that: outreach work needs to be conducted, an agreeable Noachide Siddur written by Noachides relevant to the needs of Noachides should be written (but we should also understand that others are welcome to make their own Siddurim, the Jewish people, after all are not restricted to one Siddur). We need simple explanations of things Noachides can do for Holy Days (some of this exists already in one form or another and merely needs to be refined and collected), we need to consistently keep these Holy Days (and encourage regular communal prayer). People ought to be either attending a weekly Shabbat meal, conducting a weekly Shabbat meal (either Erev Shabbat or Motzi Shabbat or both) this will bring a regularity to our week and will help us to focus our spiritual energies. Do not forget that Shabbat does belong to the nations as well as the Jewish people. Israel has an extra aspect to their Shabbat that serves to remind them that Hashem brought them out of Egypt. However, Shabbat is an important event in our every day lives.

We need to host Conferences, put together material for people to learn from, build ties within our own circles of influence and encourage friends and family to enjoy Shabbat. As Noachides it is totally appropriate and probably a good idea to have music at our Shabbats, music with instruments if possible!

Like the Chassidic masters we should seek to bring joy (not mysticism necessarily) into our performance of Mitzvot. We should also help people to understand that there is more to the Noahide Laws than the seven categories of prohibitions. These prohibitions are only aimed at keeping Society orderly and peaceful so that individuals can develop themselves by implementing positive commandments that are required on us. We should also encourage people to take on extra mitzvot if it helps them to connect with Hashem, if it gives them the sense of spiritualism that they desire. There is a world of opportunity for us as Noachides. The only thing that keeps us back from these opportunities is ourselves. Remember, we’re all AmeriCANS, don’t be an AmeriCAN’T. “Be a man”, we can solve all of these problems together. As long as we are working for the sake of heaven, for the love of our families and our fellow human being there are not any boundaries that we cannot overcome! Think of yourself as a pioneer, revolutionary, warrior, concerned citizen, whatever, all of these aspects are needed for this great work, but even more, we need one another. Do not become frustrated. We have everything we need to make this movement last beyond our lifetimes. We have everything we need to provide a future for our children. We just need the help of Hashem and the conviction to do this.

I hope I’ve touched on some of these issues in a positive way, and I did not mean anything negatively or against you or anyone in particular. It is merely a solution that I’ve come to regard as the only viable solution. We should all be men but do not take this in a negative light, but in the positive light of Pirke Avot. Any criticisms in this letter are meant for me as anyone. I know the frustration that plagues you; I’m sure it’s plagued all of us at one time or another, but there is hope! Hashem is our Ally; could we have a better ally than that? You are not alone; there are others of us who wish to help you with this burden. Let’s get it done!



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