The Noahide Religion: a non-Torah concept
I just want to explain one of the reasons I mostly reject the idea of a “noahide religion” or a “noahide faith”. I say “mostly” because I acknowledge the fact many gentiles who have embraced the seven universal commandments and the God that commanded them see themselves as part of a gentile religion distinct from christianity, islam, atheism and other religions. They may see themselves as part of the Gentile wing of the Jewish religion, Judaism. So I acknowledge that a certain group of gentiles see themselves in that manner or a similar manner.
I also acknowledge that most people in the world think in terms of “religion” when they view groups of people accepting some ultimate existence or certain truth claims. When a person tries to concisely describe their worldview, it’s sometimes hard to do without naming a religion that they are or are not a part of.
So I acknowledge the place of religion on our world. I don’t condemn a person for believing or claiming that they are part of “Noahidism” or “the noahide religion” or “noahide faith”. But let me share my thoughts with you. You don’t have to accept my view, and if you feel it wrong, feel free to share.
The Torah worldview
This is how I see a worldview based on Torah, not based on our modern world values.
This worldview accepts the Torah, not just as a book of teachings, or a book of laws, not even just as a book of history, although it includes all these things. In this worldview, the Torah is the foundation, the basis, the central axiom, much like how Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb proposed in his online book, Living up to the Truth (http://www.dovidgottlieb.com/publications.htm). So what is reality based on this axiom?
Well, God, the creator of the whole universe, made man and gave him instructions at different points in history, most notably to Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, and then to Moses. This is the teaching, instruction, or law part of the books of Moses. So God, being the creator of all, his instructions are truth and part of reality. Based on Torah tradition, the instructions for right-living were given to Gentiles and to Jews, the Gentiles were given 7 commands and the Jews were given 613. Essentially, that is it.
Yep. That’s the natural story according to Torah. You either obey those laws or you disobey. You either accept the Commander of those laws or you don’t. Everything has consequences.
“But what … what the hell does that have to do with religion?”
I’m so glad you asked (I love these internal dialogues).
In those days, you didn’t have to say “I’m part of this group” or “I’m part of that group”. You were either a Jew/Israelite or a Gentile. You were either righteous, keeping the law, or you weren’t. Where things got silly is when people started to imagine up groups and special rites and beliefs that set one person apart from another. One person would start worshipping a star and saying anyone else that doesn’t is not part of his group. One person may have started going beyond their basic set of divine commandments and said anyone that doesn’t isn’t part of their group. Maybe one person had a one understanding of a commandment and another differed on it. Whatever! But one way or another, artificial and invisible lines started to be drawn throughout society, especially in the Gentile world where idolatry was prevalent.
But God’s law remained the same. Either you were a Jew or a Gentile, and you were either righteous, keeping his law, or you were unrighteous, breaking them.
In the written Torah and the Jewish Bible, you hear of idolatry which is really just groups who innovated unauthorised and unwarranted new forms and focuses of worship and made a group for it. Nations worshipped idols. But the Jewish Bible just seems to see them or, more properly, their actions as idolatry and their thoughts as stupidity, to be blunt. But there is no real word for “religion”. Things are just seen by their closeness or accordance with Torah law.
So from the very beginning, the time of the books of Moses, the only real groups to be part of, in relation to divine law, were Israelite/Jew or Gentile. Apart from the family- and nation-groups beyond that, the religious grouping of people was artificial and irrelevant where it concerned the application of God’s Law. These artificial groupings were based on innovation, movement away from the simplicity of just doing what God said.
So in light of this foundation, what exactly is “a noahide religion”, an entity that describes itself as different from atheism and christianity, etc.? It seems to be little more than a reinforcing of those artificial lines. Think about it. Look around you and think about the majority of people in the world. We’ll focus on gentiles. What set of divine laws should an atheistic gentile live by? What laws would he be judged by according to Torah? That’s right: the seven universal commandments. Now is that any different from a gentile christian, a gentile hindu, a gentile muslim, a gentile who says he’s part of some noahide religion? Nope, there’s no difference. Some would say “well at least our ‘religion’ knows about it”. But that person has again missed the point. What does religion have to do with it? Either you keep his laws or you don’t. How can the seven laws be a religion, something that sets one person apart from another, when they are encumbant on every single gentile? Some gentiles ignorant of the seven commandments probably avoid the acts prohibited by the core seven better than some gentiles who claim to be noahides.
“But at least we have a place in the world to come because we believe that God commanded the seven laws to Moses.” Apart from the fact that I know of no other ancient rabbi other that Rambam who adds this clause to the observance of the seven laws, I have to wonder to myself, so what? Isn’t that pie-in-the-sky christianity talking? “Well at least I’m going to heaven.” Do you really believe that’s the point of the seven commandments? To get a reward at the end? Did you know that the seven core commands includes no command to worship God? Did you know that the seven core laws include no special rites, no special or holy days? Did you know that the core seven laws only prohibit certain behaviours and then impose upon us the importance of justice? In fact in the first codification in the Talmud, justice comes first! [ASIDE: I wonder if changing the order, as Rambam did, by putting the prohibition of idolatry first, also changed and skewed the focus of the law.] Doesn’t that give a clue as to the purpose of the seven commandments? My opinion: the purpose of the noahide laws is not to promote the afterlife. The purpose of the seven laws is not to create a priesthood who do things we now consider “religious”. The purpose of the commandments is to create or maintain a just society of decent human beings, using prohibitions to reign in base desires to provide the basis of a real conscious, mentally aware human being. That’s why a passage in Isaiah is referred to when some rabbis speak of the purpose of the laws: God didn’t create the world to be a waste, but for it to be inhabited (Isaiah 45:18). This is understood to mean, with regards to the universal commandments, that their purpose is to maintain a civilised society in this world. So to focus on the afterlife is to flip things on their head. Sure, there are benefits to acknowledging God that goes beyond this world, but that is not the focus of the seven laws. With these prohibitions, the seven commandments, this world can be rectified no matter what novel religious label a person wishes to use.
Also when you see that the punishment is, at least maximally, a capital punishment (you have to study the law to see when this applies) then it further show that these laws are about our “right” to life in this world, not whatever comes next.
In the ultimate scheme of things, there are the bnei Noach and the bnei Yisrael, the Gentiles and the Jews. In religion, a common term is conversion where people tell you “I became a christian” or “I converted and became a muslim” or “I defected and became an atheist”. When it comes to the noahide law, there is nothing to convert to. You’re a gentile. That’s it. You keep the law or you don’t. That’s it. Some may say “you convert and become a Jew” but the language is essentially wrong. You haven’t taken up a new god. All you’ve done is essentially changed nationality and the laws of that nationality are different than the law of your previous one.
This is why it is strange to me, within this worldview, when I hear someone say “I became a noahide” or “this is how to become a noahide.” It’s like a person who has been living in England all of his life saying “I’ve moved to England”. You haven’t changed anything …. unless you’re talking about that fictional move from one religion to another. Objectively nothing has changed. When you were an christian, or whatever other innovation is out there, what laws were you supposed to keep? The seven laws. Now that you are this “noahide”, what laws are you supposed to keep? Errr … the same seven universal divine laws.
This is why on many levels, the seven laws of Noah are not a religion. There’s nothing religious per se in not bowing to idols, not cursing God, not murdering, not stealing, not having sex with family members, people of the same sex and animals, not eating meat removed from an animal while it’s alive, not perverting the course of justice or even in establishing justice. Anybody with any innovative religious label can do it. Even with the extension of the laws, there’s nothing essentially religious about it. Just being a decent person, respecting other people, not gossiping, showing kindness to animals, not supporting immoral government systems, not lying or cheating, being nice to your parents, these don’t scream “religion”. Since when has being a decent human being been religious?
I think the problem is that in today’s world of illusions and fiction, people have made God into a personal fiction. They say now that if you believe there is a God and give him the time of day, if he is the reason you are decent you are ipso facto religious. That’s the power of fiction: even the basis of reality gets caught up in the fiction. I won’t address that here because here my focus is not so much on the world of fiction and illusion but on the Torah worldview where these things that were once set on their heads get turned back the right way around. Now it is atheism that is the innovative fiction. It is walking around thinking that humans are the highest authority that becomes the fiction and illusion. It is subjective morality and purely human-based legislation that becomes nonsensical since such laws and morality only have as much validity and power as the amount of threats of violence you are willing to give and carry out. “If you break my law, my morality, then I’ll trap you in a cage, have my thugs steal your possessions and children and call it legal, I’ll torture you, and in the end I’ll kill you.” That only has power if that person can reach you. But in the Torah worldview of divine laws, the one who commands it is the basis of your own existence; he is the objective truth. Obey or disobey but you can’t escape judgement one way or the other. And in such a worldview where the Source of existence gives you life and all that is in it, it is unnatural to ignore the Source. But acknowledging him and saying “thank you” to him is not commanded. It’s just natural gratitude. But again, it’s not commanded.
OK, OK. So I’ve deviated a bit. But what is my essential point here? The point is that we do a disservice to the commandments by making them into some definition for some artificial group we create to segregate ourselves from other artificial groups. There is no real truth in the statement “you’re a christian and I’m a noahide”. Most times, the two people are both gentiles who should be avoid the acts prohibited by the seven commandments. Again, I understand that distinction is needed at times, but to focus on it is a distraction. It would be great if we could eradicate religion and have things back to the Torah worldview of a person either being a Jew or a Gentile, and in either case, righteous or unrighteous. But while we don’t have that, the primary focus should be to encourage people to keep the laws primarily and leave the fiction called religion secondarily. If both can be done, great. But we want to be aiming at helping to create civilised societies, not simply to get more “noahides”, whatever that really means. And for an individual, the purpose and aim should not be to become more “religious” or to be a “religious noahide” who focuses primarily on the additionals, but rather it should be to be a decent person.
Please don’t take this blog post as saying that we should ignore the importance of God being the basis of the commandments, because as I’ve said before, without an objective basis, the commandments just become individual whims that can change. But those who understand where the noahide laws come from should be trying to see the world using Torah as a basis, as a presupposition, a corrective lens. I believe that once this is done, I believe it is possible to see this “religion” called “the noahide religion” as an artificial construct that should only be used when needed, as a temporary prop which is used sparingly.
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