Rabbis and Jews: their place in the life of a gentile – Personal Opinion

How must the gentiles fulfill the commandment to establish laws and courts? They are obligated to set up judges and magistrates in every major city to render judgement concerning these six commandments and to admonish the people regarding their observance. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars, Chapter 9 Halakhah 14)

To my view, the “dinim” incumbent upon the gentiles, as one of their seven commandments, require more than just the appointment of judges in each and every place. [God] commands them concerning the laws of theft, overcharging, withholding wages, the laws of bailees and of the rapist or the seducer of minors, the various categories of damages, personal injury, the laws of creditors and debtors, the laws of buying and selling, etc., comparable to the civil laws about which Israel was commanded. (Ramban, in his commentary on Bereishit 34:13)

God makes man chiefly responsible for himself. So long as B’nai Noah have the God-given obligation to keep these laws themselves, then it is reasonable that B’nai Noah must also, ordinarily, determine the details for these laws for themselves. This responsibility obviously falls outside the scope of the authority of the rabbis. (Michael Dallen, The Rainbow Covenant, a chapter called “Who Decides what? New Approaches”)

I spend a lot of time thinking about the seven universal laws and their implications for us gentiles. I guess you may get a slight hint of that by the current regularity with which I write a blogpost about them. Even if I’m not writing a blogpost or thinking of one, or using my internet existence to conversate or share my views on it, it’s on my mind. I’ve become a bit of a junkie. And no, it’s not just about God (although fundamentally it has to be linked to him to have any objectivity). It’s about making life better, making the world better, seeking the cracks and blemishes and injustices in our existence and wanting to seek remedy.

So I’ve been sipping the Seven Law Juice, letting it run over my tongue, and I mentally balancing out the various textures on my metaphorical tongue. I’ve interacted with Gentiles who have embraced our seven laws to different extents, Jews and Rabbis who have roles in the modern Noahide movement. Through pondering the laws that I know of and the interactions I’ve witnessed, it’s led me to some odd conclusions.

Gentile Law

So I was looking at Dinim, the law concerning justice, and I have always seen the wording but for a while I hadn’t realised the implications. I’ve quoted Rambam’s and Ramban’s view on this law already although there are others as well, like those who say that the law of justice only states that gentiles are supposed to make a legal system regardless of the seven laws. I won’t give that point of view much time here. But there is a common theme that runs throughout these depictions of the law of Dinim. And what’s that?

We gentiles are supposed to set up our own courts of justice, enforce our own laws and handle our own affairs. But these courts of justice and the laws that are generated by them or the law makers are supposed to be limited by the seven commandments. So we can’t make up new commands with the same authority. And we can’t create laws that contradict the seven core commandments. But we can establish man-made laws to help with the running of our society. But the essence of it all is still the same: who is responsible for our laws? We gentiles are! Who are the authorities, the legal authorities in gentile lands? Gentiles are!

This would seem to be the plain way of understanding the law of Dinim as taught by these rabbis.

Jurisdiction

I think it makes sense. Jews would have jurisdiction over their own land, over their own laws. But when it comes to us gentiles, I can’t think of a Torah-law that states that their rabbis or their judges have international authority where they are kings of the world. I mean look the following views that I’ve gathered:

A classic discussion of this question is found in the commentary of the Ramban. The Ramban brings the Rambam’s perspective on this issue, rejects it, and proposes his own understanding:

Now many people ask: “How did the righteous sons of Ya’akov commit this deed, spilling innocent blood?” The Rabbi (= Rambam) answered in Sefer Shofetim (Hilkhot Melakhim 14:9), saying that sons of Noach are commanded concerning laws, and thus they are required to appoint judges in each and every district to give judgment concerning their six commandments which are obligatory upon all mankind. “And a Noachide who transgresses one of them is subject to the death penalty by the sword. If he sees a person transgressing one of these seven laws and does not bring him to trial for a capital crime, he who saw him is subject to the same death penalty. It was on account of this that the people of Shekhem had incurred the death penalty because Shekhem committed an act of robbery and they saw and knew of it, but they did not bring him to trial.”

But these words do not appear to me to be correct for if so, Ya’akov Avinu should have been the first to obtain the merit of causing their death, and if he was afraid of them, why was he angry at his sons and why did he curse their wrath a long time after that and punish them by dividing them and scattering them in Israel? Were they not meritorious, fulfilling a commandment and trusting in God who saved them?

[Anyway, to my mind, this justice which is enumerated among the Seven Laws of Noah is not limited to the establishment of courts. Rather, it charges the Noahites with laws on stealing, overcharging, withholding salaries, the liability of watchmen, rape, seduction, damages, bodily injury, loans, business transactions, and the like, similar to the laws with which the Israelites are charged. Thus, they place themselves under threat of execution by stealing, or cheating, or raping, or seducing another’s daughter, or burning down another’s silo, or injuring him, and the like. It is this same law that also obligates them to appoint judges in each town, like the Israelites. However, if they neglect to do this they are not to be executed, because this derives from a positive imperative, and the rule of “Their prohibition [when violated, constitutes grounds for] their execution,” applies only for the negative imperatives… – added from wikinoah.org – Imperative of Legal System, http://www.wikinoah.org/index.php?title=Imperative_of_Legal_System ]

From this it would appear that a non-Jewish judge may say to the litigants, “I am not beholden to you”… and surely he is not to be slain for failing to make himself chief, overseer or ruler, in order to judge superiors. Moreover, why does the Rabbi have to seek to establish their guilt? Were not the people of Shekhem and all seven nations idol worshippers, perpetrators of unchaste acts, and practitioners of all things that are abominable to God? In many places Scripture loudly proclaims concerning them … However it was not the responsibility of Ya’akov and his sons to bring them to justice.

But the matter of Shekhem was that the people of Shekhem were wicked and had thereby forfeited their lives. Therefore, Ya’akov’s sons wanted to take vengeance of them with a vengeful sword, and so they killed the king and all the men of his city who were his subjects, obeying his commands. The covenant represented by the circumcision of the inhabitants of Shekhem had no validity in the eyes of Ya’akov’s sons for it was done to curry favor with their master. But Ya’akov told them here that they had placed him in danger, as it is said, “You have brought trouble on me to make me odious,” and there, he cursed the wrath of Shim’on and Levi for they had done violence to the men of the city whom they had told in his presence, “And we will dwell with you, and we will become one people.” (Ramban, Bereishit 34:13)

The Ramban argues that while the people of Shekhem were idolaters subject to the death penalty, it did not fall upon Ya’akov and his sons to administer their punishment. (Taken from Shiur #13: THe Morality of war, by Rav Chaim Navon, http://vbm-torah.org/archive/halak66/13halak.htm, emphasis mine)

Both Ravad and Ramban were of the opinion that Israel cannot enforce the Noahide Law upon neighboring nations that Israel conquers militarily, let alone Gentile nations over which it has no control (cf. Ravad on Malachim 6:1 and Issura Beah 12:7–8; Ramban’s commentary on Bereishis 26:5, Devirim 20:1, 11; Tosafot Avoda Zara 26b). The Jews are to lead by example, not by strength. “The nation which is to descend from him is to represent one entity to the outside world, but internally it is to be a multiplicity of elements united into one. Each tribe is to represent an ethnic individuality in its own right. The nation of Jacob, which, as ‘Israel,’ is to demonstrate to the other nations the power of God, triumphantly pervading and shaping all of mankind, should not present a one-sided image. As a model nation it should reflect the greatest possible variety of national characteristics in a microcosm. In its tribes it should represent variously the warrior nation, the merchant nation, the agricultural nation, the nation of scholars, etc. In this manner it will become clear to all the world that the consecration of human life to the covenant with the Law of God does not demand occupational restrictions, or depend on specific ethnic characteristics, but that all mankind in all its multiplicity is capable of accepting the concept of monotheism taught by Israel, and of fashioning the multiplicity of human and national individualities into one united kingdom of God.” Hirsch, T’rumath Tzvi, 158. (taken from Alan Cecil’s book, “Secular by Design” footnote 21 page 403)

OK, I know that’s a lot. But it’s very important to what I’m trying to convey here. And let’s add some more facts to this. There is no Torah law that gives a rabbi authority over a Gentile. In the written Torah, there is an overt command for Jews to listen to Jewish judges. No such command exists for Gentiles. And in our own seven commandments, again there is a command for us to set up our courts and handle our business but there is no command to listen to a Jew or a rabbi.

But my rabbi told me …

Now my opinion may be a light slap to the faces of some gentiles who have taken up the Seven Laws, who have place themselves under a Jew or a rabbi, and who take the rabbi’s teaching as having some authority. Many “Noahides” (I mean the religious group by that, not gentiles on a whole) have heard that rabbis are “halakhic authorities” and thus concede to their edicts and decisions. For all intents and purposes, these rabbis have become the leaders of the Noahide movement. We can’t get around this point. If the rabbis give the orders, give the rulings, and the Gentiles are meant to follow, this is definitely not a movement led by Gentiles. It’s not a movement that reflects gentiles setting up their own courts and handling their own business, i.e., it’s not about the law of Dinim but about the rulership of the rabbis.

Now there is some difficulty here, because we all know that the rabbis are supposed to be experts, they are supposed to be the authority. But the question is experts at what and authorities over who? You see, it makes a whole lot of sense to me that a rabbi would be knowledgeable in Jewish law. That makes sense. It makes sense that they would know a lot about Jewish lifestyle, what it is permitted and forbidden for a Jew to do. It would make sense that they would have to deal with how Jews are meant to handle Jew-Gentile interactions. That’s all good. But what gives such rabbis authority over Gentiles? Is their knowledge of Torah and the original language of the Torah enough for them to give commands to Gentiles and Gentiles must obey?

I had a funny encounter online with a rabbi who saw fit to ridicule me because I didn’t have his expertise in Hebrew, and thus because I wasn’t conversant in the inner depth of Hebrew, all my understanding on the subject of the Noahide Commandments may as well be absolute nonsense. But just think about it. This rabbi was ready and willing to insult me and denigrate my point of view because I didn’t understand the Hebrew. But if Gentiles are supposed to handle Gentile law, and the vast majority of Gentiles don’t speak Hebrew, does that cause all decision making to flow to rabbis by default? Are the Gentile laws and the authority it is supposed to give to Gentile courts locked out of reach from Gentiles and set firmly in the hands of Jews who understand the language? Imagine a Jewish rabbi overturning the decision of a Gentile court because it didn’t understand Hebrew. Does that really honestly make sense to anyone?

I have had numerous encounters with Gentiles who will do an act or will see an act as prohibited because a modern rabbi told them to, not because it is the law as depicted in the Talmud where it is originally spelled out. Some Gentiles will see a rabbi as often as possible or consult the work of another rabbi religiously (“religiously” is not meant negatively). There are Noahide books that tell a Gentile that they must go to a rabbi or a knowledgeable Jew for decisions if there is any difficulty. We can’t make decisions on questionable matters. If a Gentile doesn’t know what is permissible, they should go to a Torah scholar who is Jewish. Is that really in line with what Rambam, Ramban and earlier rabbis said?

Look again at what Rambam said: we Gentiles are meant to set up courts of law which make judgments or make decisions according to the seven laws. So many other rabbis said that we Gentiles are meant to be keeping the law of Dinim for ourselves. But modern rabbis and Noahide books seem to be telling us something different, that we are supposed to keep the decisions made by rabbis. So what exactly are such teachings from these rabbis and Noahide books equipping us to do or to be? Are they teaching us to judge for ourselves, and are they equipping us with the tools to do so? Or are they teaching us that we don’t have the power or ability to keep the commandment that God gave and that we are unable to make judgments for ourselves? Can you imagine it? Rambam, who is their respected teacher, says that we Gentiles should and must judge ourselves, and the modern rabbis say we can’t because we don’t hold their qualifications? Ramban said Shechem was not in the jurisdiction of the sons of Israel. Ramban, Ravad and Hirsch do not speak of a dominating Israel, the judge of the whole world, but only a role of teaching by example, of being guides not law-makers and decision-makers for Gentiles. The question is are we supposed to need their heritage and qualifications in order to judge according to our own law? Surely the rabbis shouldn’t be telling us to remain spoonfed, but we should realise that we need to learn enough to grow up and graduate from the eternal you-are-only-a-student or you-are-eternally-unqualified situation. I don’t believe the intention for our courts is to have a constant hotline to a rabbi or Jew so that they judge our cases for us.

I spoke to a person who considered himself to be a “pious gentile” and I was told by him that he follows a certain rabbi’s rulings. I thought to myself, what is a “ruling”? So I check a number of dictionaries and see that it is the act of one that rules or has governing control, and it is the authoritative decision of a court or judge. Again, the issue of jurisdiction arises. If I am a man living under the government of France who had an issue about a law, and I went to see the greatest law scholar in Japan and this scholar gave me his decision, would that ruling have any legal power or authority to it? No it wouldn’t. It may be an educated decision, maybe, if the scholar knew and understood all the factors seeing that he was from a different culture, but it wouldn’t be an authoritative decision because that scholar doesn’t have any legal power. So no matter how educated a Jew may be, even how Torah-educated, what gives his decisions any authority over a Gentile who is not keeping the Jewish commandments under Jewish rule, but keeps the Gentile law and who doesn’t live under Jewish rule? And the answer cannot be that God gave him such authority because in the Torah, a legal authority was only given to a Jewish judge to judge Jews, not the whole world.

But the fact of the matter is that the Noahide Commandments are part of the Jewish tradition, written in their langauge, discussed by their rabbis, and those Noahide Commandments are what we Gentiles are judged by. So what really is the role of a rabbi in all this?

I accept you as my teacher, not my leader

So let’s plug some factors into our equations and see if there aren’t some signs of what role the rabbi or Jew is supposed to be with regards to Gentiles.

The codification and some details of our law, our seven commandments, is in their language, in their tradition. Although their primary concern has been their own law, they have had some discussion on our law. Although the judges of the Jews and Israel have jurisdiction over the inhabitants of Israel and its citizens, there is no command that gives them such authority over other countries. They were called a nation of priests and a light to the nations. It was said in scripture, in the Torah, that nations would see Jews keeping the commandments and become curious about the wisdom of their law and the closeness of their God. These facts tell us something.

If the Jews have the truth but no official judicial authority, if they have the expertise but not the legal right to enforce law, then that helps see their role. It is to teach and point out, not to judge and give rulings. As it says in Michael Dallen’s book, the Rainbow Covenant, the judges of Israel have a right to dictate and lay down the law for their own people, to prescribe the law; but their role amongst other nations is not to prescribe law but to describe, only to show us and point it out, and only when asked. They only have as much power as a gentile chooses to give them. I would add that this is still in light of the fact that we Gentiles still have to be responsible for ourselves. We can’t use the rabbis as a crutch or as leaders of a brand new Noahide nanny state. The essential difference is that they are meant to be our teachers, not our puppet masters, not our judges and not our dictators.

I understand we may not be at that place yet in moral and seven law knowledge to judge for ourselves, maybe. Again, that’s if the qualification to judge is wide knowledge of the Jewish Torah. That’s a big if. But the question is are we headed in that direction, or are too many of us too satisfied letting the rabbis make the decisions for us? I’ve seen it too many times. And I’ve seen it in books that even I respect highly like “The Divine Code” by Rabbi Moshe Weiner. In Part 1, Part 5, topics 3 and 4, on pages 88-90, he tells us that if we don’t know what is permitted under our Gentile law, we should ask a Jew who is Torah observant and Torah educated. In footnote 113, he claims that a Gentile has no right or authority to make a practical ruling (remember that word “ruling”), a power only given to Jews. We can deal with easy matters personally, but not make difficult decisions ourselves. Strangely enough, there is no reference for this opinion. He doesn’t refer to any earlier authority. He equates it to delving into Torah which is forbidden to Gentiles. Now contrast this with what is said by another Rabbi Weiner, commentator of the Schottenstein edition of the Babylonian Talmud when he speaks of how we Gentiles can delve into our laws in Tractate Sanhedrin 59a, footnote 10.

However, if a Noahite studies the seven commandments that apply to him, he should be honoured like a Kohen Gadol [High Priest – my translation, DD] even if his investigations lead him to study most of the precepts of the Torah. Since his main purpose in studying is knowledge of the Noahide laws, there is not concern that he will influence Israelites (see also Chamra VeChayei).

So this implies that if our focus is trying to get an understanding of our own law, our own Gentile Commandments, then it is still an honourable thing to delve to get an answer for ourselves.

This Rabbi Weiner doesn’t lock relevant knowledge away from those who wish to know it for the right reasons, to determine what is correct according to our own laws. But even the Divine Code itself says that we can delve as much as we want into our Seven Commandments. So it would make no sense to allow us to delve into our Seven Commandments, and then lock away information that helps us make Seven Commandment decisions. It also makes no sense to have a commandment that says that we Gentiles have to make rulings and judgments for ourselves regarding the Seven Commandments, and then turn around and say Gentiles aren’t allowed to make certain Seven Commandment decisions.

Now I know the fears of some, and the reference in the Talmud is somewhat relevant to this fear: a lot of Gentiles have left their religions to embrace the Seven Commandments. These religions prompted a lot of deception and we can’t be sure if we have totally left such deception totally. It may taint our decisions. Of course, the focus of these people is once again just idolatry. I can understand why when Jewish sources keep referring to Gentiles in general as idol-worshippers or akum. But again, listen exactly to what the Talmud states in Tractate Sanhedrin 59a:

An objection is raised: R. Meir used to say, From where do we know that even a heathen [the Hebrew refers to an akum, an idol-worshipper, or a goy, a gentile – DD] who studies the Torah is as a High Priest? From the verse, [Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments:] which, if man do, he shall live in them. Priests, Levites, and Israelites are not mentioned, but men: from here you can learn that even a heathen [same akum or goy] who studies the Torah is as a High Priest! — That refers to their own seven laws.

If a gentile focuses on our own laws, not trying to emulate or copy the Jews, not trying to get into laws that relate to their observance and obedience, but if a gentile focuses on getting our seven laws right, then we will be honoured and honourable. This passage and passages like it, especially ones that relate to the fact that we Gentiles need to be handling our own affairs and judging based our on our laws, show that it is possible for us to gain enough understanding not only to observe the law for ourselves but also to help other Gentiles regarding it. And this is not to replace the role of the Jews and the rabbis. It is simply a fact of embracing our own responsibility.

I said it once and I’ll say it again. I understand we may not be at that place yet in moral and seven law knowledge to judge for ourselves, maybe. Again, that’s if the qualification to judge is wide knowledge of the Jewish Torah. That’s a big if. Maybe some of us are in the place to judge. But the question is are we headed in that direction of learning enough to judge for ourselves, or are too many of us too satisfied letting the rabbis make the decisions for us? Are the rabbis teaching us to make our own decisions or teaching us that we cannot make our own decisions without essentially becoming a Jew without the conversion: learning Hebrew and Talmudic Aramaic, going to a Yeshiva, having an extensive library which includes all books in which Jews discuss our law and in their language? Right now we don’t have a standard education process (it’s funny that some Gentiles get so much interaction with the rabbis and this hasn’t been done yet – again, are the rabbis teaching dependance or independence?) to have a level of qualification to judge. Maybe it’s the fact that once again these laws are not about us creating independent religious institutions or learning but rather building up our own communities, societies and countries in whatever little ways we can to increase the moral education to the place where the Noahide Laws can begin to take hold. Maybe in the meantime, while we’re waiting for this societal change that we should be working towards, it wouldn’t hurt to actually start training ourselves to be experts on the Law rather than relying Jewish judges/rabbis that may have expertise in the relevant laws for Gentiles who are not living under their rule (that expertise is not guaranteed) but no jurisdiction (I’m not going to even go into what authority over Gentiles they really have with no Sanhedrin standing now and with there being a question about their simcha or “ordination”) and have a primary responsibility to their own people, the Jews.

Conclusion

As usual, I have to add a disclaimer because people tend to take my opinion personally.

I’m not condemning people who use and rely on rabbis. If there were such a thing as a “ger toshav” (a gentile who has legal rights to live in Israel, who has renounced idolatry) then I guess I would see such people as that, having disassociated themselves in some ways from their own people, Gentiles. Is that too harsh a view? Maybe they are just going to rabbis to learn about the laws and know no better than to take the words of these rabbis as rulings, the authoritative dictates of a judge. Who knows? Either way, I’m not condemning them.

My emphasis in this article is our law of Dinim (Justice) and the matter of jurisdiction and authority. Our law of Dinim does not tell us to hand over our responsibility or our brains to the rabbis, however educated or righteous they may be. There is no Torah Law that gives them jurisdiction – the right to rule and judge – over the whole world, even those not under the rule of Israel. They have a role, responsibility and duty but it appears to be more to teach than to dictate or take judgment from us. In essence they should be empowering us to understand and keep our law and to keep our law of establishing justice in our own lands, not empowering themselves to judge us or to make rulings for us as if they are the kings of the world. Now for all their humility, once they start saying “you have to following my rulings”, for all intents and purposes they are making themselves rulers instead of teachers.

Show me my law! Please do! God entrusted it to you because we Gentiles, even today, have flushed it down the toilet! Show me my law, but don’t dictate to me! Advise and educate me! I respect where you come from and what you have learned. But don’t be the judge of me! You’re out of your jurisdiction!

Just my opinion. I’m open to learning if I’m wrong.

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1 Comment

  1. Elisheva

    I find this a very good and honest article and I appreciate your thoughts. It is good you think about such things and ask such questions.
    As I have already mentioned several times the Bnei Noah legislation has no judicial application today, in the absence of which, the laws are personal guidelines. Think of that: Israel has 613 commandments, but only 60 of them are applicable in our times – specifically the personal obligations because we have no government that rules by Torah law. All the other 553 commandments are dependent on conditions that are not fulfilled today, so they are lifted. Likewise for Bnei Noah. When we will restore the halachic authority of the Sanhedrin, everything will fall in place. You may draw any conclusion you wish and for sure, Israel has no authority over the citizens of foreign countries, and never claimed to have. This being said, the idea that the BN legislation can be implemented by BN independently of an halachic authority is not in keeping with how the Law functions. Yes, there is a void – it has to be filled with patience!

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