Myth: The noahide laws are only for gentiles in Israel
So, being a gentile, a “Torah-conscious” gentile, I get challenges from people from all walks of life. When I say challenges, I don’t mean that they all outrightly come to my face and tell me in what way they conflict with and oppose my way of life. I mean their very beliefs and thoughts cause me to think more deeply about the truth of those thoughts in light of the plain understanding of the seven universal. Too often, these challenges come from Jews.
One such challenge which was not directed at me personally makes two general claims. The first general claim says that the seven laws are not for gentiles on a whole but only for gentiles living in the land of Israel when it keeps Torah properly. Since they are not bound by the whole of Jewish law, a minimum standard was needed for Jewish courts to judge gentiles. Thus these laws are just for Jewish courts in a Torah-keeping land of Israel. The second claim is linked to this. It states that since the seven laws is only overtly mentioned in a text and tradition normally accessible only to Jews and not gentiles, a text and tradition given by the ancient Jewish sages, only the ancient Jewish sages can determine the exact meaning and implementation of the seven laws. Since the seven laws are only what the sages say they are, only those sages have the final say in the practical application of the seven laws. Based on this sort of thinking, that is the reason why these laws were placed in the section of the Babylonian Talmud called “Sanhedrin”, a word that refers to the Jewish Supreme court.
So essentially, the seven laws have nothing to do with the world at large. It is just a law code that a Torah keeping Jewish court has at its disposal to judge gentiles living in the land of Israel. They are not seven universal laws, but rather a law for Jewish courts.
The testimony of the ancients
Now remember that these claims were spoken by a Jew.
A person who takes the time to read my blog will notice that I spend a fair amount of time on some articles quoting rabbis, some well known and some not so well known, some who refer to the Talmud more directly and others who refer to Talmudic concepts. Sometimes I even quote the Talmud itself or commentaries of Talmud translations. If you saw my youtube page – have I mentioned my youtube page? – then you would see I have a whole series dealing with what rabbis throughout time have said about the seven laws. So even as I was typing out the claims of this Jew, the memories of these quotes were shouting out in my head which more or less confronts such claims. Whether it’s the words of Rabbi Hirsch or Ramban or Rambam or the Talmud itself or the commentaries in the Artscroll translation and the Soncino translation, the general opinion about the basis of these claims seems to be the same.
Let’s take the Talmud for instance. Look at the initial simple phrase in Tractate Sanhedrin 56a: “Seven commandments were enjoined upon the descendants of Noah: justice, cursing the Name, idolatry, sexual crimes, murder, theft, and limb from the living animal.” There is nothing in the term “descendant of Noah” that limits it to only those descendants of Noah that happen to fall under the power of a Jewish court. In fact it is an expansive inclusive term that includes all of humanity. The Talmud has a phrase that it can use if it were speaking distinctly about foreign residents in the land, i.e., ger toshav. As has been acknowledged by rabbis throughout history, “bnei Noah”, “descendants of Noah”, its basic connotation is Gentiles on a whole, and that is the understanding used in the Talmud. So even the simple phrase, “seven commandments were enjoined upon the descendants of Noah,” means that Gentiles on a whole were enjoined with keeping those seven commandments, not just Gentiles in the land of Israel.
In fact, the very narrowness of this way of thinking is demonstrated by the over-simplistic notion that because the heading of section is Sanhedrin or “Jewish Supreme Court”, therefore its contents is limited to only being applicable in a Torah observant Jewish Supreme Court. The text and its commentary doesn’t bear this out at all. For instance, what does people – including gentiles that didn’t come under the power of a Jewish court – having a place in the world to come have to do with a Jewish court? What about a discourse where the disciples of certain rabbis think that the messiah will have the name of their particular rabbi? Is that directly in relation to a Jewish court?
The fact is that Tractate Sanhedrin deals with a lot more than what only applies in a Jewish court.
To speak more about the Talmud’s stance on the source of these laws, Tractate Sanhedrin 56b shows a rabbi deriving the seven laws from a deeper understanding of what God commanded Adam in the garden of Eden. Rabbis after this understood this to mean that the seven laws existed before Israel, even from the time of the first man. With a source like that, it is totally untenable that the only concern of the Sages is just what Jewish court can do with a Gentile, as opposed to the fact that these laws are incumbent on all Gentiles.
Let me just show you that this is not just my understanding, but the way of understanding the Talmud and its teachings throughout time.
Look at the way Rambam describes the seven laws in light of the term “ben Noah” “descendant of Noah”.
Six precepts were commanded to Adam:
a) the prohibition against worship of false gods;
b) the prohibition against cursing God;
c) the prohibition against murder;
d) the prohibition against incest and adultery;
e) the prohibition against theft;
f) the command to establish laws and courts of justice.
Even though we have received all of these commands from Moses and, furthermore, they are concepts which intellect itself tends to accept, it appears from the Torah’s words that Adam was commanded concerning them.
The prohibition against eating flesh from a living animal was added for Noah, as Genesis 9:4 states: ‘Nevertheless, you may not eat flesh with its life, which is its blood.’ Thus there are seven mitzvot.
These matters remained the same throughout the world until Abraham.
So understand what Rambam has, in essence, said. He says that the seven laws were completed as seven at the time of Noah. Think about that in light of the term “sons of Noah” or “descendant of Noah”. Just as the laws given to Adam were also obligatory for all his descendants, in much the same way, the laws that Noah were obligatory on his descendants as well, i.e., the descendants of Noah.
It is emphasized even further by Rambam that the implementation of the seven laws is not dependent on the Sanhedrin in the law of Dinim (civil laws or justice). In there he gives the example of Shechem and how the city was punished because of its breaking this law of Dinim. Again, there was no Sanhedrin about to judge them. In fact, the wording of the law itself says that Gentiles have to set up our own courts to judge our own laws. So again, this is not about “gentiles being judged by a Jewish court”.
Ramban (Rabbi Moses Nachmanides, not RambaM) also showed in his own exposition on the Noahide law of Dinim that the seven laws are not just about the jurisdiction of a Jewish Supreme Court. I won’t quote the whole thing here, so I’ll refer you to my other article, https://hesedyahu.wordpress.com/2013/10/17/rabbis-and-jews-their-place-in-the-life-of-a-gentile-personal-opinion/. But to summarize, once again Ramban sees the Noahide Laws applying before the Jewish Sanhedrin existed. And even more striking, Ramban judged the city of Shechem as evil based on the seven laws but said that it wasn’t the responsibility of Jacob and his sons to administer punishment. Ramban’s description of the law of Dinim (justice) points to we Gentiles judging ourselves and being responsible for our law. That refutes the notion totally that the seven laws are just about the Jewish Sanhedrin trying to figure out how to deal with gentiles in their own land of Israel.
Sefer HaHinnuch, 4:416 says the following quite overtly:
The far removal of robbery from among people is of benefit to all; and the human intelligence is a trustworthy witness to this. There is no great length of laws about it, as all its content is clarified in the Writ. It is in force everywhere, at every time, for both man and woman. All humankind too is duty-bound by it, since it is a branch of the precept about robbery, which is one of the seven precepts that all in the world were commanded to keep …
In the 19th century a number of rabbis spoke up. Rabbi Tobias Goodman, in Treatise Four of his book “Faith of Israel”, published in 1834, said that the term “bnei Noach” included all nations, and that they were given the seven laws for their own social organization. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his Torah commentary, Tzvi Terumath, where he comments on Genesis 1:11-13 states that the world, God’s kingdom, would be better off if Jews kept their law and Gentiles kept theirs. Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh teaches the seven commandments to Aime Palliere totally absent of any concept of a Jewish Supreme Court. He just emphasizes the need for Gentile obedience to these seven laws all over the world, as can been seen in books such as “The Unknown Sanctuary” and “Israel and Humanity”.
Soncino’s translation of the Babylonian Talmud, from the early to mid 20th century, commentates on Tractate Sanhedrin 56a and its listing of the seven laws saying that it is the foundation of all human progress and is the universalistic outlook of the rabbis. To quote its commentary:
And hence the Talmud lays down the seven Noachian precepts, by the observance of which all mankind may attain spiritual perfection, and without which moral death must inevitably ensue. (http://www.halakhah.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_56.html – see footnote 34 of Tractate 56a)
Speaking of “Noachian”, just look at what the Jewish Encyclopedia of the early 20th century had to say about the Noachian Laws.
Laws which were supposed by the Rabbis to have been binding upon mankind at large even before the revelation at Sinai, and which are still binding upon non-Jews. The term Noachian indicates the universality of these ordinances, since the whole human race was supposed to be descended from the three sons of Noah, who alone survived the Flood. Although only those laws which are found in the earlier chapters of the Pentateuch, before the record of the revelation at Sinai, should, it would seem, be binding upon all mankind, yet the Rabbis discarded some and, by hermeneutic rules or in accordance with some tradition (see Judah ha-Levi, “Cuzari,” iii. 73), introduced others which are not found there. Basing their views on the passage in Gen. ii. 16, they declared that the following six commandments were enjoined upon Adam: (1) not to worship idols; (2) not to blaspheme the name of God; (3) to establish courts of justice; (4) not to kill; (5) not to commit adultery; and (6) not to rob (Gen. R. xvi. 9, xxiv. 5; Cant. R. i. 16; comp. Seder ‘Olam Rabbah, ed. Ratner, ch. v. and notes, Wilna, 1897; Maimonides, “Yad,” Melakim, ix. 1). A seventh commandment was added after the Flood—not to eat flesh that had been cut from a living animal (Gen. ix. 4). Thus,the Talmud frequently speaks of “the seven laws of the sons of Noah,” which were regarded as obligatory upon all mankind, in contradistinction to those that were binding upon Israelites only (Tosef., ‘Ab. Zarah, ix. 4; Sanh. 56a et seq.). (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9679-laws-noachian)
Then we move onto the words of Rabbi J.H Hertz in his Pentateuch and Haftorahs, again in the early 20th century. In the commentary of Genesis 9:7, he says the following after listing the seven commandments:
The Rabbis called these laws the ‘Seven Commandments’ given to the descendants of Noah’. These constitute what we might call Natural Religion, as they are vital to the existence of human society.
Just read the informative online article from Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, including the footnotes – http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/noach2.html, The Obligation of Jews to Seek Observance of Noachide Laws by Gentiles: A Theoretical Review – and you will see an in-depth work which, in part shows that the seven laws are binding on Gentiles, not just those Gentiles who happen to live in Israel.
I include also the work of David Novak called “The image of the non-Jew in Judaism” first published in 1983. I do not include it as an authoritative source for the teaching of the seven laws, but the comments that he includes about the view that the ancient rabbis had of the Noahide Laws. In chapter 1, part 6, of his book, entitled “Noahide Law and the Resident Alien”, he does describe “the rabbis identifying the Noahide laws as the minimum prerequisite for naturalized citizenship in a Jewish state” (pg. 20). The source he uses is not Tractate Sanhedrin but rather Tractate Avodah Zarah 64b. He sees this citizenship as a “ger toshav, a law abiding gentile having an official status in a Jewish polity”, when Israel as a nation is Torah-keeping (ibid.). What is telling though is a statement he makes: “It is doubtless that the rabbis saw the Noahide laws as having universal moral authority irrespective of Jewish national sovereignty.”
So we can agree that the Seven Commandments definitely would have applicability and a full legal force in a nation of Israel that was fully Torah observant. We can agree that the Noahide laws would be enforceable on Gentiles living in Israel at such a time. But to limit the Noahide laws only to that environment is unjustified.
It should be noticed that I haven’t referred to all the modern and researched books on the Noahide Laws which make it painfully obvious that the Seven Laws are binding on all Gentiles. But to list all of them and what they say would be like kicking a dead horse.
Here’s the fact of the matter. I know that it is and has been the notion of some Jews and some others that the Seven Commandments are meant only for Gentiles in the land of Israel and how the Jewish courts are supposed to judge them. It’s an opinion that’s around and I accept that. I don’t agree with the notion, but I accept that it exists. But the weight of the evidence throughout Jewish traditional history, from the Talmud unto today, doesn’t give that point of view much weight at all. For me, there is just enough for me to brush it off my shoulder.
But it’s in the hidden books
Let me admit to a fact. The codification of the seven laws is in the oral tradition of the Jews, in the Talmud, something not necessarily readily available to Gentiles. Does that mean that such teachings are locked away to only be used by Torah observant Jewish courts?
Answer this question for me. If it were so locked away, why have Jews been teaching it throughout history? The book, Seven Colours of the Rainbow by Rabbi Yirmeyahu Friedman, and the website http://www.noachide.org.uk gives some reference to the fact that, despite the oppression of the Jews throughout history, the knowledge of the seven laws have still gotten out, even if in little trickles.
Also take note that although the codification of the seven laws is not in the written Torah – something that is only part of the story, not the whole thing – the evidence of a divine standard for all humanity is clearly there. If it wasn’t, then why would God judge the world as guilty of something and wipe it out with a flood? Or why would he condemn Nineveh and send Jonah to give them a message? Throughout the book, he still judges the nations, although more focus is given to the nation of Israel. So the fact that the codification of the seven laws is in the oral tradition doesn’t negate the fact that the existence of a divine standard for Gentiles is evident in the written text.
The question has to be why would the biblical text only suggest a standard for Gentiles, but not spell it out? Well what should be the role of Israel? Isn’t it supposed to be a nation of priests and a light to the world? Isn’t the text of the Jewish Bible focused on the Jews and Israel and God’s interaction with them? Maybe the focus given to the Jews is like a finger pointing back to them saying that clarification is there. The question is to what extent do Jews clarify the role of a human who is not a Jew. I speak about it more in my article about the place of the rabbi amongst Gentiles. But let’s just say that, just as Michael Dallen stated – as is backed up by ancient wordings of the laws of Dinim – it is the role of a Jew to describe the details that he knows about the Gentile responsibility and law, and not to judge regarding them, something that is totally out of his jurisdiction. Gentiles judge Gentiles outside of the land of Israel.
The fact is that the text of the Jewish Bible points to three entities: God, Torah, and Israel. If Israel do their job, then they can teach (not enforce) the Gentiles our Torah, or the clarification of it, and empower Gentiles to judge themselves based on God’s law.
But there is a reason why it doesn’t matter that the codification of the seven laws are in the traditional texts of the Jews. Let’s imagine that the claimant had a point: the discussion on the seven laws in Tractate Sanhedrin 56a onwards was related in one way or another to how Gentiles are judged in the nation of Israel by their courts. Let’s once again remind ourselves of some basic facts.
The Hebrew Bible, the Jewish tradition, all of its literature is primarily an internal discussion. Think about it. The source text of the Jewish Bible is written in Hebrew and focuses primarily on the Israelites and their history only spending some sections to speak of other nations but generally in light of Israel. Even the history from creation in the Jewish Bible leads to Israel. You can see that from the focusing of the genealogies to the genealogy of Israel. The book is written in their own language. The oral tradition, its texts and discussion are primarily in the languages of the Jews and discussed amongst Jews. In many ways it can seem like all of this Torah stuff is really just an internal discussion between God and Israel, and Israel talking amongst its own. It would therefore make sense that although there are teachings and truths in any part of their tradition that relates to the world on a whole, much of the focus would be how it impacts Israel and Israelites and Jews.
What causes us, or me, not to be so narrow in our, or my, view of such a tradition is the very fact that its source is not limited to Israel. God is not just the creator of Israel, but the Creator of all existence, including the nations of the world. The Torah, although focused on Israel still has universal teachings. As shown before, the very wording of the statement about the Seven Commandments in Tractate Sanhedrin 56a is universal. God commanded the Seven Commandments upon all the world. Another fact stated above is that God is shown in the written tradition, the Jewish Bible, to still hold the other nations of the world accountable for their actions, so there is a universal obligation on all humanity to our Creator. So the Jews can have all the internal discussion that they want, but the universal obligation still stands and it’s up to the nations of the world and the individuals amongst them to find out what the obligations are. It’s important to state that the obligation is not to be judged and ruled by the Jews. Rather it is to keep our Seven Commandments. We may not know the numbering, but the content is what matters.
But how can we keep our commandments if we don’t first learn them? Thankfully, the commands are close enough to rationality and consciousness and conscientiousness that they can be roughly pieced together through just being mature and thinking things through and living responsibly and principled. That’s why there are still decent people around the world who have no contact with Jews. That’s why the Tosefos could say “the righteous amongst the nations have a place in the world to come”. That doesn’t necessarily mean, as I’ve said before, “those who have been taught by rabbis”. The content of the word “righteous” is to live uprightly according to a standard.
It’s when we want to know the God-given standards with more exactitude that we go to the teachers of the nations, those that have God’s standards in more exactness, the custodians of God’s Torah, the Jews.
The Jews have no Torah mandate or God-given authority to rule the world, only to teach and share. That’s another reason why they are called the light to the nations. The nations must learn and, using such teaching and learning, should judge themselves, judge ourselves.
So regardless of the fact that the specifics of the teachings about the universal commandments is supposed “hidden” in the Jewish tradition, throughout history, there has been enough evident in the world, in our own creation, that points to the fact that we are meant to be good people, upright and diligent, not just animals running on base instinct and emotions. The Jews, though, possess the God-given tradition that refines that knowledge, makes clear the divine obligation, makes the standard objective. But the responsibility is always in the hands of the nations regarding the content of our law and obligation.
So the “hidden” nature of the specifics is not reason enough for us to think that the seven laws are only relevant to Gentiles living in Israel. The universality of God and his Torah principles despite their being under Jewish custodianship refutes such a limited view.
The notion of the supremacy of the rabbi or Sage, or the limited scope of the Seven Commandments is essentially baseless. The plain words from the tradition, the historical understanding throughout history, the original open understanding of the term “bnei Noach” makes such a view untenable. The wording of our own laws in that tradition makes it such that the rabbis, Jews and Sages are not responsible for our actions; we are! They don’t judge us. We must judge ourselves. They hold the keys to a better education, yes! But they don’t hold the keys of judgement or rulership. God in no way gave such authority to them.
I’m thankful for an alternative view that challenges me to think. But I’m disappointed that there are Jews that hold to it. But why should I be disappointed unless I’m expecting some sort of perfection from each and every Jew? No, that would be asking too much. But the fact is that we Gentiles get different and conflicting opinions from Jews so often, sometimes even undermining the divine basis of the Seven Commandments. These opinions can come from the bog-standard Jew or someone claiming to be a rabbi. And we are left to fend for ourselves in a lot of ways, or some of us bind ourselves to certain Jews and rabbis and therefore reject the statements of other rabbis and Jews.
This is why it is so important for us to study for ourselves as much as possible. If it’s possible, we need to study from the source texts as much as possible. Because once we know the foundations of the laws, and become sure on them, then we will be more able to handle the different opinions. And then we may start the process of not just becoming another religion, but making a real difference in the Gentile world.