Why a Noahide declaration is unnecessary
As usual, I have to get the disclaimers out of the way first. I know how prone my articles are to being misunderstood, so let me get this out of the way now.
I am not condemning anyone, any Gentile, who chooses to go before three rabbis or Torah-observant Jews and give a public oath or declaration to keep the Seven Commandments (unless they did it because they thought it was a divine obligation). This article is just in response to something I saw being taught by a Jewish website that teaches the Noahide Commandments.
OK, let me get into this now.
Ceremonies aren’t part of the core Seven Universal Commandments. There is no command from God to Gentiles to perform any ceremony. And we Gentiles are forbidden from saying that God commanded something when he didn’t.
But there is no commandment against ceremonies either. If you wanted to have a marriage ceremony just for cultural reasons or because it was your personal desire to have one, that is fine. We Gentiles have a lot of freedom where that is concerned. If you want to have a graduation ceremony or have a celebration to parade a new baby or the fact that you passed a test, as long as it is not made out to be a divine obligation (and it doesn’t uphold the breaking of any of the seven laws), it’s all fine.
ASIDE: Ooops! I think with what I put between those last brackets/parentheses, I inadvertently condemned the inauguration ceremonies for most of the leaders of the world’s governments. LOL!
They took it too far
But it is taught by some that a declaration before three Torah observant Jews is necessary for a Gentile to get some reward for observing the Seven Commandments. This is a must if you want some sort of status change according to them.
Let me explain.
There are places in the Talmud that speak of the nations of the world, the descendants of Noah, rejecting the Seven Commandments. According to these Talmudic texts (Tractate Avodah Zarah 2b and Tractate Bava Kamma 38a), because of this rejection, God “released” the nations of the world from the Seven Commandments. The Talmud goes on to explain what it means by this. It says that even if a Gentile keeps the Seven Commandments, he or she will only be rewarded as if that person is only keeping it when it hasn’t been commanded. There is a greater reward for a person who keeps something that has been commanded.
Now a number of things should be understood.
1) What I stated above is only a summary of what the texts say, not of what they really mean or their full implications.
2) The texts above do not say that the obligation of all Gentiles to keep the Seven Commandments is gone. They are still very much binding. They are only saying that the reward has been lessened. Again, point 1) stands.
3) The texts above do not overtly state in what way the reward has been lessened.
So to reiterate, this text doesn’t speak of the diminishing of the obligation, only of the reward in some unknown way.
Now some rabbis teach that in order for a person to get the full reward, in order for a Gentile to be rewarded as if he or she is commanded, it is necessary that that Gentile perform an oath and declaration before 3 rabbis or Torah observant Jews. This oath must at least contain an affirmation to keep the Seven Commandments, and can include some allegiance to Israel and the rabbinical tradition.
Before I continue, I must say again, going through with such a ceremony, declaring such an oath, in and of itself, is fine. A Gentile can do whatever they choose to do as long as it doesn’t contradict at least the basic Seven Commandments, and, at best, doesn’t contradict human decency.
What is questionable here is the “must”, the necessity.
Some claim that such a practice is derived from another section of the Talmud and Rambam.
The Talmudic text referred to seems to be Tractate Avodah Zarah 64b where it asks what a ger toshav (normally translated “resident foreigner”, i.e., a foreigner residing legally in a Jewish community or in the Torah-keeping nation of Israel) is. One answer given is a person who takes upon himself in the presence of three Jews not to worship idols. Another answer is any Gentile who takes upon himself the Seven Commandments.
That’s all that is relevant to this article. So there’s nothing there that relates directly to the issue above, that someone makes a Gentile now worthy of a “full reward”.
Some have referred to Rambam, and his book, the Mishneh Torah. In chapter 8 of the chapter called “Laws of Kings and Wars”, in halachah 10, it says that a gentile who formally accepts the Seven Commandments in front of three Torah scholars becomes a ger toshav, a resident foreigner/alien. And this can be done in any place.
But anyone studying Rambam would know that there is a limitation to this status of a resident alien. In the chapter of that same Mishneh Torah called Issurei Biah, in chapter 14, it says the following (quoted from http://www.chabad.org):
What is meant by a resident alien? A gentile who makes a commitment not to worship false deities and to observe the other [six] universal laws commanded to Noah’s descendants. He does not circumcise himself or immerse. We accept this commitment and he is considered one of the pious gentiles.
Why is he called a resident? Because we are permitted to allow him to dwell among us in Eretz Yisrael, as explained in Hilchot Avodah Zarah.
We accept resident aliens only during the era when the Jubilee year is observed. In the present era, even if a gentile makes a commitment to observe the entire Torah with the exception of one minor point, he is not accepted.
So speaking practically, taking such an oath has no value. Legally speaking, no one can become a ger toshav
But let’s notice something a bit more specific to this article: this still says absolutely nothing about changing a person in such a way that they will now get the full reward. Nothing clearly stated in the Mishneh Torah would lead to such a conclusion of this change in status where, upon taking this oath or declaration, a Gentile now gets rewarded as if he were commanded, i.e., the fuller reward.
To quote Mori Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron’s book, Guide for the Noahide, being versed in Rambam:
… until the [legal] status of geruth toshav is restored, no oath or verbal affirmation of one’s loyalty to the Noahide Laws before Jews of any rank serves any halakhic (legal) purpose. Notwithstanding the rabbinical opinion that such an oath is what can enable a Noahide to have merit for keeping the Noahide laws; Mishneh Torah does not recognize any such prerequisite to the attaining the Heavenly reward that is promised to all righteous human beings … The Noahide who has made such an oath or statement – even before prominent rabbis – is no more a Noahide than one who has not. …
Sadly, there are Noahides who, without mentioning names, relate to an oath before rabbis, an oath by a Torah scroll, or circumcision as the only means by which a non-Jew can achieve eternal life (the Life of the World to Come), or earn eternal reward for Torah observance. Although they have been misled to such ideas by Torah scholars, we understand that such Noahides and their teachers are not only placing artificial and non-existing limits on HaShem’s compassion for righteous non-Jews, but those Noahides are thereby transgressing the rabbinical Noahide prohibition of adding religious customs and obligations which they deem to have the status of law. (Part 2B section 5. Regarding Geruth Toshav and Noahide Oaths, emphasis his, square brackets mine)
My thoughts exactly.
So we’ve still got nothing to go on.
An understanding of this “release”
As I said before, I only summarized what the Talmud said regarding the “releasing” of the Gentiles from the Seven Commandments. I didn’t go through what it actually meant. Rabbi Moshe ben Chaim of mesora.org in his audio lecture “Did God ever release Gentiles from their 7 Noachide Laws?” and the commentator of the Soncino edition of the Talmud give an understanding of the passage in Tractate Avodah Zarah 2b. I’ll summarize the understanding that comes from both of them after I quote footnote 2 of Tractate Avodah Zarah 3a from the Soncino edition which discusses the understanding of getting rewarded.
The idea underlying this principle is the contrast between the Autonomy of the Will and the Law of God as the Authority to Man. The moral act finds its sure basis only when it is conceived as prompted by the command of God. When man acts in obedience thereto the merit is thus greater.
The explanation of the Soncino edition and the explanation of Rabbi ben Chaim give at least one understanding of the words of the rabbis in this passage. This section of Talmud is not dealing with halakhah but rather with Midrash. There is no historical basis for what is going on in this whole passage to say that this happened at a particular time in history. So it is teaching a principle rather than telling us what happened literally at some point in history. What is the principle? Look at what the Soncino edition says above. What is being taught is that there is a difference between keeping the commandments out of desire or because they appeal to one’s intellect, and keeping the commandments because God commanded them. As Soncino says, and as is taught in other places, when a person is acting out of obedience to God, the merit is greater. Therefore the reward is greater.
The outflow and conclusion of this understanding: a Gentile should ideally take on the Seven Commandments because they were commanded by God. That is what gives a greater “reward”, linking to God through his commands, rather than just deriving the strength of one’s morality just from one’s desires or intellect.
Don’t lose me yet. I’m not rubbishing or trashing living in accordance to the commands due to one’s desires or intellect. I’ll come back to that in the next section.
I’m not going to use this time and space to deal with the exact wording of the text and why this explanation is consistent with everything else that is said about Gentiles keeping God’s law. There is no point as few religious “noahides” will take the word of a Gentile (yeah, I’m a Gentile) when it comes to interpreting Talmud. I don’t think many Jews would give my words much weight either. That’s why I’ll just drop in the words of the Soncino edition of the Talmud and a rabbi and then move forward.
Another understanding of the text can be seen in Alan Cecil’s book, Secular by Design, where he states on page 419,
The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3a) presents another problem with the interpretation of the Noahide Law, which explains that the reward for a Noahide keeping the Sheva Mitzvot is the reward for one who is not commanded certain mitzvot but keeps them anyway. According to Rashi in his commentary (cf. Avodah Zarah 6a and Bava Kamma 38a), Noahides only receive the reward (of fulfilling a mitzvot they have been commanded) for the positive performance of the precepts (although they are still under obligation—and punishment—for violating them). The Tosafot steps in here and explains that the yetzer harah—man’s evil inclination—is much stronger against the performance of commandments one is obligated to perform, and thus the reward for doing the obligatory commandments is far greater than the reward for doing commandments one is not obligated to do. Therefore, according to the Talmud, even a mamzer who is a Torah scholar is held in higher regard than an unlearned Kohen Gadol (which, after the late Second Temple era, was too often the case). It is no accident that here in Avodah Zara 3a, a section of the Talmud that discusses the Noahide Law, is found the dictum that “he who is commanded and does stands higher than he who is not commanded and does.” (emphasis mine)
My main points aren’t hinged on this section. But at least I posited something positive for what it means rather than just leaving a gap.
What is clear; distraction using rewards
Let me reiterate what is clear so far for Gentiles and the Seven Commandments, and bring in some other threads of knowledge to at least get some clarity on this.
What is most important is that the Seven Commandments are still very much binding on Gentiles. There is very little to refute that in Jewish tradition. So that means it is still severely wrong if any Gentile breaks any of them.
With or without any pledge, “the righteous of the nations merit a place in the World to Come.” That is inferred from the Talmud and stated clearly by the Tosafos.
Another very important point is that all this talk of “reward” is really a distraction for what I said is most important. I’ve spent most of this article so far focusing on this reward aspect and a person being rewarded as if he or she was or was not commanded. But the real point is that where it matters – our everyday life here and now – this reward stuff means nothing except trying to make the deal attractive.
What is most important is for us and for the whole Gentile world to be living in accordance with the core prohibitions of the Seven Universal Commandments. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to believe in God. It means that all the world needs to avoid all the acts that the Seven Commandments forbids. The very fact that these acts are avoided are good within themselves. For there to be a lack of injustice in the world, or a lack of murder or theft, these things are great for society, even if the governments or law-establishment doesn’t recognise God as the source of the commands. Avoiding evil acts is a good unto itself. To help someone to at least live a better life is a step forwards for everyone. That is what can promote fertile ground within the heart of that person to accept the truth of God himself. But if they don’t, such is life. At least we helped make real the purpose of the Seven Commandments: to make a civilised and properly habitable society and world.
So just to assist a person in coming to the logical conclusion or to gain the desire that it is good to avoid the acts prohibited in the Seven Commandments is still good. That person can receive much blessing for such good in this life. And making such a difference will have positive effects for the society and for this world. It is an ideal for people to acknowledge God but that doesn’t have to be the only goal.
This brings to mind that the written Torah, the five books of Moses, doesn’t focus on some afterlife or World to Come. The benefits of obeying God’s commands, at least according to the written Torah, were focused on this life. [That’s not to say that it was the only focus.] One important aim of the commandments was to make this life better. The same is very much true for the Seven Commandments. One important aim of the Seven Laws is to establish good building blocks for the foundation of society. This is part of the reason why all this focus on reward, a fuller or lesser one, especially in the World to Come, is a distraction. It is so much more vital that we focus on the job here and now, on obeying the Commandments here and now, in promoting the correction of behaviour in our society here and now, whether such promotion uses the God-principle or not.
The benefits of the public declaration today
Now there is a man who helped me to respect the ceremony of the oath more. I won’t name him as I don’t have his consent. He and his wife took part in the ceremony and took the oath. The way he described it to me reminded me of marriage and the positive aspect of weddings. He told me that his focus wasn’t on some reward. In his mind, it wasn’t about it being some sort of necessity. It was just a public declaration of a commitment already made. I respected that in this gentleman.
Also I know that it can help a Gentile and provoke him to keep staying true to his commitment when he has an event, a public event, in his history that marked the formalization of such a commitment. The fact is that he made himself accountable to other people, and the memory of those real witnesses will encourage him to proceed with faithfulness in the path that he has chosen.
So there is good benefit in performing such a ceremony and taking such an oath.
I would just resist this insistence that it is necessary, that it is a “must”, in order to get some better reward. I see no significant evidence that taking this oath guarantees this “better” reward.
I won’t address the kabbalistic element of this claim which states that this oath somehow changes a person. That has little to do with the practical performance of commandments and one’s adherence to them.
To end, I’ll just reiterate two main points.
With or without this pledge, the righteous of the nations of the world have a place in the World to Come. (That’s if reward is that important to you.)
With or without this pledge, the Seven Commandments are still binding on Gentiles.
So with or without this oath/pledge, let’s strive to keep them and to improve the world by them.
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