Loving God, Loving Torah – and I’m a Gentile!
Over the past weeks I’ve had my interactions with a few characters which varying beliefs, rabbis denigrating the origin, source, and nature of the Seven Commandments, Gentiles wanting to become Jews because they don’t want to suffer for one reason or another, rabbis denigrating the “noahide movement” as it now is. And now the Jewish festival of Pesach or Passover comes knowing that some Gentiles will try to do what they can to keep it or its associated festival, the Days of Unleavened Bread, in some form or fashion.
All this brings to my mind something that has been a constant theme of my blog. And I just thought I’d use this time to just share it one more time.
I’m a Gentile
So I was having a disagreement with a guy who claimed to be a rabbi. And it came to him defining the word “noahide”. According to him, it was the same as a “ger toshav”. What’s a “ger toshav”? It’s a Hebrew term a gentile who is allowed to reside, or who resides, in Israel with limited rights having made a formal declaration in front of rabbis to keep the seven commandments. According to some rabbis, such an entity has no legal existence these days.
Some time ago I had another disagreement with a rabbi who was claiming that his expertise in Hebrew allowed him to see how different Hebrew terms regarding resident status in Israel show that Gentiles were allowed to keep so many of the Jewish commandments. He has a Gentile following.
And over my time and travels through the internet, I’ve seen so many various interpretations and views about what it means to be a “noahide” and what interaction this entity called “noahide” has with Jews and rabbis. The fact is that people are people and no matter what you investigate, there are many different views on important subjects. We’re all individual, right? Individual mind, individual thoughts, and thus a world of ideas.
And I’ve gained some understanding about myself and have reached some conclusions of my own that have helped me understand my place in the world and my relationship to Torah and the custodians of Torah, the Jews. I think the most important one is as follows: I’m a Gentile.
I’m using an English word because – and this may surprise you (sarcasm) – I speak English as a native language. By Gentile, I simply mean that I am not a Jew.
Now some may say that this is not the most ground-breaking of discoveries. But it is quite important once a person starts to get some specific knowledge about the seven commandments we Gentiles are obligated, commanded (by God) to keep and the people who have been holding this knowledge for us.
Black and White
So the Jews who have remained faithful to their heritage have in their position not only our seven commandments in their possession for us, but they also have their own responsibilities and obligations, their 613 laws.
Now here’s where I introduce basic logic. The Jews have their God-given commandments, and we Gentiles have our God-given commandments. Although details may overlap, these are two different sets of laws for two different sets of people. This is where my earlier conclusion steps in and says “I’m a Gentile, so I’ll keep the God-given commandments for Gentiles”. There is something that follows on from that. I’m not a Jew, so I don’t keep Jewish commandments as if they’ve been commanded to Gentiles. Some other ideas follows. For example, I’m not a Jew. My aim is not to emulate Jews. I’m not becoming a Jew any time soon for various reasons. So certain times of the year or week that are special to them because of their commandment are not special for me based on my commandments. As I don’t live near any Jews (would it matter if I did?), I don’t have to shape my life according to these times that are irrelevant to my Gentile commandments or purpose. In fact, I shouldn’t even add the words “have to”: I don’t shape my life around these times that are of immense value for Jews but totally irrelevant to my divine obligation.
It’s important now to say that I’m only referring to “time”, i.e. the set apart period of time where Jews must do a special act to commemorate some aspect of their history or to obey something commanded in their law. I’m not talking about the message. There are many universal messages to the Jewish set apart days. The message of the days are not limited to the set apart days themselves. The message of freedom, or purity, or repentance, they can be learnt any time of the year by anyone. Whether we are talking about Pesach, Shavuot, Succot, whatever holiday has a universal message that can be learnt any time of the year. The days themselves are not part of our commandment, but the messages themselves can be quite universal. But it is their time, the Jews’ time, not mine.
Again, I have to clarify something again. Some may say that these are God’s times, not just the Jews’. Whether we are talking about Shabbat or Rosh haShannah or whatever, someone is bound to say “since these are times chosen by God, surely anyone can join in.” What is missed is that the issue is not whether God chose the times but who he commanded concerning the keeping of those times. I can say one thing for sure. It wasn’t the Gentiles who remain part of Gentile societies and are not somehow joined, not just to a Jewish rabbi, but to the Jewish community.
I know, I’m talking in stark, black and white, terms: Gentiles and Jews. I believe where it comes to responsibility and roles and the core commandments we are supposed to keep, it is that stark! Speaking in general – excuse the Hebrew – there are just bnei Noach and bnei Yisrael, Gentiles in general and the covenant people of Israel. There may be a bit of grey when it comes to a Gentile becoming a Jew, but that’s mostly it in this day and age.
It would be a mistake to think I’m encouraging total segregation, one group from another. There can be much beneficial, although limited, interaction between Gentiles and Jews. As I’ve said before, there are overlaps, where details of our seven commandments can be found in their law. There are many laws they have which are similar to what can be derived from the human mind logically – and therefore are rationally obligatory to us gentiles (rationally obligatory, not divinely) – and thus we can learn from the Jews. (No, making sure to rest on a Saturday rather than any other day, or keeping a festival of freedom specifically on the 14th of a Jewish month call Aviv or Nisan is not logical.) For example, honoring parents and avoiding gossip, a morally aware Gentile can come to the conclusions that these principles are important to improve his relationships. Although they may not be overtly commanded, they have selfish (not in a bad way) and social positive impacts.
But there is no need for blurring, where all of a sudden people are questioning whether I’m Jewish or not. Just imagine, in my workplace, someone asks “David, why are you taking the next few days off?”. If my response is “I’m just taking part in [insert Jewish commanded set apart day here]”, you can almost guess what the person’s next question is going to be: “are you Jewish?” No matter what my intention may be, pure or not, in many ways the lines have started to blur between Jew and Gentile. And as previous articles have stated, this can be harmful to how Jews themselves are viewed. When you think in terms of God saying to the Jews “I have set you apart” and then some Gentiles want to join the bandwagon without becoming Jews, it can turn the whole “holiness” concept into a mockery.
There should be a clear delineation and distintion between what is Gentile and Jewish responsibility (although there is some overlap) to avoid any confusion, to avoid the creation or upkeep of any novel Gentile religion which tries to cut itself off from Gentiles on a whole. The Seven Commandments are meant to enrich the lives of all Gentiles, not segregate one set from another because one set as special knowledge, special Jewish knowledge. It is better that one is separated just by the fact that one is decent and upstanding, rather than because he has a special name or title that distinguishes himself from others.
Loving God and Torah
As far as I can see, there are three main responsibilities of a Gentile. One is the Seven Commandments, the others are living up to the image of God we were created in, and settling the world. To transliterate the Hebrew terms of them, they would be the sheva mitzvos, tzelem elokim, and yishuv olom. I’ve already talked about the seven commandments, so I’ll discuss the other two for a little bit.
The “image of God” teaching simply means that, beyond the Seven Laws, we humans are meant to be not just decent people (but that is a part of it), but also conscious, morally aware, and purposeful beings. The Seven Laws provides a basis, a foundation, but, even without become Jews, we are capable of much more. Just see what the following writer had to say about how this touches upon acknowledging God.
In view of Judaism, every human being is expected to recognize God and His attributes … only a purified awareness of God makes a man truly human. If I were gifted with the purest, most sublime perception of God and His attributes but had not crossed the threshold of Judaism, I would be nothing more (but also nothing less) than an ordinary human being. That kind of perception does not require a knowledge of the Torah. The very fact that this knowledge is expected of all men, including those who did not receive the Torah from God at Mount Sinai, is proof that such a knowledge about God does not require Torah study and that, through Judaism, the Torah was intended to give something additional and much more far-reaching to mankind as a whole … (Hirsch, Collected Writings, Vol. VII, 33–34)
A poignant commentary was written about this and about our seven laws and the Torah.
If it is obedience and not faith that makes a Jew a Jew, then it is also obedience and not faith that makes a Noahide a Noahide, for the Seven Laws are a part of Torah-observant Judaism, not a separate “religion.” This is why the Noahide Law is only found in the Talmud, a book that has been long closed to the non-Jew. The Seven Laws of Noah are neither a “religion” nor should they be viewed simply as a list of commandments; the Noahide Code is the non-Jew’s interface to the Torah.
In Devarim 27:8 it states “And you shall write upon the stones all the words of this Law very plainly.” According to Rashi, this meant that the Torah was written in the seventy languages of man, intelligible to all, so that all mankind could learn the Torah. Far from being a closed book, the Torah was for all mankind, a guide for both the Jews and the non-Jews. (Alan Cecil, Secular by Design, pg 402)
It should be known that there is a difference between Torah and “Judaism”. Torah is the revelation of God that reveals our nature, obligation and purpose and much more. It is a teaching, an instruction, that relates objective morality for both Jew and Gentile, but it especially was used to govern the nation of Israel. Israel are the custodians of Torah, no other nation. It was the basis of the national law of Israel. It was meant to also be the basis of international law by means of the 7 laws. “Judaism” is a more modern term relating a religion of the Jews (as the name implies). It was a name given to the way of life practiced by Jews to help the Gentile world understand and relate to this special worldview Jews have. As should be seen, Torah came before “Judaism”. Torah is the fulness for anyone. Judaism, although a term used in the mouthe of Jews and Gentile today, is a limited term that misses a lot of what Torah is meant to be for the Jews.
Based on all this, there is something natural about a Gentile loving Torah and loving God without having to be seen as being a Jew or without emulating special Jewish practices.
The concept of “settling the world” can be explained by the following:
The Oral Torah tradition from Mount Sinai explains that G-d’s desire for the world “to be inhabited” is that there should be Gentile societies that are the positive opposite of the negative [bewilderment, chaos, unsettling nature] of tyranny and anarchy. This positive human societal condition that is desired by G-d is expressed by the famous phrase, “yishuv olom” (“settling the world” – that the world should be “settled down”), which means civilized and peaceful coexistence in which people form societies in which they benefit from each other, rather than being harmed by each other. (Dr Michael Schulman of asknoah.org, http://asknoah.org/forum/showthread.php?tid=1892&pid=3863#pid3863)
It remains one of our lasting and constant obligations that doesn’t take a day off. Its scope is so emcompassing that it goes from individual responsibility to societal responsibility. It is linked to every one of our seven commandments, especially to our prohibition against injustice.
What should be obvious or at least clear is that none of these aspects of our responsibility is religious per se but both are immense in span, scope and detail. There is no part of them that tells you to do special symbolic or “spiritual” acts certain times of the day, certain times in the year. The Gentile responsibility is constant. Even the acknowledgement of God is not a religious thing per so, it’s just part of being human.
The same cannot be said for certain Jewish laws and practices, like their holy days and the fringes, the mezuzot, the tefillin, etc, things that have to do with their special role, their set apart status. The purpose of the seven commandments is not for a Gentile to be holy or set apart. That’s the purpose of Jewish laws. (Don’t mistake “holy” for “good” or “righteous”) The purpose of a Gentile is not to be holy, and segregated from his community due to sanctifying deeds, as Israel’s laws help segregate them from the nations, to limit their interaction. The purpose of a Gentile is the settling of the world, being a true human, and all this on the basis of our seven laws. The purpose of the Gentile is not to become like a Jew, unless he wants to become one. The purpose of a Gentile is to be the best Gentile he can be. That’s probably why there is no divine commandment whatsoever that states that a Gentile must become a Jew. Those mistaken Jews who think in religious terms and think one important purpose of theirs is to “proselytise” as if they possessed some missionary “religion” like christianity or islam have missed the point. They were not to “go through all lands converting all to become christia … sorry, I meant Jewish.” Why? Because the problem with the world was not that it wasn’t Jewish. It may have been that with the amount of injustice, war, idolatry, theft, murder, sexual licentiousness and misuse of nature for our own cravings, the Gentiles were struggling to even attain the level of a human made in God’s image, as opposed to some intelligent animal on two legs, no better that the snake in the garden of Eden, something that has the appearance of intelligence and speech yet just runs on passion and instinct, just “one from the animals”.
The seven laws are our way back, and it’s accessible to everyone. It lays out a broad plan to essentially regain our humanity, our divine image. The aim is not for us to become the priests of mankind, although the way is open for that. But the aim is for us to be the best of mankind, real humanity, aware, conscious. And the most important difference is not what you know, but what you do. That’s why even an atheist, even a christian, even a muslim, even a “noahide”, no matter what illusory title one holds – can keep the basic elements of the seven laws and show real human decency.
Back on track
So I’m a Gentile, not a Jew. My aim to not to copy Jewish practices, or to modify them to make “universal”. I’m not searching for a Jewish community to be a part of. The occasional articles that asks “how does a ‘noahide’ keep [insert Jewish festival here]?” have little to no relevance to my obligations to God. When I see people ask “can a Gentile wear [insert Jewish commanded piece of clothing here]?” my first and natural thought is not “oh what an incredible sage having becoming so expert at the seven laws, and mastered the activities of human decency and “settling the earth” to such a complete extent that they can now look at extra subjects outside of these realms inside of Jewish law!”
There is too much for us as Gentiles to do to continue to distract ourselves with “what the Jews do”. I look around at the world around me and the world inside of me knowing that there is so much more to do as a Gentile.
So that’s why the one of the first things I had to learn is that I’m not a Jew: I’m a Gentile. And there’s plenty to get done.