Reinventing the Noahide Movement

Written by Alan Cecil, edited by David Dryden.

The modern “Noahide movement” has been around for around thirty years now. Although it has spread around the world, its numbers are still surprisingly small and the movement itself is disorganized. If the “Noahide movement” is to grow and survive – let alone make a real difference in the world – it is going to have to make some fundamental changes (pun intended).

One of the greatest problems with the “Noahide movement” is that for many decades it has catered to a very narrow demographic: the older, conservative, and usually ex-Evangelical Christians. This group makes up the bulk of Seven-Law-cognizant Gentiles. There are some young people in the movement, and those from different religious faiths such as Islam and Hinduism, but for the most part, the majority of so-called Noahides are older ex-Christians. There are several causes for this, not the least that this group of Gentiles is portraying the Seven Laws of the descendants of Noah as a “religion.”

This is understandable since most people look at anything that has to do with the Bible being “religious.” The problem is that the Seven Commandments are not a religion, neither are they the basis of a religion. The root of this problem stems from an argument that occurred over 750 years ago between two Medieval rabbis of tremendous stature: Maimonides, known by his acronym RambaM (b. 1135, d. 1204), and Nachmonides (known by his acronym RambaN; b. 1194, d. 1270). Even though this debate occurred over seven centuries ago, its grave repercussions reverberate today amongst the “Noahides”.

RambaM, in his Code of Jewish Law the Mishna Torah, spoke of the Seven Laws in Hilchot Melachim chapters 8–10. RambaN expressed his disagreement to Maimonides’s interpretation of the Seven Commandments in a commentary to Bereishis 34:13.

The disagreement focused on the commandment of dinim, or social justice. According to RambaM, Gentiles fulfill the obligation to establish laws and courts by setting up “judges and magistrates in every major city to render judgment concerning these six commandments and to admonish the people.” RambaN, disagreeing with RambaM’s interpretation of the Seven Commandments, stated: “But these words are not sound in my opinion…[that the administration of] justice, that (the Sages) counted among the seven commandments (for Gentiles), does not mean, (as Rambam states), only that they are required to set up judges in every district (to judge offenses concerning only the other six divine commandments)…rather, (God) commanded 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.”

In other words, RambaN said that the law of social justice required Gentiles to develop a body of civil law “comparable” to the Torah; i.e., a law that was based on Torah, although not as strict or severe as Jewish law. This is different than the RambaM’s view that Gentiles were only required to set up courts in “every major city.” Although this might seem a trivial argument, it has great significance in how the Seven Law Code is to be implemented in Gentile societies. Many “Noahides” believe, since we already have courts, and that many of our laws have prohibitions against things such as murder and theft, that this part of the Seven Commandments has been fulfilled. We do have courts, but they are not courts of justice, i.e., Torah justice. Our legal system is not based on Torah, but rather is descended from English common law and Roman civil law.

The problem the RambaM had was that he was constrained in what he could say about the Seven Commandments. He could not say what he wanted about the law of social justice without angering the local Islamic religious leaders. Because of his position, he was halakhically bound to protect the Jewish communities in Egypt from reprisals. This obviously had an effect on RambaM’s interpretation of the Seven Commandments. He presented it as a code of personal salvation more than a moral and legal system for non-Jewish communities. This is not taken into account by today’s so-called “Noahides”, that the RambaM had to tone down his interpretation of the Seven Laws for the Mishna Torah. These are the same pressures today’s rabbis face when commenting about Christianity or Islam when living in a Christian or Islamic society. This seems to be one of the main reasons that rabbis push the Mishna Torah on today’s “Noahides” to portray the Seven Commandments as a benign personal system of faith rather than a society-altering moral and legal code. The problem is exacerbated by modern rabbis who look upon the “Noahide Movement” as little more than a social medium in which to develop potential converts to Judaism (ger tzaddikim). This would explain the recent rabbinic works on the Seven Commandments which detail things such as prayers and blessings for the Gentile.

Portraying Maimonides as the ultimate in rabbinic authority simply because the Mishna Torah was the only code that detailed the Seven Laws is intellectually dishonest. There is a lot of criticism about the Mishna Torah, much of it coming from rabbis who disagree with Maimonides, rabbis of the stature of Nachmonides, Rabbi Me’ir Abulafia, the author of the Yad Rama, the author of the Sefer haHinnuch, Rabbi Yehudah Alfacher, and Rabbi S. R. Hirsch. Many rabbis have sided with RambaN, particularly in defense of his interpretation of the Gentile law of social justice. To ignore these criticisms and to say that we must blindly follow RambaM’s rulings is both illogical and unreasonable. One must take into account the problems RambaM was faced with. The Mishna Torah is not wrong, it is simply a narrow and limited interpretation of the Seven Laws, an interpretation restricted by the pressures of the Islamic culture in which RambaM wrote. It is restricted to the observance of the individual with very little about community.

This brings us to the next question: how can the “Noahide movement” reach out to a younger demographic? How can a moral and legal code based on the Bible be appealing to intellectuals, the majority of whom are non-Christian, non-religious, or even atheistic? Again, the barrier that has kept many out of the “Noahide movement” is that the Seven Laws have been peddled as a “religion.” The majority of modern day “Noahides” believe that the belief in God must be a prerequisite to being an observant Gentile. Halakhically, this is wrong.

You see, the Seven Laws are all prohibitions. In other words, the non-Jew is only commanded on what NOT to do. A Gentile has the individual freedom to do whatever he or she wants as long as they do not violate the Seven Laws. The law of idolatry directed to Gentiles only prohibits the worship of any other god except the One God, the God of Abraham. There is no positive commandment to believe in God, according to the Seven Commandments. Since atheists do not believe in any divine being, they do not violate this prohibition. This is why the “descendants of Noah” is not about religion; you can be an “observant” “Noahide” or Gentile (non-Jew) even if you are an atheist. This is what makes the Seven Law Code different from every other Western “religion.” An atheist who observes the prohibitions of the Seven Laws is, in fact, an observant “Noahide”/Gentile.

Because of this focus of the Seven Commandments being a “religion,” it exacerbates another problem: the lack of intellectual leadership within the “Noahide movement”. By insisting that you must believe in God in order to be an “observant Noahide,” you exclude the intellectual, the “wise of the nations.” Without intellectual leadership, without the “Noahide Movement” reaching out to a younger and more intellectual demographic, the “Noahide Movement” is likely to fizzle out. Only intellectual leadership can invigorate the promulgation of the Seven Commandments. Only intellectuals can bring to the table the remedial knowledge needed to integrate the Seven Commandments into our society.

Of course, many atheists are atheists simply because they do not want anyone imposing any sort of morality on them; they want to practice their hedonism unhindered by any ethics or value system, particularly if it is biblically based. There are, however, many atheists who recognize that a lack of moral values is corroding our society. Many secular atheists try to support a morality based on the ethical teachings of philosophy. There have been many great secular philosophers in the past three hundred years such as Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, and Mill, but there are limitations of philosophy, particularly in their practical application to politics and economics. No matter how eloquent and sound their systems of philosophy are theoretically, they simply do not work in the real world. We have seen a great deal of warfare in the past century between the nations of the “enlightened” West, the oppression of the poor, the subjugation of the peoples of Kenya and India. The deeds of Germany, the most “civilized” Western nation during the early part of the twentieth century, speak for themselves. Only a moral and ethical system based on the Torah can alleviate the social problems facing the nations, a system designed to create a fair economic, political, and legal structure while allowing for the greatest amount of freedom for the individual.

Most of the animosity atheists have towards the Torah comes from the viewpoint of Christian theological interpretations, which is usually the only interpretations they are aware of. Atheists look at the Bible as being a “Christian” book, and buy into the false Christian teaching that the “Old” and “New” Testaments are one book. They do not realize that, according to Seven Commandments, the worship of many Christians is idolatrous, violating the prohibition against the worship of false gods such as Jesus. And the religion itself, for the most, revolts against the Seven Commandments and the logical obligation that no human should add to or diminish from God’s Law.

This gives atheists an unbelievable opportunity to turn the tables on Christians, to use their own Bible against them. Instead of bashing the Bible, atheists should embrace the Seven Commandments. The freedom of this Torah Code for Gentiles is that every individual can be as “spiritual” as they want to be. The richness of the Torah includes practices such as meditation, mysticism, a “religious” structure that is thousands of years old. But these things are discretionary, not mandatory. What the Seven Laws prohibits is organized religion. The abuses we have seen in Christianity and other organized faiths can be curtailed. What the Seven Laws teaches are fundamental obligations which protect the basic “rights” of other, legal rights that may be included in a system of law. Take, for example, women’s rights. Unlike the Western Christian nations, the Torah has always allowed women to own and inherit property, to run a business. These are fairly recent developments in Western Culture. The Torah has always prohibited a husband from raping his wife, something which was legal in both America and Britain until the late twentieth century.

All in all, the Torah outlook for Gentiles – the descendants of Noah – is a Bible-based “religion” for people who hate religion.

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10 Comments

  1. Pat

    Much needed information. Thank you.

  2. Jim

    David,

    I agree mostly with what is written here. But I do still see one very large problem. We may be able to say that one need honor God or even believe in God to keep the Noahide commandments, but they do rest on a divine foundation. Even atheists who do believe in a need for morality do not accept an objective standard for morality. They have their own thoughts on it. If we bring them the seven commandments, we are bringing them an objective standard that implies the existence of God. So, even though they do not have to acknowledge God explicitly, by accepting Torah, they are being asked to do so implicitly. I do not wish to be a naysayer, but I think this will prove to be a very difficult hurdle.

    And I would not like to clear that hurdle by appealing to appealing to their spite. Turning the tables on Christians might give them motivation in the short term for accepting the Noahide laws, but in the end we’ll have a bunch of people who don’t believe that the Torah came from God considering themselves experts in it. And if they are more interested in sticking it to the Christians than in the objective value of the commandments, I am afraid we will end up with a “reform” Noahide movement. If they begin by denying God, they will end by denying the details of the commandments when they disagree with them.

    If I sound pessimistic, forgive me. The problems that you and Mr. Cecil have identified are all too real. And I do not wish to say that there are no answers. It may be that you are on the right trail. At the least, I am grateful that you are thinking about these problems and making me think about them more thoroughly than I have.

    Jim

    • Jim,

      Thank you very much for your constructive criticism. I didn’t see any pessimism, only some valid concerns. I think it is a valid concern that atheists don’t accept any objective moral standards, or at least that it cannot exist in their worldview. I think that the observation that you brought out reflects the same conflict that is within me. But i still felt that the article should be put forward.

      The difficulty in our day and age is that morality is relative and can be rationalised. Without the objective standard, any argument can be used to justify one thing or another. And there are so many worldviews out there, so many different ideas, each requiring somebody’s active choice to be able to commit to it, part of me is still convinced that we can only get such a worldwide change in the days of messiah. I don’t know if it’s possible to convince everybody to accept the noahide laws for one reason or another, let alone the atheists.

      But on the other hand I know that the 7 commandments do not command a belief in God. I know that without that foundation people can still live a decent and moral life, avoiding the acts prohibited by the 7 commandments. In light of this, it may be possible to convince at least some people of the morality within the 7 commandments without giving people 7 distinct commandments that they must keep. In fact, I think that that is a very powerful point. The talmud states (or at least the Tosafos, but this seems to be a generally accepted torah teaching) that the righteous over the nations shall receive a share in the world to come. And I’ve always wondered to myself whether Rambam was right when he said that only those gentiles who know God and know that he gave the 7 laws to Moses at Mount Sinai have a place in the world to come; or whether the statement about the righteous of the nations of the world would a lot more general than that. Part of me can understand why people would accept the doctrine that a gentle have to have a certain mental conviction to get a place in the world to come. But then another part of me could understand why it’s not necessarily what a person has in mind but rather how they actually asked and behave in this world that makes the difference. No I am not endorsing any sort of reform “Noahidism” (silent vomit at the term “noahidism). Reform Judaism says dispense with obeying (some of) God’s commandments, even in your actions. I’m asking Gentiles to keep a basic morality regardless of whether they accept God or not.

      And yet it seems to come full circle back to needing an objective standard for morality, the only one being God. But a Gentile can avoid what is prohibited in the core commandments without a conscious acceptance of God. I can understand getting assistance from intellectual atheists on pragmatic grounds, just as I would for any intellectual, especially if they were moral individuals. But there will be the risk of them rationalising themselves out of keeping the commandments. But – a big but – we still have the words of the Maharal of Prague (I think – see the beginning of Rabbi Yoel Schwartz’s work “noahide commandments” where this following thing is mentioned) where it is said that if a bad man starts to do good things and he starts to make the habit, then they will start to change him into a good man (and vice versa). So an atheist studying the 7 commandments may be potentially a better thing then we both imagine. Think about it! The talmud again states that a gentile who studies the 7 commandments attains a level similar to the high priest! So an atheist studying the 7 commandments may be the means for his improvement!

      All of this is just me sharing my thoughts. I hope there was some sense in this all. Feel free to let me know what you think. But thanks again for at least forcing me to think a bit more.

  3. Helen Humphreys

    Thanks so much David. All this resonates with me. Love your articles. Keep up the good work.

    • Why thank you, my dear! Much appreciated. I’ll keep on thinking and sharing

  4. DP

    Jim’s comment on a “Reform” Noahide movement and the subsequent discussion sparked my attention. Such a movement, alongside a more evangelical, small-c conservative movement, might not necessarily be a bad thing.

    There are Noahides who are quite “Orthodox” on idolatry and blasphemy, but an evangelical, small-c conservative movement might have no room for those who lean Conservative/Reform/Reconstructionist/other on cruelty to animals or on theology. Typically, those who are less “Orthodox” on cruelty to animals are stricter and more passionate on this than those declaring that they’re against “cutting limbs off living animals.”

    On theology, I’ll reference Maimonides’ principles of faith to refer to:

    1) Those who believe in a finite G-d, because of the problem of evil, and magnified by Holocaust theology.

    2) Those who believe in a more concrete Noahide canon than just the Hebrew Bible – including one or more books “discovered” by a Noahide that are “divinely inspired” by the apocryphal Book of Jubilees, the two Mishneh Torah chapters on the Noahide laws, the relevant Shulchan Aruch material for Noahides, etc. and/but more importantly that do not add or subtract from the Noahide laws themselves.

    Because most Noahides don’t have time in their daily lives to go through the ultra-encyclopedic, debate-laden Talmud, much less the even bigger Shulchan Aruch, there may be some who prefer a “divinely inspired” combination of Maimonides’ concise approach with more benevolent intentions behind the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, some Christian canonizations of apocryphal books, etc. “The Bible says this! The Bible says that!”

    This Noahide canon, superceding Gentile study of the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch themselves, could even include a “divinely inspired” epic retelling of the story of Noah, but based on something like that most Jewish of biblical films in Aronofsky’s Noah, so long as the expectedly lengthier commandments exposition that follows is faithful to one or more of the Jewish halakhic literature mentioned above.

    3) Those who believe in the Documentary Hypothesis with regards to authorship of the Torah and Early Nevi’im.

    4) Those who believe only in a messianic age, but not in any individual messiah.

    Then, of course, a more evangelical, small-c conservative movement such as that in the Bible Belt would clash with a non-Orthodox Noahide movement on abortion.

    • I’ve been looking at your response, turning it over in my mind, trying to grasp the point of the response. And then it dawned on me! What this article warns against, and what others of my articles have spoken against, that’s exactly what is in your response. In comparing the “noahide movement” with xtianity, you’ve essentially made into a religion. “evangelical?” “little-c conservative?” Just as the reform Judaism entity is not good for Jews remaining faithful to the Torah tradition and is a blemish upon the history of the Jews, in very much the same way, a reform “noahide movement” would be a blemish, a hindrance, a negative. By limiting keeping the Torah Laws (either for Jews or for Gentiles) to some religion with adherents distorts and diminishes from the universal applicability of these laws. Being a noahide … man, that word just messes things up because once again it’s being used like “xtian” or “hindu”, somebody with a special meaningless badge or label.

      In essence, it’s about Jews keeping up with there obligations and those of the other nations getting on with theirs. It’s not about some religious “evangelical” clique and some amorphous beast attached to it in some loose way.

  5. DP

    Hesedyahu, like you said, the “older, conservative, and usually ex-Evangelical Christians” are the main demographic of the self-proclaimed Noahide movement, which is a big problem.

    When I embraced the laws of Noah long ago, I belonged to the younger demographic you mentioned. I belonged to a more evangelical Christian denomination, but I was more intellectual, and I certainly didn’t (and don’t) subscribe to a number of socially conservative views of theirs.

    Proof? You claim that “the reform Judaism entity” is “a blemish upon the history of the Jews,” but the only Jewish services I’ve consciously decided to attend over all those years are those in Reform synagogues. Points 1, 3, and 4 in my earlier response come from non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, including but not limited to Reform and Reconstructionist. Those same points are also my personal opinions, but for another place and time.

    Back to the “older, conservative, and usually ex-Evangelical Christians” demographic: Another theological problem I see with them is that they’re prone to perpetrating from the bully pulpit certain positions (not about the laws of Noah at all) I’ve come to disagree with. The shared Christian and Muslim concepts of “faith” and “surrendering to G-d” (Wikipedia on Surrender within religions), when juxtaposed with the Jewish concept of struggling with G-d, are concepts I’ve left behind.

    Also, the broader Noahide umbrella should reach out to introverts who don’t feel comfortable with the concept of church attendance (like you), just as much as it should more consciously reach out to younger intellectuals (like me back then). This umbrella should have room for the “loners,” as well as for a progressive movement or two, as well as for a small-c conservative movement (i.e., Orthodox-aligned).

    • I didn’t write this article. I only edited it. So it isn’t “like you said” or “demographic you mentioned”.

      I understand that you went to Reform synagogues. Just because you personally have benefitted from the blemish, that doesn’t make the blemish good. God uses many things for his purpose. He even uses idolatry. But we have a responsibility to still avoid and destroy idolatry. If I benefit from theft (like what the government does), that doesn’t mean I then praise the theft (or the government). The same logic I’ll use for the Reform thing.

      I’ve got no idea about this “bully” claim that you’re talking about. My blog is not the place where I want such claims, so please don’t that here.

      It is better that you don’t make assumptions about me and church services. It doesn’t help your point. I’m interested more in principles rather than comfort or an advertising campaign. I’m not interested in some “movement” or some religion. I just want to get a voice out about the seven laws.

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