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.