Keeping God’s commandments – The question of intent
Having been in a number of discussions with certain individuals about the need for some belief to be behind the keeping of the Seven Commandments, I’ve had some thoughts about the issue. With the recent articles that touch on atheism, and my other thoughts about christianity, I want to clarify some of my positions and maybe relate an unanswered question that still remains.
There is a place with regards to the Seven Commandments where almost every Gentile is equal, and that is in the realm of action. It is in this realm that any Gentile can be held up to the Seven Commandments, as a legal system, and judged. It doesn’t matter about that Gentile’s belief per se. What matters is whether a Gentile performed a certain prohibited act within specified parameters. Did that Gentile steal that item? Did the words that the Gentile spoke fit into the definition of “cursing God”? Did that judge accept a bribe?
It is on this level that generally Gentiles are equal. There’s no silly lines of religious segregation. All that matter are the circumstances around the act and whether it was purposeful or not.
Thinking like a judge or a justice officer (as opposed to our corrupt police system), whether a person is an atheist or a christian or a deist or a hindu makes little difference. The only question to ask is whether an individual broke one of the Seven Universal Commandments, and that would be it.
It is on this level that any person of any religious colouring can be seen as “law abiding” regardless of their beliefs. It is on this level that any Gentile in any country can be held accountable for his actions despite his background. How well did he really think about what he was doing? Was he too lazy or otherwise to use his maturity to control his own actions? Was he coerced or just a damned sheep in a herd? Any Gentile having reached a certain age should be responsible for his actions regardless of his background, regardless of his beliefs. On this level, an atheist or a christian or a Hindu can still be law abiding according to the core seven laws.
But that is just talking on a legal level, where the Seven Laws meet the real world.
But there is another level that I’ve discussed with certain individuals, individuals that see a need for belief. It is on this level that terms like “chasidei umos olam” gets used. “chasidei” doesn’t mean “righteous” in terms of actions, but rather “devoted”. So the term roughly means something like “the devoted ones of the nations of the world” or “the pious of the nations of the world”. That is at least according to a rabbi called Rambam. Let me discuss this level with you a bit more.
It is a concern for all those who actually know the Seven Laws that they be built on the foundations of objective standards, not on the whims of individuals. The fact is that the Seven Commandments were commanded by God to Adam, reiterated to Noah, and then “eternalized” by Moses at the giving of the Torah. This sets the Seven Laws on an objective basis. It’s not about what man can rationalize, but rather what has been enjoined on him by a Supreme Source.
But on this level the question arises: can an atheist keep the Seven Universal Commandments, the Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach? But there is an additional question that I’ve seen few bring up. Can anybody, any Gentile, who doesn’t have this specific belief about the specific history of the Gentile Commands be said to be keeping the Seven Universal Commandments? That applies to anyone other than the self-proclaimed religious group of Noahides.
A friend of mine tried to explain his view whether an atheist can truly keep the Seven Commandments by using a Hebrew word, shomer, which refers to the act of watching over and guarding something. With regards to a command, it seems to refer to the focused and intended preservation and active following of that command. He was of the opinion that without the act of properly observing the commandment as a command of God, without studying the details of the law, he is only inadvertently keeping the law (avoiding the prohibited acts) without the intention of observance. This is where he left it.
Now, this is true for any person, any Gentile, that doesn’t knowingly keep the Seven Commandments but only performs the morality contained within it by avoiding the acts prohibited there due to their own moral codes. That includes those that acknowledge the existence of a god, who believe in the God of Israel yet reject the notion that he’s given the seven commandments to the world and those that claim not to believe in any deity at all.
When it comes to this sort of intent, this sort of knowledge, the only way for a person to truly truly keep the Seven Commandments is to have the specific knowledge that Rambam spoke of in his Mishneh Torah: that a Gentile must know that God, the God of Israel, spoke these laws – seven specific laws with specific content – to Moses at Mt. Sinai. This knowledge must before admit the fact that God gave both a written and oral tradition at Sinai, both of which comprise the Torah. Speaking based on that, if a person doesn’t believe that that specific God gave those specific Seven Laws to Moses at Sinai, they can’t be keeping the seven commandments with the proper intent. No one else observes the Seven Commandments proper under this sort of thinking.
Now, let’s talk about the practical impact of this belief about intent, this specific sort of intent. It must be readily understood by those that actually think about this narrow understanding of “intent”, this narrow understanding of “observance”, that the vast majority of the world throughout history is excluded. This sort of belief is narrower than the christian belief that only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God who died for their sins are saved and all else are damned, which logically excludes the vast majority of people that never have heard of him (which causes christians to speculate of things such as reincarnation, second chances, special judgements). I don’t believe that this specific knowledge was heard of by the majority of the world either in historical times or even today.
Essentially, the people who demand such specific knowledge of a Gentile, on the basis of Rambam’s word alone, exclude just about the whole world.
Having read something of the earlier sources of the Seven Commandments, I have somewhat of an issue with this focused and narrow view of the Seven Commandments.
Now I personally understand the need for an objective standard with regards to such a fundamental law. I understand how whimsical and unstable the reasoning of man is, justifying one act one day and condemning the same act another day. One day man will claim that abortion is wrong and then later on it’s fine. Or maybe a person just needs to move to a different culture to find the right morality that suits them or just not get caught.
But understanding this need still doesn’t stop me from seeing what is commanded and what is not commanded. Gentiles were not commanded to accept God. Yet the generalities of the morality of the Seven Commandments can be grasped with enough maturity. By that I mean that people who do not know the specifically the Seven Commandments can still avoid the acts prohibited in them. Despite what was said above, it is still possible for individuals within a society to be generally morally upstanding people and stay that way.
So it’s like I’m at a point of slight contradiction or conflict. I know that objective standards are important. Yet I know that people can be good and avoid the prohibited acts without knowing them in this current day and age. This leads me to the following unresolved questions.
The Talmud mentions nothing about the specific knowledge demanded by Rambam to get a place in the world to come, that belief that God gave the Seven Commandments to Moses at Sinai with its several logical consequences.
So who are the righteous of the nations according to the Tosefos? I have my own conclusions on this but I haven’t had validation of them yet.
Where did Rambam get the idea that Gentiles had to have this specific knowledge? For Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars, Chapter 8, Halakhah 11, what was the specific source in the writings or traditions that came before? Why is his opinion authoritative? Is it authoritative?
Is Rambam’s the only opinion on this?
Where I am right now? I’m focused on the practical side of things, the side of keeping the law that involves action primarily. For me, a Gentile is a Gentile and it’s most important to at least get the behaviours corrected which can be done without God. That approach doesn’t totally exclude the part about the necessity of God as a basis for the behaviours. But it doesn’t emphasize it unnecessarily either. It’s an attempt at a balanced approach as opposed to an evangelical or proselytising one. But then again, there is nothing to convert a Gentile to other than just being a better behaved one. As has been taught changing a person’s actions can help change the way they think as well. The way I see things, any Gentile can be law-abiding, innocent of breaking the morality in the Seven Commandments. I’d think in terms of that sort of universalism.
Personally, I have difficulties with the faith-based “believe in this certain way to be saved” because my focus isn’t on the next world but on improving this one, at least for myself and then for my family and then spreading outwards. I don’t ignore the importance of God, but I’m careful about the steps I take in promoting the improvement of the world and myself.