Why I say that the Seven Laws are not a religion

Having discussed the issue over and over and over, I feel the need to make a statement so that I don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel every time I’m approached about my stance over this issue.

So as you can see before, I’ve stated in no uncertain terms that the Seven Commandments are not a religion. You may have read me stating how I distance myself from the word “noahide” because of its religious connotations where people use the word to distinguish themselves from christians or atheists or buddhists or people of other religions. Here I’m going to explain what I mean when I say the Seven Commandments are not a religion.

What are the Seven Commandments?

Yes, I’m doing this again. Well, I never know who’s going to take a peek at my blog, and it’s good practice for me.

The Seven Commandments are seven broad prohibitions that every gentile is obligated in. These are those prohibitions:

– Do not pervert justice (otherwise known as “Courts of Law”);
– Do not curse God;
– Do not worship idols;
– Do not murder;
– Do not have sexual relations with certain people;
– Do not steal;
– Do not eat meat taken from an animal while it’s alive.

These are the Seven Commandments which of course have details and explanations but at the very least, it is these actions that are prohibited. Although these commandments are written in Jewish texts that contain their oral tradition, and although their source is said to be from God, you will see why, later on, this makes no difference to whether the Seven Laws are a religion or not.

What is “religion”?

Now this is a very vague word. It is used so loosely that it could be said that every single person on the planet has a religion. And it could be used so tightly that even people who adhere to different religions may not be religious at all. This makes it difficult to deal with. So all I’ll do is use dictionaries, one or two with a tight collection of definitions, and one or two with a wider set of definitions, and compare the Seven Laws to these definitions. I’ll use the Oxford Dictionary and the dictionary available at dictionary.com (http://dictionary.reference.com).

This is the Oxford Dictionary definition of the word “religion”.

1. The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods;
– 1.1 A particular system of faith and worship:
– 1.2 A pursuit or interest followed with great devotion:

And these are the definitions of religion from Dictionary.com.

1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects:
3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices:
4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.:
5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience:
7. religions, Archaic. religious rites

According to Merriam-Webster, the definitions of religion are:

1
a : the state of a religious
b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

2
: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices

3
archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness

4
: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

To add more information, here is the criteria used by the American legalized thief, the IRS, to classify something as a religion:

Those criteria are:
1. a distinct legal existence,
2. a recognized creed and form of worship,
3. a definite and distinct ecclesiastical government,
4. a formal code of doctrine and discipline
5. a distinct religious history,
6. a membership not associated with any other church or denomination,
7. an organization of ordained ministers,
8. ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies,
9. a literature of its own,
10. established places of worship,
11. regular congregations,
12. regular religious services,
13. schools for religious instruction of the young,
14. school for the preparation of its ministers.

According to Wikipedia (it’s ok, I know it’s not that great a source of good information, but it has its uses), “A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.”

It should be added that there are non-theistic religions like Buddhism and atheism, so I won’t rely too heavily on the fact that a lot of definitions speak of a belief in a God because there are religions that don’t have such a belief.

Hopefully that’s enough to give us a foundation.

Building on the foundation

Let’s start with Oxford:

1. The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods;
– 1.1 A particular system of faith and worship:
– 1.2 A pursuit or interest followed with great devotion:

OK, now the seven laws prohibit certain actions. Let’s see how it compares to this definition. A Gentile only has to avoid the prohibited actions to accomplish what the commandment mandate. That’s because the laws form the basis of a legal system or morality.

So do these laws mandate a belief in a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods? No. An atheist can avoid what the laws prohibit. So a belief in God isn’t needed. I know that some make more out of the commandments of idolatry and blasphemy saying that belief in God is necessary, but that is only philosophy. That is not what is commanded upon Gentiles. It may be a way to a form of perfection but it is not the way of obedience. What is commanded to Gentiles is not to worship idols as gods and not to curse God’s name. If you don’t know God and therefore never use any of his titles, you don’t break this prohibition. No belief in God needed or commanded.

Are the seven laws a system of faith or worship? Well you can see that all the commandments are prohibitions, stating what people should not do. Even the law of Justice was only part of the list because of its prohibiting quality. So where is faith and worship in the seven laws? Nowhere to be found. There is no law to believe and there is no law to worship. Although trust and acknowledgement of God may be an ideal and something to be encouraged, they are not commanded and thus are not one of the Seven Laws. Therefore it cannot be said that the seven laws are a system of faith or worship.

What about “a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion”? Are the Seven Commandments “a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion”? That is not something inherent in the Seven Commandments. In fact, this definition says more about the person who is taking part in the pursuit or interest because it’s the devotion that he or she places in the pursuit that makes it “a religion”. And in this light anything in the world could become “a religion”. And that makes this definition very slippery. Words that are said to define everything become very empty because a definition is supposed to help you differentiate one thing from another. If everything becomes “religion” then the word “religion” loses its meaning. And it seems a stretch to say that that next statement is literal: “I’ve devoted to my family. That’s my religion.” I think this definition is a bit more of metaphorical meaning, not a literal meaning. By that I mean when this definition is used (any devotion), what is actually meant is that “that person is devoted to so and so as if it were his religion”. Thus religion is more about actual worship, and when someone is really devoted to something, it seems like a religion, but not concretely a religion. But that’s just my opinion.

Anyway, when it comes to this last definition, the Seven Commandments are not a religion in and of themselves because they don’t require devotion. A person can avoid the actions prohibited without being devoted to the commandments. For example, you don’t really have to care much about a prohibition against murder to not kill people.

So at least where it comes to the Oxford Dictionary, the Seven Commandments are not a religion.

In fact, if you look at the fuller definition in dictionary.com and the definition given by Merriam-Webster, what I’ve described above actually covers all of those sub-definitions. There may be some that point to the dictionary.com definition which includes a statement about a moral code. But you have to take that statement out of context and miss out everything else that that portion of the definition to make a case. And I know too well that taking a statement out of context leads to a fundamental error.

What about how “American Thieves Incorporated”, the IRS, classify things? I’ll deal with each one. But before I start, take careful note. It is not enough to just fulfil one or two of these criteria. The majority of them have to be fulfilled before something is claimed to be a religion by the thieves incorporated.

“1. a distinct legal existence”

The Seven Laws don’t have a distinct legal existence as far as I know.

“2. a recognized creed and form of worship”

The Seven Commandments contains no creed (system of belief) or form of worship.

“3. a definite and distinct ecclesiastical government,”

Ecclesiastical means relating to a clergy. The Seven Commandments gives no place to clergies and has no such government. And since they give no authority to Jews, no Jewish rabbinical council can be called its ecclesiastical government.

“4. a formal code of doctrine and discipline”

The Seven Commandments can be classed as a teaching, just like the legal code of any other country. But it is more legal than doctrine. There is no formal discipline except the death penalty, but that shows that it’s more a legal code than a doctrine for a religion. Any other discipline would be determined by the community.

“5. a distinct religious history”

Now there is a history to the Seven Commandments and some would deem it to be religious because the source of the Seven Commandments is God. I’m not going to deal with the issue of semantics here. I’ll just leave that as it is.

6. a membership not associated with any other church or denomination,

The Seven Commandments don’t really involve any membership issues as they are incumbent upon all humans who are not Jewish. A person could be in any walk of life and have the ability to avoid the acts that the Seven Commandments prohibit.

7. an organization of ordained ministers,

Totally absent from the Seven Commandments. And once again, the Seven Commandments are laws incumbent on all humans and should be the basis of our national law codes. The rabbis have no legal authority so they are not “the organization of ordained ministers”.

“8. ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies,”

Once again, totally absent from the Seven Laws.

“9. a literature of its own,”

Even in this category the answer would be that the Seven Commandments have no literature of their own. Information about it is interspersed in the Torah traditional texts of the Jews, but there are no standard literatures only for the seven laws.

“10. established places of worship,”

Worship and places of worship are absent from the Seven Commandments.

“11. regular congregations”

Worship and places of worship and religious congregations are absent from the Seven Commandments.

“12. regular religious services,”

See previous response.

“13. schools for religious instruction of the young”

Again, this is absent from the Seven Commandments.

14. school for the preparation of its ministers.

Again, ministers are absent from the Seven Commandments. So this too is irrelevant.

So even according to Thieves Incorporated (IRS), there is no solid ground on which to call the Seven Commandments a religion.

What about Wikipedia? “A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.” Well the Seven Commandments say nothing about belief, all cultures can retain whatever of their culture doesn’t break the Seven Commandments (the law is international), and they aren’t really a worldview. In essence, optimally, the Seven Commandments are a legal system, not a religion.

So going through all of these things, I am fairly confident in saying the Seven Commandments are not a religion.

Things try to contradict

Now I’ve seen and heard things that may contradict what I’ve said. Here are three significant points that could be seen to contradict my statements that the Seven Commandments are not a religion.

First of all is Rambam. A friend of mine highlighted to me something that I’ve seen since I’ve boarded the Seven Commandment train. Many rabbis repeat over and over the opinion of an ancient rabbi called Rambam, who in turn stated:

Anyone who accepts upon himself the fulfillment of these seven mitzvot and is precise in their observance is considered one of ‘the pious among the gentiles’ and will merit a share in the world to come.

This applies only when he accepts them and fulfills them because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah and informed us through Moses, our teacher, that Noah’s descendants had been commanded to fulfill them previously.(Mishneh Torah, Sefer Shoftim, Melachim uMilchamot, Chapter 8, Halachah 11 – http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1188353/jewish/Melachim-uMilchamot-Chapter-8.htm)

This passage has been used to encourage Gentiles to think that keeping the Seven Commandments should be done only because a person believes in God and the Jewish tradition. That lends to the notion that the Seven Laws are a religion.

The problem with this understanding is that it shows a lack of ability to actually read the text. Here’s what Rambam did not say:

One must keep the Seven Laws because they were commanded to Moses at Sinai. If this doesn’t happen, then he’s not really keeping the Seven Laws.

Rambam did not say the following or anything like it.

A prerequisite to keeping the Seven Commandments is the belief in God.

Yet you can get this impression from certain Jews and Gentiles. Take for instance, a common argument that I myself used to use is that there is no such thing as a command without a commander. This is the same argument used by Jews and Gentiles. But Rambam never said this. This is just a logical notion. And it has its weaknesses, a fundamental one being that objectively speaking there is a commander, God. But just like any legal system, you cannot be prosecuted because you don’t have certain ideas about the source of the law. You can only be prosecuted by the law if you do the acts that it forbids. In this light, it doesn’t matter about what a person thinks about the commander if the command itself has objective power. So idolatry is objectively wrong whether a person accepts God or not. But if a person doesn’t actively worship an idol, he hasn’t broken the command, regardless of whether he knows or accepts the commander or not.

Just in case you’re lost, think of it this way. Imagine in the land that you are in there is a person whose personal views hold that the government is an immoral entity and that it has no real power, and he holds that such an illusion of power is strengthened by the brainwashed and indoctrinated populace. So essentially, this person has concluded that there is no such real thing as government. We’ll call him “the Anarchist”. Now if he doesn’t break any of the laws of the government he will be seen as a law-abiding person, even if he doesn’t even respect that government. So if the government has a law that says people are not allowed to drive faster than 100 miles per hour, and for his own reasons the Anarchist never exceeds 70 miles per hour, he has driven within the limitations of the law. He can’t be condemned for anything to do with the law.

In the same way, whether or not a person knows God or not, as long as he doesn’t do what the seven laws prohibit, he is seen objectively has living within the limitations of the law. His behaviour hasn’t gone below the basic level of morality.

All Rambam has said, in essense, is if you acknowledge the source of the commands and do them, then you get a reward. And that is all he says. He doesn’t say you must acknowledge the source of the commands. He doesn’t say that the commands don’t exist if you don’t admit the existence of a commander. He, in essence, says that for any Gentile that goes beyond the letter of the commandments and accepts God as the source, there’s a reward. That doesn’t make the Seven Laws themselves a religion because the Seven Laws do not necessitate this. All the laws state is that your behaviour shouldn’t cross this line.

Are the rabbis and Noahides trying to create a religion by necessitating belief in God? Maybe. But that something they are creating, not something necessitated by the Seven Commandments themselves.

Secondly, there is a claim of some Jews (and the Gentile followers of those Jews) that the Seven Laws is a path of spirituality. This is quite an easy one to deal with because if one takes a simple look at what the Seven Commandments prohibit, it should be fairly obvious that this is not the case. If a Gentile doesn’t bow down to an idol, there is nothing spiritual about that. If a Gentile doesn’t murder anyone, there is absolutely nothing spiritual about that. Wouldn’t that be hilarious? “Oh, God Almighty, look upon my spirituality because I didn’t kill anyone!” I wonder how spiritual it is for me that I don’t vote.

Look, the Seven Laws may be a step-off, a springboard, a place from which you can learn more and then for your own reasons go into “spirituality” whatever that is, and that is only IF a person chooses to do that. But the Seven Commandments, not doing what is prohibited in there, are not spiritual in and of themselves. You have to add stuff or attempt to go deeper to call the Seven Laws a spiritual path.

The problem is that many people think you have to be “spiritual” to be a decent person, when what the world really needs is just decent people, regardless of whether they are “spiritual” or not. To be blunt, you do not need to be “spiritual” to be a good person.

Lastly, we have the existence of “Noahides”. If you have followed me at all in my blog, you’ll notice the personal struggle I’ve had with this entity or these entities. For now, put aside the fact that there is a notion amongst the knowledgeable that “Noahide” can refer to every single Gentile. Forget that! For too many, a person is only a “Noahide” if they believe God gave the Seven Laws to Adam, Noah and Moses and tries to keep them on that basis. This sounds very much like what Rambam said and has the same weakness as the previous interpretation of Rambam (as in, Rambam never set this criteria). How many times have I heard Jews saying stuff like “it’s great that there are noahides about” and you know they mean this adherent of whatever religion that “noahide” is part of, not just the typical Gentile. I heard a Gentile, one who considers himself to be a “noahide”, said “I want to talk about noahide stuff” even though the group was discussing things that could apply to the law concerning justice. You can be fairly certain he wasn’t talking about Gentile stuff as opposed to something more catered to his religious tastes. Over and over and over again, I see people talking about “becoming Noahide” or needing a Noahide Community or feeling lonely because that person feels alone as a Noahide in a city of Gentiles. It is blatantly obvious that this “noahide phenomenon” has become a religion.

But these Noahides claim to follow the Seven Commandments. That is supposed to be their core morality. Doesn’t that make the Seven Laws a religion? It only takes a bit of thought to answer this. If I choose to make my shopping list the centrepiece of my religion, that does not change the nature of my shopping list! It may make what I do a religion but my shopping list remains what it is: just a shopping list. So all the decorations that Noahides put around the Seven Laws may be religious. Through their devotion and additional criteria and rites, they may very well have made their religion. But that doesn’t change the basic nature of the Seven Laws.

It’s important to remember that the Seven Commandments were not given to the Noahides. They are the basic societal and individual standard of morality obligatory upon all Gentiles below which an individual or a society loses its right to life. It is the basic level of action not belief.

Conclusion

I hope you can understand now why I don’t refer to the Seven Commandments as a religion. The Seven Laws not about faith but about law. They are not primarily about spirituality but about a basic level of morality for behaviour.

This is not an attractive view of the Seven Laws. I’ve learnt that from experience. It is not about the title of that Nina Simone song, “Feeling Good”. Hmmm… But then again, it may not be about just feeling good, but the content of the song… It talks about just enjoying the simplicity of things. So what if the Seven Laws is not some system of faith? Can’t we just appreciate them for what they are?

Anyway … Got caught up for a moment.

Whatever people want to do with the Seven Laws, the Seven Commandments are not a religion. I think once that is understood, they can be the key for change that our society needs, rather than a new set of statements of belief for a new religious sect.

Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. Very well stated, and spot on!

    What Hashem requires of us is really quite simple, but people like to overcomplicate things. As Hashem says to Avraham in this week’s parshah (Lekh Lekha), “Walk before me, and be simple.”

    • I like how you translate that Hebrew word “simple” rather than the alien word “perfect”. But I’m thankful and happy that you saw positives in what I expressed. Thank you

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: