How much must I know?

So I was having yet another discussion about the Seven Commandments. And I was wondering to myself, “Man, David! How many times are you gonna discuss the Seven Commandments????”

Actually, no, that didn’t happen. But at least it started off this article. But really, I was in a group discussing the Seven Commandments or at least the commandment that prohibits injustice and the topic came up of what a Gentile judge, one that fulfilled the commandment against injustice, should know. The sort of comments that came up gives me pause about this commandment.

Some tell me that a judge, one that fulfils the commandment of injustice, needs to know the Oral Tradition of Torah. It is believed that no Gentile right now could judge a case on an infringement of the Seven Commandments because we, as Gentiles, don’t know enough about the Seven Laws. This leads some to have dependency on the rabbis for decisions and for others to encourage Gentiles to read the Talmud for themselves (or at least a trustworthy translation of the Talmud with a good commentary). Or it can lead to the conclusion that a Gentile must learn from a rabbi.

I question these positions for different reasons. Now this is not an article (or at least I hope it’s not) where I give a clear and definitive outline of my opinion as if I have reached a final conclusion. It’s just one where I share my misgivings.

The evidences

The seven laws are meant to be basics, the bedrock standard, the lowest level of morality below which a person loses his “right” to life in this world. They are not the heights that a Gentile can reach to morally, but there are the base line.

What Noahides are bidden uphold is a simple code of the most basic moral elements to human existence. According to RaMBaM, these can even be arrived at naturally through human logic. (Laws of King and Wars 9:2[1]) [from Guide from the Noahide by Mori Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron, in Part 1, Introduction to the Noahide Covenant the subchapter “The Price of Freedom: Understanding the Inflexibility of the Noahide Laws”]

The part of the Mishneh Torah that Mori Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron refers to says the following:

Even though we have received all of these commands from Moses and, furthermore, the intellect inclines to them, it appears from the Torah’s words that Adam was commanded concerning them. (emphasis mine)

Another pertinent part of the Mishneh Torah is just the phrase of Rambam in the section of “Judges”, Laws of Kings and Wars, chapter 8, halakhah 11 which says “However, if [the Gentile] fulfills [the Seven Commandments] out of intellectual conviction …” which shows that the seven commandments can be kept just out of reasoning.

The Noachide Laws are seven laws considered by rabbinic tradition as the minimal moral duties required by the Bible on all men. ( from Jewish Virtual Library)

The footnotes in the Soncino translation of the Talmud states the following in Tractate Sanhedrin 56a, footnote 34.

These commandments may be regarded as the foundations of all human and moral progress.

So there is a general tone, a widely held concept, that the Seven Commandments are meant to be the foundations, the lowest level, the basics of morality.

The relevance of this will be brought out later.

Another factor in my thoughts is the fact that the Seven Commandments are in fact general titles of a gamut of detail. The commandment against murder or theft isn’t just a simple sentence but has details.

The far removal of robbery from among people is of benefit to all; and the human intelligence is a trustworthy witness to this. There is no great length of laws about it, as all its content is clarified in the Writ. It is in force everywhere, at every time, for both man and woman. All humankind too is duty-bound by it, since it is a branch of the precept about robbery, which is one of the seven precepts that all in the world were commanded to keep … now, make no mistake, my son, in this reckoning of the seven precepts for the descendants of Noah, which is known and is mentioned in the Talmud. For in truth, those seven are in the nature of main categories, and they contain many details. (quoted from Sefer haHinnuch, 4.416 by Alan Cecil on page 433 of his book, “Secular by Design”)

In fact, I remember being in a teaching of Mori Michael Bar-Ron, and he was saying that there are just seven commandments, “sheva mitzvot”. They are not categories as such. And although I misunderstood then, after reading “The Seven Laws of Noah” by Aaron Lichtenstein I can more fully appreciate his point. It’s a technical point in that the fact that the seven commandments are broad in the areas of life and action that they impact, they don’t become “30 commandments” or “66 commandments” technically. They are still just 7 commandments but their impact is broad and can be distilled into individual details or “quasi-commandments”. For more of my thoughts about this, see .

Again, the relevance of this fact will be shown later.

Another factor is as follows, which was taken from Elisheva Barre’s book “Torah for Gentiles”, in the chapter called “The Obligation to Institute Courts,” in the section “An Uncompleted Law” on page 195,

“[Gentiles] were commanded to do justice, but they were not given the details of the law (Midrash Tanchuma, Shoftim 1).”

If anyone can direct me to where I can read this passage or quote for me the relevant portion of Midrash Tanchuma that contains this phrase, I would be very appreciative, as I cannot find it myself.

But this statement goes to show that the commandment against injustice is somewhat vague. It’s not vague to the point of impracticality, to the point where we are just totally lost as to what to do. But everyone of its details may not be easily adduced. But this will coincide with the other pieces of evidence I’ve given above already.

The last piece of evidence I want to bring up here is that, according to what rabbis of old and nowadays teach, there seems to be some trust in the logic of man when rabbis state that Gentiles are obligated to keep commandments that have a rational basis. This would imply that there is enough reason in the mind or “soul” … actually I don’t want to use that word. It’s too vague. There is enough potential goodness within a human being to use his or her mind or heart to come to moral conclusions that coincide with what the Jewish commandments teach generally.

According to Rav Nissim Gaon, [Gentiles] are obligated to perform all the [commandments] that their logic would lead them to do. (taught by rabbi Yeshayahu Hollander at http://noahideworldcenter.org/wp_en/?p=237)

This author would be inclined to read the authorities cited in notes 6 to 10 (and the related talmudic text) as perhaps standing for a lesser proposition — Noachides are only obligated to obey the seven commandments based on logic or Natural law, and that they are released from adhering to them solely because of a divine revelation. This perhaps can be implied from Tosafot Chagiga 13a (which seems to indicate that observance of the seven commandments is possible independent of the study of torah), Rabbenu Nissim Gaon in his introduction to Talmud (printed as the preface to Berachot) (which discusses the obligations upon all people to obey logical rules) … [footnote 19 of the article “” by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde]

So these are the evidences that I have in mind as I go further in this article.

Does it make sense?

So, these seven commandments are supposed to be the basic standard, the lowest standard not the highest, for Gentiles. Yet I am puzzled when I hear what I hear from different quarters that in order for a person to judge they need to know the oral tradition or the logic within it.

Why are you puzzled, David?

Why, thank you for asking, David. Let me tell you. (Am I talking to myself? Shouldn’t I know my own answers? Am I that close to insanity?)

Anyway, let’s get back to “sanity.”

It’s puzzling because the seven commandments are supposed to be the basic level for Gentiles, Gentiles who, for the vast majority, don’t have God’s revelation in the Torah. I’ve said on a few of my articles that the vast majority of the history of the Gentile world has been bereft of Torah knowledge. And yet according to some, in order for a Gentile to be a just judge, he or she needs the knowledge and logic of something that (s)he has never had access to or been taught.

I did say I was returning the sanity, right? Then why does that seem so strange to me. I can understand that to be a better judge, a better informed judge, it is important to learn what the relevant parts of the oral tradition teach. But just to be a judge, a just judge, you need the oral tradition? And there’s no protection in the statement that “well, David, it’s a good thing that the Seven Laws are all prohibitions.” Why? Because there is a prohibition that is part of that command against injustice which teaches not to do unjust judgements, and that includes not to making judgments on people based on ignorance. And also there is a prohibition against having an uneducated judge. According to the law for Jews, that means that a Jew must know Torah so well and so thoroughly. But what does that mean for a Gentile who doesn’t have Torah?

Now some may tell me that the rabbis are needed because of their heritage of expertise, their immersion in the oral tradition, the fact the God gave them a detailed and specified instruction. Some would say that

[s]ince the explanation of every commandment in the Written Torah is established according to the Oral Torah, as it was given over through Moses our teacher and transmitted from generation to generation through the Jewish Sages, it can thus be concluded that the rules which guide Torah-law decisions in regard to the 613 Jewish Commandments are the same rules which guide Torah-law decisions for Gentiles … (pg 23, Editor’s Preface, The Divine Code, by Moshe Weiner, edited by Dr Michael Shulman)

But I am reminded of what Aaron Lichtenstein said. To summarize, he said that although at times Gentiles and Jews may do the same action, the Jew does his because he was commanded to in the 613 laws, and the Gentile does his action because it was part of this 7 general laws. So these are two different sets of laws but with similarities. So why would I expect the rules to be the same? Why would I expect the precise rules as specified by the oral tradition (the tradition that Gentiles don’t have easy access to) used for Jewish law to be the same as those for the Seven Commandments?

And someone would say “but David, the Seven Commandments are in the Oral Law, in the Talmud. So surely you would need the oral law to understand them fully.” But I said before that the issue isn’t so much how to be a better judge or a better informed judge, but just how to be a judge at the minimal level. And sure, the codification of the Seven Commandments, the fact that there are seven, is in the Oral Law. But their details aren’t all there for Gentiles, the focus is generally on Jewish law, the law as it applies to Jews with little clarification on whether it applies to Gentiles in our Seven Commandments. And although the codification is only in the oral tradition, the content, the behaviour taught by the commandments are accessible to any person. The refraining from bowing to an idol, or the refraining from stealing is accessible to any person. So there’s a difference between what is legal, written down or recorded in the legal tradition of the Torah faithful Jews, and the actual actions needed to make a person righteous or just or at least meeting the minimal requirements.

For example, there are Jewish principles with regards to minimum levels of contamination of an “unclean” substance in clean substance, something like one sixtieth (1/60). For example, throwing some pork into a pot of chicken soup. Now does this have anything to do with the Seven Commandments and the prohibition against eating the limb of a living animal? If someone were to throw a piece of meat that had been taken from an animal while it’s alive into a pot of soup that was ok to eat, then what happens? Is the whole pot forbidden? And do I use Jewish principles to work it out? And most importantly, who decides? The rabbi using Jewish principles? Or a Gentile just using his own logic?

If two men kill someone in a premeditated fashion by their hand, then who gets punished? Both of them or none or one? If a Gentile judge were to decide, would he cause injustice because he didn’t keep up with his knowledge of the oral Torah? Or are Gentiles held to a different level where it has more to do with a judgement based on the analysis of all the evidence?

One fact that crosses my mind, possibly due to the fact that the Seven Commandments are general precepts rather than specific commandments, is that there is no specific command for Gentiles to know the oral tradition. There is a Jewish commandment against injustice and having an uneducated judge which, for Jews, means that their judges must have thorough knowledge of Torah. But no such specific command exists for Gentiles. Is that significant? So should it be assumed that the details are exactly the same?

I’m confused, David. What’s your issue again?

Good question, David. Let me answer it for you.

I’m doing it again, aren’t I?

Anyway, Gentiles are not judged as Jews. We are not judged to their standard. They have 613 commandments and we have 7 commandments. These sets of commandments have similarities but have differences. The Jews kept the Torah tradition given by God in their possession. The Gentiles, in general, don’t have either the heritage regarding or easy access to this revelation.

So in order to be a Gentile who lives according to the Seven Commandments, how much knowledge of this oral tradition do I need to have? In order to judge cases or scenarios in the light of the Seven Commandments, is it necessary to know the oral tradition in depth to judge righteously?

Personally, where I’m at now, more of me tends towards the opinion that it’s unrealistic to have, as a minimum standard for Gentiles, extensive or even general knowledge of the oral tradition. So it should not be part of the basic standard for a Gentile or for a Gentile judge to know the oral tradition.

Yet I’m not wholly convinced of this. I need to think about the implications of both sides of the coin. But as I said before, it just seems unrealistic to expect that oral Torah knowledge be the minimum standard for Gentiles or our judges.

Anyway, these are my thoughts so far. I’ll see where it goes.

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19 Comments

  1. Pat

    I learn so much from the information you share. Thank you.

    • Even the ones where I’m not so sure?

  2. Pat

    It doesn’t matter when you’re not sure. I’m just grateful that you introduce me to subjects that haven’t even crossed my mind!

    • *smile* glad I can do something useful. As always, thanx for talking to me, giving feedback.

  3. Elisheva Barre

    You have very good points, David!
    If you have Midrash Tanchuma, the quote is from the first paragraph to the section “Shoftim” of the book of Deuteronomy.
    In reply to what seems to me the basic concern you express here, I would say that using Jewish legal principles is a very intricate task and a cause of diverging decisions even among rabbis. Logic is useful but it cannot MAKE the law. A rabbi takes a personal responsibility for his decisions, because we do not have today a supreme halachic authority that would settle differences. In case a Gentile is in doubt about a specific practical point, the best to do is to refrain.

    • Thanks for your guidance. It’s definitely a point of safety for Bnei Noah (when you said “the best [thing] to do is refrain”), especially since our laws are prohibitions.

      Unfortunately I don’t have access to a Midrash Tanchuma. You may guess that I like to look at the source of a quote. But your book on a whole is very solid when it comes to quotes (you’re one of the few that actually quotes a part of Rambam’s halakhah about Dinim that many miss out), so I have confidence in this one.

  4. Elisheva Barre

    I will relate to three specific questions you raise:
    1. Pork has nothing to do with the prohibition of eating a limb or piece of meat from a living animal because pork is allowed, unless this pork meat was chopped from a living pig.
    Measurement were given to Israel but not to Bnei Noah, so even the slightest quantity of meat taken from a living animal is forbidden and it is not cancelled by a ratio of 1/60 as is the Law for Jews. So yes, it would forbid the whole pot, because eating such meat even in the tiniest quantity is a severe capital punishment.
    2. If two men killed in a premeditated fashion “by their hand”, both are condemned because the murder could not be accomplished by one without the help of the other. For Bnei Noah, if one of them induced the victim into a trap and the other actually killed him, both are guilty because in the Bnei Noah Law, indirect action that kills is also murder – which is not the case for a Jew.
    3. A Gentile judge judging according to the BN Laws, would indeed cause injustice if he didn’t “keep up” with his knowledge of the Law. Bnei Noah are not on a different level as to the seriousness of the requirement to do justice. Although the procedures are different for Jews and Bnei Noah, the Justice of the Law is the same.

    • Thanks for your helpful comments. I believe I can see a difference between your approach that of rabbi Moshe Weiner in “The Divine Code”. When it comes to point 2, he states that if a one of the non-Jews puts someone in a death-trap, but another actually kills him, then the first is exempt from punishment from a court. I don’t know the reason for your different conclusions, which is another problem for non-Jews, i.e. the different opinions of Jews.

      When it comes to point 3, when you said “his knowledge of the Law”, may I ask your opinion? What exactly do you mean by knowledge of the Law? Are non-Jews … Actually I know that when you say “Bnei Noah,” you actually mean “non-Jews” as opposed to others who make it into some religious sect that only some non-Jew are part of, so I can use that term “Bnei Noah” with you in the safety of that knowledge. So are Bnei Noah supposed to have the same knowledge of the oral tradition as the rabbis in order to make law or legal decisions? Because that would seem strange in light of the fact that there are sections of the oral tradition out of the reach of Bnei Noah. And if Bnei Noah are not supposed to have the same extent of knowledge as rabbis, how does one determine the level of knowledge a ben Noah needs to have to make a legal judgment? Who determines this? Are rabbis and/or other Jews authorized to dictate to Bnei Noah what we must know?

      What are your thoughts? I’m not demanding answers from you. You are not obligated. And “I don’t know” is as valid an answer as any. Whatever you wish to share will be appreciated.

  5. Elisheva Barre

    Point 2: The resason for the difference is that Rabbi Weiner is talking about the Law as it applies to Jews who are not condemned for indirect murder. That is not the case for Bnei Noah (see Rambam, Laws of Kings IX 6 [4 in other editions]).

    • So if I understand correctly, rabbi Weiner is applying Jewish law to non-Jews (because in that section of the book “the Divine Code” he is talking about law as it applies to all Gentiles).

      • eli maimon

        My reply to that is a few posts down.

  6. Elisheva Barre

    Point 3: Bnei Noah are those Gentiles committed to observe the 7 BN commandments.
    In chapter 12 on Courts, you will find the answer (quoting Rambam) to your question, page 146 “The first one” and 149 “The second law”. When the Jewish High Court names a Ben Noah judge, obviously they have checked his proficiency in Halacha, and also his personal qualities which is a requirement for Judges which the Rambam mentions elsewhere in his Code.
    Today the legal status of Ben Noah is not applicable so no one may “dictate” a Ben Noah, but a scholar who knows can give guidance. In any case, the BN student chooses his teacher, compares different approaches, and can make his choice on the basis of his own thinking. Judaism is NOT indoctrination!

    • Ok, so you see the term “bnei Noah” differently to me. So I’ll go back to referring to “non-Jews” so that I’m clear about what I mean.

      I looked in the Mishneh Torah for a chapter on Courts. The closest I could find was a chapter in Shoftim called ” Hilchot Sanhedrin V’HaOnshin Hamesurim Lahem – The Laws of the Courts and the Penalties placed under their Jurisdiction.” I looked it chapter 12 and saw nothing about the Jewish High Court naming non-Jewish judges for the lands of the non-Jews. I understand that chapter 11 of “the laws of Kings and their Wars” it speaks of judges of gerim toshavim, those non-Jews having formally accepted to live in Israel under the Seven Commandments. But I see no explicit statement that the high court appoints judges for all the nations of the world. I would be happy if you could point that out for me. I only have access to the mishneh torah on chabad.org and on mechon-mamre.org.

      • eli maimon

        in MY chapter on courts and i gave you the page!

      • Silly me. Sorry. I’ll check it out again now

      • Oh, Ms Barre, that’s why I enjoy your book so much. Just to let you know, the page numbering is different in the version I have where the chapter “the obligation to set up courts” starts on page 168. But a simple read through of that chapter brought up the points you were referring to, namely that we non-Jews are obligated to set up courts in our land, and the Jewish High Court names the non-Jewish judges in the land of Israel. This makes great sense.

        My only issue then lies in the extent of knowledge expected of non-Jews judges in non-Jewish lands. But whether that point is answered now or not, your book covers the area of jurisdiction very well.

  7. eli maimon

    yes he does all along his book, and it is wrong. many do that. either they don’t know or they don’t want to know there are many differences in the application of the Law in line with the different status of jews and non-jews and that is what they don’t want to say. you read my book. i explain all those modifications.

    • Oh yes! I definitely did read your book. That was a brilliant chapter.

  8. Elisheva Barre

    Feedback is very helpful to me and I thank you for sharing your thoughts. All the best!

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