Can any member of humanity be “righteous” without becoming a Jew?
A question that comes into my mind at times is whether a person, any member of humanity, can be “righteous.” To put it another way, can a non-Jew be tzadiq?
I personally have two ways of approaching this question. One is biblical precedence and the other is an understanding of the Hebrew word “tzadiq.”
The biblical precedent bit is relatively easy. I just have to find a person who was not a Jew that was called “righteous” or “tzadiq.” And thankfully the precedent that is available is quite powerful: Noah, the father of every human being, Gentile and Jew alike. As it says in the following quotes,
These are the generations of Noah, Noah was a man completely [tzadiq] in his generations; Noah walked with God. (Bereshit [Genesis] 6:9, translation based on the commentary of Ramban)
And the Lord said to Noah, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, for it is you that I have seen as a [tzadiq] man before Me in this generation. (Bereshit [Genesis] 7:1, translation based on the commentary of Ramban)
He was not a Jew. So here we have a non-Jew who was classed as “tzadiq” or “righteous.”
But at this point, an important question comes up. What exactly does “tzadiq” mean? There’s little point in throwing around a word if I have no idea what it means. In the context of the tradition which the word “tzadiq” comes from, what does it mean? Does it mean absolute moral perfection, that all ideals are met, that this person has never made any, ANY, mistake?
This is where Ramban steps in to give an understanding of the word. According to his insights into Bereshis 6:9, he states,
For the [term] tzadiq refers to someone who is [found] innocent in judgment (13), the opposite of the [term] rasha, [a guilty person], as it says, “and they shall vindicate the innocent one [(tzadiq)] and condemn the guilty one [(rasha)]” (Deuteronomy 25:1) … (pg 176, RAMBAN, The Torah: with Ramban’s commentary translated, annotated and elucidated, what is in square brackets are words added by the compilers/editors of the book.)
In this book, in the footnote to the words “innocent in judgment,” footnote 13, the compilers of this commentary states in explanation,
13. According to Ramban, then, the definition of tzadiq is not “righteous person,” as it is commonly interpreted. In his “Essay on Rosh Hashanah” …, Ramban explains that the primary meaning of tzadiq is “one who is acquitted in judgment.” (ibid.)
This point of view is quite thought-provoking when it comes to the status of Gentiles with respect to the core “legal” (or halakhic) aspects of the Seven Commandments.
A friend of mine stated outright that an atheist can be righteous – “righteous” being a common translation into English of the Hebrew word “tzadiq.” There are many people all over the world who may be categorised as being part of some religion (atheism is a religion in a certain sense, so the only reason for my distinguishing the atheist from people of other religions is that my friend distinctly mentioned the atheist being righteous, probably sometimes to raise the ire of certain Jews and people who called themselves “Noahides” in a religious sense who tended to apply Jewish or morally idealistic standards on non-Jews on a whole) who may also be classed as righteous. Based on the understanding Ramban puts forward, it can be seen why it is possible to call such people “righteous” in the “tzadiq” sense. How? Because the core law of the Seven is prohibitory, regarding inactivity, pointing out actions where a “ben Noach,” a Gentile, should “sit down and not act,” to use the helpful Talmudic phrase. And it is possible for a thoughtful person, or even one who acts out of habit, to not commit injustice, to not curse God, to not worship any idol, to not have sex with the six forbidden partners, to not kill anyone or steal anything, and not to knowingly eat meat taken from an animal while it was alive. RambaM (yes, rabbi Moses Maimonides) confirms that someone can keep the Seven for reasons other than accepting the divine source and Mosaic reception, as he said,
“However, if he fulfills [the Seven] out of intellectual conviction, he is not a resident alien, nor of ‘the pious among the gentiles,’ [nor/but] of their wise men.” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars, chapter 8, halakhah 11)
Regardless of the reasons why a person doesn’t break any of the seven prohibitions, as long as he or she doesn’t do the forbidden acts, (s)he is undeserving of the penalty that comes for transgressing any of the Seven. This person is innocent in judgment with regards to the basic legal aspects of God’s prohibitory commands. This coincides with Ramban’s understanding of the word “tzadiq.”
Therefore, if the question is asked, “can a Gentile be tzadiq in accordance to the Seven Laws?” then the answer is most definitely. If someone adds “even if they don’t accept the existence or rulership of God?” then the answer will still be yes, as there is no positive command to accept God’s existence or rulership – the prohibition against worshipping idols is exactly that: a prohibition, a statement against doing something. If someone adds, “even if that person has a religious label like “christian” or “Hindu” or whatever?” then the answer is not to judge a person by a label or assumptions about what that individual is supposed to believe when the label is applied, but rather judge the actions and lifestyle of that person. If that individual has that label yet avoids the actions prohibited by the Seven, then yes, even a person bearing such a label can be innocent in judgment as far as the basic Seven are involved, and therefore they are tzadiq! And all that without becoming a Jew!