Too many NO’s

An objection to the Seven Laws that I observed some time last month made me pause. It was an odd statement, but people can come out with stuff I couldn’t even imagine. I guess that would make sense s those people are not made and thus what they say comes from a different place, so unexpected statements should be expected.

Anyway, the sentiments of this person was that there are a lot of no’s in the Seven Laws, that they were simply not doing something. It was put forward that the inactivity they command and teach, at least in the mind of that person, was nothingness by nature. A person should bring a positive out of the negative by doing something. To this person, they may be basic rules but shouldn’t be used to beat other people over the head with since how a person lives is down to personal choice.

The reason why this point of view remained with me after I read it was that it’s not a totally alien way of thinking to the normal Joe or Jane on the street. I could see aspects of this coming from the religious and irreligious alike. How many times have I heard someone express how they wanted to be unfettered in their choices without getting condemnation from others? And on the other hand, how many times have I heard complaints that there is something lacking in the Seven Laws, that a person wants to do more, a complaint that puts the Seven Commandments in a negative light? In each case, more times than I would have liked. A fair amount of people may share similar sentiments.

Having spent some of my time – not enough – considering the Torah Law for humanity, I wanted to respond to these notions because I feel they are similar to when someone is given a hammer and then complains about not having a full toolkit.

Let me explain.

So the first point I’d want to deal with is the idea that prohibitions give nothingness and inactivity. I just want you to think about what the prohibitions are. As I enjoy listing out the Seven, let me do it now.

– No injustice, no perverting justice
– No cursing of God’s name
– No idol worship
– No sex with forbidden partners (man, I have to write an article on these partners)
– No murder
– No stealing
– No eating meat taken from an animal when out was still alive

Ok. Seven areas of “no!” They are commands that say this: If an opportunity comes for you to do a forbidden act, don’t do it! The commands aren’t pointing to absolute nothingness, absolute inactivity. They are referring to certain basic bad actions people should not do. (I’ll take an easy example.) Just imagine if the world on a whole kept the command not to murder. Wouldn’t it improve the world for people to refrain from that act? I’m not just talking about one-on-one murder here. Do you understand that obedience to that command alone would cause so many wars to cease? And remember, this is a prohibition, a negative command. It is a command not to do something, yet the world would still move forward towards repair and improvement. You could apply this to any commandment amongst the Seven, EVEN the prohibition against eating meat taken from a living animal (how much less animal cruelty would there be if meat suppliers knew there was no market for such meat?).

So these “negatives” don’t bring nothingness but rather improvement to individual and community life.

What is sad about that conclusion is that all it takes is for people to stop doing bad things, not even to start doing good things, to bring improvement; but we just won’t stop!

So the seven prohibitions are not simply about inactivity, but inactivity in response to the opportunity to do evil.

The next point was that a person should bring a positive out of a negative by doing something. Now if this was said in its own without a context of putting down the seven laws, it would be a fine point. If it were just saying, be an even better person by not only avoiding wrong actions but by doing good ones as well, there wouldn’t be a problem. Michael Dallen, in his book, “The Rainbow Covenant,” does say

“No one is virtuous unless he goes as far as to do the very opposite of whatever the Noahide laws forbid.” (in the chapter, Unfolding the Code: Theory and Practices, The Rainbow Covenant, by Michael Dallen, using the Kindle version, so no page number)

In this light, a non-Jew wouldn’t simply aim to avoid acts of injustice, he would look to make sure he only dealt with truth and fairness, and that he had a fuller knowledge of the Seven Laws. Another Gentile wouldn’t simply cease from idol worship, but they would learn to acknowledge the One True God and learn about Him. So there is a positive side to this admonition to do good. But …

But this comment was said in denigration to the seven prohibitions. “They are only negative; do something positive!” But this sort of mindset misses what the God’s commandments to humanity are about. (I’ll state what I’ve learnt here, but feel free to correct me if you feel I am wrong.)

The seven divinely given precepts are the basics for the laws of society and the conduct of the individual. Although they have much more breadth than seven simple statement, they are only foundational, a level of morality below which an individual and community loses its purpose for even existing. The Seven are also the laws that a righteous court can give the penalty of death, if broken. They are not the exclusively complete set of principles that a Gentile can ever live by. A person who studies the teachings about the way of, not just righteousness, but virtue for humanity will know that there are still plenty of ideals to strive for. And these ideals, although not commanded by God upon humanity, are still very much desirable to draw closer to His truth and makes a person a fully rounded person of integrity.

But a person can never neglect that crucially important foundation of his or her core responsibility. It is not simply the case of “they’re only negative, do what’s positive!” The core seven are the framework in which we are supposed to behave. It’s not too be denigrated for not being something it was never meant to be.

It was also said that people shouldn’t be beating each other over the head with or about the basic divine commandments. In case you don’t know, the phrase “beat over the head” refers to stating something over and over again, repeatedly, to the point of irritation. It may refer to using the laws to condemn others. Again, it’s easy to get a negative vibe from this description. It’s quite subjective as to when someone is going to get irritated over something. So I won’t deal with that as such. I personally haven’t seen the repeated hammering of the Seven Laws onto people in general, so maybe the complainant has different experiences to me. That’s more than understandable. But something else creeps across my mind.

Such an attitude displays the fact that the person making such comments isn’t really treating them as God’s revelation, His Law. I mean, imagine it! The Absolute Transcendent revealed at least a basic way for all humanity who are not privy to his specific and specified revelation to Israel at Sinai to begin on the road to uprightness. Knowing the awesomeness of the Source, this would normally be an honour and a mercy. It says that Gentiles are not forgotten but have a place in this world and, for those who care, a promise for a better future life. But what do people choose to do? Forget the Source! Forget the purposeful position and promise! Rather, let’s complain about “bashing people over the head!” Take careful note: this complaint is actually focused on what outside do with God’s Law, not the Law itself. But it is used in the context of putting down these divine teachings. In my experience, Gentiles and Jews tend to give much more appreciation to the Jewish 613 commandments than the seven precepts for humanity. This is despite the fact that the Source of both is the same. To be blunt, it’s a damn shame!

If proper focus is given, then the blessings in and opportunities provided by the Seven, as well as acknowledgement of its source, would furnish a lot more positivity about these commandments.

The last point I want to talk about is the idea of “how I choose to live is my choice.” I won’t spend much time on it. Whether there were commandments or not, people would generally live how they choose. It’s a fairly redundant statement. But if I take it further, some moral problems arise. Think about it! Many thieves live as they choose to by stealing from others. Murderers can live based on personal choice, choosing to take someone’s life. Rapists and politicians can live based on personal choice, choosing to force themselves on individuals against their will. There isn’t much pride that should be taken from simply living as one wants to. It’s not much different to an animal or an immature child. I think a better question is this: Did you live how you should live rather than simply how you wanted to? Did you avoid doing wrong things despite the fact that you could have gotten personal pleasure or benefit from it? Did you live simply for yourself (simply living off personal choice), or did try to find a cause bigger and morally better than just yourself? Again, did you make life choices based only on what you wanted to do, or what you should do?

I’m not sure there’s much to add after that.

So, for me personally, this view lacks a depth of insight when one thinks about Torah teachings and the intended impact they are meant to have on the world at large.

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1 Comment

  1. The Universal Laws are perfect (of course!) but as an addition which sets forth positive actions try reading – and applying – “The Path of the Just” by Rabbi Moshe Luzzatto (the Ramchal)

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