The Torah is considered a blueprint for the life of all humankind. When the Torah was given at Sinai and explicated by Moses over the next forty years, it resulted in a system of laws that, according to the traditional count, has 613 commandments for Jews, and seven for non-Jews. It may appear at first glance that the gap between Jewish and non-Jewish observance is enormous. But if we look a little more closely, we will see that it is not so great as it first appears.
The Seven Noachide Laws are as follows:
- Not to worship idols
2. Not to curse God
3. To establish courts of justice
4. Not to commit murder
5. Not to commit adultery or sexual immorality
6. Not to steal
7. Not to eat flesh torn from a living animal.
[Noachide: The Seven Universal Laws that were conveyed to all of mankind through primordial man (Adam) and handed down to Noah, form the basis of God’s moral expectations of mankind transmitted through the Torah. Those who choose to live by these principles are “Noachides“.]
These are seven basic principles which all have many implications. In properly observing the above seven commandments, a non-Jew will actually incorporate 66 mitzvot of the Torah which specify some of these items in greater detail. They involve much larger considerations as well; for example, the seventh implies that one should not practice cruelty to animals. Moreover, at the present time, when we no longer have a Holy Temple in Jerusalem or a Great Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court of 71 elder sages), many of the 613 mitzvot do not apply. As a result, a Jew today can fulfill 271 possible mitzvot. So there is approximately a four-to-one ratio in the number of commandments a Jew today is expected to fulfill, compared to a non-Jew. In addition, many of the extra mitzvot of Jews have to do with Shabbat or Jewish holidays or with physical commandments like kosher food, which are not required of the non-Jew.
The commandments were given so that all humans could participate in the boundless good that the Creator wished to bestow on humankind. Maimonides taught that non-Jews who obey the seven commandments out of the conviction of love and respect for God have a portion in the World-to-Come (the Messianic era). Although they are worded in the negative (“you shall not…“), that simply emphasizes the importance of avoiding evil. But they have highly positive effects. Their benefit appears in three distinct areas. The prohibitions against idolatry and blasphemy teach man to revere and worship one Supreme Being, which is the foundation for all ethics, reminding us that all come from one Source. The prohibitions against murder, sexual immorality (primarily adultery and incest), robbery, and perversion of justice serve as the foundations for social morality among human beings. The prohibition against eating flesh from a living animal instills in humans basic instincts of kindness toward lower creatures and reminds him to curb his own animal appetites.
Because of the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish observance, it is clear that Judaism teaches tolerance of other legitimate faiths and creeds. It categorically denies that a non-Jew must live by Torah or forever be condemned to “purgatory.” The Jewish nation has no monopoly on heaven. In fact, active efforts to convince non-Jews to take on Torah observance or “convert” are considered inappropriate; it is almost a form of racism, saying that our religion is better than yours. Nonetheless, while Jews do not seek to proselytize, individuals from among the nations of the world who have a spiritual yearning to join the Jewish people and take on all the obligations of Torah, replete with its rituals and observances, may do so by the process of a conversion.
Judaism unequivocally proclaims that one who chooses an ethical “Noachide” lifestyle, guided by the moral code described above, is fulfilling his tikkun or spiritual purpose on earth. A person who seeks to do more than the mere minimum within the Noachide framework may do so. Some people are more spiritually inclined than others, and would want to develop themselves through prayer or meditation; some are more interested in social service. All such efforts are high callings that the non-Jew can perform, without any negative comparisons to Judaism.
Through the good works of Jews and non-Jews alike, God has offered us many ways to bring spiritual reality into the world through our physical efforts, through the ethical way we live, and through our relationships with others. We are all human beings with a special mission for the whole planet.
All content ©Copyright 2001 by Jews for Judaism and Aaron Parry, unless otherwise indicated.
At the same time, many Jews need to learn that they have a great tradition to appreciate. Here is a story to illustrate:
David was a fine Jewish boy, who excelled in his studies and was well-liked by everyone. However, he attended a Catholic school. His parents had decided that the quality of the education in the public schools was deteriorating, and since there was no Jewish school in their city, they sent him to the local Catholic school. They knew nothing of their Jewish heritage, and so, although they weren’t enthusiastic about putting him in a religious school, they weren’t troubled either.
David continued after elementary school in the local Catholic high school. He was an “A” student and totally secular in his lifestyle. One day, his English teacher, Father McKenzie, assigned the class a book report on a great historical personality. David went to the library and scanned the shelves, searching for a name that had some meaning for him. The name “Maimonides” caught his eye. All he knew was that he was a great figure in Jewish history, but at least he thought he might have more in common with him than with Abraham Lincoln. He took the book home and began reading.
Three weeks later, the graded book reports were returned to the students. When David was called to pick up his report, Father McKenzie asked him to remain after class.
“David,” he said when the boy remained behind, “you’re the first student I’ve ever had who did a report on a Jew. Why did you select Maimonides?”
“Because I’m Jewish,” the boy answered quietly.
“You’re Jewish? Then what are you doing in a Catholic school?”
“My parents wanted me to get a good education, and they didn’t think I would, in public school.”
The priest was silent for awhile. Finally, he said, “Are you familiar with Jewish practice and ritual?”
“No,” replied David, somewhat embarrassed. “Nothing at all, as a matter of fact. I don’t know Hebrew any more than I know Chinese.”
Father McKenzie lapsed into silence again. Then he picked up a pencil, wrote something on a piece of paper, and handed it to David. “Let me give you some advice. If you ever decide to learn about your religion, visit Jerusalem and look up this address.”
The conversation remained with him. As a high school graduation present, David asked his parents for a trip to Israel. His parents were surprised-why not Italy or France? He could make a short stop in Israel as well. But no, David insisted-he only wanted to go to Israel.
Upon arriving in Jerusalem, David checked his bags in a hotel and then took a scrap of paper from his pocket, showed someone the address, and before long found himself standing in front of a building with a sign saying, “Jewish Studies Seminary.”
Four years later, there was a knock on Father McKenzie’s door. Standing in the doorway was a young man who was obviously a religious Jew.
“Yes. . .?” the priest inquired.
“It’s David-David Stone. Remember? The guy who did the report on Maimonides?”
It took a few moments for the information to sink in. “Yes, of course!” exclaimed the priest. “Well, David, you must have looked up the address in Jerusalem! I see they’ve turned you into a real religious man!”
“No sir,” David said softly. “They didn’t turn me into this. With God’s help and the help of some wonderful people, I’ve turned myself into this. I’ve come here today for two reasons. First, I have to thank you for giving me the address of the seminary. And my second reason is, I want to know how you knew that address and why did you give it to me?”
“It’s very simple,” said the priest. “When I was a young man studying for the priesthood, I traveled around the world to see the great religious shrines of my people. I spent most of my time in Rome and Jerusalem. I was curious to see the Wailing Wall, which you Jews hold so dear. One afternoon I went to the wall. I was clad in a T-shirt and jeans, looking like a typical tourist.”
“As I stood by the wall, a young rabbi approached me. Assuming I was Jewish, he asked me to join him for coffee, and then offered to show me a Jewish school of higher learning for young men with no religious background. Intrigued, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth-that I was a Catholic studying to be a priest! I was really taken aback by the reception I received at the seminary. The people were so warm and friendly, so eager to help me get started on the road of religious observance. To make a long story short, I stayed for three months before returning home. This may sound strange, but those were the most enjoyable months of my life. I’ve always felt guilty-I was taught by the rabbis, ate the seminary’s food, slept in its dorm, and gave them nothing in return. Worse, I fooled every one of them into thinking that he was helping a Jewish kid find his roots.It wasn’t right of me
“One powerful lesson they instilled within me, however, was that a person does not have to become a Jew in order to achieve “salvation.” I found a refreshing level of respect for another person’s heritage. The notion that Jewish people believe mankind has a “dual covenant” and one is still beloved to God without converting to Judaism, was a true revelation. When I learned that you were Jewish, and saw your interest in your Jewishness, I had no choice but to reciprocate and direct you in the way of your rich ancestry. I did not try to convert you to a foreign one. That is why I gave you that address. Let me tell you, David, you made a wise decision to go there.”
Through the efforts of Jews and non-Jews alike, God has offered us many ways to bring spiritual reality into the world through our physical efforts, through the ethical way we live, and through our relationships with others. We are human beings with a special mission for the whole planet.
All content ©Copyright 2001 by Jews for Judaism and Aaron Parry, unless otherwise indicated.