Taking A Closer Look At Judaism's Universal Laws


Taking A Closer Look At Judaism's Universal Laws

by R. C. Berman

March 3, 2008

For most, the Biblical account of Noah and the flood begins with lions, tigers, and peacocks strutting two by two into a wooden ark and ends with a rainbow and a promise of no more worldwide deluges. But for a growing number of people around the globe, the seven ethical instructions Jewish tradition says were given to Noah, as he started a new life after the rain, are a code for morality and a key to a meaningful life.

These seven universal moral precepts – set up courts, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit forbidden relations, don’t worship idols, don’t blaspheme, and don’t eat meat that came from a living animal - seem simple enough until you start to try to live by them.

Big questions linger behind the broad strokes of what’s come to be known as the Seven Noahide Commandments. Travis Smith of Albuquerque, NM, who has been observing Noahide precepts for several years wanted to know: “What about end of life issues? Birth control? Is it okay to download pirated music from the Internet?”

Smith’s questions have been echoed by several thousand Noahides living in the USA, and far beyond – in Canada, Germany, England, Poland and Kenya.

To fill in the details, a book of groundbreaking scholarship on the topic of practical application of the Noahide precepts has just been released. Sefer Sheva Mitzvot Hashem, The Book of Seven Divine Commandments, published by Ask Noah International, is available through Kehot.com and is already in several Judaica bookstores across the U.S.

Bringing the first of the two volumes to print required three years of intense research and writing by author Rabbi Moshe Weiner, a Jerusalem based author of several halachic works and halachic reviewer for the translation, footnotes and commentary of Maimonides’ seminal Mishna Torah series published by Moznaim (translation and commentary by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger).

Rabbi Weiner’s task was not to innovate but to collect the startling number of references in the Torah, Talmud, in the writings of Maimonides and other early commentators that address how the Divine moral code applies to gentiles. References were “scattered in so many places no one realized their true breadth and depth,” said Ask Noah International co-director Dr. Michoel Schulman.

Ask Noah International’s writer and editors worked long and hard to reconcile differences of opinion, apply millennia-old writings to modern times, and codify the Sheva Mitzvot.

Why should erudite Jews spend their time resolving moral dilemmas for Noahides? The authors show, in a 40-page introduction, that it is a Jewish obligation. In the book of Isaiah, Jewish people are instructed to be a “light unto the nations.” In modern times, the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke often about the “climate of increased moral consciousness” that made now the right moment to spread word of “a Divine moral code, one that predates all human codes, and the only one that has timeless and universal application for a good, moral civilization.”

Furthermore, Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet, Ask Noah’s overseeing rabbi, told Lubavitch.com, the morality of society at large shapes the Jewish community. “The Jewish community is very much affected by the standards and lifestyles of society around them. Thus it is very much in our own interest that societal ethics are enhanced.”

Rabbi Schochet, a renowned authority on Jewish Philosophy and Mysticism and professor-emeritus of Philosophy at Humber College, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, added, “In fact, the pursuit of general morality, and any efforts towards this, affects both implicitly and explicitly the outreach to Jews as well.” 

Because of the sensitivities involved in embarking on a project like this, Ask Noah called upon scholars with impeccable references to guide the project. Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, a member of the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Israel reviewed the text, and it received approbations from several other Jewish legal authorities.

As it turned out, the seven rules needed almost 800 pages of explanation. Sefer Sheva Mitzvot Hashem bulked up into two volumes because these “seven principles or categories subsume a whole codex of laws, defining very specific do's and don'ts,” Rabbi Schochet explained. “These laws not only originate in the Torah but are also defined by the Torah-tradition. A sincere Noahide, therefore, would have to study and know what is expected of him or her and act accordingly. This book now, for the first time, provides them with the unique opportunity to do so.”   

With a text all in Hebrew, Sefer Sheva Mitzvot Hashem is debuting as a reference for rabbis who “already have gentiles coming to them, wanting to learn and asking questions,” said Dr. Schulman, a former industrial physicist now living in Pittsburgh, PA. He co-directs the program with Chaim Reisner, also of Pittsburgh.

Darlene Ly, an observant Noahide from Sunnyvale, CA, brought a pre-release copy to the Chabad rabbi she consults when she has questions, Rabbi Yisroel Hecht. She was pleased to hear him say, "It is a well done, scholarly and complete book and a good guide,” Ly related, and Rabbi Hecht told her he’s "happy that someone took up this phenomenal project. It is a tremendous resource."

Schulman and Reisner are spearheading the completion of the first English edition. Bill Hicks, who runs the tech side of the AskNoah.org “Living the Seven Laws” forum from his home in Cullman County, AL, believes the English version will help Noahides teach others. “It’ll be helpful for gentiles to teach each other. I know where the mindset is. I can talk to a buddy and use terms that are part of his vocabulary.”

Hicks said questions come into the AskNoah.org forum from people around the world who “want to live righteously but are not sure how to go about it.” One common misconception is that converting to Judaism is a must for gentiles who find meaning in Torah teachings. In fact, Judaism regards every person as a possessor of a specific spiritual destiny and discourages conversion. “They don’t realize they are fine just as they are,” Hicks explained. They are surprised to learn that there is a moral tradition for them to follow “that dates back to Adam and Noah.”

As for Smith, he’s excited about the book because he has found fulfillment in observing Noahide laws. “I cannot tell you what a difference it made to know what G-d expects of me. It is really the most powerful experience. It changed my life. I hope this book will be a catalyst for change for many people.”

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