1. Introduction to the Noahide Laws
The observance of the Noachide Laws is an obligation upon all non-Jews. These laws, the first six, were first given to Adam in the Garden of Eden.1 Later, after the flood, these laws were again given, this time to Noah with the addition of the seventh law2 were again given, this time to Noah with the addition of the seventh law-the prohibition against eating the limb of a living animal. They were passed down from Noah to his sons, but as in the generation of the flood the Noachide laws were generally abandoned. Only a very small group continued to obey these laws. The line of Shem kept them alive through a particular strain of his line, which culminated in a man named Avraham.
Avraham was the progenitor of many nations including the Ishmaelites and the Edomites. Avraham is best known as the father of the Jewish people. During Avraham’s day there were very few that continued to observe the Noachide laws. Among those that did, other than Avraham and his sons, were Shem and Ever who lived into the life of Avraham’s grandson Ya’acov.
After the children of Israel were freed from Egypt they made their way to Mt. Sinai. At Mt. Sinai they received the Torah. According to the Rambam3 (among others) not only was the Torah received; but God reiterated His command that the Noachide Laws must be observed by non-Jews. “This applies only when he accepts them and fulfills them because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah and informed us through Moses, our teacher, that even previously, Noah’s descendants were commanded to fulfill them.”4 The Rambam states an essential understanding of the Sages. The reason non-Jews must observe the Noachide Laws is because God commanded them at Sinai, not because Adam or Noah observed or received them previously.5The same thinking is behind why Jews circumcise themselves, not because Avraham was circumcised, but because at Mt. Sinai God commanded circumcision.
Many people will find this astonishing. The simple truth is that the natures of the revelations before Mt. Sinai paled in comparison. It was at Mt. Sinai that God did something unique in human history. He revealed himself not to an individual or to a handful of people, but to an entire nation! According to the Torah6 this is an event that has never occurred before or will ever happen again.The unique nature of the revelation at Mt. Sinai and the weight that this revelation carried forever set the standard of revelatory truth. No age or people have seen its like. This means that Sinai holds a special place in the history of humanity, and the Authority of Sinai is as unique and final as the revelation itself. This is why the Rambam, in line with the great Sages before him, holds the above position on the Noachide laws and the laws of the Jewish people (that they are now obligatory because of Sinai not because they were previously given).
The Jewish people are known for being a nation of scholars. This is because their laws require very careful examination and contemplation. As the Psalmist says, “the law of the LORD is perfect.” The perfect Torah is best realized when it is turned into action. Study for the love of God and his Torah, but turn that study into action. In this way the Torah of God perfects the individual.
The Noachide ought to study the Noachide Laws with the same fervor a Jew studies the Torah Laws. Though a Jewish person may study all of the Torah with equal amounts of fervor, the non-Jew ought to focus his energies on what will aid in understanding the Noachide Laws. The Noachide Laws require a minimum level of behavior from the Noachide. Left on its own minimal observance of the Noachide Laws will get a Noahide a place in the world to come, however it will not perfect him. Perfection for the Noahide requires more, but doing this minimum gets one Eternity; it is still imperfect and a waste of one's life not to pursue more, such as doing acts of loving kindness for others, avoiding mean speech, etc. etc.A life without prayer is hardly perfect, either.However, these are things that Noahides are not required to do. However it is important for Noachides to work on self-perfection, which is of benefit both to him and to mankind.
Punishment in the Noachide Laws
Many are shocked when they first study the Noachide Laws and learn that for any violation of the Noachide Laws the Noachide is punished with death.7 Two other factors make this hard to believe. This is not so for the Jewish people.
This is potentially the most difficult issue to get over. It is also the issue that brings the greatest amount of criticism against the Noachide Laws and those who live by it. Theft, for example, is not viewed as a capital punishment crime in our society. Nor does it seem to be the case in the Jewish world. However, some places punish rape by death, and it is "theft"; just like kidnapping.8
It is important when struggling with any issue in Judaism and specifically in Halachah to consider the God's outlook as a whole and not in piecemeal form. There are several instances in the Torah where it seems like we are viewing an overly harsh command from God. For example, the rebellious son in the Torah is someone who is executed for rebelling against his parents. Many parents are horrified by this idea recognizing their own “rebellious” children. In the mind of many they are struck by the horror of putting to death their children for something as natural as teenage angst.9
Justice must be the basis of any law. It is the foundation of creation itself. The “laws” of the natural world were created to allow for the things in creation to function. If there are no laws, there is no reality. Without a particular way of how things work knowledge of any kind would be impossible.
Human relationships could not exist if not for law. Law is an explanation of how we ought to behave towards one another. This is true whether the relationship is between man and man or between man and God.
Mercy is the element that keeps Justice from devouring the universe. Absolute justice has no room for imperfect human beings. Mercy tempers justice. Only by combining justice and mercy can human beings have courts that are truly just.
Justice, Mercy and the Noachide Laws
The Torah of Israel was never meant to be an oppressive instrument. In fact, its purpose has always been to perfect the individual and create a world where people act in brotherhood with one another. Challenges to this claim are the seeming harshness of the Noachide Laws. The Lack of minimum amounts and the automatic death penalty of each of the Laws encourage a perspective of injustice in some toward the Torah.
As we see in the Torah Laws of the Jewish people God is both just and merciful. The purpose of the courts is to be a force for good. Their primary focus is to be teachers of the Law not executioners.
Even under the Noachide system attaining a capital conviction is nearly impossible. How many times are we even able to provide one eye witness for a crime? The purpose of punishment in the Torah is to instill the fear of Hashem in human beings. However, such punishments are rarely carried out. A Sanhedrin that kills one person in 70 years is called a “bloody” Sanhedrin.
Hashem desires us to live so that we can turn away from sin and draw close to him. A person who is dead can no longer serve Hashem. For those who still feel that the punishment for Noachide offenses are cruel and blood thirsty let them point to specific examples of cruelty and bloodthirstiness within the Observant Jewish communities (as a result of their Torah). They will never find such examples.
The Noachide Laws have been the standard that God has judged humanity by since he first created us. It is by that standard that nations rise and fall, their reward and punishment based on their adherence or rejection of those laws.
In our world when confusion over the complexity of religion prevents us from attaining a relationship with God and our fellow human beings. It is reassuring to know that God’s plan for us is straight forward and that he has set forth his Torah and its laws that guide and establish perfection, peace and unity for all human beings.10
1. Rambam, Hilchot Melachim U’Milchamoteihem 9:1 (Moznaim Publishing Corporation. New York/Jerusalem) 1987.All references to Hilchot Melachim are taken directly from this version unless specified otherwise.
3. Hilchot Melachim 8:10-11
4. Hilchot Melachim 9:1
5. This would be true even if an independent tradition from the Jewish tradition of the Noahide laws existed. However, no such tradition exists. We only know of the obligation and the Noahide Laws because of Jewish oral traditions.
6. Exodus 34:10, Deuteronomy 4:34
7. Hilchot Melachim U’Milchamot 9:12
8. Hilchot Melachim U’Milchamot 10:5 and the means of execution is always decapitation “except in cases when he has slept with the wife of a Jew or a betrothen maiden (ibid).”
9. Of course, the circumstances under which a child could be put to death for violation of this law are so limited that so far no one has been put to death for it.
10 “Its ways are pleasant ways and all its paths are Peace (Proverbs 3:17).”