This Noachide, or universal, code to which all mankind is subject must, in the nature of things, be more rational than the Mosaic code, more accessible to intellectual perception. Rationality is, in fact, its principal characteristic, even its principal component. The most cursory study of the subject will amply demonstrate this.
Acknowledging the Noachide Law's rationality, Maimonides also introduces another consideration when he writes:
Whoever accepts the seven commandments and observes them with care is considered a pious Gentile, and has a share in the eternal life; but this is on condition that he receive and fulfill these precepts because God has prescribed them in His Law, and revealed to us through Moses our teacher that these are the rules of life given originally to the sons of Noah. But if he observes them only because reason seems to endorse them, he may not be regarded as a proselyte of the gate, or fellow citizen, or as a pious man or sage among the Gentiles (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakim 8.11).
With respect to its nobility and holiness, the Law of Noah need not fear comparison with the Law of Moses itself; for it was not only the Law of Adam, of Noah, and of all the patriarchs before Abraham, but also of Abraham, of Isaac and Jacob, of all their children and descendants, and of Moses himself before the revelation at Sinai. We hear so much at times about Abrahamic faith and the startling conclusion of the matter upon study is that Abraham was a non-Jew and never practiced Judaism per se; rather he was a Noahide and observed the Commandments and Laws of the Covenant of Noah.
Answer for yourself: What was the procedure which signaled a man's passage from polytheism to Noachism? A text tells us that the Gentile who wished to be converted must present himself before three haverim (brothers, companions), a name which was given on certain occasions to the sages of Israel. In their presence he must declare his intention of adhering henceforth to the Noachide religion.
A ritual of baptism or absolution accompanied the conversion of a pagan to Noachism, just as it was part of the conversion ceremony to Mosaism itself. In fact historically this immersion provides the background for the correct understanding of "Being Born Again" as we find in the discoure between Yeshua/Jesus and Nicodemus in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. In fact, such a ritual was practiced not only by the Gentile entering Judaism (Joseph Caro, Yoreb De'ab, 267.3) but also by the pagan slave entering the service of a Jew (Ibid., 267.3) and by an apostate Jew returning to the communion of Israel (Isserles on Yoreb De'ab, 268.12). It also marked the passage to a higher level of holiness, as for the high priest on the Day of Atonement, and formed one of the essential conditions for purifying oneself from all manner of defilement. We see that Elisha prescribes it also for the Syrian general Naaman (2 Kgs 5:10, 14, 15), who makes no mistake about the religious meaning of the ritual. It would therefore have been most surprising thata ceremonial ablution had not been required for the pagan who was converting to Noachism. What is certain is that Christianity grasped its significance, for it made the practice obligatory for the converted pagan, and later, if not at the same time, for the Jew also.
In any event, whatever may have been the manner in which the new Noachide was received at the moment of his conversion, our present concern is to examine the law which he took upon himself. We have alluded often to its seven precepts; we must now address each of these seven-which certain sages have considerably augmented-and try to determine its meaning. But before launching into this detailed analysis, let us first consider the overall contents of the Noachide Law.
Whatever may be the true number of Noachide precepts, it is clear that each of them represents not a single commandment but rather an entire group of related obligations. It was indeed natural to organize the entire Law of Noah into general categories, by analogy with the Law of Moses, in which each precept-and they are vastly more specialized-includes a larger or smaller number of particular provisions (Maimonides, Sefer ha-Mitzvoth; trans. into English by Charles B. Chavel, 2 vols. (London, Soncion, 1967).
We know, moreover, that the Jewish law-courts were sometimes entrusted with applying the Noachide code, and it was therefore necessary that their decisions be based not on the arbitrary or ephemeral opinion of some judge but on a set of principles which would delineate the profile of the laws in a lasting way. The Talmud addresses this question explicitly. It discusses the "sanctification of the name of God" (Kiddush ha-Shem), that is, the Jew's obligation to accept martyrdom rather than deny true religion.
Answer for yourself: Is the Noachide held to this mitzvah? The objection is made that if he were, the number of Noachide precepts would rise to eight, whereas the Oral Tradition speaks of seven only. The answer given is that these seven precepts embrace all related issues (Sanhedrin 74b).
I have already mentioned an important Talmudic principle which we may recall here: that the Noachide, apart from his universal law, may also observe whatever Mosaic precepts he chooses.
If he wishes to fulfill one of the other mitzvot of the Law [says Maimonides], he should not be prevented from doing so just because his own laws does not require it (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 10.10).
Thus, the entire Law of Moses is available to the Noachide. He can take from it what he wants, so that his own personal code, which consists of a small number of obligations which cannot be set aside for any reason, can, if he desires, be augmented with such Mosaic observances as he wishes to practice as well. We find this principle taught by Isaiah the prophet as well.
Isa 56:1-8 1 Thus saith the LORD, Keep ye judgment, and do justice: for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed. 2 Blessed is the man that doeth this, and the son of man that layeth hold on it; that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil. 3 Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the LORD, speak, saying, The LORD hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree. 4 For thus saith the LORD unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; 5 Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off. 6 Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the LORD, to serve him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; 7 Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people. 8 The Lord GOD which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him. (KJV)
The compatibility of all these legal provisions is admirable. The situation of the Noachide since the promulgation of the Law of Moses is exactly the same as that of the Patriarchs of Israel before Sinai. In point of fact, according to Scripture and Oral Tradition, the Patriarchs freely committed themselves to certain observances which are part of modern Judaism but were optional in their time, having become obligatory only with the appearance of the Mosaic Law. What were originally precepts of perfection for a small number of pious men are today the religion of an entire people, but these precepts retain their voluntary character for all those who do not adhere to this religion by virtue of birth or free conversion.
Here is another Talmudic assertion which, without specifying the number of Noachide commandments, nevertheless helps clarify the question. The sages say that all seven of the basic Noachide mitzvot are conceived as negative precepts, the positive ones remaining outside this inclusive enumeration [though presumably some of these are implied in and may be deduced from the negative formulas] (Sanhedrin 48b).
Let us now examine what we may call the nucleus of each Noachide precept. These nuclei have often been mistaken for the laws themselves, whereas in reality they form only the chief principles of the Code of Mankind.
The oldest baraita enumerates them in this way:
Our sages have said that seven commandments have been prescribed for the Sons of Noah: the first requires them to have judges; the other six forbid sacrilege, idolatry, incest, homicide, theft, and the consumption of a limb taken from a living animal (Sanhedrin 56b).
Another baraita substitutes for the first precept the prohibition of castration, and for the second the prohibition of the cross-breeding of different species and of the grafting of trees (Ibid.). At first sight, one is surprised to find this second text ignoring the necessity of a judiciary, and thus seeming to allow the possibility of a human society without courts charged with the administration of justice. But we must repeat that this list of commandments offers nothing more than a method of classification. If it omits justice, this is because it regards justice as the purely instrumental aspect of the Noachide code, and as an inevitable result of the very existence of this code.
The idea of a unique God, which implies the worship of Him alone and obedience only to His will, follows from the very revelation of God and of His commandments. The story of the creation of woman and of the institution of marriage, presented with such solemnity (Gn 2:22-24), constitutes a quite solid foundation for the prohibition of forbidden relationships by the fourth Noachide law, and the rabbis did not fail to deduce from it the proscription of adultery and unnatural vices (Sanhedrin 57b). The account of the punishment of Cain, Abel's murderer, is clear evidence near the beginning of Genesis that homicide is a punishable crime. The law which condemns him is later formulated most explicitly in the covenant established with Noah (Gn 9:5). The prohibition of theft exists in embryo in the distinction made by God as sovereign master of the earthly paradise between what Adam may take and what is forbidden to him (Gn 2:16-17). As for the Noachide commandment relating to the consumption of a living animal, we find this in full in the laws given to Noah after the Flood.
Since we have just touched on God's covenant with Noah, here might be the appropriate place to consider the specific precepts which it contains and its relation to the code which would later be called Noachide.
First of all we find the duty of procreation (Gn 9:1). This is omitted from the list of seven commandments, perhaps because this list is conceived in terms of negative rather than positive injunction. It is also possible that God's call to "increase, and fill the earth" is here interpreted, following the opinion of some commentators, as a blessing rather than a command. If, however, the undeniably positive precept of justice is included, it may perhaps be because justice is a sine qua non for punishing any transgressions whatever.
In addition to the obligation of procreation, we find in Genesis 9 the law relating to food, which we mentioned above. This law, contrary to the instructions originally given to Adam (Gn 1:29), permits renewed mankind to eat any animal at all (Gn 9:3). The difference seems to be intentionally stressed by the biblical language itself, for after saying "Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat," the text adds, "as with the green grasses, I give you all these." This means, evidently, that just as all possible vegetable foods had once been granted to Adam, so now Noah is to be given, in addition, all of the world's animal life to use as food.
The very liberal conditions of this concession, and the solemnity of its statement, remind one of the famous vision of Peter, in which the apostle "saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners" (Acts 10:11), this vessel containing all the quadrupeds, reptiles, and birds-while a voice said to him:
Rise, Peter; kill, and eat...What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. (Acts 10:13, 15)
We know that the first Christians claimed that they were acting on the authority of Peter's dream in abolishing the distinction between pure and impure animals in the Mosaic Law. But the Jews, for their part, had no need to abolish any such ritual distinction with respect to mankind at large, for none had ever been imposed. The freedom allowed to Noachides in this matter is as complete as the restrictions placed upon israel are explicit. The coexistence of two separate laws shows that it would be as absurd to try to subject all men to such ritual prohibitions of diet as to claim that it would be an improvement if the Jews' special dietary laws were abolished. The single obligation for the Gentile-that he must not eat the flesh of a living animal (Gn 9:4)-is enough to give legal sanction to the freedom which he enjoys otherwise.
The verse which follows, according to which God holds man responsible if he takes human life (Gn 9:6), may be interpreted so comprehensively that the Talmud, properly, sees here the condemnation of suicide (Baba Kamma 91b). Proof of the accuracy of this interpretation can be seen in the following principle: A criminal who has incurred capital punishment, and thus becomes the indirect cause of his own death, is declared responsible for the loss of his own life, and is obliged to account for this before God. We can infer this from the laying-on of hands to which he was subjected before being led to his execution.
The concluding sentence of this ancient Noachide Law, a truly precious document, also deserves our attention:
Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed; For in His image Did God make man. (Gn 9:6)
Answer for yourself: Must we see in these last words only a kind of justification of the capital punishment imposed on the homicide who by his crime has offended the image of God? Perhaps there is also a consecration or authentication of human law, of man's acting on behalf of God in order to exercise a jurisdiction over his fellow men, by virtue of his resemblance to the Divinity, which gives him an intuition of moral truth, an understanding of what is right and true. If to this text in Genesis we add the many others in which justice is called a divine thing, which show God as seated in the midst of those who administer it, and even in them, according to the literal meaning (cf. Ps 82)-if we recall that the condemned man is thought of as consecrated to God, even perhaps as a sacrifice-we shall not hesitate to recognize that the second interpretation is highly probable.
Such is the relation between the terms of God's covenant with Noah and his descendants, and the "Noachide Law" whose various principles we must now consider in some detail.
The second Noachide precept forbids polytheism and requires the Gentile, like the Jew, to acknowledge only one God.
Let us hasten to add, however, that the Noachide religion is far more permissive in this matter than Judaism itself. Whereas Israel must observe the oneness of God with uncompromising rigor, without any trace of reference to other divine beings, at least in worship, the Gentile is thought not to sin if in his religion be relates other divinities to the authentic God, provided that he acknowledge and worship only a single supreme God. The Hebraic doctrine of Noachism is somewhat analogous to one in Roman Catholic theology, which distinguishes between latria (worship which may be directed to God alone) and julia (worship directed to the angels and saints). This latter mode of worship, allowed to Gentiles so long as it does not dilute their profession of pure monotheism, is rigorously forbidden to Israel. Indeed, Moses himself has never been worshipped by the Jews and the location of his tomb has ever been kept secret so that the masses might not be tempted in any way to associate this greatest of prophets with the adoration of the true God.
Answer for yourself: Is the difference a result of the Gentile's special situation, or rather an allowance which is required by his habitual historical gravitation to polytheism and idolatry? We do not know. All the same, the fact is uncertain at best and notice above that the allowance of secondary deities to Gentiles is "thought" to be acceptable to God and not "known" for certain. This issue is of major importance and involves such issues as the worship of Jesus as God, praying in Jesus' name or the name of Mary or other saints, let alone the worship of Mary in Roman Catholicism.
This concession is surely not due to any pagan influence, nor does it imply an attitude of religious condescension on the part of Jews toward Gentiles. With this single exception-of the highest signifcance, to be sure-there is complete equality between Jew and nor Jew regarding monotheistic worship and doctrine. Acts punishable by death in Jewish courts are also forbidden to the Noachide; those which do not entail capital punishment for Jew's are permitted the Gentiles. This is the Talmudic principle (Sanhedrin 57b)/
inevitably, the Talmud asks if the non-Jew has the obligation (submitting to martyrdom rather than betray his commitment to monotheism. The question is not even raised with respect to the Israelite and history attests to the incomparable heroism with which Israel has always accepted this duty. But the sages have raised a doubt with regard to the Noachide, and their very controversies on the matter prove how carefully they considered all aspects of universal religion and with what generous tolerance they regarded the Gentiles who were drawn to the doctrines of Judaism. Moreover, these considerations absolve the Pharisees of the reproach, made in the Gospels, that they wanted to impose on pagan converts a more demanding yoke than the one they accepted upon themselves (Mt 23:4).
Here is the relevant Talmudic passage:
It was asked of R. Ammi: Is a Noachide bound to sanctify the Divine Name [i.e., through martyrdom] or not?- Abbaye' said: Come and hear. The Noachides were commanded to keep seven precepts. Now, if they were commanded to sanctify the Divine Name, there are eight. Rava said to him: Them, and all pertaining thereto [i.e., the seven precepts as well as all their implications must be observed]. What is the decision?-The disciples of Rav said: It is written, "But may the Lord pardon your servant for this: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow low in worship there, and he is leaning on my arm so that I must bow low in the temple of Rimmon-when I bow low in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant in this. And he [i.e., Elisha] said to him [i.e., Naaman, a Noachide]: Go in peace" (2 Kgs 5:18-19). Now, if it be so that a Noachide [such as Naaman] is bidden to sanctify the Divine Name, he should not have said this?-The one is private, the other public. [That is, if Naaman were obliged to sanctify the Divine Name, Elisha would have explained to him the distinction between a public act of worship, which is forbidden, and a private act, which is allowed when life is in danger.] (Sanhedrin 74b).
What is interesting is the doctrine which has been drawn from this passage of the Talmud. On this point as on so many others, opinion is divided. According to Rashi, the problem has not been resolved. According to the Tosafot, however, the question has indeed been decided: Gentiles are exempt from the obligation to sanctify the Divine Name. Maimonides, R. Jonah, and R. Nissim agree with the Tosafot. Yet Nachmanides, addressing the matter, declares explicitly that when it is a question of public worship, Noachides, like Jews, are required, whatever the consequence, to sanctify the name of God-that is, to accept martyrdom, if necessary (Sanhedrin 74; Nachmanides, Milkhamot Adonai, on Sanhedrin; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakim 10.2).
Answer for yourself: What is the source of the prohibition of sacrilege, which forms one of the seven Noachide commandments? The Talmud derives it from this text in Leviticus which deals with the punishment imposed on the half-Israelite, half-Egyptian man who blasphemed God's name (Sanhedrin 57b).
Anyone [Heb. ish ish] who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; if he also pronounces the name Lord [i.e., Tetragrammaton], he shall be put to death. (Lv 24:15-16)
Hebraic tradition infers from the scriptural doubling of ish, "man," in this text that sacrilege is forbidden to non-Jews as well as to Israelites.
Jewish monotheism stems from the universal monotheism which prevailed in the earliest times; and we know that the religious fragmentation which appeared was engendered by the diverse names used to address the one God. By degrees this variety of names replaced the original religious unity with multiplicity, as men were persuaded to believe that these words, which at first expressed only the various attributes of a single God, rather represented-each of them-distinct and independent personalities, as occurred later in Christianity, when the church councils defined the Trinity of persons. In asserting that all the versions of God's name have a legitimacy (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 9.3), Jewish doctrine brings mankind back to its starting point. Beneath the religious differences- which it respects, but among which it banishes all antagonisms- Judaism affirms the fundamental unity. Nothing could express this doctrine more characteristically than the Noachide law on blasphemy, which forbids the Gentile to blaspheme not only the names of the God of Israel but also those of the various divinities of paganism, in which Judaism teaches their adherents to discover the scattered fragments of divine Truth.
Like the other Noachide commandments, the precept against homicide has been understood by the sages in a much amplified way.
With respect to the words "Of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man" (Gn 9:5), the Talmud (Sanhedrin 57a) concludes that an act of homicide has been committed even though one pay an intermediary to perform it. R. Hanina adds that a single witness, a single judge, and proof that someone had been commissioned to execute the murder are all that is needed for the Noachide's condemnation. This last doctrine is based on the text
Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed. (Gn 9:6)
Instead of interpreting the second clause to refer exclusively to the right conferred on courts of justice to impose capital punishment, the rabbis also linked "by man" to the first clause: "Whoever sheds the blood of man by man. . . ."
It is important to point out that Jewish Law differs significantly from Noachide Law on this question of homicide committed indirectly by a third party: In Jewish Law, only the person actually performing the murder is guilty of it. "Every authorization to commit an offense is regarded as nonexistent." This is the accepted rule, founded on the principle that when there is a contradiction between two orders, one of which comes from the master (i.e., God) , the other from the disciple (i.e., a man who asks another to sin), it is the first which must be obeyed (Kiddushin 42b; Sanhedrin 29a).
This is by no means the only difference between the two codes on the subject. Contrary to Mosaism, the Noachide Law declares abortion to be a homicide also punishable by death. The Talmud justifies this determination by the expression ba'adam, "by man," in Genesis 9:6, cited above; for ha'adam can also mean "in man," thus yielding the reading "Whoever sheds the blood of man in man. . . ." The rabbis see here an allusion to the child in its mother's womb. Pagan antiquity's tolerance of abortion is well known; Aristotle and Juvenal attest to the prevalence of this infamous custom.
Answer for yourself: Can you imagine for just a moment what this means for America, a Christian nation, which advocates a "Woman's Choice" when it comes to abortion; yet they call themselves for the most part Christians and followers of Yeshua? Such an attitude and murdurous conduct is a disgrace to the name Christ let alone God!
Among the other acts which Noachide Law considers to be murder and punishes as such are terminating the life of an incurably sick man, leaving a man to die of hunger, and binding a prisoner so that he is defenseless and may be devoured by a wild beast. Maimonides, echoing the Talmudic doctrine already cited, even asserts that a man who, while defending himself legitimately, kills his aggressor when merely wounding him would have saved his own life, is guilty of homicide and should be appropriately punished (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 9.4)
With respect to involuntary homicide, we find that the rabbis quite logically apply the principle which governs the entire Noachide code: Ignorance of the law is no justification, and the Noachide is punished for not having learned what he ought to have learned.
Answer for yourself: Do you dare fathom the implications of the above statement as it is applied to the rampant Biblical ignorance of Gentile Christianity today?
This principle differs essentially from the Mosaic code, according to which, for there to be a misdemeanor, the law has to have been brought to the attention of the guilty party, before his culpable act, by the witnesses for the prosecution.
This difference follows naturally from the essential character of the two codes. The Noachide Law is intrinsically rational. Not so the Mosaic Law, however, for this is the priestly law, decreed not only for this world but for heaven as well. That is, in philosophical language, Mosaism expresses the relation between the earth and the material and spiritual universe. Noachism addresses the observance of what is true and right to the degree that the interests of the individual and of society require; in Judaism, however, this observance acquires all the amplitude which the universal order itself calls for. Necessarily, therefore, the Mosaic code eludes man's present understanding, which comprehends only a more limited sphere, and its precepts have a significance far more vast, extending to the universe itself. This universe thrusts itself upon man's consciousness in the form of revelation, as it speaks to animal life in the form of instinct. We can say that Revelation is but instinct of a higher order, which puts man in harmony with the universal order, and, by means of Israel, links mankind with the entire world. Thus, the Israelite is presumed to be ignorant of the Law as long as he has not been expressly instructed in it; but this excuse cannot do for the Noachide, whose conspicuously (indeed, exclusively) rational code is accessible to the human conscience.
This fundamentally rational quality of Noachism has a consequence which at first sight is surprising but which actually proceeds from it very naturally. The rabbis, who are often accused of slavishness and narrowness of spirit, ask a question as unexpected as it is important-a question which has perhaps not been asked in the criminal law of any other people.
Answer for yourself: If ignorance is not acceptable as a legitimate excuse for the Noachide, what about rejection or denial of the law by a man who acknowledges neither its authority nor its justice, whose reason refuses to accept its commands? Is he to be considered guilty or innocent? We read in the Talmud:
He who believes in his heart that homicide is an allowable thing, that its prohibition has never been binding, is [nevertheless] considered by Raba to be very like a murderer (Makkot 9a).
Answer for yourself: Do you dare again fathom the implications of such denial or rejection of the Law/Torah of God by those who accept Pauline Christianity over Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings?
Maimonides shares this opinion (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Roseab 5.4)
According to the rabbis, God Himself established marriage when He created woman, and the inviolability of the marital union for Noachides is confirmed by this verse in Genesis: "Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh" (Gn 2:24). The sages say: "It is written that he will cling to his wife, not the wife of his neighbor" (Sanhedrin 58a).
Answer for yourself: What exactly is marriage in the universal Noachide religion? It is simply the fact of belonging to each other exclusively. But it is natural to suppose that since the establishment of courts is one of the Noachide precepts, this exclusive pairing of spouses must be established by public authority, if only to make possible the prosecution of adultery and the devolution of inheritances. A text of Maimonides, drawn from the Talmud, clearly demonstrates that such is the character of marriage:
If a Noachide, after having promised a female slave to a male slave, then permits himself intercourse with her, he will be punished by death (Sanhedrin 58b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkot Melakhim 9.8).
This example expresses a spirit of fairness truly astonishing for its time. Master and slave are both pagans, but the latter, according to Jewish thought, nevertheless enjoys his inviolable rights as a husband, and in this is equal to his master, who faces capital punishment if he dares violate these rights of his fellow-man: Such indeed is the eloquent term (havero) which the rabbis use in this context to designate the slave.
Let man not sunder what God has joined together-that of course is the basic issue; but the question is to know what God has joined, or, to use the rabbinic expression, what the man can properly consider as his half If the woman he married were certain to be such a one, we should have to say that dissolution of the marriage would be counter to the divine will. But inasmuch as it is not necessarily thus, and couples are not always well mated, one can maintain that on occasion it is indispensable to dissolve a conjugal union precisely in order to facilitate the joining of "what God has joined"; and thus man's sundering may actually serve the cause of God's joining.
As for the marital union itself, no one has understood it more perfectly than the rabbis, and especially the Kabbalists, who see it as a joining not only of bodies but of souls as well. In their view the complete human soul embodies the nature of both sexes. They have even asserted in the Talmud that man without woman is not truly man. Moreover, if we recall the role that children play in biblical and traditional Judaism, we shall welcome the description of marriage which comes, according to Michelet, from the laws of Manu:
The essence of marriage-and no society in the future will find a truer formulation of it-is this: man is man only so far as he is triple, which is to say man, woman, and child.
Mysticism has sanctified this doctrine by introducing the concept of the "holy family" into its symbolism, and it is quite probable that here is the original form of the Trinity: man (Father), son (Logos), and mother (Holy Spirit). This identification of the mother with the Holy Spirit should not seem shocking. We know that certain Christian sects have elevated mary to the Trinity in place of the Holy Spirit, and that for the Gnostics, the Holy Spirit itself is a femine principle. In the apochryphal gospels, Jesus speaks of his mother the Holy Spirit. In the Kabbalah, the name "aeon Malkhut" embodies this dual motif.
But despite the elevated concept of marriage which the sages formed, we must repeat that divorce was not therefore impossible: only (according to the unanimous opinion of the commentators) that Noachides are not held to the formalities of divorce required by the law of Israel. Just as the marriage itself is contracted by the simple consent of the spouses, so it can be dissolved by their mutual consent. Such is the doctrine which Maimonides affirms. We find in the Palestinian Talmud a text which, owing to its terseness, is less transparent, but is no less instructive:
Does divorce exist for the Noachides? R. Yehuda answers: "Either it does not exist at all, or the right of divorce is allowed to the woman as well as to the man" (Kiddushin, Jerusalem Talmud, chap. 1).
To our knowledge, the Noachide code contains no special provision concerning polygamy. Nevertheless, there is no lack of arguments to suggest strongly that although there was no explicit prohibition of polygamy in Israel, it was monogamy which was at least favored by the law and by its most eminent spokesmen. This makes it probable, we believe, that Noachism of the same period shared the Jewish bias toward monogamy. The most important texts in favor of monogamy, and the most notable examples, come to us, indeed, from the preMosaic period, which is to say that they express Noachide life in its full flowering. The creation story, among other texts, is surely significant for the conception of marriage which it contains. From the biblical point of view, it is manifestly appropriate to man's nature to have but a single wife: Adam had only one, who was created from his own flesh, and we might thus even venture to say that there existed at the beginning of humankind only a single human being, at once male and female-an androgynous Adam, according to the rabbis (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 8.1), who were being more faithful to the sacred text in this matter than one might have imagined. In contrast to Lamech, who had two wives, we have the far more significant instances of Noah and his sons, each of whom had but one. Abraham also would have been monogamous if Sarah had not urged him to take her maidservant ilagar. Isaac had a single spouse; Jacob had four, but only because of Laban's trickery, in the first instance, and afterward, the expressed wish of Rachel and Leah. The mother of Moses had no rival, and as for Moses himself, even if the Ethiopian woman about whom Miriam and Aaron complained at Haze-roth was not the same as his wife Zipporah, it has not been proven that he took her while his spouse was alive. For his part, Aaron had, so far as we know, only one wife, Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab.
We thus come to the threshold of Mosaism with an abundance of evidence that monogamy was already the norm.
Answer for yourself: Did matters change under the Mosaic code? The verse prohibiting a man from taking at the same time a woman and her sister was interpreted by the Sadducecs as a categorical proscription of polygamy. In the Oral Tradition, however, the prohibition applies only to the marrying of two sisters simultaneously, and is not regarded as excluding polygamy, but in fact is held to take polygamy for granted. This is a sound exegesis. Without pursuing the matter further, however, we max' suggest that the interpretation of the Sadducees should not be ignored. Exaggerated though it may be, it at least testifies to the dominant spirit in Judaism. By contrast, the Pharisees preferred not to extend a text's meaning beyond its plain sense. To be sure, they laid increasing emphasis on the importance of monogamy, but without categorically prohibiting polygamy. In their writings, we are always encountering the distinction between law and ethics, a distinction which they carefully respected at all times, and which is the key to our understanding of exactly what many of their institutions and precepts signify.
For example, whenever the Law asserts the obligation of marriage, it is not polygamy which the Oral Tradition specifies-manifest proof that although polygamy is tolerated as an expression of individual freedom, it is never prescribed, no doubt because it was not thought to be the most perfect state. In this spirit, a man was required to marry his sister-in-law when his deceased brother had left no child; but if the brother happened to be survived by two or three wives, the survivor could in no case marry more than one of them.
Not only does the Law refuse to endorse the polygamous state, but there are instances where it prohibits it, and the circumstances in which it then imposes monogamy lend a special value to the prohibition. The high priest who officiated on the Day of Atonement had to be married, for the Law says: "Aaron is to offer his own bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household [lit. 'house']" (Lv 16:6). Because the word house is in the singular, the Oral Tradition deduced from this text that the high priest, at least on this occasion, could have but a single wife (Yoma 23a). The eloquent implication of such a law for all Jews of the time is abundantly clear. If the man occupying the most august position in the priestly hierarchy, performing the most exalted functions of his ministry on the holiest day of the year, was obliged to have only one wife, it is obvious that monogamy was felt to be the higher state.
Perhaps it will be objected that if this were indeed the law's meaning, true perfection for the priest who was called to these lofty functions would consist not in having only a single wife but in having none at all. It cannot be denied that Judaism, even Mosaic Judaism, contains the germ of such asceticism, and that the ideas of the Hasidim, the Essenes, and the Kabbalists in this regard embody an authentically Jewish principle, but one which appears among these groups in an exaggerated form, divorced from contrary Jewish principles which must moderate and correct it. However, the asceticism of total renunciation does not inform this law governing the conjugal state of the high priest who officiates on the Day of Atonement. As he represents in his solemn role all the family heads, the entire Jewish people, he too must have his "house": that is, he must be married, in the manner considered most w'orthy, the one which was probabl~ the most common.
Answer for yourself: What were the conjugal unions forbidden by the Noachide code? There are two kinds of incest proscribed by the Mosaic Law which the sages discuss in connection with the Noachides. However shocking the matter may seem to us, we must not ignore the evidence of history, which shows that mankind, in all ages and in all places, has been unanimous in prohibiting certain kinds of marriages. On this subject, Montesquieu said all that could be known in his time (Baron de la Brede et Montesquieu, De l'Esprit des lois, Book 16, esp. chap. 13-14). Modern studies of the various races at all stages of civilization have increasingly confirmed that although the moral distinction between good and evil is found everywhere, the way in which each is conceived differs considerably from one people to another.
We may recall that among the Tartars, a father might marry his own daughter. According to Priscus, "Attila married his daughter Exa, a marriage allowed by the law's of the Scythians". Unions between brothers and sisters were extremely common in antiquity.
The primitive peoples [writes M. Ilouzeaux] were not horrified by these marriages, as are modern civilized peoples. To the contrary, Inca princes married only their sisters, in order to perpetuate the royal line (Jean Charles Houzeaus, Etudes sur les facultes mentales des animaux compares a celles de l'bomme, vol. 1 (Mons: Manceaus, 172), p. 283.
Language, that faithful mirror of ancient customs, has preserved memories of such marriages; this is why the Hebrew sometimes uses "sister" to mean "wife" (cf. 1 Chr 7:15). The rabbis interpreted the word bat, "daughter," in the second chapter of Esther, in the sense of "wife," (Megillah 13a), and it is perhaps owing to this synonymy that the Decalogue does not speak of "wife" but only of "daughter," which must in this case refer to any woman in a subordinate relationship.
Apart from illicit unions, the Noachide code forbade marriage with the uterine sister, mother-in-law, and mother (even after the father's death). Sexual relationships contrary to nature are also forbidden (homosexual sodomy). In the face of the widespread depravity which defaced the entire pagan world, it is an admirable spectacle offered by this small people, rising proudly in its moral superiority, with serene impartiality, to declare this authentically catholic Noachide Law binding upon all men without distinction, a law which none dares transgress without degrading himself lamentably.
It is curious to see how the rabbis account for the prohibition of theft in the Noachide code. They trace it all the way back to Eden, where Adam was, of course, given permission to eat of all the trees except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Sanhedrin 56b). The contents of Eden as a whole were not, therefore, his property, since he required divine permission to use them legitimately.
Theft itself, however, is not the only form of culpable appropriation which is forbidden to the Noachide. It goes without saying that any kind of pillage or armed robbery constitutes an aggravated form of theft; but so also does the kidnapping of a captive woman (kidnapping was considered theft of a life). The master who refuses to pay his servant's wages, the laborer who (while resting in the vineyard) eats the owner's grapes-these too are guilty of theft (Sanhedrin 57a; Maimonides, Misheh Torah, Hilkhot Melakim 9.9). Trading in slaves is also included in the prohibition of theft. We need hardly add how gratifying it is to find this explicit condemnation of slavery in such an age and such an environment.
As Judaism perceives it, the Noachide code imposes an exceedingly rigorous penalty on theft in all its forms, even as severe as death.
If we need to persuade ourselves that this sanction is perfectly justifled, it is enough to invoke the evidence of history. We find peoples whose conditions of existence were such that the greatest severity with regard to theft seemed like a necessity. According to Montesquieu, "Where the rights of property are violated, there can be reasons for imposing capital punishment"(Baron de la Brede et Montesquieu, De l'Esprit des lois, Book 12, chap. 12. It has been said, quite rightly, that accidental crime is many times more worthy of leniency than crime which is premeditated, and that, all things considered, it is the latter which causes the more injury to society.
This is perhaps the place to recall Judaism's conception of property. For the Oral Tradition as for the Bible, the notion of acquisition is linked to that of labor. It is by work that property is created, and the transformation of an object is the title to its possession.
The right to landed property, therefore, cannot be absolute, as is an individual's right to the product of his own labor. Considerations of common interest can alone justify an individual's exclusive possession of the soil. When private ownership of the land does not profit the commonweal, it is unjust. In the light of these basic axioms, we can understand the profound difference which Jewish law established between personal property and real estate, the first belonging without reversion to the individual, the other reverting after a certain period of time to the community. It would be superfluous to add that this distinction, calling for the inalienability of land, is not an isolated phenomenon in history. Certain ancient law codes forbade the sale of land. The notion that land is owned collectively by the tribe, which may still be found in some countries, is said by scholars to be a stage of civilization through which all peoples have passed.
Here is the biblical text which is the basis of the dietary prohibition in the Noachide code:
Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. (Gn 9:3-4)
Contrary to the opinion of certain commentators, who see in this passage only the prohibition of eating flesh torn from the body of a living animal, and accordingly maintain that the Noachide is permitted to eat the blood by itself, R. Hanania ben Gamaliel believes that this is a double prohibition: of blood, and of flesh thus cut (Sanhedrin 56b, 59a). This opinion surely seems consistent with sound exegesis. It is the proscription of blood which in fact seems to be the single object of this precept, for it logically implies proscription of the flesh of the living animal. We know, moreover, that in another passage, blood is called the "life" of the animal:
But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh. (Dt 12:23)
The matter has a very special importance in the early history of Christianity. This rabbinic discussion is closely related to those which occurred in the early church relating to the prohibition of blood, or of the flesh of suffocated animals. In connection particularly with the prohibition of blood, it is surely as a final homage to the Noachide code that this interdiction was preserved for the Gentiles by early Christianity. In doing so, the church would have been a faithful interpreter of Judaism, if not for its untenable pretension to have supplanted it in reducing (even for Jews) the number of laws to those which it chose to maintain.
Finally, we may summarize the difference between the Mosaic and Noachide codes with respect to the consumption of animal flesh. For the Noachide, it is enough that the animal should have ceased to live, whatever the manner in which it had been killed. For the Israelite, however, the animal must have been killed by jugulation in order to be fit for consumption.
The rabbis devote much attention to possible additions to the Noachide code. R. Hanania ben Gamaliel adds the prohibition of eating blood from a living animal. R. IIidka prohibits castration. R. Shimon bans witchcraft, and R. Yose extends this interdiction to all related practices covered by the relevant section of the Mosaic Law, including human sacrifice, divination, auguries, oracles, and summoning the spirits of the dead (Sanhedrin 56b). In the text of the Pentateuch which treats these matters (Dt 18:9-12), the Canaanite tribes, whom the Jews are to expel from the land in punishment for their gross superstitions, are in fact blamed for all these practices specifically. It is clear, therefore, that these prohibitions are (as R. Yose affirms) part of the Noachide code, whose precepts, as we see once again, are in fact categories. Thus, a number of related offences are gathered under the rubric of witchcraft or sorcery. The number seven, then, which Oral Tradition has attached to the Noachide precepts, is very far indeed from accounting for the entire Noachide code, since Scripture itself prescribes others, as the instance just noted reveals.
R. Eleazar forbids Noachides to cross-breed two different species of trees or animals (Ibid.), and Maimonides, at the same time that he accepts in principle the concept of seven precepts, endorses the prohibition. And certain rabbis add the obligations of procreation and circumcision. One of them, however, appends the important qualification that these two positive commandments were imposed on the Gentiles only until Sinai, but since then have been obligatory only for Israel (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakim, 10.6). There were no doubt weighty reasons why the Talmudic sages were reluctant to include these two mitzvot in the Noachide code; but this does not mean that the first of them, at least, does not have universal import, unless we understand the words of Scripture "Be fertile, then, and increase" (Gn 9:7) not as a command but as a blessing which expresses God's will, so that it will always be a virtue in man to comply with it.
Friedenthal adds the Sabbath to the seven precepts, because it is written:
You shall not do any work-you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. (Ex 20:10)
He includes also the prohibition of work on the Day of Atonement, citing Leviticus:
And you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. (Lv 16:29)
Additionally, Friedenthal includes the prohibition of eating blood (discussed above), and of forming those incestuous relationships which, the Torah tells us, led to the expulsion of the Canaanites (Friedenthal, Yesod ha-Dat, 2 vols. (Breslau: Loeb Sulzbach, 1823).
Let us add, finally, a few observations on some of these rabbinical amplifications of the Noachide code.
The proscription of castration which was added by R. Hidka (Sanhedrin 56b) seems to be based on a deduction. Scripture says:
Nor shall you accept such [mutilated animals] from a foreigner for offering as food for your God [i.e., as sacrifice], for they are mutilated, they have a defect; they shall not be accepted in your favor. (Lv 22:25)
Perhaps it was inferred that since the animals in question could not serve as sacrificial offerings from the Gentiles, then the practice of castration would also be prohibited to them.
R. Shimon believed that the Noachides were not permitted to practice magic; R. Yose added the proscription of sacrificing children to Molech. In point of fact, the text in Deuteronomy which forbids these practices to Israel includes this significant assertion:
For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the Lord, and it is because of these abhorrent things that the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you. (Dt 18:12)
The sages who did not reason with Shimon and Yose in these matters surely assumed that the Noachide code's provision against homicide included the sacrifice of children, and that magic was included in the injunction against all idolatry.
Finally, we must consider two classes of practical precepts which have not formed part of the scheme outlined above. These are the principles of ethics and of politics, which could not, at least in their essence, have been left to individual discretion.
As regards ethics: It is certain that when Scripture speaks of human behavior, it addresses mankind in general, and that its precepts embrace all humanity. And this is so not only in the Prophetic books and in the books of the Writings, such as Proverbs, but even in the Torah, which also affirms that the moral life is indispensable to the dignity of all men without distinction, as the sages acutely observed in connection with the immoralities of the pagans (Shabbat 33a). Moses says: "For all those abhorrent things were done by the people who were in the land before you, and the land became defiled" (Lv 18:27), suggesting that ethical laws are universal, applying to Gentiles as well as Jews. This text is but a single example, among many others, in which we see God approving or condemning, rewarding or punishing the Gentiles- appraising their conduct, whether as Lawgiver or Judge, and doing this with reference to a higher law to which they are held as responsible as the Israelites, which is in fact the same for all men. This universal moral standard is invoked not only in the pagan's relation to God but also in his relation to Israel, and in a general way in the relations of all men with one another. It is this standard which obliges Israel to treat even idolators, their religious (and, very often, political) enemies, with justice and charity. Perhaps this uniformity of mankind's moral code explains why the Mosaic Law is so substantially dominated by national, political precepts rather than ethical. Moral values are perhaps assumed to be generally known, whether by a natural instinct of mankind or through a tradition common to all peoples. In human culture, as a rule, the most fundamental beliefs tend to be taken for granted and not formally spelled out.
As for social precepts, which are of course extremely important, these must also form part of the Noachide Law. To be sure, we shall not find there a complete system of government nor an actual political code, but rather general truths, germs of future progress, essential principles of common law. From a philosophical point of view, politics merges with ethics; and if ethics is part of the universal Noachide code, then politics, which derives in large part from it, must be represented there as well.
We know that a celebrated political philosophy has been conceived according to biblical principles; and though we are by no means able to accept all of Bossuet's interpretations of the divine Word, it is obvious that for him to have attempted such a project at all, he must have found its substance in the Bible. It would, however, be very useful to examine Bossuet's study from a critical and Jewish point of view. In the modern conflict between church and state (or, if one prefers, between religion and secular culture), a work of this kind would have considerable value. But for our present purposes, it will be sufficient to demonstrate that Judaism possesses not only a religion and an ethics which embrace all mankind, but a universal political philosophy as well.
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