From NISHMA UPDATE 5757 #1

 

Dvar Torah

The Noahide Movement: Potential and Challenges

Rosemary Frei. North York, Ontario

 

The smoothly rolling hills of the Smoky Mountains and a rainbow of fall colours provided the setting for the Eleventh Annual Noahide Conference, November 9-11 in Athens, Tennessee. Hosted by Noahide leader J. David Davis and his Emmanuel Congregation, the conference welcomed more than 100 people from across the United States and as far away as Australia. I flew down to continue a connection with the Noahides established when NISHMA and Jews for Judaism invited Mr. Davis to speak in Toronto in April, 1996. NISHMA brought Mr. Davis to Toronto because one of the organization's main research topics is the status of non-Jews within Judaism. My trip gave me new insight into the potential and challenges of the movement for both Noahides and Jews.

Noahides describe themselves as people who have embraced the Seven Laws of Noah as set out in the Torah and the Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud. Jewish Law defines them either as Bnei Noach or Gerim Toshavim. Almost all of the modern-day Noahides are former fundamentalist Christians who have rejected Christianity and the divinity of Jesus; Mr. Davis, a gregarious southerner and the de facto leader of the movement, is a former Baptist Minister.

The Noahides first received world-wide attention at the end of 1990, when Mr. Davis and members of his congregation removed the steeple from their church. This action -- declaring the steeple to be a pagan fertility symbol, chain-sawing it off and carting it to the dump -- created major waves in Athens, which is in the "buckle" of the American Bible Belt. Watching tapes of Mr. Davis on CNN and "Larry King Live" January, 1991, at the Torah Outreach Program in Jerusalem gave me my first glimpse of this movement, and left me with a deep fascination with it. Yet that much-publicized event was only one step in a journey that Mr. Davis had begun 17 years earlier, when he and some of his closest friends and colleagues decided to search for the historical Jesus and the religion that Jesus practised and preached. What they discovered was the Hebrew Bible and the path for righteous gentiles described in Jewish literature. Mr. Davis describes his search in Finding the G-d of Noah: The Spiritual Journey of a Baptist Minister from Christianity to the Laws of Noah, published by Ktav Press last July.

The concept of non-Jews turning to the Torah could be the current-day fulfilment of the Jewish belief that all nations will eventually worship the One G-d. As Rabbi Asher Turin, NISHMA Issues #5 points out: "Therefore, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto maintains that the prayer Aleinu, which speaks about the commitment of Israel to worship G-d, is not complete without the prayer Al Kein Nekaveh that states that we must pray that ... the entire world shall eventually recognize that only to Him should we pray and all will accept the yoke of His Kingdom and through this the purpose and reason of creation shall be complete...". The importance of the gentiles embracing the Seven Laws is emphasized by Rambam. In fact, in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8:10, he states that Jews are commanded to compel all the inhabitants of the world to accept the Seven Laws. It should be noted, however, that a large number of Rishonim (such as Ravad, Ramban, Tosafot and perhaps Rashi and Rashba) rule that there is no obligation on an individual Jew to impose Noahide rules on gentiles. Nonetheless, all would agree that the embracing of the Seven Laws by non-Jews furthers the goals of Torah and monotheism.

Thus, seeing the Noahide Laws embraced today by Mr. Davis and approximately 10,000 others around the world thrilled and deeply galvanized me. The same appeared to be true for at least some of the 400 people who heard Mr. Davis speak at Congregation Shaarei Shomayim in Toronto last April, and especially among those who also went to Mr. Davis's talk the next day that was directed to non-Jews. Many people were inspired by the genuine zeal of this non-Jew for the G-d of Israel and for the Torah. Mr. Davis has also had a positive reception at yeshivot and other Jewish centres around the world; in fact he and the emerging Noahide movement were blessed by Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu when he was Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel.

Yet there is also scepticism on the part of many Jews towards the Noahide movement. The uniqueness of the movement and its roots yields some of the hesitation. (Indeed the question often asked of Noahides, "Why don't you convert?" is a legitimate one.) The scepticism also stems from the bloody history of Jewish-Christian relations, and from the tension between the popularly-held view that Jews are the sole possessors of the Torah (e.g., T.B. Avoda Zarah 2b,3a) and the view that the Torah also provides a path of righteousness for non-Jews through the Seven Laws. This tension is also evident in the above-noted dispute about the Jewish obligation to teach Torah to non-Jews. (Exploration of this tension is part of NISHMA's research into the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. See for example the article by Rabbi Turin and myself on whether Christianity is considered to be idolatrous, in the upcoming NISHMA Journal XI).

Notwithstanding the validity of this scepticism, it is also important to acknowledge genuine manifestations of Torah values and practices in all human endeavours. Thus, I went to the Noahide conference as an expression of support for the values behind the movement. The trip also helped me gauge whether there is any gap, and if so how large it is, between Orthodox Jewish beliefs and those of the Noahides. I spoke during and after the meeting with Rabbi Israel Chait (the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat B'Nai Torah in Far Rockaway, New York, and the current teacher of Mr. Davis and his congregants) to get his feedback on the conference, the movement as a whole, and its key players.

The theme of the conference was the Second Temple Period. Presentations included The G-d-Fearers in the Second Temple Period by Mr. Davis and Pharisees and Sadducees by Rabbi Chait. Mr. Davis's stated goal in selecting this theme was to develop a set of materials to answer the daily queries he receives about this period. This goal was achieved: an updated "Emmanuel Resource Catalog" has already been published that includes audio- and videotapes of all of the conference presentations. There was also a lot of positive discussion about the path to G-d that the Torah provides for Bnei Noach.

Yet the meeting's focus and content also highlighted two challenges that have to be recognized and grappled with -- both by Noahides and Jews -- in order for a fruitful relationship to continue between our two communities.

Both of those challenges were evident in the presentations of James Tabor. Dr. Tabor is an associate professor of religion at North Carolina University and is generally thought of as the most academic of the Noahide leaders. Dr. Tabor's first talk was on Messianism in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Second Temple Period and his last talk dealt with Redemptive Figures: Past, Present and Future. The content of both talks pointed, first of all, to the fact that, while Dr. Tabor does not believe in the divinity of Jesus, he has a strong personal identification with him and his followers.

Tabor clearly is more focused on Jesus and other redemptive figures than most of his fellow Noahides. While many of them view Jesus in a positive light (as an observant Jew who tried to spread the message of Torah to the world), they make it clear that they view Christianity's deification of Jesus as blasphemy. Yet their positive attitude towards the human being Jesus clearly presents a challenge to the Jewish world. Jews have such a strong negative emotional reaction to Jesus that we recoil from any positive statements about Jesus (even about his having been an observant Jew). This reaction is not just emotional; Jesus has been solidly denounced in mainstream Jewish writings for 2,000 years. But should the feelings of a non-Jew towards the historical human being Jesus concern us, as long as the non-Jew doesn't violate the prohibition against idolatry? The positive association some Noahides have towards the historical Jesus should not make Jews break ties with the entire movement. But it is important to address this issue by further investigating the philosophical parameters involved.

The second issue evinced by Dr. Tabor's talks poses an even greater challenge. His views are strongly Sadduceic (i.e., they rely only on the authority of the Written Law, not on that of the Oral Law) and his presentations were almost completely supported by sources in the Tenakh rather than the Talmud. This view is shown further in Dr. Tabor's writings, such as the "Prof. James D. Tabor Message" in the Spring 1996 issue of the United Israel Bulletin, the newspaper of the United Israel World Union. This movement, started by David Horowitz, has the slogans Mosaic Law for One World and Restoration, Unity, Peace. Dr. Tabor is a vice-president of the movement. In point 2 of his message on page 2 of the Bulletin, Dr. Tabor writes, "That TORAH should be in conformity to the original Word from Mt. Sinai; heeding the warning of Moshe: you shall not add to or take from."

Most of the Noahides have a Sadduceic outlook, to a lesser or greater extent. The topic of the Oral Law came up frequently in one-on-one discussions that I, Rabbi Chait and other Jews had with Noahides. The Noahides do accept the Oral Torah at some level, by definition -- the Seven Laws of Noah are only elucidated in the Talmud. It is clear, however, that they have not fully accepted the authority of the Oral Torah, nor of rabbis as guardians of Halacha.

This attitude should neither be completely surprising nor disturbing. The vast majority of the Noahides were educated in the fundamentalist stream of the Protestant Church, which has very strong Sadduceic roots. This Sadduceic approach to the acceptance of the validity of the Tenakh was, in fact, their basis for rejecting the authority of the 'New Testament' and Christianity. It may therefore not be reasonable to expect the Noahides to quickly change tacks and follow the Orthodox Jewish view that the Oral Law is necessary to understand and interpret the Written Law. It should be noted that there are important halachic opinions forbidding the study of the Oral Law by non-Jews (but allowing the study of the Written Law; see Rabbi J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Chapter XVI, "Teaching Torah to Non-Jews"). This matter does demand further investigation, however, because it could create a large philosophical chasm between the Noahides and Orthodox Jewry. These, therefore, are the current challenges for Jews and non-Jews: David Davis and the Noahide movement have the challenge of continuing their brave and very public journey away from Christianity and into new religious territory. G-d willing, they will also continue to strive for a fuller understanding of Jewish law and its application to Bnei Noach. In the process, they may come to more fully accept Rabbinic Judaism. For Jews, one challenge is to appreciate the universality of Judaism. Another challenge is to arrive at a better collective articulation of the origin, mechanics and validity of the Oral Torah. This process will benefit our relations with the Noahides. It will also positively impact our own community since many of us have only a vague understanding of the very heart of Judaism: the halachic process.

Ms. Frei is a Toronto freelance writer/broadcaster. She is a member of NISHMA's Board of Directors and chaired the committee that brought David Davis to Toronto.


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2002 NISHMA