"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

Foundation of the The Noahide Laws

May 13, 2011

in Christianity:,Judaism vs. Christianity,Judaism:,Noahide - The Ancient Path

Rabbi Dr. Shimon D. Cowen  




Jewish thought addresses not only the Jewish people but also general humanity. Whilst there are differences in the spiritual personality of Jew and non-Jew and the Torah provides different directives for each, there is an important area which is common to non-Jew and Jew alike. This commonality relates to the phrases used in the Torah “Let us make man in Our image and as Our likeness” and, later on, that mankind was created “in the image of G-d”. These phrases apply to all humanity.

The sense in which human beings exist in the “image of G-d” refers to a faculty found in mankind, termed by Jewish thought the “intellectual soul”, by which it means the intellectual being or characteristic of humans. The expression in the Hebrew of the Bible is b’tzelem Elokim, “in the likeness of Elokim”. Commentaries explain that the word Elokim refers to the angels.

The intellectual soul of man, to which this term refers, thus has a likeness to the angels. Angels (m’lochim, literally “emissaries”Wink are spiritual beings without a body. They have no conflicts between their intellectual attachment to the Divine and feelings arising from a bodily existence, since they do not possess a body.

Similarly, the intellectual soul of human beings has in common with angels that it is intrinsically or potentially removed from physicality, from bodily drives and emotions. Human intellect is capable of independent attachment to G-dliness.

The difficulty for the human intellect, unlike an angel, is that it resides in a body together with what is termed the “animal soul”, the bodily, emotional personality of a human being. This has consequences for intellect itself. Thus, it has been stated that the nature of the reasoning of intellect is that it builds on, and applies, first principles, and does so also by means of certain rules or styles of reasoning.

But whilst reason can faithfully and rigorously apply and develop first principles, it is not the source of those first principles, nor is it the source of its particular style of reasoning. Reason as a pure instrument is thus forced in all honesty to acknowledge that which is other than reason, that with which reason works.

The first principles with which reason works have been termed “dispositions” (ha’nochos)[see note on the meaning of ethics from ethics textbook]. They arise in personal and cultural will (called by the Lubavitcher Rebbe r’tzono ha’tov). Certainly much of the social, human and behavioural sciences will acknowledge the pre-set biases or dispositions in knowledge and judgment and recent philosophy follows suit. Particular systems of reasoning or works of human creativity are, however, validated by the essentially arbitrary bases – preferences and dispositions which have been rationally expressed as assumptions – that condition them.

That which, on the other hand, makes intellect receptive not to the dispositions of personal will, but instead directs intellect to the Divine, is a fundamental humility, self-negation, called in Jewish thought bitul. The recognition of G-dliness and the content of Divine revelation as “authoritative”, as the “life” of creation, involves seeing the creatureliness of mankind including human intellect (not to mention feeling). This is a spiritual perception of intellect: a possibility of intellect.

If the outcomes of reason follow from the arbitrarily selected assumptions and rules of reasons, how could in terms of reason, the orientation of intellect to the Divine rather than any other starting point, be defended? The answer to this is in the spiritual quality itself which resides within – which is the true “soul” of – human intellect. The truth of the Divine is measured by the resonance, or the chord, which it finds in the human soul, whereby the G-dly in mankind recognizes and resonates with G-dliness at large.

Intellect can verify this perception once experienced, but it is certainly not compelled to come to this perception. Indeed, this native, spiritual sense of the intellect has more often than not been concealed.


A second significance of the term “in the image of G-d”, the commentaries state, is that, by its essence, mankind “rules”: just as G-d rules over the lower realms, so also man can and should rule over the lower realms, over the physical realm of nature. In the microcosm this would mean, and is so explained elsewhere that the intellectual soul has the ability to rule over the lower “nature” of man: to direct and refine emotion.

Feeling is implanted in animal nature and in the animal with man. The raven, our Sages told us, has a quality of cruelty; whilst another is kindly disposed by its nature. Unlike the animal, however, no human being need be impelled by emotion since intellect is able to prevail over it.

Jewish thought presents human nature as composed of a number of attributes – chesed (love), g’vurah (severity or discipline), tiferes (harmony) and so forth – which are also the names of Divine attributes. The difference is that in the animal nature of human beings these emotions can also take on an unholy expression. Love can be other-directed or it can be venal and self-indulgent.

So too the quality of severity could express itself in self-discipline and sanctification or it could take on the face of violence and aggression. The significance of the commandments of the Torah, the knowledge supplied in Torah, is to convert the attributes of human nature into their Divine expression. The Divine commandments, Maimonides writes, were given to “rectify behaviours and to make deeds upright” (l’saken hadei’os u’l’yuasher hama’asim )- through the 613 commandments of the Jew, and similarly, we might argue through the seven Noahide laws of the gentile.

Along these lines various authors have written that the individual Noahide laws rectify – and have sought to identify – specific temperamental qualities (middos).

The prohibition of murder comes to refine the characteristic of g’vurah (severity) from its degenerate expression (ultimately) in murder into the holier expression of self-discipline.

The prohibition of forbidden sexual relations rescues chesed (loving kindness) from self-directed gratification to other directed kindness.

But, whatever the correspondences between the Noahide laws and particular qualities of character may be, the basic notion remains that they have to do with a modelling of character which “resembles” the Divine. This notion of the modelling of the Divine does not mean that qualities of “kindness” and “severity” or “judgment” inhere in, or define, G-d. Rather, in the way G-d practises kindness, so should we; in the way G-d practises judgment, so should we.

The extension of a human personality modelled on the Divine is a harmonious and orderly society. The practical goal of the Noahide laws is thus manifested in the notion of civilized society: both in terms of the relationships of human being with G-d, and with other human beings. This ideal has been called by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “yeshuvo shel olam”, the “settled inhabitation of the world”.

This is not simply an “ideal”, a “plus”. Its absence is seen as something profoundly negative. An uncivilized world is a barbaric world.

For since the world was created for a purpose, namely, the manifestation of G-dliness in it through the agency of mankind, both Jewish and non-Jewish, when there is a vitiation of this purpose through essentially barbarous human conduct, it is as though the purpose of human existence has been forfeited.

This is why the violation of the Noahide laws are associated with the “liability” of death. It does not mean that the Jewish people, who were instructed by Moses, at the command of G-d, to bring the nations to observance of these laws, have the legal possibility of carrying out this penalty. The practical significance of the sense of the “liability to death”, associated with violation of the Noahide laws is the forfeiture of the purpose of the existence of human beings, who were created in the first place to carry out the settled and civilized inhabitation of the world, and have vitiated that purpose.



What can keep the intellectual soul trained on G-d and the Divine commandments, rather than its being submitted to personal will? Whilst the intellectual soul is potentially sovereign over emotion, its “proximity” to emotion is its weakness. To be attuned to the G-dly and to remain attuned, the intellectual soul has in the Jew the wholly separate pilot of the “G-dly soul”.

Even though this spiritual faculty in the Jewish people has a pre-history, its “installation” relates significantly to the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah, through which there occurred what is termed the “choosing of the Jewish people”. This meant an historical-spiritual bonding of the Jewish people with G-d, becoming, so to speak, part of their “spiritual genetics”. It is expressed in the notion that a Jew inwardly steadfastly recognizes and cannot be separated from G-dliness.

It is true that this spiritual consciousness can be covered over: there are Jews who are unobservant. But this spiritual attachment is latent and resurgent. It readily emerges at critical times.

There is a famous law in the Code of Maimonides defining a righteous gentile as one who performs the Noahide laws not simply because they make sense, but because they have been commanded by G-d to Moses in the Torah.

This is a statement of attachment to the Jewish people and to their attachment to G-d through Torah. Thus innermost awareness of G-d, through the G-dly soul, not only keeps the intellectual soul of a Jew, at least in some sense latently, trained on the Divine. In a wider sense, it constitutes also that which the prophet referred to as a “light to the nations”.

Not only is this light focussed by the Jewish people upon the nations, and indeed Maimonides rules that the Jewish people are obliged to see to the moral conduct (the observance of the Noahide laws) of the nations. There is, however, a sense also in which the soul faculty (however consciously or unconsciously) of the nations knows the Jewish people to be their beacon. This dimension in humanity derives a vitality from the Jewish people and desires to be attached to them and to assist them; and through this more deeply to tap into the Divine.

Not only are the Jewish people a beacon or a light, in the words of the prophet, to the nations in the sense that it is there for those who wish to chart their course by it. Maimonides rules that the Jewish people have an obligation to bring the nations to fulfilment of their commandments. This, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe has pointed out, is not based upon any particular means of influence nor is it limited by its immediate prospects of success.

Only of Moshiach is it stated (at the very end of Maimonides’ Code), that he will effectively be able to bring the entire world to the service of G-d inclusive of fulfilment of the Noahide laws. The service of Jews in influencing the gentile world up to that time, is of an essentially preparatory nature. At the time of Moshiach, a great Jewish leader of prophetic dimensions, there will be the revelation of a Divine “light”, of G-dliness, which will drive away moral darkness from the nations.

We cannot know how this rectification of the world will be. Certainly the prevailing spirit in Chassidic thought, in relation to the propagation and establishment of the Noahide laws, is in a manner of “paths of peace” consonant with the Biblical verse, invoked by Maimonides, that “G-d is good to all and His mercies are with all his creatures”.




Whilst the obligation upon the Jewish people to influence the nations to keep the Noahide laws, as mentioned above, applies at all times, it has until recently not been vigorously practised. A reason for this, sanctioned by Torah itself, is the fact of danger. This was due to the vulnerability of the Jewish people in the context of a general society antagonistic to them.

Yet at this critical juncture in history, when it appears that Jews can proceed without fear to teach and influence the non-Jewish world quite explicitly with regard to the Noahide laws, and as Noahide movements emerge, there opens up an issue of fundamental philosophical difference of approach to Noahidism.

Two fundamental approaches emerge. One of these is the classical orthodox Jewish tradition, which can be documented in Maimonides, the Maharal of Prague and the writings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. This is at the foundation of first section of this essay. The other stems from relatively recent writings associated with the names Benamozegh and Palliere.

In 1955 there was published for the first time an English translation of a work written in French by a Moroccan-born Jew, Elijah Benamozegh, who for 50 years held a Rabbinical post in Livorno in Italy. His life spanned the years 1823-1900 and was marked by prolific writing and a thoroughgoing acquaintance with the secular learning of his time. His name and quotations from his work appear in a number of recent orthodox works in English on the Noahide Laws, but these come through and are quoted in the book, “The Unknown Sanctuary”, of a French gentile, Aime Palliere, whom Banamozegh inspired to a life of Noahidism.

A reprint of Palliere’s book, with a new introduction by David Novak, appeared in 1985. Palliere is presented by some as the gentile “high priest” of Noahidism. His work shows a fundamental consonance with that of Benamozegh, whose thought he faithfully propagated.

It would appear that until the recent appearance of a new English translation, “Israel and Humanity”, Benamozegh’s work itself has been little known (notwithstanding the Hebrew edition and translation which appeared in 1967). In emerging contemporary writings on Noahidism positions are being taken up which correspond with each of these positions. Some, residing within the orthodox tradition, quote the writings of Benamozegh and Palliere sympathetically, but it would appear that they have not made a systematic analysis of these works, which in fact are at variance with their positions.

The purpose of the following is bring out the essential difference between these two philosophies of Noahidism.



The crux of the issue is the notion – which has always agitated Jewish apologists – of the difference and chosenness of the Jewish people, in relation to the other nations of the world. For traditional Jewish thought, the chosenness of the Jewish people relates to the idea, noted above, that they acquired a level of spiritual perception and connectedness, during the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai, associated transcendent G-dliness.

This relates to G-dliness which infinitely surpasses the creation and in fact engenders it ex nihilo into being. It is to be contrasted with the perception and level of immanent G-dliness, a “contracted G-dliness” which resides and manifests itself within the creation. In the words of the Maharal of Prague, the Jewish people acquired an attachment to transcendent G-dliness, making their existence nivdal (“separate”Wink from the ordinary realm of nature, and characterized by a miraculous Providence .

The intellectual soul of the gentile, on the other hand, is concentrated in the capacity to relate to the way in which Divine contracts and enclothes itself within creation, to immanent G-dliness. This spiritual difference between Jew and non-Jew is reflected, according to the Maharal, in the differences between the commandments applying to the Jewish people on the one hand, and to the gentile nations, on the other.

The Jewish people have the multiplicity of six hundred and thirteen commandments reflecting their intense connectedness to a level of G-dliness transcending the creation. The gentile nations on the other hand, whose relationship to the Creator is more via the creation itself, have the less complex bond of seven general commandments, even though these are widely ramified.

The “chosenness” of the Jewish people is therefore not connected with “domination” or “exclusiveness”. It signifies the bonding with a level of transcendent G-dliness expressed through the performance of six hundred and thirteen commandments. Jew and non-Jew have a partnership to fulfil in which each has a crucially complementary service to perform.

The Sages of the Talmud themselves spoke of the greatness of a non-Jew occupied in the study of the Torah in relation to the Noahide laws in terms comparable to that of the service of the High Priest of the Jewish people. The complementary roles of Jew and non-Jew are both integral to the notion of redemption.

Two of Maimondies thirteen principles of the faith – the Messiah and Resurrection – relate to a notion of redemption in traditional Jewish thought. As this is formulated in Chassidic thought, it means the transcendent – boundless, supernatural – Divinity will be drawn into, and manifested within, the “ordinary” frameworks of life: that the miraculous will be inserted in the “Mundane”, and that this will itself constitute the greatest revelation of the Creator and reward for humankind.

In this scheme, as explained in Chassidic thought, the function of the seven Noahide laws is to fashion an orderly and civilized world – in which immanent G-dliness is manifested – as the fundament upon which the drawing of the higher transcendent revelation into this world by the service of the Jewish people, can take place.

Benamozegh’s thought seems to repress the distinction between the transcendent and immanent spiritual orientations of Jew and non-Jew. It is true that he distinguishes between what he calls the more mystical and suprarational character of the “Mosaic” law and the more “rational” and worldly religions, but in the end he sees these as two sides of the one revelation and the one teaching.

The Jewish preoccupation is with the pure monotheistic idea, the unity of the Divine; the nations have focussed on aspects of the Divine, which they have transfigured into divinities in their own right. Judaism becomes therefore the sum of the individual deities, which are the “partial” truths of nations. This he seeks to support with what he regards as an “emanationist” doctrine of the Kabbalah, whereby the transcendent Creator actually resides in the creation, which then become so many facets of His unity.

Benamozegh is arguably much closer here to the neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus and to non-Jewish mystical philosophers such as Bruno and Ficino than to Jewish Kabbalah. For one of the basic notions of Kabbalah is that the “world’, the creation as it is, is a “damaged” world in which Divinity has been driven into concealment rather than being revealed within it. Benamozegh’s approving quotations from Spinoza only strengthen the impression that the Creator of the Jewish people is not truly transcendent, but only an immanent extrapolation from the creation itself.

Benamozegh presents Judaism as relating essentially to the same plane as Noahidism. He sees the particular laws (“Mosaism”Wink of the Jewish people as intended simply to suit them for the role of trustee in the implementation of a universal religion of mankind (“Noahidism”Wink. That is, instead of introducing transcendent G-dliness into creation, their task is simply to assist the Noahide manifestation of G-dliness immanent within creation, propagated through the seven Noahide laws.

Benamozegh’s removal of the transcendent/immanent distinction between the spiritual service of Jew and non-Jew or of Judaism and Noahidism produces a different vision of the redemptive goal of creation, set out in Torah. In Benamozegh’s view, humankind – Jew and non-Jew as a collective agency – is seen simply to work gradually on its own perfection, but without any fundamental, qualitative transformation of creation of the kind suggested in traditional Jewish sources.

If, as Benamozegh wishes to argue, Israel and humanity are basically two perspectives of the one entity, then the gods of the nations are a very disturbing aggregate reflection of the one Creator of the Jewish people. Indeed Benamozegh seems to express equivocations about this at the end of his book, where he laments the persecutions of the Jewish people by the adherents of the world religions, seeing only “now” an emerging tolerance and acknowledgment of Jewish monotheism on the part of the nations.

Palliere, rather than presenting the nations as setting the stage for the introduction of transcendent G-dliness into the creation by the Jewish people, similarly inverts this relationship. He makes the Jewish people ministers of a universal Noahidism. He quotes Benamozegh, that “not only has the Noachide law never ceased to be in force, but even Israel, with its special code, Mosaism, was created for it, to safeguard it, to teach it, to spread it”.

The entire significance of the Mosaic law, is not to effect the transformation of creation and humanity, and to provide a conduit for the introduction of transcendent G-dliness into the creation, but simply a regime to make the Jewish people fit to act as a priesthood for Noahidism.



The basic difference in the philosophical understanding of the relationship between the Jewish people and the gentile nations has practical consequences for another issue in Noahidism, the authority of the Oral Law, Torah sheb’al peh. Maimonidies in the Introduction to his great Code lays down the principle that the giving of the Torah was not only as a written text but also with a body of interpretation. It is impossible, according to this principle, for the meaning of the scriptural verses (in this case, the verses in Genesis from which the Noahide laws are learnt) to be comprehended without the tradition of commentary passed from generation to generation embodied in the Rabbinic tradition.

Its transmission is characterized by an attitude of profound bitul – humility, deference and receptivity – towards the body of detailed commentary of previous generations, going all the way back to the interpretation – the Oral Law – given to Moses at Sinai. The ability to derive new rulings and applications of the law is something for which the Jewish people, and within it the Rabbinic tradition, are uniquely fitted.

Similarly, the source of the authority of the Noahide laws is not an “independent ” tradition which goes back to Adam and Noah, but the giving, at Sinai, of the Torah, which makes known that the gentile nations had previously been instructed in these laws and gives these laws a new authority. In the words of Maimonides, the righteous gentile is one who has taken upon him or herself to perform the Noahide laws specifically because the Holy One blessed be He commanded concerning them in Torah and made known through our teacher Moses that the sons of Noah have previously been commanded in them.

The giving of the Torah at Sinai to Moses, both in its written and oral forms, is thus the source of authority and interpretation of the Noahide law. Contrary to this is the view that the Noahide law is essentially independent of Sinai. Palliere puts this plainly. Noahidism is “the religion of the patriarchs for the Gentiles”, “the religion preserved by Israel to be transmitted to the Gentiles”.

This is a view which separates the Noahide laws from the transcendent beacon and guide of the Jewish people and makes them into an autonomous tradition which antedates Sinai. The Oral law, the Rabbinic tradition, which stems from Sinai, for this philosophy of Noahidism becomes irrelevant.

From the traditional point of view, the Oral Law, maintained within the Rabbinic tradition, is of course the living fount of adjudication and application of the Noahide laws is vitally important for the Noahide Laws. Without it one cannot know the meaning and details of the Noahide laws cryptically set fourth in Scripture. Moreover, just as the Oral Law sets for the teaching of Torah in matters of halachah, so too does it provide us with the philosophical outlook of Torah and with the instruments of biblical exegesis and historical interpretation, which no independent “bible study” can supplant.

Benamozegh seeks to adduce arguments from his own interpretations of biblical verses, interpretations which are sometimes at variance with (or indifference to) those of great figures of the oral Tradition. When, similarly, he makes historical judgments which are similarly at variance with the Oral Law, this is fraught with more obvious consequences. Thus, he makes a parenthetical statement in his Conclusion, that Jesus “was a good Jew who did not dream of founding a rival church”.

Making a “pristine, restored” Christianity into the carrier of Noahidism rather than the Noahide laws, together with their detail, set out in the Oral law, is profoundly hazardous.

Palliere similarly validated Christianity in its supposedly “pristine” form, which he sees as excluding the doctrine of incarnation, as the legitimate extension of Judaism to the nations. In his words, “one cannot find any lack of continuity between the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel”. Jesus becomes for him the prototype of a Noahide: “I said to myself that I was no longer a Christian in the proper sense of the word, but a Jew, probably as Jesus had been a Jew”.

This view of Jesus is wholly rejected by Maimonides, based on the traditions of the Talmud, in a section of his Code, which has only recently been restored from the censor.

One cannot expect the young Noahide movements to have knowledge of the dynamics and methods of the oral, Rabbinic traditions, together with it ways of resolving the various strands of opinion amongst the Sages of the Jewish People down to the present day. But it is important for them to know that when they seek instruction about the righteous gentile existence, it can only be through the filter of the living Rabbinic tradition.


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