Commentary on Parashat Noach, Genesis 6:9 - 11:32
Is Judaism a particularistic religion, concerned only with the well-being and sanctity of the Jewish People, or is it also one of the universalistic faiths, expressing a concern for all humanity in every region of the globe? To the enemies of our people, Judaism is portrayed as a narrow, legalistic and particularistic religion. By focusing on the Chosen People — defined as the Jews — and their needs to the exclusion of everyone else’s, Judaism seems to show an indifference to the rest of the world.
By its own admission, Judaism doesn’t actively try to seek out converts — those who are attracted to our ways are welcome, but there is no burning drive to “Get the word out.”
The God of the Bible is one who liberates the Jews from slavery, who gives them a path of life, who provides them with a Promised Land. Doesn’t that focus make everyone else peripheral, indeed negligible?
On the other hand, the God of the Bible is also the Creator of the Universe, the planet Earth, and all that it contains. The Bible explicitly speaks of God’s covenants with other people too — the Assyrians and the Egyptians to name just two.
Does God Have The Same Relationship With Everybody?
If God is the God of the whole world, then wouldn’t God have the same relationship with everybody? The Torah presents that paradox to us — God is the God of the Jewish People, and also the God of all humanity. That dual set of concerns are mediated through the Laws of the B’nai Noah, the Children of Noah, a way that Judaism and halakhah (Jewish law) incorporate God’s sovereignty and love for all people with God’s unique mission for the Jews.
Noah is the direct ancestor of all people. Through one son, Shem, he is the father of the Jewish People, and through his two other sons, Ham and Japhet, he is the ancestor of Asians, Africans and Europeans, as well as their modern descendants. (Scholars note that Native Americans descend originally from Asia).
All humanity is related through Noah. The Rabbis of the Tosefta (a rabbinic compilation from around the time of the Mishnah) specify seven commandments binding on all the B’nai Noah; (1) establishing courts of justice and rule of law, (2) prohibiting idolatry, (3) prohibiting blasphemy, (4) prohibiting sexual immorality, (5) bloodshed, (6) theft, (7) and prohibiting tearing a limb from a living animal. These rules establish a fundamental base of moral interaction, justice and compassion for other human beings and for the animal world, as the basic requirement of human society.
Judgment & The Seven Laws of Noah
All humanity is commanded by God; all people have mitzvot to observe. Those seven laws of Noah are the fundamental expectation that God has for all. According to Judaism, then, God judges humanity not for the creed to which they adhere, not for which group or institution receives their support, but for the kind of people they make themselves. God commands decency, morality and goodness from everyone–Jewish or Gentile. And based on just how godly a Gentile is, to that extent are they beloved of God.
In the words of the medieval sage, Rambam (also known as Maimonides, 12th-century Spain and Egypt) “whoever accepts the seven commandments and carefully observes them, is among the pious ones of the nations of the world, and enjoys a share of the hereafter–provided that they accept and perform them because the Holy Blessed One ordained them.”
What Distinguishes Jews From Other Children of Noah?
A righteous Gentile is a full child of God — to be cherished by all who give God allegiance, regardless of their religious affiliation. What matters, according to traditional Judaism, is goodness. That same requirement binds Jews as well. After all, we too are Children of Noah.
What distinguishes Jews from other B’nai Noah is that we are also privileged by the rest of the mitzvot, the entire web of sacred deeds that nurtures and gives expression to the specific brit (covenant) between God and our People. It is those additional standards that make our relationship specific and unique. They supplement the Noahide laws; they do not replace them. God demands goodness of the Jew no less than of the non-Jew, and loves the Gentile no less than the Jew. And so should we.
Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the University of Judaism.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.