Wednesday, December 28, 2011

David Novak on the Noachides

I have two items for my write-up today on Christianity in Jewish Terms, and they draw from conservative Jew David Novak's essay, "Mitsvah":

1. Yesterday, I talked about the Noachide commandments that rabbinic Judaism believed were incumbent upon Gentiles. One of them is a prohibition on idolatry. I asked about Judaism's stance on Christians----whether Judaism believes that Christians are idolaters and thus in violation of the Noachide commandment. I referred to David Ellenson's essay in this volume, which says that the rabbis did not care for Christian conceptions of God (such as the Trinity and the incarnation), but that Jews after the twelfth century began to see Christianity as monotheistic and thus in accord with the Noachide rule. Ellenson said and documented, though, that Maimonides regarded the Christians to be idolaters under Talmudic law.

Novak's essay, however, presents a slightly different picture, or at least it adds another consideration. Maimonides addresses the issue of the righteous Gentiles who will have a place with the Jews in the World to Come. While Maimonides believed that certain moral laws were "rationally discernable" and that "Gentiles can thus live a moral life that is consistent with what Jews regard to be minimal non-Jewish morality" without reference to the Bible (page 118), he thought that the righteous Gentiles were those who followed the Noachide laws specifically because they were laid out in the Torah (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Melachim 8:11). According to Novak, Christians fit this description because they saw their morality as "fundamentally biblical in origin" (page 118).

2. At Hebrew Union College, a professor of mine once said that Judaism holds that Gentiles of other religions (other than Judaism, that is) are righteous before God if they follow the Noachide commandments. That did not seem correct to me because one of the Noachide commandments is against idolatry, and wouldn't that invalidate the righteous state of several people of other religions, many of whom worship gods other than the God of Israel? Novak actually addresses this issue (on some level) on page 119: "...it...seems that when the rabbis saw Gentile respect for the other Noahide laws, especially the respect for human life involved in the prohibition of bloodshed, they had a tendency to regard any cultural vestiges of idolatry in such societies quite leniently." I wonder what "cultural vestiges" means, though: How idolatrous did one have to be to move from the status of "righteous Gentile" to "unrighteous Gentile"?

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