Friday, April 20, 2012

The Noachide Laws: Jewish/Gentile Relations and Idolatry

I started David Novak's The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism. Novak talks about the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple literature, rabbinic literature, medieval Jewish literature, and modern Jewish literature, in terms of their stances on the Gentiles and the moral requirements to which Gentiles were believed to be subject. In my post here, I'll talk about ideas that I encountered in Novak's book, without necessarily placing those ideas in a specific historical context. I know that's not good scholarship, but I want to get this post done this morning because I have other things to do!

My reading of Novak last night clarified things that I read in another book by Novak, Natural Law in Judaism. In The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism, Novak talks about the Noachide laws, the seven commandments that elements of rabbinic (and subsequent) Judaism said that Gentiles needed to obey. Novak discusses the relationship of the Noachide laws to the Torah. One stream of thought viewed the Noachide laws as part of the Torah----the part of the Torah that Gentiles would have to obey were they to dwell in Israel or (in the Messianic Age) be under Jewish authority; a similar view that associated the Noachide laws with the Torah held that the Gentiles became obligated to the Noachide laws once the Septuagint was promulgated. Another stream of thought basically equated the Noachide laws with natural law by viewing the Noachide laws as rationally discernable. What was the purpose of the Torah, if there was a natural law telling people (including Jews) the difference between right and wrong? The Torah essentially was regarded as superior to the Noachide laws, and some even treated the Noachide laws as commandments that could prepare Gentiles to become Jews and embrace the entire Torah, or at least more of the Torah.

The belief in the Noachide laws enabled Jews to live at peace with their Gentile neighbors. Jews were often regarded as clannish and misanthropic, and they could appeal to the Noachide laws to convince the Gentiles that Jews did not view the Gentiles as immoral, for Jews had a concept that Gentiles could be righteous by observing the seven Noachide laws. Jews could also attain a degree of political autonomy by persuading the Gentiles that the Jews overlapped with the Gentiles on certain moral principles, and so granting the Jews autonomy would not violate the morality of the larger society. And, on a practical level, Jews could accept the decisions of Gentile courts by telling themselves that Gentile morality overlapped with the Torah because it was consistent with Noachide commandments.

I'd like to touch on Jewish views on Gentile idolatry. The prohibition against idolatry is one of the seven Noachide laws, which Gentiles are bound to observe in order to become righteous. Does that mean that most Gentiles are unrighteous, since they worship idols or other gods?

According to Novak, there was a degree of latitude. Philo in the first century C.E. believed that people should not even blaspheme pagan gods, for he assumed "that the pagan mention of god or gods is really directed at the One God", which means that "polytheism is a philosophical mistake, but behind its error is latent monotheism" (Novak's words on page 3). On the basis of such passages as Ben Sira 17:17 and Rabbi Jochanan's remarks in B.T. Shabbat 156a, Novak sees a Jewish notion that Gentiles could approach God through visible intermediaries (such as the heavenly bodies). And then there was the acknowledgement that avoiding idolatry was quite difficult outside of the land of Israel, as one can see in David's belief that his flight from Saul into other lands put him at risk of worshiping other gods (I Samuel 26:19), and Elisha's concession to Naaman that allowed Naaman to participate in an idolatrous rite in Syria, even though Namaan worshiped the God of Israel (II Kings 5).

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