Jewish Understandings of the Other: An Annotated Sourcebook
Over the millennia, Jews have sought to understand their relationships to their gentile (i.e. non-Jewish) neighbors. Many Jewish teachings generated texts that subsequent generations accepted as authoritative. Despite their authority, these texts often offer a variety of opinions. As Jews seek to understand their place in today's multi-cultural world, they do so in dialogue with these texts. Some of these texts are "difficult." The annotations accompanying them explore ways of reading and understanding them, as historical, theological and legal texts, and as received texts today.
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Noahide Covenant: Theology and Jewish Law


שבע מצות נצטוו בני נח דינים וברכת השם עבודה זרה גילוי עריות ושפיכת דמים וגזל ואבר מן החי The descendants of Noah were commanded with seven precepts: to establish laws, (and the prohibitions of) blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, bloodshed, theft, and eating the blood of a living animal.
---Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a


The Bible presents a predominantly binary picture of humanity, with the Jewish people in covenant with God on one side, and the idolatrous nations of the world on the other. However rabbis of the talmudic period-approximately 200 to 600 CE-seized upon one aspect of the biblical narrative that does not fit into this neat binary universe. While the Bible portrays the stranger as isolated individuals in Jewish society, the Talmud expanded the idea of the stranger and conceptualized it into a broad legal and moral category. Based on the post-diluvean covenant God makes with Noah and his descendants (Gen. 9:8-17), the Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah 64b) interpreted the stranger to be all gentiles who accept the seven Noahide commandments constituting the basic laws of morality:

Jewish law grants all non-Jews who accept these laws of civilization social and theological rights everywhere, as well as residency rights in a Jewish religious polity. As a result, the talmudic tradition split the gentile world into two sub-categories: immoral persons who reject the Noahide commandments and to whom tolerance is generally not extended, and gentiles who accept the laws of the Noahide covenant who are regarded positively, whom Jews are obligated to protect and sustain.

As such, classical Judaism subscribed to a double covenant theory: Jews have the Torah covenant of 613 commandments and all gentiles have a covenant of seven Noahide mitzvot, each covenant being valid for its respective adherents. Conventionally, only those accepting the covenant are termed 'b'nai Noah' (sons of Noah, or Noahides). Noahides are not expected to convert to Judaism, for they have an independently authentic covenant that governs a valid way of life. Noahides are accorded positive status in this worldview, to the extent that gentiles who faithfully keep the Noahide commandments are regarded as more beloved by God [i.e. more valued] than Jews who violate the fundamentals of their covenant of 613 commandments. This is clearly evidenced by the Talmudic and medieval rabbinic claim that 'righteous gentiles have a share in the world to come' (i.e. salvation earned by their exemplary lives on earth), whereas Jews who commit grievous sins do not earn that status.

There is debate in Jewish law as to how and when humanity became aware of the Noahide commandments, and whether these obligations are exclusively moral or also entail theological commitments. Normative Talmudic opinion (Sanhedrin 56a-57a) derives the commandments from Gen. 2:16, but the generality of the verse and rival opinions citing other texts indicate that this text is probably only post-facto support for the concept. No explicit universal revelation of these commandments occurs in the Bible, and some Jewish thinkers maintained that they were derived from reason or natural law. Maimonides maintains that six of the prohibitions were given to Adam, and after the flood Noah was given the additional obligation not to eat blood or a limb from a living animal. This seventh obligation constitutes a constraint upon the killing of animal life for food, a license first given after the flood.

There is significant rabbinic and scholarly debate whether Noahide law ever did or can today constitute an actual basis for morality and adjudication of gentile society, a legal category for Jewish jurisprudence to deal with gentile residents in Jewish society, or only a theoretical category necessary for Jewish theology. Medieval and modern rabbinic opinion is divided on whether Jews have an obligation to force gentiles to observe Noahide standards, with Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 8:10) maintaining that Jews are obligated to enforce these standards on gentiles and Nahmanides (commentary on Gen. 26:5) disagreeing. Rabbinic opinion also is divided as to what extent idolatry is at all applicable in post-talmudic times (see Novak below), with a body of rabbinic opinion maintaining that even gentiles who worship via idolatrous forms lack idolatrous intent (see Katz below), and another body of rabbinic opinion maintaining that biblical and talmudic idolatry is not to be found among any people with whom Jews come into contact in the Occident. These questions have significant implications for Jewish-gentile relations both inside the Land of Israel, where Jews have political control, and in Diaspora, where such control is lacking.

The concept of the sanctified Noahide covenant provides a philosophic and legal foundation for some form of Jewish theological pluralism and theory of legitimate religious particularism.


Primary Sources:

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a-57a; Avodah Zarah 63a.

Tosefta, Avodah Zarah 8(9).

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, Chapters 8-9.

Secondary Sources:

"Ben Noah," Encyclopedia Talmudit, 3:348-362. [Hebrew]

Jewish Law Annual, Vols. 6 and 7 (1987 and 1988) (Vol. 6, see articles by E. Rackman, J. Dienstag, O. Leaman; Vol 7, see articles by J.D. Bleich, D. Novak). 

Katz, Jacob, "The Vicissitudes of Three Apologetic Statements," [Hebrew], Zion 23-24 (1958-59): 174-193, (reprinted in Halakhah VeKabbalah [Heb.]). 

Korn, Eugene, "Gentiles, the World to Come and Judaism: The Odyssey of a Rabbinic Text," Modern Judaism 14 (1994): 265-287. 

"Noachide Laws," Encyclopedia Judaica, 12: 1189-1191.

Novak, David, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: An Historical and Constructive Study of the Noahide Laws (Lewiston, 1983), Chapter 10.

__________, Jewish-Christian Dialogue (New York, 1989), 26-41.
[See these volumes for the scholarly debate regarding whether the Noahide covenant was a Palestinian or a Diaspora development.]

Schwartzschild, Steven, "Do Noahides Have to Believe in Revelation?" Jewish Quarterly Review 52 (1962): 297-309, 53 (1962): 29-59.

Text and annotation prepared by Eugene Korn