Essay: B'NAI NOAH: THE RELIGION, THE DANGER!
Rabbi Israel Chait
We have seen how God gave us a unique religion through Torah. Its unique
character derives from the instrument of Halakhah which is not to be found
in any other religion. Halakhah removes all religious practices from the
realm of symbolic performance and places upon these practices a distinct
set of standards and requirements. While every commandment has a philosophical
reason for it this reason does not determine the religious practice in specific.
It is related to the commandment only in a general way. What does determine
the practice in specific are the propositions and formulae of the Halakhah.
These propositions and formulae are of an abstract nature and require great
knowledge in order to comprehend them. It is for this reason that the Torah
has always been entrusted to the Talmudic scholars of Israel and they alone
have determined authentic religious practice throughout the generations,
from the time of our great teacher Moses to the present generation.
Most of the world has never attained any level of insight into the nature
of Halakhah and as a natural result have never really cared much about the
Torah's commandments. Religious people of the world could only understand
religious rites, ceremonies and practices as symbolic actions. Hence when
the world became aware of the Bible and tried to incorporate some of the
practices of Torah into their lives they were attracted only to those things
that could fit into their symbolic framework. Thus baptism, whose origin
was "mikveh", became very popular. The difference between the
two is that "mikveh" is an halakhic concept, as is known to anyone
who has studied the Tractate of "Mikvaot", and baptism is a symbolic
concept, a primitive act. The two are qualitatively differentiated. The
symbolic act appeals to one's inner religious feelings while Halakhah must
be apprehended by the intellect.
The Torah has shunned symbolic religious rite and not permitted it to
be used as a vehicle to serve the Creator, the source of all knowledge and
wisdom. Only a performance which engages the mind, man's unique element,
his divine image, is fitting to be used as a means of approaching God. Contrary
to Christian dogma the greater the scholar the closer one is to God. Hence,
the most important commandment of the Torah is the study of Torah itself.
This great system which incorporates in itself the most profound ideas
of philosophy, psychology, metaphysics, civil law, criminal law, and religious
statutes, which has a science all its own, Halakhah, whose depth of knowledge
is infinite, this all encompassing system of systems, Torah, has lurking
at its side an insidious enemy. This enemy, strangely enough, comes from
the quarters of the religious instinct. The archenemy of Torah is idolatry,
the unbridled religious instinct, which in a misguided attempt to attain
religious security, associates some physical form with the Creator. There
is, however, another enemy. The Torah identifies it.
Twice in Deuteronomy (13:1 and 4:2) Moses warns the people against adding
to or subtracting from God's commandments. But this commandment has been
stressed by the Torah in more than these places. In Leviticus 10:1 we read,
"and the sons of Ahron, Nadav and Avihu, took each one his censer,
and they put therein fire and placed incense upon it and they offered before
God a strange fire which He had not commanded them. And there came forth
fire from before the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord."
The Torah does not tell us what this "strange fire" was. It is
not important; it is important for us to know only that it was something
that God "had not commanded them." The sons of Ahron were fine
upright righteous people, else they would not have been chosen to bring
an offering to God. In their religious zeal they added something of their
own which God "had not commanded" and for this addition they were
deserving of death. It is a basic tenet of Torah that only God can authorize
the religious act. No human being no matter how great has the right to do
In Exodus 25:10 - 28:43, the Torah gives instructions for the precise
measurements and forms of the holy Tabernacle and its vessels. The Torah
then repeats these same instructions when the people carried them out, (Exodus
36:1 - 40:38). We must wonder why the necessity to repeat all these details.
When we look carefully we find that there is one verse which is repeated
twelve times in the second account. That verse states that they did exactly
as God had commanded Moses. The Torah thought it important enough to repeat
the entire account in order to demonstrate that not one detail was changed,
in that most holy of structures, from the way God commanded Moses.
The Rabbis of the Talmud, who always have the inside track when it comes
to Torah, comment on the verse in Numbers 8:3 "and Ahron did so."
They tell us that the Torah is praising Ahron for not changing, not adding
anything to the instructions God gave concerning the candelabra. He did
not try to be creative, to leave his own mark by adding to God's words.
He simply followed precisely the instructions given to him through Moses
The Torah is the most ingenious work that man has at identifying evil,
both overt and covert. Painful as it may be, the Torah demands of us that
we recognize our own innermost desires for evil, for this is the only way
man can advance. In praising Ahron, the Torah teaches that even a great
person may have the desire to create or to add to the religious act. This
desire stems from man's underlying egomania. He wishes to be great, to be
glorious, to leave his own distinctive mark on the world and no where can
he accomplish this more than in the sphere of the holiest of all human activities,
the religious sphere. The Torah condemns this. It demands of man that he
humble himself, that he recognize that only God can create the religious
act. True, man has the right to interpret the laws God gave him, provided
he adheres to the rules and the methods the Torah prescribes, but to be
creative on his own in the religious sphere is strictly prohibited. Even
when it comes to interpretation only a qualified Torah scholar has the right
to interpret. Torah, like any other area of knowledge is not a free for
all. Just as in medical science the opinion of the ignorant person is not
trustworthy, so too in Torah. And just as in the above example an ignorant
person must subordinate himself to the physician, so too in Torah the ignorant
person must subordinate himself to the Torah scholar.
The Torah teaches us in Deuteronomy 17:18-20, that the king must have
a Torah which is with him constantly in order that "he learn to fear
the Lord his God to keep all the words of His Torah and these statutes in
order that he do them." Why is the king different from anyone else?
The Torah with its in-depth knowledge of the human soul knows that the more
recognition a human being has from his fellow man the greater is the danger
of his falling prey to his own egomania. Accordingly, the Torah states,
"so that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren." The king
must have at his side a constant reminder of the Creator, of his own fallibility,
of his need for God's Torah to constantly direct him. The Rabbis tell us
that the king's Torah must be written under the direct supervision of the
Sanhedrin, the scholars of the Torah. The king must realize that he must
subordinate himself to the authority of the Sanhedrin when it comes to matters
of interpreting Torah.
The true religion is difficult and demanding. In giving the Torah God
has given man a great challenge, but He has also given man a great opportunity.
Man can perfect himself and experience great beauty through the truths of
God's system. The Torah has already made it difficult by not permitting
the religious act to be of a symbolic character, as it is in other religions.
God's institution of Halakhah does not permit the mere satisfaction of the
emotions but demands the engagement of the mind, the divine element. The
Torah has made it even more difficult by not permitting man to be active
in creating the religious performance. The reward, however, for adherence
to the Torah system, is the true recognition of God as the only authority.
This directs man towards true personal humility, the greatest of human traits,
as the Torah says of our teacher Moses, "and the man Moses was more
humble than any other man on the face of the earth, (Numbers 12:13)."
What does this mean for B'nai Noah practically and theoretically? We
should note that while very few of the 613 commandments have made their
way into the B'nai Noah system as mandatory, the above one did. The Ben
Noah is not permitted to add or to create any religious ceremonies or rituals.
While this is not part of the seven societal mandates, it is incumbent on
every Ben Noah. It is considered such a serious violation that it is punishable
by death, not by a human court, but by God Himself.
On a practical level this means a Ben Noah must avoid introducing any
kind of ceremony or symbolic act, be it of a personal nature or related
to institutions such as marriage, divorce, birth of a child, etc. Does this
mean the Ben Noah can do nothing of a religious nature? Most certainly not!
The Ben Noah can and should be actively involved in the study of Torah pertaining
to him which is infinitely vast and deep. He may, and in certain instances
must, pray in accordance with the manner which the Torah prescribes. He
may voluntarily perform almost any mitzvah, commandment, provided he receives
instruction first from the proper Rabbinic authorities. He is prohibited
to take upon himself some performance of his own liking even if, according
to his own understanding, it is supported by the Bible. He must consult
with the scholars of Torah and follow their ruling. "According to the
Torah which they teach you and the judgment which they tell you, shall you
do. You shall not turn from the word which they tell you to the right or
to the left (deuteronomy 17:11,12)."
The idea of Israel being a "light unto the nations" is clearly
in reference to Torah and the proper performance of its commandments. Anyone
who devises his own religious practices is either denying this principle
or is maintaining that God's Torah system is not alive and thriving today.
But even worse, by catering to his own egoistic fantasies this person brings
destruction to the B'nai Noah movement, for then others too will feel justified
in inventing their own religious practices. Then the B'nai Noah movement
would become reduced to a man-made religion. It would become a religion
which satisfies man's desire to say how he should worship God which is the
very core of idolatry. It is for this reason the above verse in Deuteronomy
is so imperative. The Rabbis tell us that even if one is convinced he is
right and the scholars are wrong he must follow the ruling of the scholars,
as it is stated, "you shall not turn from the word which they tell
you to the right or to the left." If a person is himself a scholar
he has the right to maintain he is correct on a theoretical plane, but in
practice he must conform to the ruling of the authoritative body of scholars.
How wise are the ways of Torah and how beautifully did the Torah, with
this one injunction, protect itself against its greatest adversary, the
man-made religion, while at the same time it did not limit the intellectual
freedom of the individual. This injunction applies equally to the Ben Noah
and the Ben Israel. The Ben Noah, however, has a more difficult task. Since
he is not commanded to do all the mitzvot he must be very careful when he
goes about selecting a religious performance. His religious instinct must
come under the supremacy of his Torah knowledge. This is difficult and very
humbling, but his reward will be the inner joy he experiences when he realizes
that in this way he is proclaiming God as the only One to be worshiped and
the only One who can authorize worship. He submits not to his own personal
whims, nor to the will of any human being, but to the divine will of the
Creator who stated in His Torah that one's religious practice must be based
on the authority of Torah scholarship. If we can follow this lofty principle,
overcome our own egoistic drives, and humble ourselves before God's Torah,
we can then be successful at the greatest of all human achievements, the
sanctification of God's holy Name.