On the Yahrtzeit of my beloved father, Irvin Kaplan, יצחק בן מרדכאי
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Noach, completes the enumeration of the mitzvot incumbent upon all human beings: not to worship idols, not to curse God’s name, not to murder, not to engage in forbidden sexual relations, not to eat the limb of a living animal, not to steal, and to establish a court system. Six of these mitzvot are negative and one is positive. These commands comprise the “Sheva Mitzvot B’nei Noach,” “The Seven Noachide Commands.” The reason non-Jews have only seven commands is not to place a limit on their performances. Rather, these mitzvot are the minimum requirement to retain the right to life. If a person cannot comply with these seven Noachide laws, his or her life is meaningless.
Perhaps one thinks that the Torah views the non-Jew in any way less than a Jew. After all, God gave 613 commands to the Jews and only seven to the non-Jews. This notion, attitude, and philosophy of life is itself against the Torah. In last week’s Torah portion, Bereishit, God makes it abundantly clear that the Hebrew term “אדם,” refers to “all mankind,” male and female. (Bereishit 5:1-2) Both male and female were created “in His image” (Bereshit 1:27).
Why then are there two systems of mitzvot mentioned in the Torah? What is the need for the additional 606 commands that Jews have but non-Jews don’t have? Furthermore, can non-Jews keep these other 606 mitzvot voluntarily?
While it is true that the 7 Noachide commands maintain a person’s right to life, they are not understood to be all that man can be. A non-Jew, therefore, is not prohibited from observing the other 604 mitzvot, save the keeping of Shabbat (or creating any day as a complete day of rest) and the studying of Torah mitzvot other than the seven Noachide commands. So a non-Jew, for example, can study all of Torah’s stories and philosophy as well as the Books of the Prophets and Writings. He or she can, for example, keep the laws of kosher and fulfill the mitzvah of Sukkah. Most significant, the Talmud tells us that a righteous Noachide, a non-Jew that accepts that God commanded these 7 mitzvot and keeps them, merits life in the World to Come. We pray for the fulfillment of this idea at the conclusion of every prayer service. It is the fundamental theme of the Aleinu prayer.
The Torah and our philosophy make clear there is no inherent difference between a Jew and a non-Jew. The soul of both is created the same way, “in the image of God.” Every human being, therefore, is provided the opportunity to achieve Olam Habah, existence in the World to Come. But here is the point. The 613 mitzvot system is a system designed for human perfection. This system, in fact, was given to the descendants of the greatest Noachide, אברהם אבינו, Abraham our father. His descendants are charged by God to be the guardians of this system of human perfection but not just for themselves. As Isaiah said in last week’s Haftorah, Jews have the responsibility to be “אור לגוים”, light to the nations.
The Ramban’s commentary on Deuteronomy 33:4 makes clear that any human being who desires to live the most fulfilling existence possible for man, the system of 613 mitzvot, is welcome to convert to Judaism. Again, such a phenomenon would not be possible were there any innate or inherent qualitative difference between Jew and non-Jew. A convert, then, is on the same footing as someone born into the system. Two of the greatest Torah scholars, Shamayah and Avtalyon, are listed in פרקי אבות, “Ethics of the Sages,” in the chain of our authentic Torah transmitters, בעלי המסורה. They directly preceded Hillel and Shamai as the heads of the Great Sanhedrin, and they were their teachers. As mentioned above, should a non-Jew wish to remain not Jewish, he or she could still embrace all 606 commands on a voluntary basis to save the strict adherence of Shabbat and the study of mitzvot other than their seven.
Why can’t the non-Jew remain as is and keep the Shabbat or study Torah laws outside the realm of their 7 commands? The reason is not due to any racial discrimination as is clear from what we already said. Any human being can join the Jewish people. However, the Torah specifically says that Shabbat is “… a sign forever between Me (God) and the Children of Israel…” (Shemot 31:16-17). Here we see a specific exclusion by God of all others but the Jews. Another verse, Deuteronomy 33:4 states, “The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob.” Again the Jewish people are singled out by God as the repository of the Torah. What is the thread linking these two commands?
My good friend, Rabbi Moshe ben Chaim, shared his understanding of this question. (Mesora.org) The chief purpose or role of the Jewish people is to be the teachers to the rest of mankind. “…you are to be a kingdom of priests and a holy (distinguished) nation.” (Shemot 19;6) The primary function of our priests is to teach. What are the areas of their instruction? They are to teach the faithful the true ideas about God and His system of human perfection. It follows that this nation is unique not only in its philosophy of life and but also in how its members live. The Torah’s position is clear. The Jewish people are to serve all mankind in two specific ways: by teaching and through their distinct way of life.
This primary function of the Jewish people would be blurred or distorted were there no way to distinguish them and their responsibility from others. Were a non-Jew permitted to study every mitzvah in the Torah, it would give the impression that they too are knowledgeable of the entire system and thus responsible for its dissemination. This idea is false. That is not God’s plan. Also, some distinction must be drawn that will indicate to those seeking the true ideas of God and the path to human perfection to whom they should go to learn. This knowledge is vouched safe only with the Jews. Who are the Jews? They are the people who observe a complete day of rest one day a week in celebration of the idea that there is a Creator of the universe. They are the same people charged and obligated with the study, implementation, and teaching of the entire 613 mitzvot system. Hence, they are also the only ones who can instruct the non-Jew in the proper performance of the seven Noachide laws
So not only is there a great reward for all Jews who keep Shabbat but now we see another purpose. Our keeping Shabbat is beneficial to the non-Jewish world as well. As a nation, we participate in God’s will and plan to assist all those seeking Him and perfection as a human being. The Shabbat serves to identify the only nation from which the qualified teachers can be found.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan