Friday, October 27, 2006

To Be or Not To Be

There are many ask-the-rabbi sites. I volunteer for one, and about half of the questions I receive come from non-Jews.

Of these, about half sound like they want to convert me (to Christianity or sometimes to Islam) and the others have genuine questions about Judaism. Some sound like kids looking for free homework help (they get a friendly no). Some, surprisingly to me, ask how they can convert to Judaism.

Now most people know that we Jews don’t look for converts. There is nothing in the Torah that says that the 613 mitzvas (which include the so-called 10 Commandments) have anything to do with Gentiles.

Few people know, however, what the Torah actually does say to Gentiles.

According to the Torah, there are specific guidelines for the nations to follow in order to be righteous. Ask at your table if anyone can guess how many rules there are for Gentiles.

The answer, like many things in the Torah, is seven. These seven universal laws apply to every non-Jewish person in every place in every time without exception. Intentional failure to uphold one of them is bad news.

Ask at your table: Can you guess which seven rules are the most important for all of humanity to follow?

Here they are:

1. Monotheism/idolatry – understand that there is a single source of all creation and no other power exists in the world should lead naturally to an aversion to idolatry; however, idolatry is seductive because its so tangible. This would include praying to an actual idol or the sun or moon or any object or force that does not have volition. Lucky rabbit’s foot? Relying on money or technology to save you?
2. Blasphemy - Sort of follows naturally from #1. This includes saying things like “G-ddamn” or even “Adios” which, when uttered casually are a secularization of the Holy. In any language.
3. Murder – People are created in “Divine image” - we’re not allowed to murder them. That would include indirectly killing such as throwing someone to the lions (as the Romans did) or starving someone to death.
4. Taboo relationships – When talking to kids, I say, “marrying someone you’re not allowed to marry, like your sister or brother”.
5. Stealing – this means even the smallest amount. Someone who uses someone else’s pencil without permission is guilty of stealing. Maimonides (Rambam) says this includes a farm laborer who eats from the produce when not in the middle of working. What are the implications for using the company phone, internet or even just your time for personal use? Better to get explicit permission.
6. Ever min ha-chai – eating a limb of an animal that is still alive. This is the one kosher rule for humanity. Basic decency and humanity requires that if you’re going to eat an animal, kill it first. There is some debate as to whether or not this rule applies to shellfish. Maimonides does not think this applies to birds.
7. Justice – a society must have a fair system of justice to be good.

Maimonides concludes that one who accepts upon him or herself these seven mitzvas and is careful to do them is a “Gentile Chasid” who is building a palace in Eternity. But like all mitzvas, these seven require intentionality (kavana), so that someone who does them out of habit or social conditioning does not have such a spiritual status.

Question: which of the seven do you think is hardest for people to do?

For further reading:

Seven-mitvah Gentiles have started to organize themselves into “seven-mitzvah” groups. Check out the Bnai Noah website. And here is one thoughtful Jewish take on the question.

Shabbat Shalom.

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