In 1986, the Lubavitcher Rebbe invited me to speak with him and requested that I, an American Army General, speak at Army bases around the world about the Seven Noahide Commandments. Although I try to think rationally and not mystically like the Rebbe, I did so, and this is a version of that speech.
The Bible states that Noah’s generation violated God’s commands. These commands are not mentioned in the Bible. However, rabbis write that these rules were known in oral traditions. They were recorded around 200 CE in a work called Tosefta and repeated in the twelfth century in Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, his Code of Jewish Law, in a revised order.
The Tosefta lists the seven as follows:
- The establishment of law courts,
- The prohibition against blasphemy,
- Sexual immorality,
- Theft, and
- Against eating a limb torn from a living animal.
Maimonides’ Code orders the commands differently:
- Prohibitions against idolatry,
- Sexual immorality,
- The establishment of law courts, and
- The rule forbidding eating a limb torn from a living animal.
It seems that Maimonides changed the order of the commands to present them in an ever-ascending, step by step manner, from basic behaviors that people consider obvious to more significant behaviors, which when understood and properly practiced could change and improve individuals and society.
Maimonides forbids idolatry first. This rule teaches that God created humans and gave them the “image of God” (Genesis 1:27), which he explains in his Guide of the Perplexed 1:1 is human intelligence. This first command stresses that people must use their intelligence, that which makes them humans. It prompts people to use their intelligence and to understand that God created the laws of nature, which are good, and that people must study them so that they know and value these laws and use them to improve themselves and society. It warns people against passively relying on faith and superstitions, which are idols that seduce people from their duty to study, think, understand, and use the world intelligently.
Proverbs 2 has this lesson: “Open your ears to wisdom and incline your heart to clarity. Call on understanding, a trusted mother whose love is all you need. Seek her single-mindedly as though she were a hidden treasure.”
The great philosopher Aristotle, who Maimonides quotes, said that it is intelligence that makes people human, and the person who does not use intelligence is no better than an animal or plant. Relying on “faith” rather than using one’s mind, is a violation of the first command; for faith is the improper acceptance as true what one’s senses, science, and intelligence states is untrue.
The second command prohibits blasphemy. Cursing God and God’s creations or neglecting or misusing what has been created is blasphemy, a radical negation of what God has done. This law stresses that we must make use of what was created to improve our selves and others. Sitting passively in a room either alone or with others reading the Talmud while avoiding what God created is saying “I do not want what God created. All that was created should be avoided; it is wrong. God created many things that should be avoided. I will just read and not improve myself and others.”
Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe demonstrated the significance of this teaching. Once when he lived in an apartment above his son and infant grandchild, he heard his grandchild crying. He left his studies and went down to his son’s apartment where he saw the child in one corner and the child’s father, his son, in another, absorbed in Talmud study. He lifted and soothed the child, and then said to his son: “Study has no effect as long as you don’t hear a child’s cries.” His son understood: The Torah prompts people to think and to use their thoughts to help themselves and others. The Torah wasn’t intended to be used passively, as only a document for study.
The Talmud states that the ancient sage Shimon ben Shetach lived such a life. Once, he sent his disciples to buy him a saddle. They returned overjoyed. They found a diamond in the saddle. They praised their teacher as being blessed by God because, under a strict legal reading, the seller, having completed the sale, had sold him both the saddle and its contents. But, they were blaspheming God by failing to understand his teaching. Shimon ben Shetach told his students that we must go beyond the basics of the law, and they must return the diamond. When the seller retrieved the jewel, he understood the true teaching and exclaimed: “Blessed is the God of Shimon ben Shetach!”
The third command prevents murder. Most people understand that this prohibition minimizes strife and preserves civilization. However, it is really much more. It requires people to recognize that everyone, no matter their race or gender, must never be harmed in any fashion. For acts such as discrimination or even embarrassing another individual is akin to murder. Pens and words can be more deadly than a sword.
The fourth command regulates sexual relations. It restrains incest, adultery, and bestiality. Maimonides taught that life requires personal controls. This command requires people to train themselves, controls their thoughts and behaviors, and develop reasonable habits of behavior in accordance with the golden mean. Sigmund Freud taught that virtually all bad deeds result from the sex drive; thus the command controlling sex is meant to control all of our actions.
Everyone thinks that they understand the fifth Noahide Commandment forbidding theft, but like the others, it is much deeper than one thinks. The rabbis who listed the Noahide Commands state that the seven are implied in the early Bible chapters. Genesis 2:16 is one source for the Noahide interdiction against theft: “You may eat of every tree of the garden except from the tree of good and evil.” This verse clarifies that everything belongs to God. We steal from God when we steal from people. While the fourth command focuses on harming individuals, the fifth stresses that harming their property can have a more devastating psychological effect.
The Maimonidean sixth command, to establish law courts, is the Tosefta’s first. The Tosefta may have placed this command first to teach that laws are basic to society because they control people. But the Maimonidean order teaches that societies must start with a value system that encourages education, the use of knowledge, and respect for everyone. Law courts assure that the former are practiced.
Maimonides’ order of commands starts with the individual and then moves to society. It is an orderly presentation of rules that helps improve people and society. The first stresses the use of one’s intelligence to understand and master the laws of nature. It rejects the reliance on others and faith that others will help. The second focuses on using that knowledge to help people. It rejects the passive life, even a life devoted to prayer and Talmud study. The third teaches that people mustn’t harm others humans in any way; even a minor cut, a casual remark, can fester and kill. The fourth encourages the development of self-control. Bad behaviors are not erased by beating one’s chest, by saying a prayer; “repentance” is the procedure of recognizing what the person did wrong, resolving not to repeat it, remedying the wrong by a sincere apology or returning what was take, and developing habits of behavior to assure that the bad deed will not be repeated. The fifth states that taking something belonging to another can sometimes have a more devastating affect than hurting a person physically. The sixth establishes law courts to help control the former laws. But how does the seventh command from Genesis 9:4: “Surely flesh with its life blood you shall not eat” fit into this progression? We would expect the final law to be the highest principle. Why did the Tosefta and Maimonides set this command as the last, the most significant?
Actually it is. It teaches the most difficult lesson. People must go beyond respecting humans. The seventh command mandates respect for animals and inanimate objects, to behave properly with everything. We cannot fully improve ourselves and society unless we assure that absolutely nothing, is in pain, and nothing misused.
A story highlights the goal of these seven commands: A youngster was waiting at the seashore for a ship to take him home. An adult stopped by, mocked him and said he was standing in the wrong place. He told the boy walk three miles to the regularly-established passenger pick-up area. The youngster stood his ground. Soon, the boat came downstream. It turned toward him, and released its plank to take him aboard. The adult was shocked. “How did you know,” he asked, “that the ship would stop to pick you up?” “Simple,” the boy replied. “You see; the captain is my father.”
The captain in the story is nature. Once we realize that the laws of nature are God’s gift to humanity, and act with intelligence and use nature properly, life receives purpose, people and society flourish, and the proper use of nature picks up people and takes them to where they belong. This is the ultimate goal of the Noahide Commands.