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How Are Different Cultures to Apply the Torah's Universal Code of Ethics?

Updated: Aug 17, 2022



This is the inaugural post of a series of articles I will be presenting in an unabridged way from my book "The Delusion of Christianity: An Invitation to the Torah for Humanity" (Ohel Chokhmah, 2022, ISBN: 978-1-7782957-0-6)

 

Part 1

At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night.

—RaMBaM, The Guide for the Perplexed


With cultural diversity and rooted traditions, societies have leveraged their intellectual capabilities to develop norms by which to live virtuous lives. Such norms seek to regulate the individual and group behavior and, by extension, their actions in the respective societies. Precisely this latter objective is the subject matter of ethics, or the philosophical examination of customs, traditions, societal practices, and precepts in order to "establish principles of right behavior that may serve as action guides for individuals and groups."(1)


A question may thus be raised: "Are the Seven Divine Commandments a set of established ethical principles that is both universal and objective?"


There are two reasons why I examine this question. First, many individuals with whom I have discussed the Seven Mitzwoth often complain about the legalistic aspect. The way they are codified, the many details, the torts, all seem too archaic and anachronistic, they complain. Second, they dismiss the mitzwoth by appealing to sophisticated forms of antisemitism, reminiscent of Emperor Constantine who, at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, urged the adherents to the newly founded Hellenistic religion to "have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd."(2) Thus, argue contemporary fellows, the Divine Code is not acceptable, for it is an unethical agenda promoted for whatever reason. (Indeed, the world won't give up slurs until the Messianic Age). In what follows, I analyze the question of ethics and morality with respect to the Noahide Laws and the various scenarios resulting from the examination of the matter.


The purpose of morality is, in broad terms, to improve society by means of

promoting virtuous and healthy lives. From an academic standpoint, morality has five objectives:(1)

  1. To keep society from falling apart

  2. To ameliorate human suffering

  3. To promote human flourishing

  4. To resolve conflicts of interest in just and orderly ways

  5. To assign praise and blame, reward and punishment, and guilt


How does the Divine Code fare against this five-point model for ethics and morality? Does it fall short, or does it subsume them in addition to other precepts? The Seven Commandments provide guidance on how to live a

virtuous and holy life not only because many constituent rules and details are

intellectually binding, but also because G-d Himself asked humanity through Moses at Sinai to observe them. Let us map the Noahide Laws to the model above:

  1. To keep society from falling apart: The Noahide Code achieves this via the prohibitions of murder and injury, theft, sexual immorality, and the obligation to establish courts of law.

  2. To aliviate human and animal suffering: This is covered by the prohibitions of murder and injury, cruelty to animals, theft, sexual immorality, and the obligation to establish courts of law

  3. To promote human flourishing: This is addressed by the prohibitions of murder and injury, theft, sexual immorality, and the obligation to establish courts of law

  4. To resolve conflicts of interest in just and orderly ways: The Code stipulates justices by obligating the establishment of courts of law

  5. To assign praise and blame, reward and punishment, and guilt: the obligation to establish courts of law

  6. To live a holy life: The Code promotes this item not included in the five-point model via the prohibitions of idolatry and blasphemy, which logically imply faith in the one G□d.

While the first five items speak to repairing the world, the sixth item in the list is the vertical, or transcendental, dimension of the Jewish moral code: belief in G□d and doing what He expects of us. In that sense, the Noahide moral code may be viewed as a superset of the secular moral code illustrated across the five objectives, since it promotes at least one more purpose.


Nevertheless, Noahide morality is by no means strictly dependent on religion, since a practical, wise person may in principle derive the injunctions logically based on reason and experience alone. Rambam states as much in Kings and Wars 9:1:(4)

Even though we have received all of these commands from Moses and, furthermore, they are concepts which intellect itself tends to accept, it appears from the Torah's words that Adam was commanded concerning them.

But the practical, wise person may not be able to fully answer the question: "Why should I live a moral life?" This question may only be fully and objectively answered if we take into account the sixth purpose in the list above and if we start by reasoning and contemplating that G□d commanded us to do so in order to live holy lives to repair the world by partnering with G□d.


Rabbi Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, perceptively summarized the power of the Noahide Laws in his 1985 writings:(3)

The point of the Seven Noahide Laws is to settle the world.

Settling the world requires a universal, objective moral code that is not grounded in relative morality. That is, if one society holds a moral precept that is immoral to another society, it would be hard to imagine how the world could ever be settled.


The Divine Code, as an objective divine moral code provided by G□d, provides healthy exceptions to many precepts, which none of the other man-made religions contain. For instance, under the prohibition of murder, a pregnancy may be terminated if the fetus is medically demonstrated to be a danger to the mother's life.(5)


In Part 2, I argue that the Noahide Code is moderately objectivist (i.e., with moral exceptions). I explain why that is the case and how other absolutist religion dogmas may damage, rather than repair, the world.


 

Yair Borici embraced the opportunity to observe the Torah for Non-Jews in 2014 upon running into a talk on the Crown of the Torah by Rabbi Manis Friedman while learning Biblical Hebrew on his own. He studied the Sheva Miztwoth Hashem (Divine Code) by Rabbi Moshe Weiner and took the various courses with Rabbi Moshe Perets in the World Noahide Academy starting in 2016. Yair also attended courses with Sephardi Rabbis going beyond the seven categories, including studying Mishneh Torah by the Rambam. Yair has studied is'lam and ch'ristianity extensively for the past 22 years. His focus is raising awareness of and edifying various audiences on the ancient faith in the one true God that the Jewish Nation has carefully preserved since they received the Torah at Sinai.


 

Sources

(1) Louis P. Pojman. Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong. Fourth Ed. Wadsworth Publishing, 2001.

(2) Eusebius Pamphilus. Church Fathers: Life of Constantine, Book 3:8. Full text.

(3) Full text at Sefaria.

(4) Full text at Chabad.

(5) See point 6 at AskNoah.

 

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