The Modern Noahide Movement

Non-Jews living in observance of the Seven Noahide Laws.

Print this page Print this page

The contemporary Noahide movement began to take shape during Schneerson's lifetime, but its major growth has taken place in the years since his death. This has been fueled largely by the Internet, a powerful tool for a movement comprised mostly of single individuals and families practicing alone or in very small groups around the globe.

Jewish Views on Non-Jews

Though the Jewish vision for the idealized, messianic future does not call for a world full of Jewish converts, Jewish law has plenty to say about what it expects of non-Jews, namely a righteous life guided by the Seven Mitzvot B'nei Noah. In classic Talmudic fashion, once the rabbis examined, explored, extrapolated, and otherwise developed the Sheva Mitzvot, the "seven" laws were much more than just seven. Applying the single commandment against sexual immorality, for example, the rabbis found it to include numerous particular prohibitions against incest, adultery, and other specific practices.

But are these rules a Jewish version of natural law--a set of universal moral imperatives that people are assumed to intuit on their own--or are they something that Jews must actively go out and bring to the world?

According to the great medieval Jewish philosopher and legal authority Moses Maimonides, teaching non-Jews to follow the Noahide laws is incumbent on all Jews, a commandment in and of itself. However, most rabbinic authorities rejected Maimonides' view, and the dominant halakhic (Jewish law) attitude had been that Jews are not required to spread Noahide teachings to non-Jews.

And that’s where things stood in Jewish law for centuries--until an aging Hasidic rebbe turned that on its head. "Every Jew has the obligation to ensure that all the peoples of the world observe the Seven Noahide Laws," Rabbi Schneerson said, according to Noahide.org. "An integral component of the Jew’s task is to see to it that all peoples, not just Jews, acknowledge God as creator and ruler of the world."

It is a view that remains controversial. "If Jews are telling Gentiles what to do, it's a form of imperialism," says David Novak, a University of Toronto theologian. To him, the Seven Mitzvot are a set of rules that Judaism prescribes for non-Jews while assuming any civil society or moral individual will reach these conclusions on their own, without prodding. The Noahide laws, in his eyes, are valuable as a moral foundation that allows Jews to get involved and speak out on issues of public morality, a universal ethical code with which to engage larger societal issues--and are not a religion around which non-Jews are expected to structure their daily lives.

Creating a Lifestyle

Despite the passion of committed Noahides, embracing seven laws of basic morality does not a lifestyle make. In some key ways, the Noahide movement is defined more by what it's not than what it is: Not Jewish, not Christian, without a central organization, and with no clear consensus even on what the faith entails. Even the laws themselves--six out of the seven--are prohibitions. There's little or no active spiritual life, no prescribed ritual and liturgical life for Noahides. There is, to borrow a phrase, "no there there."

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Michael Kress

Michael Kress is the executive editor of Parents.com. He was also the the VP of Editorial and Managing Editor at Beliefnet and the founding editor-in-chief of MyJewishLearning.com.