It was in January of 1986 when I first met Vendyl Jones. It was in the small town of Cleveland, Tennessee in a small Baptist church. Vendyl was the guest speaker at the first Noahide conference hosted by J. David Davis, the former Baptist preacher turned Noahide. He was a big man with a commanding presence and a lisping drawl, and more charisma than you could stuff into a ten-gallon hat.
In the mid-80s, Jones was the leader of the nascent Noahide movement. His book, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand (a sly reference from the 1950s television show To Tell the Truth), was one of the very few books on the Noahide Law at that time. In addition to his book, Mr. Jones had many cassette tapes with his lectures on topics ranging from the New Testament book of Hebrews to the kabbalah.
One of the main themes of Jones’s book was his “Plural Covenant” theory. He taught that the Mosaic Covenant was never abrogated by the New Covenant (the New Testament), but that Jesus was “the Messiah to the Gentiles.” Jones said that Jesus was certainly not divine (which would violate the Noahide Law of idolatry), something that certainly set him apart from any other minister at the time.
One year later, in January of 1987, the second Noahide conference was held at the same location. On Saturday night, there was a large dinner at Davis’s house, and I was happily helping myself to the delicious Israeli desserts that Vendyl’s wife Zahava had made. As we sat around the large dinner table, Vendyl led the discussion about the various subjects he had lectured on that week.
After a while, my wife Teresa and I finally spoke up. Wouldn’t it be better, we said, if we quit trying to study the New Testament and instead study Torah? Shouldn’t we go to the rabbis for instruction instead of trying to learn Torah ourselves? Shouldn’t we learn the Noahide Law through the Torah instead of the Christian Bible?
Our views caused a bit of an uproar, to say the least. The problem we had was, during the previous year, Teresa and I had been studying Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra and other rabbinic commentators, and we felt that trying to learn Noahide Law from the New Testament was a waste of time. We were alone in our belief in this matter, and found ourselves estranged from the rest of the Noahides. A year later I ended up contacting Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, the rabbi of Beth Jacob (an Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta), I was admitted into the Atlanta Scholars Kollel as a Noahide, and so I parted ways with the nascent Noahide Movement and the “Plural Covenant” theory.
Fast forward nearly 30 years.
I have gone from being the “bad guy” who told the Noahides they needed to ditch the New Testament, Jesus and the Plural Covenant and go to the rabbis to learn Torah, to the “bad guy” who is telling Noahides to ditch rabbinic leadership and organize, teach and lead ourselves. To some, it would seem as if I did a one hundred and eighty degree turnaround, but that is not the case at all. Let me explain.
Despite its promising start, with the charismatic Jones and J. David Davis making appearances on CNN and Larry King, the Noahide movement is still a fringe movement unknown to the general public. Those who do know about it (the ones not involved with the Noahides) view it as simply a strange cult, an odd sect of Judaism, an odd religious movement with no clear purpose or goals.
The reason the Noahide Movement hasn’t grown much in the past 30 years (compared to, say, Chabad’s explosive growth in the thirty year period between 1950 and 1980) was no accident. When the rabbis got involved with the Noahide Movement in the early 90s, they saw it as a danger to Judaism and proceeded to shut it down. It is larger than it was in the 1980s, but nowhere near what it should be.
For those of you unfamiliar with the inside story, the rabbis saw the potential problems with the Noahide Law, a law which commanded non-Jews to set up legal systems based on Torah. These legal systems would prohibit idolatrous organized religions such as Christianity, and the last thing the rabbis wanted to see was a bunch of Noahide activists riling up the Christians. They felt that the Jews would invariably be blamed, and so the rabbis decided that the Noahide Movement must not get out of hand.
Not all rabbis have this view, of course, but still the problem even with these rabbis is that all they know is Judaism, and that is what they teach. People tend to forget that, for most of the past 1946 years, the study of the Noahide Law was regulated to little more than a halakhic curiosity. Yes, there have been a few exceptions, but it has only been in the past few decades that the rabbis have put any effort into study of the Seven Laws of Noah, and many orthodox Jews are still woefully unaware of the Seven Laws.
So the Noahide movement foundered, and the rabbis took it upon themselves to lead it in the direction of a personal religion of salvation rather than a society-changing movement designed to turn the goyim to Torah observance. Ignoring (for the most part) the Noahide law of Dinim, the rabbis focused on the religious elements which were particularly attractive to those coming out of religions such as Christianity. They wrote prayer books for Noahides, fed the Noahides on a steady diet of Mishna Torah, and developed a teaching of Judaism Lite: less mitzvot, more tefillin.
The rabbis have convinced the majority of Noahides that the Noahides cannot run the movement themselves; that is the job for the rabbis. The rabbis tell the Noahides that they don’t have the understanding or the scholarship to teach themselves, and have convinced many Noahides that, in order to be a “proper” or “official” Noahide, they must declare themselves to a trio of rabbis and submit to rabbinic authority.
This brings us back to my view of rejecting the rabbinic leadership and running the Noahide Movement ourselves.
I left the original Noahide Movement because I was unhappy with its religious direction; despite the rejection of many of the Christian tenets, I felt that there were still too many theological skeletons in the Noahide closet. Today it is the same problem with a different twist: what is being taught as “Noahide Law” is basically Judaism. The rabbis have gained control, and refuse to relinquish it. Their reasoning is illogical, as I will explain.
Here are the major points of disagreement:
- The rabbis say that we (Noahides) do not know enough to teach Torah.
- The rabbis say that we are unable to determine halakha by ourselves.
- The rabbis are afraid that, without their leadership, we might turn the Noahide Law into a religion.
Let me address each point.
First of all, the argument that we cannot teach Torah.
While that might have been true thirty years ago, when the Noahides were still reading the New Testament, it is true no longer. While there are still Christian groups such as the Hebrew Roots Movement that follow this example, it is not so for today’s Noahide community. Most Noahides are familiar with Rabbinic commentary, and eschew any sort of Christian theology. Publishers such as Mesorah and Feldheim have put out a significant number of rabbinic commentaries in English during the past few decades, and we now have the tools needed to learn Torah from a proper orthodox perspective. There are plenty of Noahides out there who have studied for a good number of years, Noahides who are perfectly qualified to teach.
The argument that Noahides cannot determine halakha is a thorny issue with the rabbis. In their opinion, Noahides do not have the necessary training needed to develop halakha. The problem with this argument is that the Noahide Law is not supposed to be neither as exact nor as strict as Jewish Law. To quote from my book Secular by Design, p. 426–27:
The determination of halakha is not some random guessing game. There is a complex and ancient system of interpretation used by the rabbis to determine halakha using two different modes of analysis: sevarah and pilpul. Pilpul is the dialectical approach, “deducing positive from negative and vice versa; drawing inferences from what was omitted and from ostensibly superfluous material.” The other approach is sevarah, or “discovering the reason behind the halakhah, which enables us to compare and contrast different cases.” Pilpul is a system that takes intensive training as well as an “insiders” understanding of Torah; to determine the fine points of halakha using pilpul is difficult for even the most learned Noahide, and, although certain principles can be applied to Noahide Law, pilpul should be left to the rabbis.
Severah, on the other hand, is the logical understanding of halakha, and is certainly within the scope of the Noahide. The Noahide Law is not meant to be as exact or as strict as Jewish Law, so there really is no need to wrestle every conclusion to the finer points of law using pilpul, and if a problem arises, one can always use the rabbis as a resource for arbitration. As Ramban pointed out, the Noahide legal system should be “comparable to the civil laws about which Israel was commanded;” that is, it does not need to be as severe or exact as Jewish law.
The rabbis refuse to teach the Noahides the tools needed to undertake the task of determining halakha. I have asked rabbis point-blank why they will not do this, and the answer I get ranges from “You cannot do it” to “because it has never been done.” Many rabbis even forbid the Noahide to read Talmud, to see how the process works.
And, last but not least, the fear that the Noahides, if left to their own devices, will turn the Noahide Movement into a religion (as the early Christians did). The problem with this argument is that it is the rabbis themselves who are turning the Noahide Law into a religion. Judaism is what the rabbis know, and Judaism is what the rabbis teach. Keeping Shabbat, organized and regular prayers and blessings, wearing tefillin, building sukkas; this is what the rabbis are pushing on the Noahides. Instead of a cultural-changing system, the rabbis have turned the Noahide Code into a religion of personal salvation. Instead of writing books on how Noahides can develop halakha, the rabbis write books on Noahide “prayers.” Instead of focusing on changing our legal system and our society’s mores and values, the rabbis focus on belief in God and getting a ticket to Olam haBah, the World to Come.
It is obvious that the grip of rabbinical authority is too strong to convince most of these religious-minded Noahides to deviate from this path. What is needed is to rebrand the Noahide movement, to turn it into what it should have been all along, to focus on Dinim, social justice, not religion. We need to reach out to the non-Jews who are not swayed by religion, to kick-start a new direction. The Noahide Movement needs to reboot.
What we have to do is to present the Noahide Code in a way that is non-religious yet halakhically correct. We have to present the Noahide Code in a format that the rabbis will be unwilling and unable to control. We have to present the Noahide Code in a format that is a clear alternative to what is being taught now as “Noahide Law.” We have to present the Noahide Code in a viable format that makes it clear it is not Noahide religion.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? — Pirkei Avot 1:14