Book Review: Guide for the Noahide by Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron

bar-ron book

I will start this review with a caveat: I’m not a fan of Rabbi Bar-Ron. Ten years ago, I sent him a copy of my first book to get a review. I had e-mailed him first, to ask him if he could give it a look and let me know what he thought. We started an e-mail conversation which quickly went south. The conversation went something like this (sorry to paraphrase, but I lost the original e-mails long ago due to server problems.)

Bar-Ron: “You have to accept rabbinic authority.”

Me: “Rabbis have no authority over non-Jews living in their own sovereign states outside of Eretz Yisrael. A rabbi only has as much authority as a Noahide is willing to give him.”

Bar-Ron: “Well, *sputter* yes, but…when haMoshiach comes, then you’ll have to listen to him!

Me: “That may be so, but he’s not here yet, is he? And until he arrives, we will carry on ourselves.”

That was pretty much the end of our correspondence. My book returned in the mail unopened a month later, and I was out a good bit of postage (hey, sending books to Israel isn’t cheap.) Thanks for nothing, I thought.

This was actually the beginning of the end of my naïveté as to what the rabbis were doing; I foolishly thought they would be behind a project by Noahides to increase awareness and observance of Noahide Law. I would soon find out they had other plans, to make sure the Noahide Movement stayed small and under their control. The rabbis were (and are) concerned the Noahide movement would grow and get out of control, and the backlash in Esuvian states would affect the Diaspora Jews. In order to keep the Noahide movement small and manageable, the rabbis concocted a scheme to only teach the Noahides a truncated version of the Seven Laws; light on halakha, heavy on spirituality and mysticism. One of the main tools these rabbis used was Rambam’s Mishna Torah, which portrays the Seven Laws as a very short list of don’ts and ignores the most important of the Noahide Code, the law of Dinim.

With that in mind, let’s start with the review of Guide for the Noahide: A Complete Manual for Living by the Noahide Laws by Rabbi  Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron.

Not surprisingly, the book starts off praising Rambam’s Mishna Torah as the definitive work on the Noahide Law. Here’s a quote from the Preface:

“Mishneh Torah is the only comprehensively written system of authentic Talmudic Noahide Law. Until a true Sanhedrin is restored in Israel, Noahide scholars require a guide that works within that system with perfectly [sic] consistency” [emphasis his].

There is a problem with this viewpoint. While the Mishna Torah may be fine for Jews, it is not the best choice for Noahides, and the small section of the Hilchot Melachim that deals with the Seven Laws is grossly inadequate. This is because the Noahide Law is to be neither as strict nor as detailed as Jewish Law, a point the rabbis often fail to inform Noahides about. Writing detailed books on Noahide halakha, such as Rabbi Weiner’s The Divine Code, not only offers a misleading view of the Seven Laws, but these rabbinic books separate the Noahide from the halakhic process (Look! We’ve done all the work for you!) Rabbi Bar-Ron’s gushing statements such as “The Rambam…is the greatest of all the Torah authorities” is only true if you accept the rabbi’s word. There were a number of Torah giants who disagreed that the Rambam was the end-all to halakha, notably Ramban and Rav S. R. Hirsch. The Séfer haHinnuch—which is a much better choice for understanding the mitzvot of the Torah as well as Seven Laws from a Noahide perspective—consistently rules in favor of Ramban over Rambam.

In the new edition of his book, Rabbi Bar-Ron has added a Part IV, “a list with 21 of the most common, burning questions Noahides have, with carefully researched answers to each one: How to interact with non-Noahide family and friends in difficult situations, what meat is kosher, how to pray, how to defend the Torah against Christian, Moslem and anti-Israel haters.” Rabbi Bar-Ron also states that, “It also tackles the hard questions about how the Noahide community can best grow.” More on that later.

Rabbi Bar-Ron starts off the book by declaring the Noahide Law to be a personal guide to salvation just as Maimonides did in the Mishna Torah. “This is as opposed to one who fulfills the Seven Commandments only out of rational thinking. While he is considered a sage of the nations, he is not promised the gift of the afterlife, the ‘Life of the World to Come.’”

After listing the Seven Laws, Rabbi Bar-Ron does get off on the right foot by saying, “It [Noahide Law] includes no religious ceremonies, requires no sacrificial service, no priestly hierarchy…it is forbidden, according to the Torah, for non-Jews to create man-made religions.” The author goes on to explain that those who crave spirituality are certainly free to do so, but spiritually and religion are not a part of the Noahide Code per se. Of course, he goes on to talk at length about how important spirituality and prayer are, but the important thing is that he points out that the Noahide Law is not about religion.

After this promising start, Rabbi Bar-Ron’s entire premise for being a teacher to the Noahides goes right down the loo. He successfully shows why neither he nor any other Jewish rabbi has any business teaching Noahide Law to non-Jews. Let me explain by starting off with a quote from the book about the nature of the Law of Dinim:

[From] “the website of Rabbi Gil Student, ‘The Real Truth About the Talmud” (Talmud.faithweb.com). The following points relate specifically to the Noahide laws:

In teaching the laws by which one is liable for the death penalty, we are teaching a religious ideal; we are not suggesting that non-Jews carry out Noahide justice today against the law of their local governments.

All live under governments that would incarcerate or even execute anyone who takes the law into their own hands…most people are, for all intents and purposes, exempt from this Commandment…Noahides are generally neither encouraged nor expected to break the laws of their land and be punished for doing so…we encourage Noahides to call for legislative changes that push their respective governments ever closer to compliance with all the Noahide laws.”

Here we have the big kerfuffle: the “exemption” from the mitzvah of Dinim.

Rabbi Bar-Ron, as do the vast majority of today’s rabbis who are involved in teaching Noahide Law, sees the law of Dinim as being “exempt for all intents and purposes.” According to their logic, since the Noahide Law is not “the law of the land” (dina d’malchuta dina—“the law of the land is the law”), Noahides cannot go around and prosecute those who violate the Seven Laws, much less exercise vigilante justice. The Noahide Law of Dinim is, at best, simply an academic study for how to set up a court and requirements for judges and witnesses, and at worst, totally unimportant.

Rabbi Bar-Ron states in his book that “Mishneh Torah is the only comprehensively written system of authentic Talmudic Noahide Law.” The problem with this statement is that the Mishna Torah is not comprehensive; the Mishna Torah fails utterly where the law of Dinim is concerned.

Here is Rambam’s “comprehensive” take on Dinim, Hilchot Melachim 9:14 —

“How must [the gentiles] fulfill the commandment to establish laws and courts? They are obligated to set up judges and magistrates in every major city to render judgment concerning these six mitzvot and to admonish the people [regarding their observance].”

That’s a grand total of twenty–nine Hebrew words. No wonder rabbis who stick to Rambam find the Noahide Law of Dinim an unworthy topic for discussion.

But, when we turn to Ramban’s [Nachmonides] lengthy commentary on the Noahide Law found in Bereishis 34:13, we also find 29 Hebrew words that have an entirely different interpretation of the Noahide law of Dinim:

“Rather, [God] commanded them concerning the laws of theft, overcharging, withholding wages, the laws of bailees and of the rapist or the seducer of minors, the various categories of damages, personal injury, the laws of creditors and debtors, the laws of buying and selling, etc., comparable to the civil laws about which Israel was commanded.”

In other words, Ramban said that the Noahide Law was to be the basis of non-Jewish legal systems.

“The debate between Rambam and Ramban over the law of Dinim is one of the most well-known (and important) debates on the subject of the Noahide Law. Unfortunately, because of the narrow-minded focus on the Mishna Torah as the source for Noahide halakha, most Noahides are unaware of this debate, as they are about the great deal of rabbinic criticism on many of Rambam’s rulings. “Lechem Mishneh (Hil. Melachim 9:14) finds this Gemara problematic according to Rambam’s view. As noted above (56a note 48 [‘our commentary will follow the view of Ramban’]), according to Rambam the commandment of  Dinim includes only the obligation to establish courts to enforce the other six Noahide Laws. This Gemara, though, apparently assumes that actual laws are included in that commandment. We therefore follow Ramban’s view here. This also appears to be the way Rashi understands the Gemara.” R´ Weiner, Schottenstein Talmud, Sanhedrin 56b, n. 34.” From Secular by Design, p. 423–24.

In other words, it’s not simply about establishing a court in every major city; what the Noahide law of Dinim commands is to establish an entire body of law, the “secular” law of society, and to base this law on the Torah. This is what makes the scope of Ramban’s interpretation so much more inclusive; instead of the Noahide Law being merely a personal religion of salvation, it becomes a communal law, a law that can only be achieved by society as a whole. While there are elements of Dinim that can obviously be fulfilled on a personal level (the character traits of a judge or witness, for example), the law of Dinim can only be kept by a society that adopts and observes a legal system that is based on Torah. It is this revolutionary character of the law of Dinim that rabbis such as R’ Bar-Ron want to avoid; if Noahides proliferate in our society, and call for a major change in our legal system, and the rabbis know full well who will be blamed for giving the Noahides these ideas.

The Jews in our society, however, have a way out: aliyah. We do not have that option; this is our land, and we are responsible for its laws. We are commanded to observe Dinim or face the consequences. No amount of prayer, keeping Shabbat or wearing “Noahide” tizits will make up for the lack of observance of one of the core Seven.

In fact, the law of Dinim is, for the Noahide, the foundational law of the Noahide Code.

“One additional point should be granted so as to put our understanding of Nahmanides on solid ground. Nahmanides considers Dinim the procedural law of all the Laws of Noah, not only of Theft.” (Litchtenstein, The Seven Laws of Noah, p. 40).

This is certainly a different approach than teaching that “most people are, for all intents and purposes, exempt from this Commandment.”

Few Noahides are aware of this most famous of Noahide Law debates, for the rabbis do not teach it to Noahides. The rabbis also are also reticent on some of the other Talmudic teachings on Noahide Law, such as Bava Metzia 90b where it discusses the Jew trying to skirt the commandment not to castrate animals (such as an ox) by getting a non-Jew to do what is forbidden to the Jew. “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14) which the Talmud interprets as not to make a trusting person stumble through misleading advice “which prohibits causing another person to stumble in sin. It includes causing a non-Jew to violate one of the laws commanded to him.” [Schottenstein Talmud, Bava Metzia 90b, n. 6.] If one looks at the law of Dinim as a prohibition against failure to establish courts of justice, which is how many rabbis interpret the law of Dinim, then to teach that “most people are, for all intents and purposes, exempt from this Commandment,” leads to a violation of halakha for both Jew and non-Jew.

Another problem with the adherence to the Maimodian format of presenting the Noahide Law as a personal law of individual salvation arises in the introduction of Part Three, where Rabbi Bar-Ron states, “In the freedom of thought afforded by the Noahide Laws, there is no outright, penal obligation (in this World) to believe there is a God.” In other words, Noahides do not have the positive commandment that Jews have to believe in God. The law of Idolatry, for the Noahide, is the prohibition of worshiping any other god but Hashem. Rabbi Bar-Ron points out that “an atheist forfeits his position in the World to Come,” but since an atheist does not believe in the World to Come, that is little concern to him or her. Rabbi Bar-Ron goes on to say that, “without a widespread belief and fear of Hashem, the Noahide system would quickly fall apart.” The problem here is, again, treating the Noahide Law as a “system” rather than the foundational system of law. Our society is falling apart already with a non-Noahide legal system, so I do not see what we have to lose.

This leads us to the next statement in the introduction to Part Three:

“Although there is no Sanhedrin in our times, and the Seven Laws could theoretically be learned straight from Mishneh Torah; practically speaking, how can Noahides know they have understood the law and its proper application without the counsel of properly trained Torah scholars?”

And here we come to the issue I spoke of at the beginning of this article: the rabbis, for all their wisdom and knowledge of the Torah, are not properly trained to teach Noahide Law. Teaching general Torah and being good examples—this is the paradigm in which the rabbis must operate. After twenty years of rabbinic leadership, it is obvious that the rabbis are not properly trained to teach Noahide Law. What the rabbis are teaching is Judaism, which is what they are trained to do. The focus of the rabbis has been on the law of Idolatry, of believing and honoring the Creator. While this is a noble idea, it is not part of the Noahide halakha. What the rabbis have done is to focus on a halakha that is part of Jewish Law and ignoring the halakha of Dinim, the foundational law of the Noahide Code. While there are many worthy elements of Rabbi Bar-Ron’s book, the fact the author does not seem cognizant of the most important aspect of Noahide Law is a major stumbling block for those Noahides who truly wish to learn and understand the Noahide Code.

Conclusion: Although the book has many worthy elements and teachings, particularly on moral behavior, there are too many other things that are problematic. Rabbi Bar-Ron is a bit of a control freak (as I found out from our e-mail correspondence), and it shows in many of the things he tells Noahides to read or not to read, or what to learn, or who to learn from (namely, Rabbi Bar-Ron.) In Part Four, where he answers hypothetical questions, his answer to How can we make the Noahide Movement grow? is basically “get married and have lots of babies!” The biggest problem, as I have pointed out, is his ignoring the most important of the Seven Laws as well as his reliance on the Mishna Torah.

I did not see much of anything that was different about the teaching of halakha that cannot be found in other rabbinic works on Noahide Law, not to mention offering an incomplete picture of the Noahide Law by ignoring Dinim. On these very important points alone, I will have to only give it two out of five matzos on my Noahide rating system:

matzah matzah matza gone matza gone matza gone

Selah

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Guide for the Noahide by Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron

  1. Elisheva Barre says:

    Rambam, in his Laws of Torah Study IV 2 writes: “…so too, we do not learn Torah from a Rabbi whose conduct is not good even if he is very knowledgeable …” This principle is equally valid for a Gentile who wants to learn Torah. If you find Rabbi Shelomo Bar Ron’s haughtiness improper, ignore him! I found him to be indoctrinating rather than teaching and the Torah forbids that.
    Certainly a Ben Noah is not in a comfortable situation when facing so many different opinions, with no key to sort them out…
    I do not know what “Noahide” tizits are. Can you please tell me?

  2. Elisheva Barre says:

    Rambam is very explicit on Dinim – I do not understand what makes you think he isn’t. I agree with you about Bar Ron – he does more indoctrination than teaching.

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