A monumental shift in focus takes place as the Torah moves from Parshat Noach to Parshat Lech Lecha.
Until this point, the narrative has been universal in scope, as the text has chronicled the world’s creation and man’s early generations. Now, however, the Torah’s range narrows as it begins to tell the story of Avraham and his descendents, the chosen Jewish nation.
Before this shift takes place, however, a universal moral code for the world is laid out by God. This code, referred to in rabbinic literature as Sheva Mitzvot B’nai Noach (the seven mitzvot of the children of Noach), or the Noachide code, is derived from a passage found at the end of the Noach narrative and consists of seven basic commandments. Taken together, these commandments form a moral blueprint for all civilizations.
The seven Noachide laws are the following: do not steal, do not kill, do not eat the limb of a living animal, do not commit acts of sexual immorality, do not practice idolatry, do not blaspheme God, and establish courts of law.
How can the existence of the Noachide code inform our understanding of and our relationship with the non-Jewish world? How does God relate with the non-Jewish nations after He “chooses” the Jewish people? Can we morally defend a two-tiered system in God’s relationship with the nations of the world?
A. The seminal nature of the Noachide code can be seen in the rabbinic tradition that Midrashically roots these laws in the commandment concerning the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the very first commandment given by God to man. According to the rabbis, God would not have created the human race without simultaneously producing a moral code of behavior.
Once commanded, these laws remain in force for the entire non-Jewish world even after God chooses the Jewish nation. God’s relationship with all of humanity is clearly eternal and His expectation of moral behavior from all never diminishes. After Avraham begins his journey, God’s relationship with the Jewish nation may be unique but it is certainly not exclusive.
A dramatic reference to the nonexclusive nature of God’s bond with the Jewish people can be found in a powerful sentence in the Brit bein Habetarim, “the Covenant between the Pieces” contracted between God and Avraham in Parshat Lech Lecha.
In this covenant God predicts that Avraham’s descendents will be strangers in a land not their own, where they will be made to work and to suffer for four hundred years. God then proceeds to tell Avraham, “And the fourth generation will return here (to the land of Canaan) for the iniquity of the Emorites will not be complete until then.”
At the dawn of Jewish history, God delivers a clear and sobering message to Avraham and his descendents: I do not relate to you alone and, therefore, your fate will be determined not only by your merit but by the legitimate rights of other nations as well. You will not return to this land until its inhabitants have become so corrupt that they deserve to be expelled. Until that time, their rights to the land will trump yours.
Even if the Jewish nation has to pay the price, God will not overlook the rights of others.
All peoples and nations potentially have independent value and validity in the eyes of God. The retention of that value will depend upon their own moral behavior.
B. If “chosenness” does not connote exclusivity, what, then, does it mean? From the beginning of time, the answer is made clear. The Jewish people are chosen for obligation. In the aftermath of the failures of both the generation of the flood and the generation of dispersion, God selects a nation of teachers. The Jewish people, designated at Sinai as “a kingdom of priests and a holy people,” are enjoined to teach through example by setting the standard for human behavior and achievement.
The very nature of this arrangement indicates an inherent value to those whom we are meant to “teach.” The role of the Jewish nation is only meaningful if we acknowledge the intrinsic worth and moral potential of the non-Jewish world. This point is underscored immediately to Avraham at the very start of his journey when God commands: “And all the nations of the world will be blessed through you.”
C. Is there not, however, a degree of hubris in the contention that we are a “chosen” people? Doesn’t the existence of two moral standards, the Torah for the Jewish people and the Noachide code for the rest of the world, create a theological structure that is prejudicial at its very core? How are we to defend ourselves against the accusation heaped upon us, generation after generation, that the very idea that we are the “Chosen People” reflects an inexcusable sense of superiority on our part?
D. As is often the case, the truth lies not in lofty theological concepts, but in the practical facts on the ground. Jewish tradition actually chooses the most broad-minded and tolerant of all possible approaches in determining its attitude towards others.
To prove this point, one need simply review the three potential options available to any faith tradition when defining its attitude towards those outside of its circle of belief.
1. A tradition can preach that its adherents have a lock on the ultimate truth and that all who dare to believe differently are doomed to distance from their Creator. The task of all those within the tradition is to somehow convince “outsiders” of the error of their ways.
This choice, historically made by the Catholic Church in its dealings with the Jewish people, has led to all sorts of seemingly logical, yet horrific excesses. After all, if I believe that I am right and you are wrong, if I believe that you are damned and I have the ability to save you, then I am doing you a favor as I attempt to convince you, through any means possible, of the one singular truth. Physical torture and pain is a small price for you to pay if I ultimately succeed in persuading you to “see the light.”
How much torment has been inflicted across the ages by those who have ostensibly only had the best interests of their victims at heart?
2. A tradition can preach that its adherents have a lock on the ultimate truth and that no one else can join. Once again, there is only one true way. In this case, however, anyone outside of the circle is doomed and beyond salvation.
3. Finally, there is a third path. This path, chosen by Jewish tradition, is philosophically the most complex and difficult, yet ultimately the most tolerant and open-minded.
Judaism, unlike other faith traditions, preaches that there is more than one way to reach God, that what is right for one individual is not right for someone else. Each human being has his own personal potential, and his own learned traditions. As long as that potential is used for good, and as long as those traditions are moral at their core (in consonance with divinely ordained standards), that individual can develop a personal relationship with God.
While the Jewish nation has its own particular mission, other nations have their valuable missions as well. Our task as Jews is to follow the laws of the Torah and to serve as an example to the nations of the world. Other peoples are challenged to define their own tasks. In the process, however, they can never deviate from a basic set of God-given moral principles: the Noachide code.
Our challenge, as Jews, is not to make everyone else Jewish but to convince the world of the benefit of moral behavior and of the beauty of a relationship with the Creator. If people wish to convert to Judaism (for the right reasons) they are, of course, to be welcomed. We do not, however, consider such conversion to be a prerequisite to the attainment of a relationship with God.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.