Copyright© Rabbi Israel Chait. Originally published in 2002. Reprinted with permission from Yeshiva B’nei Torah.
We have seen how God gave us a unique religion through Torah. Its unique character derives from the instrument of Halakhah which is not to be found in any other religion. Halakhah removes all religious practices from the realm of symbolic performance and places upon these practices a distinct set of standards and requirements. While every commandment has a philosophical reason for it, this reason does not determine the religious practice in specific. It is related to the commandment only in a general way. What determines the practice in specific are the propositions and formulae of the Halakhah. These propositions and formulae are of an abstract nature and require great knowledge in order to comprehend them. It is for this reason that the Torah has always been entrusted to the Talmudic scholars of Israel and they alone have determined authentic religious practice throughout the generations, from the time of our great teacher Moses to the present generation.Most of the world has never attained any level of insight into the nature of Halakhah and as a natural result have never really cared much about the Torah’s commandments. Religious people of the world could only understand religious rites, ceremonies and practices as symbolic actions. Hence when the world became aware of the Bible and tried to incorporate some of the practices of Torah into their lives they were attracted only to those things that could fit into their symbolic framework. Thus baptism, whose origin was “mikveh”, became very popular. The difference between the two is that “mikveh” is a halakhic concept, as is known to anyone who has studied the Tractate of “Mikvaot”, and baptism is a symbolic concept, a primitive act. The two are qualitatively differentiated. The symbolic act appeals to one’s inner religious feelings while Halakhah must be apprehended by the intellect.
Torah system and precise observance
The Torah has shunned symbolic religious rite and not permitted it to be used as a vehicle to serve the Creator, the source of all knowledge and wisdom. Only a performance which engages the mind, man’s unique element, his divine image, is fitting to be used as a means of approaching God. Contrary to Christian dogma, the greater the scholar the closer one is to God. Hence, the most important commandment of the Torah is the study of Torah itself.
This great system which incorporates in itself the most profound ideas of philosophy, psychology, metaphysics, civil law, criminal law, and religious statutes, which has a science all its own, Halakhah, whose depth of knowledge is infinite, this all encompassing system of systems, Torah, has lurking at its side an insidious enemy. This enemy, strangely enough, comes from the quarters of the religious instinct. The archenemy of Torah is idolatry, the unbridled religious instinct, which in a misguided attempt to attain religious security, associates some physical form with the Creator. There is, however, another enemy. The Torah identifies it.
Twice in Deuteronomy (13:1 and 4:2) Moses warns the people against adding to or subtracting from God’s commandments. But this commandment has been stressed by the Torah in more than these places. In Leviticus 10:1 we read, “and the sons of Ahron, Nadav and Avihu, took each one his censer, and they put therein fire and placed incense upon it and they offered before God a strange fire which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.” The Torah does not tell us what this “strange fire” was. It is not important; it is important for us to know only that it was something that God “had not commanded them.” The sons of Ahron were fine upright righteous people, else they would not have been chosen to bring an offering to God. In their religious zeal they added something of their own which God “had not commanded” and for this addition they were deserving of death. It is a basic tenet of Torah that only God can authorize the religious act. No human being no matter how great has the right to do so.
In Exodus 25:10 – 28:43, the Torah gives instructions for the precise measurements and forms of the holy Tabernacle and its vessels. The Torah then repeats these same instructions when the people carried them out, (Exodus 36:1 – 40:38). We must wonder why the necessity to repeat all these details. When we look carefully we find that there is one verse which is repeated twelve times in the second account. That verse states that they did exactly as God had commanded Moses. The Torah thought it important enough to repeat the entire account in order to demonstrate that not one detail was changed, in that most holy of structures, from the way God commanded Moses.
The Rabbis of the Talmud, who always have the inside track when it comes to Torah, comment on the verse in Numbers 8:3 “and Ahron did so.” They tell us that the Torah is praising Ahron for not changing, not adding anything to the instructions God gave concerning the candelabra. He did not try to be creative, to leave his own mark by adding to God’s words. He simply followed precisely the instructions given to him through Moses from God.
Engaging the Mind, the divine element
The Torah is the most ingenious work that man has at identifying evil, both overt and covert. Painful as it may be, the Torah demands of us that we recognize our own innermost desires for evil, for this is the only way man can advance. In praising Ahron, the Torah teaches that even a great person may have the desire to create or to add to the religious act. This desire stems from man’s underlying egomania. He wishes to be great, to be glorious, to leave his own distinctive mark on the world and nowhere can he accomplish this more than in the sphere of the holiest of all human activities, the religious sphere. The Torah condemns this. It demands of man that he humble himself, that he recognize that only God can create the religious act. True, man has the right to interpret the laws God gave him, provided he adheres to the rules and the methods the Torah prescribes, but to be creative on his own in the religious sphere is strictly prohibited. Even when it comes to interpretation only a qualified Torah scholar has the right to interpret. Torah, like any other area of knowledge is not a free for all. Just as in medical science the opinion of the ignorant person is not trustworthy, so too in Torah. And just as in the above example an ignorant person must subordinate himself to the physician, so too in Torah the ignorant person must subordinate himself to the Torah scholar.The Torah teaches us in Deuteronomy 17:18-20, that the king must have a Torah which is with him constantly in order that “he learn to fear the Lord his God to keep all the words of His Torah and these statutes in order that he do them.” Why is the king different from anyone else? The Torah with its in-depth knowledge of the human soul knows that the more recognition a human being has from his fellow man the greater is the danger of his falling prey to his own egomania. Accordingly, the Torah states, “so that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren.” The king must have at his side a constant reminder of the Creator, of his own fallibility, of his need for God’s Torah to constantly direct him. The Rabbis tell us that the king’s Torah must be written under the direct supervision of the Sanhedrin, the scholars of the Torah. The king must realize that he must subordinate himself to the authority of the Sanhedrin when it comes to matters of interpreting Torah.
The true religion is difficult and demanding. In giving the Torah God has given man a great challenge, but He has also given man a great opportunity. Man can perfect himself and experience great beauty through the truths of God’s system. The Torah has already made it difficult by not permitting the religious act to be of a symbolic character, as it is in other religions. God’s institution of Halakhah does not permit the mere satisfaction of the emotions but demands the engagement of the mind, the divine element. The Torah has made it even more difficult by not permitting man to be active in creating the religious performance. The reward, however, for adherence to the Torah system, is the true recognition of God as the only authority. This directs man towards true personal humility, the greatest of human traits, as the Torah says of our teacher Moses, “and the man Moses was more humble than any other man on the face of the earth, (Numbers 12:13).”
The humble Noahide
What does this mean for B’nai Noah practically and theoretically? We should note that while very few of the 613 commandments have made their way into the B’nai Noah system as mandatory, the above one did. The Ben Noah is not permitted to add or to create any religious ceremonies or rituals. While this is not part of the seven societal mandates, it is incumbent on every Ben Noah. It is considered such a serious violation that it is punishable by death, not by a human court, but by God Himself.
On a practical level this means a Ben Noah must avoid introducing any kind of ceremony or symbolic act, be it of a personal nature or related to institutions such as marriage, divorce, birth of a child, etc. Does this mean the Ben Noah can do nothing of a religious nature? Most certainly not! The Ben Noah can and should be actively involved in the study of Torah pertaining to him which is infinitely vast and deep. He may, and in certain instances must, pray in accordance with the manner which the Torah prescribes. He may voluntarily perform almost any mitzvah, commandment, provided he receives instruction first from the proper Rabbinic authorities. He is prohibited to take upon himself some performance of his own liking even if, according to his own understanding, it is supported by the Bible. He must consult with the scholars of Torah and follow their ruling. “According to the Torah which they teach you and the judgment which they tell you, shall you do. You shall not turn from the word which they tell you to the right or to the left (Deuteronomy 17:11,12).”The idea of Israel being a “light unto the nations” is clearly in reference to Torah and the proper performance of its commandments. Anyone who devises his own religious practices is either denying this principle or is maintaining that God’s Torah system is not alive and thriving today. But even worse, by catering to his own egoistic fantasies this person brings destruction to the B’nai Noah movement, for then others too will feel justified in inventing their own religious practices. Then the B’nai Noah movement would become reduced to a man-made religion. It would become a religion which satisfies man’s desire to say how he should worship God which is the very core of idolatry. It is for this reason the above verse in Deuteronomy is so imperative. The Rabbis tell us that even if one is convinced he is right and the scholars are wrong he must follow the ruling of the scholars, as it is stated, “you shall not turn from the word which they tell you to the right or to the left.” If a person is himself a scholar he has the right to maintain he is correct on a theoretical plane, but in practice he must conform to the ruling of the authoritative body of scholars.
How wise are the ways of Torah and how beautifully did the Torah, with this one injunction, protect itself against its greatest adversary, the man-made religion, while at the same time it did not limit the intellectual freedom of the individual. This injunction applies equally to the Ben Noah and the Ben Israel. The Ben Noah, however, has a more difficult task. Since he is not commanded to do all the mitzvot he must be very careful when he goes about selecting a religious performance. His religious instinct must come under the supremacy of his Torah knowledge. This is difficult and very humbling, but his reward will be the inner joy he experiences when he realizes that in this way he is proclaiming God as the only One to be worshiped and the only One who can authorize worship. He submits not to his own personal whims, nor to the will of any human being, but to the divine will of the Creator who stated in His Torah that one’s religious practice must be based on the authority of Torah scholarship. If we can follow this lofty principle, overcome our own egoistic drives, and humble ourselves before God’s Torah, we can then be successful at the greatest of all human achievements, the sanctification of God’s holy Name.
Copyright© Rabbi Israel Chait. Reprinted with permission from Yeshiva B’nei Torah. Permission to reprint this copyrighted material on Being Noahide does not in anyway imply affiliation with or endorsement by Yeshiva B’nei Torah. This reprint permission granted to Being Noahide does not extend to anyone else.
Additional essays by Rabbi Chait can be found at http://www.ybt.org/essays.html.