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Noahides, reports the Jewish web magazine Tablet, “struggle to stand up for their beliefs despite being surrounded by Christian families and friends.” It’s a fascinating story, in the odd byways of American religion departments, but also a challenge, because according to the writer, they’re inevitably ex-Christians. Some are ex-Catholics.
“Their feelings on Christianity and Jesus range from respect of the ‘all religions have something to offer’ variety to palpable disdain. They’ve given up what they consider idol worship to follow Jewish theology.”
There are just a few of them around the world, encouraged by the Hasidic group Chabad and often drawn together by websites, with the biggest group in the Philippines and the largest number in this country in, of all places, Texas. They follow the “Noahide Code,” seven laws binding on every descendent of Noah, which is to say everyone. It’s a universal morality. (Observant Jews are required to observe a further 613 laws or mitzvoth.)
The laws, taken from the Torah and laid out in the Talmud, are, in Chabad’s positive formulation: Believe in God and reject idols; respect and do not curse your maker; do not kill but save human life; respect marriage and do not defile it; respect other’s property; respect other creatures; and maintain justice. As one of the most authoritative of rabbis, Maimonides, said in the 12th century, those who observe them are part of “the Righteous of the Nations of the World” and will have a place in a World to Come.
Not a bad deal, but the modern Noahides want to do more than simply follow the Noahide law. They want to live a kind of semi-Judaic life, following some of the Jewish rituals — especially observing Shabbat or the Sabbath — and perhaps submitting to some of the laws.
They “seem to love Judaism,” writes Ilana E. Strauss: “the emphasis on asking questions rather than just taking a priest’s word for things, the traditions, the intellectual rigor, the in-depth instructions it provides for maintaining family relations. But above all, they say Judaism gives them a newfound sense of peace.”
But there’s a limit: “Most Noahides don’t express a need to convert. They like the flexibility of not being obligated to take on the laws.” Maimonides would not be pleased, but I suspect he would also not be surprised. People want more order in their lives, but on their terms.
This seems to bemuse the Jewish authorities. As Maimonides wrote, non-Jews “are not to be allowed to originate a new religion or create mitzvot for themselves based on their own decisions.” They can convert and obey all the laws or follow the Noahide law by itself but not do both.
In the typical conversion story, a Christian finds “inconsistencies between the scripture and the priest’s or minister’s teachings.” Then they start asking questions their religious leaders can’t answer to their satisfaction, questions like “Why don’t we keep the Sabbath?” “Why do babies need to be baptized?” “If the Bible says God is one, why do we have a Trinity?” Some searchers become Seventh Day Adventists, who obey Old Testament commandments. Many, interestingly enough, join Messianic Judaism.
I said this movement, tiny and eccentric as it is, presents a challenge. These people raise the questions: Why don’t they remain Christians, and why do they prefer Judaism, and what can we do for them and the searching people they represent? I understand the appeal of Judaism, which is one reason I read sites like Tablet and magazines like the excellent Jewish Review of Books. But I would also insist that we have in our faith all the same goods the Noahides are finding in their form of watered-down Judaism.
Let me mention just three problems. First, there’s the problem of the simple-minded reading of Scripture. It’s not really that hard to understand why we believe that Christian teaching on the Trinity is biblical, even when the word “Trinity” doesn’t appear in Scripture. Second, there’s the problem of failing to see Christianity’s enormous, and rigorous, intellectual tradition. It’s been built on asking questions with the belief they can be answered — and that answers become the basis for new questions. And third, there’s the problem of finding in Judaism alone a way of ordering their lives that Christianity — especially Catholic Christianity — provides as well, and more satisfyingly because it expresses the full revelation of God to his people.
This is probably true of many people who drift away from the Church. We can see it more clearly in groups like the Noahides because they think they’ve found a better faith. They’ve given up the Lord Jesus Christ, and that is a grievous loss. But they’ve also given us three things to work on to help others tempted in the same ways to remain with the Church and with her Lord.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMillsWrtng.