January 9, 2022

Should Jews be promoting moral behaviour to non-Jews?

Published in Aish Perspectives (September 2018)

The Big Question – Should Jews be promoting moral behaviour to non-Jews?

By Rabbi Johnny Solomon

We live in a society where telling someone else what to do considered insulting and offensive – not only because it undermines the concepts of freedom and autonomy, but also because it challenges the postmodern belief that there is no single source for truth.

The problem arises given that Judaism is rooted upon the principle of objective truth, and that it expects us not only to concern ourselves with the physical welfare of others, but also their spiritual welfare. This is clear from the fact that among the 613 biblical commandments is the duty to positively encourage and, where necessary, directly challenge and reprove the behaviour of fellow Jews when they do not comply with Jewish law (see Vayikra 19:17).

For some people this concept of ‘reproof’ is simply not applicable to the modern experience. In fact, this discomfort is not a new phenomenon and we find that the Rabbis of the Talmud struggled with the idea. This is why many Jewish scholars limit the duty of reproof to situations where the reprover has the capacity to reprove with love, and where the individual receiving the reproof welcomes the intervention.

However, even though this concept of reproof may grate upon our minds and hearts, it is rooted in the fact that Jews are really one big family (or, as Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky once put it, ‘one sick dysfunctional family’) who – like every family – understand that living alongside each other comes with the expectation that we’re going to criticize each – but only because we love each other.

However, a more complex question concerns whether we, as Jews, have a duty to positively encourage and, where necessary, directly challenge the behaviour of non-Jews?

To begin, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 56a) lists seven duties that non-Jews are expected to follow. These are known as the Seven Noachide Laws and they require that non-Jews do not worship idols, do not blaspheme, do not murder, do not steal, do not commit sexual crimes (eg. incest, adultery), do not eat the limb from a live animal. Beyond this, non-Jews are also required to establish courts of law ‘to render judgement concerning these six mitzvot and to admonish the people regarding their observance’ (Maimonides, Laws of Kings & Wars 9:14). Given this, are Jews obliged to encourage non-Jews in their observance of the Seven Noachide Laws or reprove them in their failure to do so?

Like so many topics in Judaism the answer to this question is a matter of debate which, though expressed within the opinions of Maimonides (Laws of Kings & Wars 9:14) and Nahmanides (commentary to Bereishit 34:13) in their analysis of the story of Shechem (see Bereishit Ch. 34), may be best understood with reference to the biblical story of Jonah.

In the short book of Jonah we read how the prophet Jonah was instructed by God to reprove the non-Jewish inhabitants of the city of Nineveh in order to encourage them to repent and avoid destruction. Based on this story, the 12th century Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid asserts that Jews are obliged to encourage non-Jews in their observance of the Seven Noachide Laws, and therefore ‘if one sees a non-Jew committing a transgression and one can protest, then one should since the Holy One, blessed be He, sent Jonah to Nineveh to cause them to repent’ (Sefer Chasidim No. 1124).

Others religious thinkers like Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch disagree, and aside from suggesting that non-Jews may no longer be bound by the Seven Noachide Laws (see Bava Kamma 38a), Rabbi Sternbuch asserts that we learn from God’s instruction to Jonah that a Jew is ordinarily not obliged to encourage non-Jews to observe the Seven Noachide Laws, and that God’s commandment was unique to this situation (see Responsa Teshuvot VeHanhagot 3:317).

Naturally, there are merits to both positions, but at the root of this debate is an essential question concerning the extent of our moral bond with non-Jews. As noted, the Jewish people are – at their core – a family, and it is within a family that we have the opportunity to encourage and, where necessary, criticize one another. So how do we relate to non-Jews? Do we also regard them as family with whom we have those same moral duties and responsibilities to encourage and challenge, or perhaps we consider non-Jews as friendly neighbours towards whom no such duty or responsibility applies. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains with reference to the above-mentioned Maimonides-Nahmanides debate, ‘for Nahmanides, the universal rules established after the Flood bind humanity to keep the law, but not necessarily to ensure that others do so. Maimonides thought otherwise, maintaining that collective responsibility is a universal feature of moral and political life’ (To Heal a Fractured World p. 120).

In terms of contemporary Judaism, there are those like Rabbi Sternbuch who argue that Jews should regard non-Jews as friendly neighbours but that we have no duty to invest time and energy in encouraging them to fulfil the Seven Noachide Laws. However, the most prominent recent Jewish leader who has argued the contrary was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, otherwise known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

According to R’ Schneerson, ‘a society that yearns to be righteous must be built on… ethical values, [and] the very foundation of civilization rests upon the basic principles known as the Seven Noahide Laws…Without these laws as a bedrock of government, a society will either have despotism, where individuals’ lives are compromised and possibly abused, or anarchy, where every person pursues his or her own needs without regard for the law’ (Simon Jacobson, Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem pp.163–64).

Importantly, R’ Schneerson does not limit this duty to theologians. Instead, he insists that ‘since everything G‑d creates has a specific purpose, it follows that the fact that God brought a person into contact with the secular world also has a purpose: namely that the person should try to influence non-Jews to fulfil their Seven Noahide Laws and by doing so, he prepares the world for the Messianic age’ (from his talk on 19th Day of Kislev, 5743/1982). In fact, it was R’ Schneeson’s commitment to this ideal which led to President Ronald Reagan proclaiming April 4th, 1982 – the 80th birthday of R’ Schneerson – as a ‘National Day of Reflection’, because R’ Schneerson ‘stands as a reminder that knowledge is an unworthy goal unless it is accompanied by moral and spiritual wisdom and understanding’ and because ‘he has provided a vivid example of the eternal validity of the Seven Noahide Laws, a moral code for all of us regardless of religious faith’ (Presidential Proclamation 4921, April 3rd 1982).

As previously explained, there are those who support the position of R’ Schneerson, while there are others who adopt the approach of Rabbi Sternbuch. However, in response to the original question of whether we should be telling others what to do, perhaps it may be worthwhile pondering the wise words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who argues that, ‘no one should seek to impose his or her religious convictions society, but we should seek to bring the insights of our respective faiths to the public conversation about the principles for which we stand and the values we share… [because] it is when our horizons extend beyond our own faith communities that our separate journeys converge and we become joint builders of a more gracious world’ (To Heal a Fractured World p. 124).

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