The term Bnei Noah – “Children of Noah” – refers to a specific human personality who is bestowed a special value in Judaism.
A. Recognition of the prophetic message transmitted by the People of Israel
The term Bnei Noah – “Children of Noah” – refers to a specific human personality who is bestowed a special value in Judaism. The term refers to one who is not a member of the Jewish people but, by virtue of his recognition of the prophetic message carried by the People of Israel, decides to take on the performance of several commandments, or mitzvot.
The relationship between this human being and the biblical Noah lies in the fact that according to Jewish tradition only at the time of Noah did this minimal set of laws for human morality reach completion. This set of laws allows, among other things, hearing the Word of G-d.
The “Noahide” identity is characterized first and foremost by accepting and observing seven commandments that are termed the “Seven Laws of the Children of Noah” – “sheva mitzvot Bnei Noach“. By ‘accepting’ we mean that one sees these commandments as an obligatory norm. By ‘observing’ we mean the active performance of the commandments.
In the Laws of Kings (8 :11), Maimonides differentiates between two types of Noahides: the ‘pious among the nations’ and the ‘wise among the nations’. The ‘pious among the nations’ is one who fulfills the seven Noahide commandments through his recognition of the G-d of Israel and because of the fact that He commanded them. The ‘wise among the nations’ is one who fulfills the seven Noahide commandments as a result of his own intellectual reasoning. Both types of Noahides are men of virtue, and we find plentiful discussion revolving around the question of which is preferable.
B. Commandment as the foundation for relationship with the Divine
Let us concentrate upon an important point that arises from the fact that there are two separate categories. In Maimonides’ opinion, he who wishes to be counted as ‘pious among the nations’ is required to accept the Seven Mitzvot as a result of his recognition of the G-d of Israel. (And he therefore must do so before a beit din, a Jewish court.) The Talmud describes how, in the course of history, the seven Noahide laws became null and void since humanity did not keep them. The Talmud asks about this nullification: How could it be that the consequence of simply not fulfilling certain criteria was that the requirements themselves became null and void? The Talmud replies: The requirement was not annulled, rather instead of the requirement being implemented as a commandment it would now be implemented as a result of a human decision. On the surface, this seems to be a higher level of virtue, a maturation of humanity as it were. But in reality it is a sign of a downfall. From here on, these laws will advance the individual in attaining human perfection, but they will not help him become close and attached to the Divine.
R. Yehuda Ashkenazi (leader of French Jewry, 1922 – 1996) saw this passage in the Talmud as describing what happened in the early stages of Christianity. When Paul nullified the commandments, the community in Antioch began living a life of lawlessness. He sent them an epistle and ruled: All is permissible, but not all is appropriate. That is to say, it is necessary to continue performing the same deeds as before, however not in the form of a ‘commandment’ but simply because this is the proper behavior. The Christian soul finds the idea of forming a relationship with the Divine on the basis of ‘commandments’ to be distressing, since they feel that it is impossible for man not to transgress. Thus, the connection might be broken. Therefore, in their opinion, it is best to form a relationship with G-d by way of a different channel, faith, and the laws should remain the ‘way of the land’, a matter of behavior.
Therefore, one might say that when an individual formally accepts upon himself these Seven Laws as a result of his recognition of the G-d of Israel, he is actually returning to the original status of man, where the fulfillment of commandments formed the foundation for the relationship with G-d.
C. Preserving a variety of identities
As far as the Laws themselves are concerned, the vast majority are in a negative sense: a prohibition of murder, a prohibition of theft, and so on. Judaism purposefully does not give positive definitions for the way a child of Noah should serve G-d, since that service changes according to the human identity of each and every nation. Were Judaism to provide positive instructions on how to serve G-d, this would distort the unique identity of the members of each nation, and ultimately we would have in our hands a kind of cultural imperialism. The fundamental assumption of Judaism is that the original human identity branched out, and each nation and culture expresses only a specific dimension of that human identity, a certain manner of being a man, a specific way to know G-d. Therefore, Judaism aspires to unite all of the varying identities of mankind in a cooperative effort, in order to restore the original human identity.
Thus, the spiritual effort to bring about a close relationship with G-d is common to all of mankind wherever they are, so long as they keep, in practice, these Seven Mitzvot. Occasionally, due to society’s corruptions, the individual finds it necessary to remove himself from a specific society in order to advance in a spiritual way. But in normal times he can advance spiritually through his connection with his current cultural surroundings.