Kind of Like Jews
In Garden Grove, California, a small city some thirty miles south of Los Angeles, I saw neither gardens nor groves. Instead there were strip malls and car dealerships and fast food joints, all depressing on a rainy Saturday morning, like a Hopper painting without the pathos. Equally disheartening was the Shomrey Tzedek synagogue, a concrete building with boarded-up windows that gave the place an abandoned look.
But there was life in a room at the back, where fifteen people were going through the morning service. The congregation was a mix of ages and ethnicities, and it was an attentive group—more attentive, actually, than any I had seen in recent years. Maybe because there was a certain novelty about the service. Until six months ago, Shomrey Tzedek was “Messianic,” a congregation that accepted Jesus as its savior but used Jewish forms of worship. Then, its prayer leader, Israeli-born Ezra Schley, announced that his “research” had led him to reject the New Testament, and that the congregation would now turn (or in Schley’s case, return) to Judaism.
The transition was turbulent. By Schley’s estimation, Shomrey Tzedek lost thirty members. And big questions came up for those who remained. Most of them did not have a Jewish background—instead, they had come to Messianic Judaism seeking a kind of authenticity. But without a belief in Jesus, what were they? They were no longer Christians, and they certainly weren’t Jews.
Some found an answer in “Noahidism,” a system that follows the aspects of Jewish law that pertain to non-Jews. Noahides, in other words, are gentiles who believe that Judaism is the true path but that they don’t have to be Jews to follow it. Thus they refer to God as “Hashem,” study Torah and Talmud, and follow a kind of halakhah-lite—the Seven Laws of Noah, as opposed to the 613 mitzvot for Jews.
If, for many experts in Jewish law, the viability of “Noahidism” as a religious choice is not a settled question, it is not without some basis in Judaism. The reasoning behind it goes like this. Noah was not a Hebrew—in his day, the tribe did not yet exist. But he did find “grace in the eyes of the Lord.” Thus he and his family and all the animals and creeping things were spared the Flood. And when the waters receded, God gave Noah a brief list of commandments, which the sages later fleshed out into the Noahide Laws, or what we can think of as Judaism’s ethical expectations of non-Jews.
The Talmud enumerates the laws as follows: do not worship idols; do not blaspheme; do not murder; do not commit forbidden sexual relations; do not steal; do not eat the flesh of a living animal; and set up courts to ensure that these laws are observed.
It’s your standard ethical monotheism, save for those last two. The sixth, though, is broadly interpreted as a commandment to avoid cruelty to animals. The seventh is more controversial. The courts are supposed to be organized at some future time when Jewish law is the law of the land—in Israel, say, when the Messiah comes. But that hasn’t stopped certain Israeli rabbis from forming the Jerusalem Court for Issues of Bnei Noah. (The court’s website itself demonstrates the contradictions of Noahidism, stating that “Judaism does not view itself as a universal religion,” but then calling for “an extensive project to be undertaken to help B’nai [sic] Noah in the nitty-gritty details of the observance of the religion.”)
Similarly, the traditional Jewish reluctance to proselytize has not given pause to the Lubavitcher Hasidim, who were enjoined by their departed leader, Menachem Schneerson, to teach non-Jews about Noahide Law.
“The Rebbe saw that people are now open to learning about Jewish concepts,” Rabbi Michoel Shapiro, of the Chabad of La Costa, California, told me. “The Rebbe said that it’s a mitzvah to teach the Seven Laws. So we have an opportunity and a halakhic obligation.”
It is important to note that the rabbis of the Jerusalem Court are on the fringes of Judaism. The court is part of the bizarre attempt to revive the Sanhedrin, the Jewish legislative assembly that has not existed for some 1600 years. Some of their “justices” are connected to the settler movement. And even if the Lubavitchers practice a gentler form of hyperorthodoxy, their “obligation” is unusual.
The Noahides gathered at Shomrey Tzedek, however, were less concerned with their self-appointed advisors than with why they should not worship Jesus. They listened intently to Schley’s sermon, which was for the most part a diatribe against Messianic Jews and Evangelical Christianity. It was almost 2 p.m. when he finished. As people headed outside, where a table had been set up for the oneg reception, I found a much-needed cup of coffee. Then I found Melissa Ramos, the woman who had responded to a query about Noahides that I had posted to a Yahoo! chat group. The sun was coming out, so after the blessings of the bread and wine, we sat down at a picnic bench behind the building.
Melissa, 38, had short, side-parted hair and wore a sensible white sweater. (Along with the other Noahides that I met at Shomrey Tzedek, Melissa asked that I change her name, as “we are modest and prefer to be in the background of things.”) Her own religious biography evinced the spiritual restlessness that seems to characterize Noahides. Growing up, her family had tried a number of Christian denominations, from Catholicism to Pentecostalism to Evangelicalism, a search that carried over into her adulthood.
“In my early thirties I was attending both a Baptist and Pentecostal church here in Orange County,” she said. “I never felt entirely comfortable in either place. I was also interested in the Old Testament. In Christianity it’s all about Jesus, but I was curious about the Jewish origins of Christianity. I was reading parts of the Torah and I was also interested in learning about Jews. A lot of questions came up for me, and the preachers just brushed them aside. So I was like, ‘Where do I go to find the answers?’”
An internet search led her to Shomrey Tzedek, just as Schley was making his own shift. Schley had found a kind of roving teacher, a woman named Rivi Litvin, to give Torah and Talmud lessons to his congregation.
“Rivi was the first one who told me about Noahides,” Melissa said. “Because of her teaching a lot of things started clicking. Because she was using the Tanakh [the Hebrew acronym for the Bible] to deconstruct certain things. Like the relationship between the Tanakh and the New Testament and the divinity of Jesus. I saw that everything has to match up with the Hebrew Bible. And I felt that if it doesn’t, I don’t want to follow it. So I started living as a Noahide. I started learning about the laws, and I stopped eating pork and shellfish, as a way of understanding Judaism.”
So why not just be Jewish?
“Most of my family is Catholic. I don’t want to put distance between me and my family. Anyway I have no desire to be Jewish. I don’t have to be Jewish.”
Okay, but why hadn’t she applied the same skepticism to the Hebrew scriptures as she had to the New Testament? Why not question the veracity of the Tanakh as well?
There was a long pause while Melissa thought about this.
“I don’t have a ready answer for that,” she finally said. “Being an atheist is not an option for me. So I guess it comes down to faith. I can’t not believe in God.”
This need to believe seems to be characteristic of Noahides. While all the Noahides that I spoke to were, after some struggle, able to move away from Christianity, none of them could move away from biblical religion altogether. Thus the wholesale acceptance of Jewish scripture. Perhaps because of this faith in scripture, they don’t mind that there is no historical evidence that Noahides, per se, existed in ancient Judaism. The halakhic basis for the ethical expectations of non-Jews—the passages in Genesis, the discussions of the Talmud, the rulings of Maimonides—is evidence enough for them.
Regardless, the idea of Noahide Law as a religious path is relatively new. In the late nineteenth century, Elijah Benamozegh, an Italian rabbi, taught that the Seven Laws are universal for all humanity. However, unlike present-day Noahides, Benamozegh saw no need for Christians to reject Jesus. (After all, much of Noahide Law does not contradict Christian ethics, or Islamic ethics, for that matter—although it’s a fair bet that those courts would be a sticking point.) Nevertheless, Benamozegh’s French disciple, Aimé Pallière, chose to live according to the Seven Laws, thus becoming the first Noahide in the present-day sense of the term.
Noahidism was quiescent until the late 1950s, until Vendyl Jones, a former Baptist minister, began to preach about it. Jones gained a number of followers, at first with the help of some dubious but well-publicized archaeological digs in Israel. Later, he reached people with newsletters and then the internet. Today, many of the more prominent Noahides owe their beliefs to him. Ray Pettersen, another ex-Messianic, told me that when he began to question Christ’s divinity, Jones was one of the first people he spoke to. (Coincidentally, before Pettersen moved to Texas to be closer to other Noahides, he attended classes at the Chabad of La Costa.) Now Pettersen does a weekly podcast, and his website, NoahideNations.com, is packed with information for prospective Noahides, including “prayers for everything” and curricula for home schooling.
The internet, in fact, is crowded with websites about the Seven Laws. Some are maintained by Jews, some by non-Jews. Either way, they make no bones about their desire to see Noahidism spread. Both Ray Pettersen and a Lubavitcher in New York City told me, in much the same words, that “if everybody adhered to the Seven Laws we’d have world peace.”
Maybe so. But they have their work cut out for them. My own guess is that there are at most a few thousand practicing Noahides worldwide. (Via e-mail, Jones claimed that “over 250,000 Druze in Lebanon, Israel, and elsewhere declared themselves Noahites,” but he cited no source for this.) And I wondered how, outside of a few more like-minded ex-Christians, they might gain a substantial number of adherents. Especially since I never heard a satisfying justification for this ancillary form of Judaism.
Indeed, another kind of halakhic expert—non-Haredi, non-Lubavitcher—sees no basis for Noahidism. Rabbi David Novak is the author of The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism, the definitive text on the historical and halakhic development of Noahide Law.
“The Noahide was never meant to be a status of people,” he told me in a phone interview. “It was meant to be a rubric, a template for vetting which non-Jews you could have some kind of relationship with and which you couldn’t. There was the concept of the ger toshav in the days of the First Temple, but these people were resident aliens, the people who had to live according to the laws of Israel. The Noahides were the people who the rabbis [of the Talmud] considered to be decent, God-fearing gentiles. But this notion of quasi-converts; well, there are no quasi-converts in Jewish law. And if they are so taken with Jewish law, then why don’t they convert to Judaism? What are they waiting for? Look, it’s an interesting phenomenon but it’s an untenable situation. There’s no such thing as halfway Jews.”
When I mentioned this to Melissa, she was unconvinced.
“It’s a matter of roles,” she said. “The Jewish people are supposed to be our teachers, and I feel comfortable being in the back of the room. If I were present at the Exodus I’d be happy just to watch when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people.”
The congregation was breaking up; it was time to head to Melissa’s house for Rivi Litvin’s weekly lesson. In Melissa’s immaculate living room, the sofas, a few chairs, and a card table had been arranged to face a desk that had been placed before the sliding glass doors. A video camera on a tripod was angled towards the desk, and on it was a microphone and a tabletop lectern.
Litvin arrived, and greeted us in a strong Israeli accent. A zaftig, fiftyish woman with lots of sandy hair, Litvin sat before the microphone, facing the room.
Litvin’s story also evinces a spiritual restlessness. The biography on her website states that she was born in Israel and “schooled as an Orthodox Jewess.” In the 70s, she studied with Francis Schaeffer, an intellectual godfather to many of today’s leading figures of the Christian Right. Litvin then earned two degrees at the Melodyland School of Theology, a now-defunct Evangelical seminary in Anaheim.
As we waited for the stragglers to file in, I asked Litvin why she was teaching non-Jews about Judaism.
“I teach because that’s what I do,” she said. “We see more and more people coming from Christianity. More and more people come to me and say, ‘What shall I do?’ They don’t believe in Jesus anymore, so I teach them.”
When I mentioned that she had a Christian past as well, she seemed taken aback that I knew about it. “I have changed my thinking,” she said.
Melissa’s mother, Kay, a trim 70-year-old woman in a denim blazer and jeans, broke in.
“Rivi is here because we are supposed to learn from Israel,” she said. “Israel has a covenant with God. Israel is the ‘Light unto nations,’ the people who are supposed to teach us about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I’m a Noahide too. A Noahide is a gentile who believes in God and there is always a place for the gentile who believes in God. I work in management of information systems. So I look for the structure, the overview.”
By now there were ten people in the room, all of them, save for me, women. Most of them had not been at Shomrey Tzedek, but their familiarity with each other suggested that they were here every week. With a nod, Litvin signaled that it was time to begin; to my astonishment, a woman in a bonnet and pink sweatshirt produced an autoharp, and everyone sang “He That Keepeth Israel,” a Christian hymn.
Litvin then gave a talk on Genesis 15:1–16. This was now the second time today that I had had to listen quietly while someone told me about religion, and I was fading. I looked at the pretty baskets on a high shelf and the two kippot stacked on one corner of the mantle. I noticed that this gathering was also racially diverse, practically a melting pot of Noahides. Meanwhile, an older man, presumably Melissa’s father, wandered back and forth through the adjoining rooms, wearing sweats and extremely large headphones.
I should add that Litvin’s audience seemed quite interested; when she finished, there were murmurs of approval. We went to the kitchen for havdalah, marking the end of the Sabbath, where I was asked to say the blessings, being the only Jewish male present. Unaccustomed to reading Hebrew aloud, I blushed as I made a complete hash of them. I felt a embarrassed again when we all joined hands and sang “Eliyahu Ha-Navi.”
Then I said my goodbyes and left to head back to Los Angeles. As my GPS guided me to the freeway, I felt frustrated and confused. I still could not understand why Noahides would put themselves in this nebulous position. Clearly it had something to do with the authenticity that they find in Judaism, with its ancient rites and mysterious language and arcane books. But despite their attraction to the antique allure of Judaism, they remain unaware (often willfully so) just how recent and cooked-up is this idea of Noahidism.
Gordon Haber writes about religion and culture. His short story collection, Uggs for Gaza, is available from Dutch Kills Press. He does not live in Brooklyn.