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Like It or Not, the Seven Noachide Laws Are Still Pending

There are many good, solid reasons to support applying the death penalty to a variety of crimes.
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During a recent Shabbat, I was reading volume one of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s A Code of Jewish Ethics. In a discussion of permissible lying under oath, Rabbi Telushkin writes of a situation where “the punishment to be imposed on the basis of the testimony is so enormously disproportionate to the crime committed as to be a worse offense than perjury.” As an example, Rabbi Telushkin notes how pickpocketing in eighteenth-century England was a capital offense, then states:

“It would seem to me that a person who saw an act of pickpocketing and was summoned as a witness would be morally obligated to lie under oath if his truthful testimony could result in a person being killed for an act of pickpocketing (it is better to lie under oath, if one cannot avoid testifying, than to be responsible for bringing about a non-violent felon’s death).”

This position seems admirable, but was England’s policy in fact contrary to Torah?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l wrote in Abraham’s Journey, “From a halakhic viewpoint, the universal mission of Abraham crystallized in seven mitzvot, the covenantal mission in 613.” The universal mission refers to the Seven Laws of Noah (Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach) that apply to gentiles. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt”l described the Noahide laws as “the moral code for all of mankind” (commentary to Bereshit 2:16) and observed in this vein during a speech in 1859:

“The Jewish mind understands that the law of Judaism was intended only for the sons and daughters of Abraham as the God-ordained norm for the nation that has been chosen as a nation of priests, as consecrated torchbearers of the truth that is destined to redeem all of mankind. But the Jewish mind also understands that truth as such, that justice, that enlightenment and that moral civilization are intended to be the heritage of all to whom God has given breath on earth.”

In relation to Rabbi Telushkin’s example, one of these seven universal commandments prohibits theft. What is the punishment for theft under Noahide law? Rabbi Moshe Weiner writes in his study of the Sheva Mitzvot:

“An adult Gentile is warned about the prohibition of theft, and can be subject to capital punishment in a court of law for this transgression. This applies whether one forcefully robs or secretly steals money or any moveable property, or kidnaps a person, or withholds the wages of his employee or other similar acts, or even an employed harvester who eats from his employer’s produce without permission to do so. For all such acts, a Gentile is liable for a capital sin, and one who commits any of these types of transgressions is considered as a robber.”

Likewise, in his 2012 book We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It, Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein dedicates two chapters to the Noahide laws and writes on the prohibition of theft:

“Like murder, theft as a broad concept is intuitive, but its exact definition and the punishment accorded it in the Noahide code goes beyond the expected. First, Noahide law punishes theft of even minimal amounts of money, even if the victim is not the rightful owner. Second, like all Noahide law, theft is considered a capital crime.”

Rabbi Dr. Rothstein observes in a footnote to that passage:

“I suspect most of us find it difficult to justify the death penalty, even in theory, for stealing a few dollars. That may reveal how inured we have become to theft’s ubiquity; were we more sensitive to the damage theft does to a social sense of unity and common purpose, we might understand better how it could arouse the kind of moral revulsion usually reserved for murder or rape–which, incidentally, is seen as a kind of theft by at least one rabbinic author.”

Similarly inured to certain sexual deviancies, some Jews—among them those who identify as Orthodox—might have difficulty with Noahide prohibitions in this realm. Rabbi Dr. Rothstein notes that “Judaism has a view of wrongful sexuality for non-Jews as well” and how “part of being Jewish is to adhere to and believe in a universal ethic about sexuality, one at great odds with common assumptions of contemporary Western thought.”

About the Author: Menachem Ben-Mordechai has written for numerous publications on subjects ranging from Israel and Latin America to the sport of powerlifting and life insurance. He has also coached elite powerlifters as well as beginners. Menachem's other writing can be found under the name Myles Kantor.


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11 Responses to “Like It or Not, the Seven Noachide Laws Are Still Pending”

  1. there are opinions in Chazal that the Seven Laws no longer apply

  2. Director of Ask Noah International, publisher of "Sheva Mitzvot HaShem" (3 vols.) and "The Divine Code", by Rabbi Moshe Weiner:
    - The author has unfortunately not understood some important points of the Noahide commandment for Dinim (Laws and Courts), which is well explained in Vol. 3 of "Sheva Mitzvot HaShem". The Torah-based Noahide Code (for Gentiles) only specifies capital punishment from a court of law as a definitive (Scriptural) obligation in regard to the sin of murder (Gen. 9:6). In regard to all other crimes, in practical application, the laws of the land are produced as a societal undertaking, with the caveat that the society is not permitted to legalize any acts that are expressly forbidden by the Noahide Laws. Still, an individual Gentile is judged by G-d according the Noahide Laws (including liability to death by the Hand of Heaven), to the extent that he/she could know them logically or from available information or education. But the physical courts are an institution of the entire society, and (other than for murder) they are ONLY empowered (within the Noahide Code) to apply capital punishment IF at least a simple majority of that Gentile society undertakes to (a) live by the Torah-laws of the Noahide Code AND (b) to set up their courts of law in that faith-based mode. Otherwise, the courts are run according to the civil laws that the society decides to set up for itself (with the above-noted caveat), which may or may not include capital punishment for any particular serious (i.e. society-threatening) crime.

  3. Myles Kantor says:

    Dr. Schulman, thank you for your response. I'll be in touch to clarify some of these points.

  4. Glocelle Reales Tamano says:

    Very well explain..Thanks!

  5. "there are opinions in Chazal that the Seven Laws no longer apply" – That is an idea mentioned in Aggadah, but we do not poskin based on Aggadah. We poskin based on the poskim.

  6. "there are opinions in Chazal that the Seven Laws no longer apply" – That is an idea mentioned in Aggadah, but we do not poskin based on Aggadah. We poskin based on the poskim.

  7. Roy Neal Grissom says:

    So this means that the sins of `avodah zarah, mishkav zakhar, and gilluy `arayot do not absolutely require chayyav mitah by the Noachide Beit Din unless the society decides to do this? I did not know that. Thank you for clarifying.

  8. The problem is confusion about the meaning and empowered jurisdiction of a "Noahide Beit Din". The term means a Beit Din that is empowered by the Gentile society to judge according to the Torah Laws of the 7 Noahide Commandments. Here is the translation of the relevant text from "Sheva Mitzvot HaShem", vol. 3 (Dinim) by Rabbi Moshe Weiner:

    1:11. The main components of the commandment for Dinim were given for all Gentiles by the Torah of Moses. The Rabbinical authorities of our generation wrote that the Torah Laws concerning actual Noahide-law courts apply only where the majority of the society’s population believes in the One True G-d and specifically keeps the Seven Noahide Laws as their Divine commandments. In that situation, an individual who leaves the behavioral boundaries of the society to transgress them is liable to the [Torah's] specified punishment by an actual Noahide-law court.
    If, however, the majority of the society’s population does not believe in the One True G-d or keep the Seven Noahide Commandments (e.g. if as a whole they regularly permit transgression at least one of the Commandments), the courts of that society are not permitted within Torah Law to sentence a transgressor one of the Seven Noahide Commandments to receive the death penalty. [See Chazon Ish on Bava Kama ch. 10 part 16: since the witnesses and judges do not accept the Yoke of Heaven and the Seven Laws, they are not kosher for Noahide Beit Din, so the court reverts to the civil law of the land; see also Igros Moshe Choshen Mishpat vol. 2 ch. 68.]
    (However, if the courts decide that it is necessary to apply the death penalty for murder in order to bolster the safety of the society, they are permitted, but not required, to execute convicted murderers.)

    1:12. Even if most of the Gentiles in a certain country do not abide by the Seven Noahide Laws as Divine commandments, but instead they observe the basic obligations of some of the Noahide Laws based on their own moral logic – for example, abiding by the prohibitions of theft and murder, and judging transgressors in an upright manner, by establishing their own courts to sentence [and punish] transgressors for theft, murder, injury and the like, and to decide in monetary cases – this is considered for them as a fulfillment of their commandment of Dinim.
    Even if these courts do not sentence violators of the Seven Laws to capital punishment, but rather keep them in jail or apply other punishments, they are nevertheless keeping the principle of the commandment of Dinim, in that they are keeping society from reverting to chaos, and the main purpose of this commandment was to establish a society that protects one individual from being wronged by another.

  9. i am curious as to the sources, and further, how this is reasoned regarding the eternal covenant setup in Berei**** with Noach and all his descendants.

  10. I was planning to sign the Noahide declaration infront of the beit din this summer with my daughter. Does anyone still do this as I was unable to attend in 2011.

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