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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