Yitro-Ten Commandments

In this week’s Torah portion (Yitro) occurs one of the highlights of the entire Torah – the Ten Commandments. Many think that the Ten Commandments are universal, but the truth is that they were addressed to the Jews, as part of the Torah. However, most of the commandments – theft, murder, idolatry, promiscuity, taking God’s name in vain – were already addressed to all of mankind before the Torah was given. Together with another two injunctions – not to eat from the flesh of a living animal, and to establish systems of justice – they constitute the seven Noahide commandments, which are incumbent upon everyone in the world to fulfill. The Torah (starting with the Ten Commandments) formalized these injunctions (and 606 others) into a system of 613 mitzvoth that was to obligate the Jews, but the principles of the seven Noahide commandments were available and accepted by all of mankind before the Torah was given.

That leads us to the question; how should a Jew, who is obligated in six hundred and thirteen commandments relate to the seven Noahide commandments? How do the Noahide commandments influence the Jewish relationship with the non-Jewish world? Surprisingly, we find no references to this subject in the code of Jewish law. In fact, in the entire legal literature of Jewish law, including the responsa, almost no reference is made as to how a Jew should to relate to non-Jews using the seven Noahide commandments. That itself needs explanation. But, we’ll begin by quoting the one source that does shed light on the subject, and that is the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Melachim 8:10): “Our teacher, Moshe, gave the Torah to the Jewish people alone…and to anyone from among the other nations who wishes to convert…but one who doesn’t wish to convert is not to be coerced into accepting Torah and mitzvoth.  And Moshe was also commanded by G-d to coerce everyone in the world to accept the Noahide commandments”

From this quotation, it would seem that the Jews are obligated to coerce all of mankind to observe the Noahide commandments, and that this obligation is a result of the giving of the Torah. This impression is reinforced by the next halacha, or Jewish law in the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 8:11), which says, “All who accept and meticulously practice the seven Noahide commandments are considered among the righteous nations of the world…as long as they accept and practice these injunctions because G-d commanded them in the Torah and informed us through Moshe Rabeinu, [of these injunctions] that the offspring of Noah were already commanded previously.” There are two questions here. 1) It’s true that the Torah gives certain commandments and obligations to non-Jews, but why is it incumbent upon the Jews to coerce the non-Jews to fulfill them? 2) Why is it that the non-Jews must fulfill their seven commandments “because G-d commanded them in the Torah via Moshe Rabeinu?” Shouldn’t it be enough that they fulfill the seven commandments – why does the Rambam add the caveat that they do so because they were commanded by G-d through Moshe in the Torah?

If one wonders, how does “coercion” enter into the picture, the answer comes from our Torah portion – parshat Yitro. The first two of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-3) – “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt,” and “You should have no other deities beside Me” – were heard as one by the Jews. The sages (Mechilta on Yitro 20:3) ask, if the first commandment tells us that He is G-d, then why is it necessary to add that there is no other G-d? They answer with a parable: A king once entered a town, and his advisers suggested that he immediately begin issuing decrees. He answered, “First let them accept my reign – thereafter I can begin to make laws.” The same applies to the giving of the Torah. Only after G-d established his presence and omnipotence with the first two commandments could He decree the laws and mitzvoth of the Torah. Therefore, the Torah begins with “I am the Lord your G-d,” and continues with “You shall have none othersŔ These two commandments (heard together as one) established His existence and oneness. Thereafter, G-d issued decrees in the form of the rest of the Ten Commandments and the six hundred and thirteen mitzvoth.
This duality contains an element of “coercion” and imperiousness that is a necessary component of receiving the Torah. It was first necessary to accept the Torah, and only afterward could it be applied. Only if its authority was established could its laws be applied. So, first there is a “coercive” element, in which one must accept G-d as the King, master of the universe, and then there is a legal dimension, in which one accepts His laws and decrees. This theme repeats itself with variations amongst all who must on some level accept the Torah –meaning all of mankind. First of all, it was necessary that the Jews accept the Torah. For that purpose, the Midrash which says that G-d held a mountain over the Jews, threatening to drop it if they don’t accept the Torah. Of course, they accepted, but in truth that was built into their genes even before the event. Among the rest of mankind, a prospective convert who decides to accept all six hundred and thirteen precepts is educated in the main principles of Judaism (the oneness of G-d and that idol worship is forbidden) and thereafter he is taught some of the mitzvoth. That is, first he receives the coercive element – “G-d is the boss, and no idol worship” – and then he learns some of the laws. The ger toshav is described is a ‘minor convert’ – he seeks to accept some of the mitzvoth, but not all of them. Accordingly, he goes to the Beit Din (rabbinic court) where he accepts upon himself not to worship idols, and the fulfill the Noahide commandments since they come from the Torah. Thus, he also accepts an authoritative yoke – the authority of the Torah – and thereafter he accepts the rest of the Noahide commandments. And then there is the rest of the world, for whom the connection to the Torah comes through the Jews (since they haven’t approached the Torah of their own volition). Since the Torah obligates this group as well to keep the seven Noahide commandments, they must first of all be “coerced” to accept G-d. But, since they have no intrinsic or voluntary connection with the Torah, it’s the Jews who must perform the coercion. Since their connection to the Torah comes only through the Jews, it is the Jews who must perform the coercive element and persuade all of mankind to fulfill the seven Noahide commandments.

One could still ask, though, what is there to gain by forcing or coercing anyone to fulfill the Noahide commandments? Don’t people make their own decisions and come to their own conclusion? And if not, isn’t that their own problem and noone else’s? The answer is that the Torah wasn’t given solely in order for the Jews to keep the six hundred and thirteen mitzvoth. Implicit in Torah and mitzvoth is also the goal of making the world into a place in which “G-d will be the King over all the universe.” (Zecharia 14:9). The purpose of the Torah is illuminate the entire universe, including all of mankind, with Godliness. In a situation where the world itself does not receive G-dly illumination, the Jews have a mandate to be the agents. Since the Torah was given exclusively to the Jews, they are the custodians who must ensure that its precepts are enacted. As an extension of their own Torah obligations, the Jews are therefore required to enforce the rest of mankind to fulfill their Torah obligations as well. If portions of mankind do not come of their own volition to the Torah, in the form of the seven Noahide commandments, then it is up to the Jews to bring the Noahide commandments to them. It may not be possible to physically coerce mankind to accept the seven mitzvoth, but it is certain possible and incumbent upon the Jews to persuade mankind in any way possible to achieve the desired end – that all the world become illuminated with G-dliness. If all of mankind would accept the seven Noahide commandments, the world would become a highly desirable place to live.

For a longer more detailed version, go to www.jerusalemconnection.org

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol 26, page 132-144


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